The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
Return to Table of Contents
Return to Table of Contents September 2015 Return to Table of Contents
ASC Close-Up
Primetime Prestige

Cinematographers on Bessie, Boardwalk Empire, Mike & Molly and Virunga discuss their Emmy-winning work.

Photos courtesy of HBO, CBS, Netflix and Discovery Channel.

The winners of this year’s Creative Arts Emmys for Outstanding Cinematography were: Jeffrey Jur, ASC, for Bessie (Limited Series or Movie); Jonathan Freeman, ASC, for the Boardwalk Empire episode “Golden Days for Boys and Girls” (Single-Camera Series); Gary Baum, for the Mike & Molly episode “Checkpoint Joyce” (Multi-Camera Series); Franklin Dow, for Virunga (Nonfiction Programming); and the camera team on Deadliest Catch for the episode "A Brotherhood Tested" (Reality Programming).

AC spoke with four of these winners shortly after the Sept. 12 ceremony in Los Angeles.

Bessie — Jeffrey Jur, ASC

Bessie, the HBO telefilm about the great blues singer Bessie Smith (played by Queen Latifah), was one of those projects floating around Hollywood for two decades, and Jur was thrilled it finally came together with him behind the camera. “It’s amazing to be asked to be part of something that has meant so much to so many people,” said the cinematographer. HBO executive Len Amato introduced him to director Dee Rees because Jur had worked on HBO’s Carnivàle, which was set in the same era as Bessie.

Jur and Rees spent two days talking through each scene in Bessie, detailing color and style. Jur showed her paintings by Archibald Motley, who worked in that era. “The paintings evoke a musicality and color palette we took from,” said Jur, adding that one painting, a nude scene, strongly inspired an identical scene in Bessie. He also noted that there were films they definitely did not want to evoke: flashy, high-gloss musicals. “Dee and I were trying to get something more authentic, because we wanted to show how Bessie’s music changed the world and how her life was reflected in her music.”

Jur shot Bessie with the Arri Alexa Classic (capturing in 4:4:4) and Panavision Primo and Flare lenses provided by Panavision in Atlanta, where much of the show was shot.  Capturing the rawness of the singer’s life, he said, was the biggest challenge. One scene stands out: a tent revival where Bessie breaks up an attack by the Ku Klux Klan. “The production designer had put up string lights, and I liked that because it felt like reality,” Jur recalled. “So I put in slightly brighter bulbs and opened the shutter for an extra stop of exposure. I was confident it would create something unique, and it did.”

A scene filmed in the historic Fox Theatre in Atlanta was also tricky. “The venue was so big, and we didn’t have a lot of extras, so we had to shoot in sections and piece the scene together digitally.” The shot of which Jur is proudest is one he nearly didn’t get. He explained, “We recorded Bessie singing into a megaphone, and I wanted to get a beautiful close-up. In the scene, she wants to walk away, but others convince her to stay and do it. We were right on top of Latifah, and I tried to light her softly because I wanted her to look at peace. It’s a big close-up of her, her voice and the song. There’s something wonderful about it.”

(Ed. Note: For a longer interview with Jur about Bessie, see AC June '15.)

Boardwalk Empire, “Golden Days for Boys and Girls” — Jonathan Freeman, ASC

Freeman, who also won an ASC Award for this episode this year, told AC that all of the nominees in this category “did stunning work.” Expressing his gratitude to his “brilliant crew” and to Boardwalk Empire producing director Timothy Van Patten, he noted that Boardwalk Empire was one of the last TV series to be shot on film. (Freeman used the Panaflex Platinum and Panavision Primo prime and zoom lenses.)

“Golden Days for Boys and Girls” opened the series’ final season, and featured different times and locations for which Freeman had to create new looks and, most importantly, seamless transitions. The episode opens underwater, where we see several boys diving for coins. It’s Atlantic City in the 1890s, and Nucky, the main character, is a young boy. Next, we see Nucky (Steve Buscemi) in Cuba in 1931. Another dramatic shift is to West Virginia, where Chalky (Michael Kenneth Williams) is on a chain gang in an environment largely devoid of color.

