Beristain Brings 1940s Hollywood into Digital Era for Agent Carter

I spoke to Gabriel Beristain, ASC, BSC, recently about his work on Marvel's period TV series Agent Carter, and that sparked an interesting conversation about the evolution of filmmaking technology. Gabriel is using a combination of the latest digital technologies and analog techniques to achieve a look that harks back to the late 1940s — or at least to the movies that shaped our idea of how that period looked. The production design, color palette and the design of the visual effects all contribute mightily, of course.

A few years back, Gabriel was on the crest of a wave, using vintage Super Baltar lenses with the Arri Alexa digital camera to create an appropriate look for Magic City, set in 1950s Miami. He shot the entire first season and alternated with Steven Bernstein, ASC, on the second. Of course, the lens companies serving the professional cinematography market have since introduced a wide range of lenses that either rehouse vintage glass in modern mechanics or mimic older glass, and these have become popular with many cinematographers seeking to give the digital image a specific personality.

For Agent Carter, also shot with the Alexa, Gabriel sought a period feel, but he wanted the convenience and consistency of today’s lenses. Through testing, he decided to use Leica lenses and Christian Dior silk-stocking diffusion. He explains, “Before I started shooting Agent Carter, we moved from a house to an apartment in Koreatown. I was going through a lot of old boxes, and I found these Dior nets that I had last used in the 1980s in England on videos and commercials. I remembered that they were fantastic. In combination with the Leica lenses, the look is very classic, very much like a 1940s film. When I saw it, I said, ‘This is absolutely Marvel,’ and [director] Lou D'Esposito] agreed. We maintain all the flexibility that the Leica lenses bring. I think more and more, cinematographers are adapting analog ways of working to digital cameras.”

Gabriel also combines old and new in his approach to the show’s lighting; to an extent, he is re-creating classical Hollywood beauty lighting using the latest LED fixtures. “My lighting of [lead actress] Hayley Atwell is an homage to the great cinematographers who lit Lauren Bacall and Grace Kelly,” he says. “I try to get the light working very well for her whenever she lands in the light. And she is perfect for it. She takes close light very well, and I established early in testing that I would not have to flatten the light on her.”

To accomplish this classic lighting, Gabriel is using LEDs from Cinemills. He says that this type of light, in combination with the digital camera, can deliver the right look despite its fundamental dissimilarity to the tools used in Hollywood’s golden era. “It’s not an Arc light, and it’s not a Fresnel,” he says. “But it can be a direct light for the imaging characteristics of the digital era. The digital image resembles film stocks from 2010, which had much greater latitude, softer contrast and more sharpness than older negatives. I realized that direct lighting from the classical era would not look right for that. With LEDs and digital sensors, I can get a classic, direct look that resembles the 1940s look, completely devoid of any diffusion. What we have now is more accurately described as soft direct lighting.

“Of course, the LED can be softened further or diffused as well, so you can expand your range. You can go from direct all the way to the softest of light, and that’s why I appreciate it. It’s a completely different language.”

Gabriel, who has worked on many Marvel projects for the big screen, plans to finish up seven more episodes of Agent Carter in the coming months.

 

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