DPs Get Creative to Give Series a Filmlike Look

Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the June 19 issue of AwardsLine.
Cinematography that stands out from the TV crowd is now about more than looking better than most other shows—it’s about getting a look that meets the high standards once reserved only for feature films.
But with television schedules and budgets typically only a fraction of their big-screen counterparts, cinematographers on shows such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Good Wife and Vikings use every lighting and camera tool or trick at their disposal to deliver the goods.
Digital technology and the popularity of cameras like the Alexa, which operates well in low-light conditions, have helped immensely, but it still takes creativity to find camera moves and lighting techniques that truly stand out.
Going back to basics has paid off for AMC’s Mad Men. Cinematographer Christopher Manley likes, whenever possible, to drop the second camera typically used to ensure closeups and coverage of every scene. “We set up A shots, and if the B shot can work without compromising either shot, then we’ll use it. Otherwise, we don’t,” he explains.
The result is more medium shots, giving the closeups more impact and evoking a classic big-screen style. “Doing closeups a lot of the time in television is more about a holdover style from when TVs were much smaller and people were sitting in their living room looking at a 20-inch screen 8 feet away,” says Manley. “Nowadays, everybody has a large 16:9 television that dominates their living room, so I think it’s OK to go back to a more old-fashioned scale of using wider shots.”

Experimental camera techniques elevate the look of AMC’s Breaking Bad.
Experimental camera techniques elevate the look of AMC’s Breaking Bad.

Sister AMC show Breaking Bad goes for the opposite effect, giving itself over to experimentation in shooting. That freedom allows cinematographer Michael Slovis, who joined the show in its second season, to stage all kinds of shots from a one-shot 5-minute teaser and vantage points as diverse as toilet bowls and wine glasses, to shots using macro and periscope lenses.
“The mandate was to tell the story any way that you could, organically, and that expanded our brush strokes,” he says. “We expanded our skill set to a more traditional film approach rather than television.”
The intelligent way the show was set up allowed Slovis to eschew traditional coverage and keep the show on its 12-hour-a-day, eight-day-per-episode shooting schedule.
Another advantage that Breaking Bad had, especially in its early years, was shooting on film—a practical decision that had immense creative payoff. “The autonomy of the camera when we started was really important,” Slovis says. “At the time, you still had to tether digital cameras to a recorder, and it would have slowed us down tremendously.”
Veteran TV cinematographer John Bartley says having most of the scripts for History’s Vikings in hand early on was key to prepping the series shoot in Ireland. Using digital Alexa cameras and soft Panavision Primo lenses, Bartley used cranes, remote cameras and lifts. “We kept it moving all the time,” he says.

Good Wife DP Fred Murphy, left, uses large-scale lighting for speedier shoots.
Good Wife DP Fred Murphy, left, uses large-scale lighting for speedier shoots.

Quick lighting solutions are another way to get a cinema-quality look on TV. On CBS’ The Good Wife, cinematographer Fred Murphy uses large-scale lighting and self-lit sets to limit or eliminate the need to relight every shot. “You could move in and shoot the closeup, and the camera could move through the set and there wouldn’t be any relighting,” he says.
On Mad Men, Manley says the lighting has evolved from a studio style to a more naturalistic look, aided by a switch from film to the Alexa in Season 5. “The Alexa allows you to work with less light, and it’s very exciting,” says Manley.
Bartley tapped into the special-effects department to create and manage fires and candles for Vikings as practical light sources, supplemented by fluorescent lights. “I kept saying we could never have enough candles, and they got very good at being able to make them brighter and darker,” says Bartley.
Of course, working on a series has the benefit of standing sets that very quickly become a known quantity for cinematographers and their crews.
“It’s always faster onstage, particularly when you’re working on sets you know inside and out and have worked on many times before,” says Manley. “The danger is that you start repeating yourself, and it can get stale, so I’m always looking for ways to try to keep it fresh.”

The Man Behind the History in Vikings

Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor.

In the first episode of History’s Vikings, lead character Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) can barely contain his excitement as he tries to persuade brother Rollo (Clive Standen) that Viking ships might venture West to discover what new cities and new gods might be found in uncharted territory. How, wonders Rollo, can a ship stay true to its course with no land in sight?

Ragnar shows Rollo the sunboard, a disc that floats on water and charts direction by the location of the noon shadow. Rollo remains skeptical: What happens when clouds obscure the sun? Ragnar then unwraps the precious sunstone, a crystal whose reflective properties can pinpoint the sun’s position even in blinding fog.

Justin Pollard makes sure the history portrayed in Vikings is true.
Justin Pollard makes sure the history portrayed in Vikings is true.

The sunstone had long been part of Viking legend when Justin Pollard, historical consultant and associate producer of Vikings (History’s first scripted series), suggested to series creator-writer Michael Hirst that the sunstone (actually a calcite crystal called Icelandic spar) be woven in the story.

But it came as a surprise when, less than two weeks after the series’ March 3 premiere, news reports broke that a piece of the crystal had been discovered in a shipwreck from the later Elizabethan period, suggesting that the “magic gem” of Viking legend was not only real, but the navigational tool was borrowed by other cultures and used for centuries after the Vikings sailed the seas.

“Justin is my anchor,” Hirst says. “It’s his input which anchors my stories in the real and the true. I needed to give Ragnar, my hero, some piece of knowledge so useful and special that it both marked him out from other men and also pushed the story forward.” Finding hard evidence of the sunstone after the fact, Hirst says, was the icing on the historical cake.

In a telephone interview from his home in Dorset, England, Pollard—historical consultant for film and TV productions including Les Misérables, numerous Working Title films including Atonement and Elizabeth and Showtime’s series The Tudors, also created by Hirst—says it’s all about using concrete clues to create what might have been.