“The whole episode was partially designed to set up the way in which the new time structure was going to be established for the final season,” said Freeman. Van Patten and Freeman were determined to create a stylistic approach that wouldn’t be heavy-handed as the episode shifted among times and places. “Sometimes, transitionally, we wanted to imply that we are in the present, when we’re in fact in the past, and vice versa,” he said. “We wanted the option so that audiences wouldn’t immediately know what era they were in. We didn’t want audiences to be confused, so we found ways to make the transition happen but to manage it within the palette of the show.”

Production design aided the creation of these nuances, he added, noting that the 1890s Atlantic City boardwalk had less clutter and fewer buildings than the later one. “The palette of the 1890s boardwalk was limited, and the predominance of sand gave it a more muted palette. That allowed us to make minor color adjustments.” For the transition between the dead forest of West Virginia to colorful Cuba, Freeman made the contrast less jarring by ratcheting up the saturation over a few shots.

“Our general philosophy was to try to be as subtle as we could about our approaches, certainly in terms of the color palette, but also in our composition and lighting,” said Freeman. “The goal was heightened naturalism.”

Mike & Molly, “Checkpoint Joyce” — Gary Baum

Most multi-camera shows shoot live on a single set, but some are starting to incorporate locations and visual effects. Baum noted the “Checkpoint Joyce” episode of Mike & Molly is an example of this.

In the episode, directed by Victor Gonzalez, Mike (Billy Gardell) is forced to arrest his mother-in-law, Joyce (Swoosie Kurtz), at a sobriety checkpoint. The scene involved an exterior shoot and a bluescreen shoot, difficult to do on a very tight schedule. Baum, who has shot the entire series so far, credited the shorthand he has developed with his key grip, Alfie Cunningham, and gaffer, Chuck Bateman, for facilitating fast and efficient work.

In the scene, Joyce drives up to the checkpoint, where Mike stops her for questioning. In the next shot, she is inside the patrol car, trying to kick out the windows as she is driven to the police station. The car at the checkpoint and all the exterior scenes were shot outside, on the lot, but the car interior was shot onstage against bluescreen. The two were then composited to create the impression the car is moving.

“That was absolutely the most challenging scene in the episode,” Baum said. “We had to measure the angles and make sure they were correct so that what we shot onstage matched what we shot outside. We had to match key lights and fill lights and make sure everything was notated and duplicated — and we had to do it all in a very short timeframe.”

Virunga — Franklin Dow

Virunga was directed, written and co-produced by Orlando von Einseidel, who went to the eastern Congo to create a documentary about the cycle of violence that threatens the existence of Virunga National Park and its rangers, who protect the world’s only mountain gorillas. He focused on the dangerous drama between rebels and rangers, but when it came time to edit the film, he realized he was lacking an essential component of the story. “Orlando thought what was missing from the film was the beauty of the park,” said Dow, who was brought on to rectify the oversight. “We needed to show Virunga in its best light, to highlight the diversity of landscape and life that it protects.”

Dow, who had worked with Von Einseidel on several previous projects, arrived in the Congo with a Sony PMW-F5 and two Arri/Fujinon Alura lenses (18-80mm and 45-250mm). “The great thing about the F5 is its spectacular image quality,” he said. “Also, its size and weight, as well as its low power consumption, made it ideal for this kind of shoot.” Dow created a simple ladder dolly using scaffold poles to capture tracking shots and do push-ins.

Beautiful places were not in short supply. Virunga National Park includes savannah, rainforest and a spectacular, permanent lava lake on top of a volcano. But the Congo is a tough place to work; Dow noted that he and his first AC, William Hadley, traveled via the park’s small plane for the first week, but then, when the plane was grounded, they traveled by road, most of them badly deteriorated. Another challenge was the extremely hot, wet weather. “We had to protect the camera from the heat and the lenses from condensation,” recalled Dow. Though he and Hadley didn’t confront conflict directly, they did shoot a nighttime scene of shells exploding in the sky less than 40 miles away.

“Orlando was pleased with the job I did representing the park,” said Dow. “I was taken aback by the experience and quite grateful to everyone who made it possible.”

The Creative Arts Emmy Awards ceremony will be broadcast on FXX Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.

Related Links

<< previous || next >>