TV’s big-screen canvas

ASC Awards 2012

The five d.p.’s nominated by the American Society of Cinematographers in the one-hour episodic television series/pilot category may all be working on the small screen, but their work is nothing if not cinematic in its scope and ambition.

David Franco and Jonathan Freeman, cited for the “To the Lost” and “21” episodes, respectively, of “Boardwalk Empire,” each stress the crime drama’s filmic qualities, both aesthetic and technical.

“It’s a period show about gangsters and corruption, which really lends itself to a very moody, dark look,” Franco says. “So the style is very much about creating tableaux and holding shots far longer than any other TV show I know.”

The artistic freedom afforded by the network and encouraged by executive producer Martin Scorsese and director Timothy Van Patten was a big draw for both cinematographers, who, by necessity, collaborate very closely on, as Freeman says, “the look of the show, the palette we use and the way we’ll light a scene.”

“We obviously have very similar tastes,” he adds, “and while our approaches may differ slightly, in the end our looks are very close.” The two agree that maintaining the look established in the pilot is “the most important part of the job.”

Freeman has shot “Boardwalk Empire” since season one, and won the ASC award last year for his efforts.

Franco, who joined the team on season two, observes that when he first saw the series, “I realized it was just like a movie — or even more so than many films out there.”

A dinosaur among today’s HD TV series, it’s still shot on 35mm, Freeman reports. “And the aspect ratio is 16×9, which is very close to the standard 185 cinematic ratio,” adds Franco.

John Lindley also brought his cinema cred — and credits (“Field of Dreams,” “Money Train”) to bear on another period piece, “Pan Am.” He shot the pilot and established the vibrant, glamourous look of the ABC retro-fabulous, globe-trotting series by avoiding the go-to desaturated look of most period projects being shot today.

“Right after I took the show, I read a story about the last roll of Kodachrome being processed, and I remembered how bright those colors were,” recalls Lindley who then pitched the look to pilot director Thomas Schlamme. “He loved it — not only aesthetically, as all the blue uniforms and so on would really pop, but because a bright, contemporary look would also appeal more to younger viewers.”

Although Lindley, who shot the pilot with an Arri Alexa, started out in TV, he hadn’t done any smallscreen work “in decades.” And while he sought to give the show “a true, cinematic feel” in terms of shot composition and palette, he also notes the gap between the big- and smallscreens “has really narrowed now, because people watch HD TV shows at home on huge screens, and they also stream movies on the same equipment.”

David Katznelson, who shot most of the first season of the acclaimed PBS drama “Downton Abbey,” was also very conscious of giving the British period piece “a spacious, cinematic feel. When I met with (director) Brian Percival, we both agreed our locations — Highclere Castle and a village near Oxford — and our sets really lent themselves to a movie-style approach,” he recalls.

To underscore this approach, the d.p. brought two film veterans — operator Jeremy Hiles (“Harry Potter”) and gaffer Otto Stenov (“Elizabeth: The Golden Age”) — onto his team. “That all really helped us get the aesthetic right, because we all felt that TV’s usually a format where close-ups reign supreme, and you hardly even notice when you change locations with all the close coverage.”

Using an Arri D21, “the most cinematic digital camera I could find,” Katznelson stressed the upstairs-downstairs society contrasts by giving the former “a calm, slightly distanced grandeur” and the latter “a more lively, handheld feel.”

For the NBC police drama “Chase,” David Stockton also set out to give the crime procedural “a cinematic look and feel.”

Shooting on location in Dallas, Stockton used Sony F35s for the Jerry Bruckheimer production and notes that, “TV’s become so much more sophisticated visually over the past few years. There’s a real push with everything from camera work and production design to the costumes and caliber of the talent to make shows more like movies — and it shows on screen.”

TV’s big-screen canvas | Digital’s increasing domain | Forever young & curious

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