“As a writer, you can imagine a more primitive world, but it’s very hard to imagine what’s now missing, what they used to have that’s gone,” Pollard says. “That’s what I try to do.”

Pollard feels a particular obligation to illuminate the truth about Viking culture, defined in the mind of the general public by horned helmets (they didn’t wear those) or Bugs Bunny’s animated romp through Wagnerian opera in What’s Opera, Doc?

“It’s about making a bigger world. Not every Viking was a warrior,” Pollard says. He is particularly proud of bringing to light the role of women, who were more independent and powerful than in much later periods of European history.

Pollard acknowledges that History draws an unusually well-read audience. “We did have one instance where Athelstan (George Blagden) is speaking Anglo-Saxon, and someone said his Anglo-Saxon didn’t have enough of a Northumbrian accent,” he recalls. Pollard was less annoyed than awed that a viewer knew Anglo-Saxon well enough to discern the regional accent.

Pollard says his biggest challenge is speed. Being able to locate an expert on Latvian hats at, well, the drop of a hat—or getting “the call at 3 in the morning saying, ‘We could do with a bit of Norse swearing. Can I have it in an hour?’”

But speed can have its advantages. The creative team can access the most recent academic research and bring it to a general audience far more quickly than the classroom can. “That’s the best thing about comparing an academic historian’s role to doing this—I get to wander through these places, and live in these times,” Pollard says. “You see characters brought to life on the screen more quickly than you do in academia.”

Pollard said re-creating a real historic period can be more rewarding than inventing a fantasy past for a series such as Game of Thrones. “It’s beautiful, it’s strange, but nothing is particularly surprising in a fantasy world,” he says. “The beauty of historical drama is you can find the beautiful and the strange in things that really did happen.”

Sound Editors and Mixers Create Feature Quality on TV Budgets

Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the June 5 issue of AwardsLine.

For sound editors and mixers, the broadening of TV’s audio palette into feature-film territory requires a lot of work and more than a handful of tricks to get shows to sound as good as they look on tight budgets and even tighter schedules.

“I spend quite a bit of time trying to find the right people who can do feature-quality work but not take feature time,” says Tim Kimmel, supervising sound editor on HBO’s epic fantasy series Game of Thrones.
With 10 hour-long episodes to complete in about five months and a tight schedule on the production pipeline, work often continues until the last minute. “By the time we finish mixing the show, we’re still waiting on final visual effects, so we will end up going back into episodes that were basically completed,” Kimmel explains.
AMC’s The Walking Dead is the first TV series that supervising sound editor Jerry Ross has worked on in a three-decade feature-film career. He came up with a library of high-quality sound effects that the picture editors could cut into scenes as they work.
Ross says it helps to have sounds in a show early because everyone grows accustomed to them. “The sounds that everyone gets used to tend to be the ones people like to keep in the show,” explains Ross. “The alternative would be to start from scratch and build all of these new sounds in there, and then everyone would go, ‘What happened to the thing I was used to?’”
Detailed environment sounds have come to the forefront. On History’s Vikings, sound designer Jane Tattersall is tasked with using sound to help make the footage shot on location in Ireland appear authentically Scandinavian.
“There is nothing in Ireland other than the actual dialogue they’re recording that is all that useful for us, because they have a different landscape, fatter hills, and it’s more rural and softer,” says Tattersall. “We did get some location sound from Norway—it’s much wetter and harsher, and the birds are different.”
The Walking Dead has similar issues for a completely different reason: No cars, planes or other technological background noises exist in the post-zombie apocalypse. “We have to clean them out and exorcise any kind of civilized sounds,” Ross says.
Of course, there also are zombie sounds to create—all of which are done in post. Ross says they incorporate zombie sounds from a handful of “zombie specialists” who come in and record vocals customized for particular zombies. To that, Ross and his crew add effects to enhance the groaning and flesh-ripping sounds.

The sounds of zombies eating flesh on The Walking Dead are partly thanks so this handsome fellow, Dave.
The sounds of zombies eating flesh on The Walking Dead are partly thanks so this handsome fellow, Dave.

The latter effect has a special ingredient in the form of Ross’ business partner Skip Lievsay’s dog, Dave. “When zombies are feeding, we’ll sometimes include recordings of Dave the dog, who, when you wrestle with him, makes some wonderful, gnarly kind of gross sounds,” says Ross. “We’ll take them and slow them down and add Bengal tigers eating and other kinds of animal sounds on top of the zombie sounds we create with our zombie talent.”
Creatures and fictional languages provide stimulating challenges for Kimmel. He uses a similar technique in using actors to evolve established effects and inject emotion into the sounds created for dragons and other creatures seen in Game of Thrones. “With a human element, you can try to direct and find some different emotions for these creatures,” says Kimmel.
Battles also are a challenge to put together quickly. “You need peaks and valleys, as we call it, to make specific sounds stick out and to try to find that fine detail,” Kimmel adds.
Additional dialogue recording is an unavoidable fact of life for shows shooting on location, but it’s kept to a minimum and done as efficiently as possible.
On Vikings, dialogue editor David McCallum says accents and dialects create logistical challenges. He works closely with ADR supervisor Dale Sheldrake, who travels to the international cast members and records lines for up to four episodes at a time. “We need to cross-reference pronunciations and make sure we are on top of how the actors are speaking,” McCallum says.
The final hurdles are some of the most difficult. Each viewer has a different audio setup, from surround sound to small built-in TV speakers. Moreover, the audio specs used by each network and cable or satellite system are different.
“Meeting those numbers and still trying to have the dynamics of feature-film sound, there are little corners that have to be cut,” says Kimmel. “We lose a little bit of the dynamics, so we try to cheat it as much as we can.”