The American Society of Cinematographers

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The Affair
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Sensuality and subjectivity shape the look of The Affair, shot by Steven Fierberg, ASC.

 



Unit photography by Mark Schafer, courtesy of Showtime.


The Showtime series The Affair, which at press time had just won the Golden Globe for Best Television Series-Drama, takes a nuanced look at the vagaries of the extramarital relationship between Alison (Ruth Wilson) and Noah (Dominic West). Alison is a waitress in a Hamptons café, married into a local family who has owned a ranch in Montauk for decades; she and her husband, Cole (Joshua Jackson), are trying to overcome the tragic death of their young son. Noah, a schoolteacher and novelist, has married into a wealthy family, but he often butts heads with his arrogant father-in-law, straining relations with his wife, Helen (Maura Tierney). They meet when Noah, Helen and their children are vacationing at Helen’s parents’ mansion and go for lunch at the café. Alison and Noah notice each other, and both feel a frisson of attraction. As they continue to run into each other in the small town, they ignite an affair, opening a Pandora’s box of lies, feuding families, drugs, trauma and murder.

Created by Hagai Levi and Sarah Treem, The Affair unfolds in an intriguing structure in which each episode is divided in half: One half depicts the events as told by Noah to a police investigator, and the other shows the same events as described by Alison. That Alison and Noah relate the same moments very differently — often radically so — deepens the narrative and makes the mystery surrounding the murder far more complex.

Mark Mylod, one of the show’s executive producers, also served as director for the pilot, and he tapped Steven Fierberg, ASC, to serve as cinematographer. Fierberg, who stayed on to shoot all 10 episodes of the series, had previously worked with Mylod on the series Once Upon a Time and Entourage (AC July ’05). “The advantage of working with a director you’ve had experience with is tremendous,” says Fierberg. “We had a very short prep, but Mark and I were able to make decisions very quickly. He can say one sentence and it bespeaks a whole world to me. We’re in sync because we’ve done it before together. Working with Mark is a great collaboration.”

For The Affair’s visual style, Showtime suggested the filmmakers reference John Cassavetes’ films, and Mylod and Fierberg took the note to heart. “I would say his movie Faces is one of the 10 greatest films I’ve ever seen,” says Fierberg. “It’s wider-angle, right in the faces of the actors. Cassavetes’ shots are extremely sophisticated and well done. The realistic lighting and 16mm grain has led people to unfairly overlook the incredibly effective visual storytelling and staging, but I am thrilled by it.”

Fierberg and Mylod also had to consider if and how the images should underscore the show’s structure, with its separation of Alison’s story, Noah’s story and, to a lesser degree, the point of view of the investigating detective (Victor Williams), who is usually seen near the end of each half. “Mark and I started with a discussion of what it means to be subjective,” the cinematographer recalls. “I believe that subjectivity is established by proximity to a particular character. The camera has to be closer to that person than anyone else. In TV, you typically match the close-ups — there’s symmetry. For shows that have an objective point of view, that’s appropriate. But for a show like The Affair, which is subjective, the camera should be closer to the character whose point of view we’re seeing.

“At one point, we talked about the possibility of having one person’s story being handheld, but not the other’s,” Fierberg continues. “It’s a strong way to differentiate, but we didn’t feel it was right. It was too extreme and wouldn’t have served the story.” However, Fierberg and Mylod did decide never to shoot the scenes from the detective’s point of view with a handheld camera. “It was always on a tripod or a dolly, and the lenses were more extreme — very wide-angle lenses that we’d never use with the other two perspectives.”

Fierberg shot The Affair with an Arri Alexa, recording 2K ProRes 4:4:4:4 files that were later scaled down to HD for broadcast. The crew carried two camera bodies but primarily shot “single-camera style,” the cinematographer says.

“Shooting film never came up, to be honest,” he adds. Only months before, he and director Kevin Connolly had the film-vs.-digital conversation in regard to a different project, the feature Dear Eleanor; opting for the Alexa, Fierberg set about testing lenses, and Panavision executive Bob Harvey, an ASC associate member, suggested he look at the company’s PVintage Series, which are based on Panavision’s Ultra Speed primes. Fierberg had used Ultra Speeds years earlier and was happy to be reintroduced to them. He decided to use the PVintage lenses on both Dear Eleanor and The Affair. “Even though we’re shooting with a digital camera, I wanted [The Affair] to have a feeling and humanity that is more easily achieved with film,” says Fierberg. “The PVintage lenses made The Affair look less digital. The image is very soft — even, to some extent, desaturated — and I think that’s an essential part of the look.”

Further fueling their conversation, Mylod and Fierberg also referenced Fierberg's work on Entourage and the indie film Secretary (AC April ’02). “I thought a lot about Secretary,” says the cinematographer. “A huge portion of that movie was shot with a 32mm lens, and I wanted even a slightly wider angle for The Affair.” He and Mylod talked about the impact of shooting close-ups in close proximity to the actors with a wider lens, as opposed to shooting from farther away with a longer focal length. “There’s a very different feel when you’re shooting close-ups with the 32mm lens,” Fierberg notes. “Although some people find the look of the long-lens close-up to be more intimate, I believe that subconsciously, the audience is aware [when the camera is] closer to the actor. It creates a different impact.”

On The Affair, Fierberg primarily used 29mm, 40mm and 50mm lenses, relying on the latter two for close-ups. “Both of those lenses are so creamy and lush,” he enthuses. “It’s just ridiculous how great they make the faces look.” On rare occasions, he used the 75mm to save time. “Shooting with prime lenses takes longer than shooting with zooms,” he says. “But if you really want that creamy look, the only way to do it is to put on those old prime lenses. They slow you down, but they give you something you won’t get any other way.”

Typical for a television production, time was always of the essence, as each episode was shot in just eight days. And, Fierberg stresses, “it was eight days to produce 58 minutes, which is a big difference from 42 minutes.” The Affair was shot almost entirely in the state of New York, much of it in and around Montauk, and the rest within New York City — particularly Brooklyn, where Noah and his family live. To avoid the summer crowds, the production shot in Montauk at the beginning and end of the season. “Mark and [director/executive producer] Jeffrey Reiner were very committed to really capturing the scale and scope of where we were,” says Fierberg. “Jeffrey knows the area, and he would take us to locations he knew specifically, such as Block Island.”

 

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