The American Society of Cinematographers

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2012 Television
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The cinematographers on the hit series Downton Abbey, The Walking Dead and Homeland discuss their strategies.

Downton Abbey photos by Nick Briggs, courtesy of Carnival Film & Television Ltd. The Walking Dead photos by Gene Page, courtesy of AMC. Homeland photos by Jim Bridges and Kent Smith, courtesy of Showtime.

For this month’s special focus on television production, we go behind-the-scenes on three acclaimed shows: the PBS miniseries Downton Abbey, the AMC series Walking Dead and the Showtime series Homeland.
Downton Abbey
Cinematographers: Gavin Struthers, David Marsh and Nigel Willoughby, BSC
Downton Abbey depicts the interdependent but contrasting lives of a late Edwardian aristocratic family and their servants above and below stairs at an English country house. It was created and is principally written by Julian Fellowes, best known for his Oscar-winning screenplay for Gosford Park (AC Jan. ’02), which also examined the British social classes of the early 20th century.   

The first series of this hugely successful drama (produced by Carnival Films for the UK’s ITV network) covered the years between the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The war is the defining event of series two, with domestic staff from Downton fighting side-by-side at the front with the heir to the estate, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), and the house itself functioning as a convalescent home for injured British officers. The first series was primarily shot by David Katznelson, DFF, BSC, who won an Emmy Award for his effort. (At press time, he had just earned an ASC nomination as well.) The second series is mainly the work of Gavin Struthers, a graduate of the National Film and Television School whose credits include documentaries, features and the recent television productions Garrow’s Law and The Reckoning. “The biggest change the producers wanted to make in the look of the second series pertained to the downstairs scenes,” says Struthers. “They didn’t want the smoky feel those scenes had in the first series, partly because electricity had replaced gaslight and candles by the time the second series begins, but also because the smoke created some complications in the edit. In general, though, there’s not as much visual difference between upstairs and downstairs in this series, which seems appropriate because in the story, the people downstairs are starting to question whether this kind of life is going to continue after the war.” One character who represents this very well is Thomas (Rob James-Collier), a conniving footman who goes to war and returns to a post above stairs, managing the temporary convalescent home at Downton. “He’s a unique character who can move about both above and below stairs,” says Struthers. “He was quite interesting in terms of camera and lighting because he occupies all three areas of the story: downstairs, upstairs and the war. We very rarely shot handheld upstairs, but for the scene where Thomas returns from the front and comes in through the front door, which would have otherwise been unthinkable for a servant, it made sense to go handheld.” The first series of Downton Abbey was shot on Arri’s D-21, but the production switched to the Arri Alexa for series two, equipping the cameras with Cooke S4 prime lenses and Angenieux Optimo zooms. “A lot of Alexa users typically shoot at 800 ASA and ND down when required, but I didn’t do that on this show,” says Struthers. “I used a wide range of ASA ratings, from 200 to 1,600, and there is definitely a difference, as there is with neg stock. At 200 it’s more contrasty, so you have to fill the shadows in more, whereas at 1,600 it’s a much flatter image and the camera sees a lot further into the blacks. I changed the ASA in the same way I’d swap film stocks out. I find it easier to light that way, and also I don’t like too much [filtration] in front of the lens.” Footage was captured in ProRes 4:4:4 and recorded to SxS Pro cards. “The cards went straight to the digital-imaging technician, who checked everything as the footage was taken off and then copied it to a G-Raid transport drive as well as my own Drobo Raid system,” says Struthers. “That way we had a copy of everything at full resolution with us at all times. The editing team would receive a G-Raid transport drive every evening and return one the following morning.” Whereas scenes set below stairs were shot on sets built at Ealing Studios, exteriors and almost all other interiors were filmed on location at Highclere Castle, the Jacobethan mansion that serves as Downton Abbey. Being a historic property, Highclere comes with strict limitations on how and where equipment can be used. The fact that nothing could be attached to the walls, and that floors had to be kept uncluttered, led gaffer Phil Brookes to use balloon fixtures for an ambient level. He notes, “We used several types of balloon lights, the primary one being a 4K tungsten tube. In the main hall, which is a three-story atrium with a glass roof, we used a 2.4/2K daylight-tungsten combination unit, which enabled us to alter the color temperature when we started to lose daylight.” As far as possible, the filmmakers tried to light interior scenes from outside the windows. “The house is built on quite a nice sun path,” notes Struthers. “We would control the sun with silks and frames, and then push 6K or 18K HMIs in through the windows and add a small amount of soft light inside, a diffused Kino or poly wedge, to give us a little bit of modeling. On other occasions, we’d add a well-chopped harder light from outside, a 2.5K with a little spot or a 4K Mole beam, to give us some interest on the dark wood paneling or bookcases in the background.” On the eve of Downton’s transformation into a hospital, a sequence of sunset scenes required a slightly different approach. “I wanted to create the feeling that the sun was setting on the house,” says Struthers. “The interiors needed to change with the changing light outside, so as the sun sets, the ambient light in the rooms becomes slightly cooler while the highlights get warmer.” “That was quite interesting because those scenes were spread over several weeks of the schedule, so we had to develop a plan that we could refer back to each time,” adds Brookes. “To get a warm feeling, we changed the outside lights to 24K tungsten units with added CTO and then ‘cooled’ the interior, where there were some tungsten practicals turned on because it’s late afternoon. We had to play around quite a lot with CTO and CTB to achieve a good balance. The sequence ends outside, so we brought in a 50K SoftSun gelled with CTO to get a low-sunlight effect on the actors’ faces and under their hats. We actually had to shoot that scene on quite a bright day, and we were really fighting the daylight, but keeping the camera angles tight and using the SoftSun made it believable and a good match for inside.” Many of the existing lighting fixtures at Highclere fit the story’s period and proved extremely useful as practicals, with bulbs swapped out when necessary. “The library, the main hall and the dining room all had lovely, ornate table lamps with six or eight little lights branching off with individual light shades,” says Struthers. “They were of the period, so we used them. For other rooms, our production designer, Donal Woods, brought in other fixtures he’d sourced, and Phil would wire them in before we arrived.” Using the existing fittings was complicated by the protectiveness of the Highclere staff. Brookes recalls, “Their rule was that if we wanted to change a bulb or move anything, they had to do it. They’d come in with their white gloves on and take 20 minutes to change two bulbs, so it quickly became obvious that using dimmers would be easier. The only snag was that the lights were wired into the house system, so I made some adapters that allowed us to interrupt the feed and get control of them. I also made tiny dimmers we christened ‘sneaky dimmers,’ because you could hide them in the tablecloth or behind a table leg, and they were all constructed with period-correct braided cable. No matter how hard you try, someone’s going to spot a cable, so it might as well be the right sort of cable!”


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