×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Smallscreen Series Get Bigscreen Look

TV production designers raise their game for a high-res world

As worldwide distribution and co-production deals generate more coin for TV drama production, they up the ante for production values as well as in the race for the Creative Arts Emmys. Captured on high-res cameras and using vfx to boost the physical design, many projects now look more like high-budget features than traditional smallscreen fare.

Take “Behind the Candelabra,” HBO’s Liberace pic. “We shot it just like a film,” says production designer Howard Cummings. “Steven (Soderbergh) did it like any of his movies,” shooting on Red cameras at multiple locations and using digital effects as needed.

It took five years to get “Candelabra” off the ground, Cummings adds, because potential backers kept turning it down as “too gay.” But once HBO greenlit the pic and production got under way, serendipity took over and many elements of its look and design fell magically into place.

It turned out, for example, that the owner of the building in Los Angeles where Liberace owned a penthouse was a Liberace fanatic who bought it right after the entertainer died in 1987; he shared pictures of the apartment with set decorator Barbara Munch.

And in Las Vegas, location manager Caleb Duffy persuaded Chase Bank to open up Liberace’s long-foreclosed but still intact “French provincial ranch house with its powder-blue carpet, crazy Greek tub and Sistine Chapel bedroom ceiling,” Cummings says. The filmmakers photographed and reconstructed everything.

Then came the hard part. True to Liberace’s tastes, the walls had to be lined with multiple mirrors — a cinematographer’s nightmare. Thus on a show where big-scale effects were unnecessary, the vfx team spent lots of time digitally erasing reflected images of crew and equipment.

In “Candelabra,” an intimate film, the only other major use of effects was for digital head and hands replacements to make it look like Michael Douglas, who plays Liberace, was actually working the fast-moving ivories himself. But many of today’s cable TV series are shot on far larger canvases — History’s “Vikings” and Starz’s “Da Vinci’s Demons,” for example — and production designers rely heavily on visual effects to enhance and amplify interiors and exteriors.

The producers of “Vikings” — shot on the Alexa camera, which many lensers compare favorably to 35mm film — had to make Ireland, where the series is shot, look like Norway. “We have beautiful valleys and lakes, but no fjords,” says production designer Tom Conroy. Using digital tools, he topped off the Irish slopes with Norwegian mountaintops. The illusion worked, Conroy says, because he relied on the time-tested rule of thumb that “if 75% of the frame is real, and you put enough stuff in the foreground, the remaining 25% will be integrated seamlessly.”

“Da Vinci’s Demons,” the Starz series about Leonardo da Vinci’s fictional early life, also drew on background replacements. “We used them massively,” says production designer Edward Thomas. “We treat visual effects as an extension of scenic art construction, which can be tricky because you have to make sure all the textures and shapes are transferred from the physical to the CG.”

Like “Vikings,” “Demons” uses the Alexa. It’s shot in Wales, but Thomas took thousands of reference photos in Florence, Italy, where Da Vinci lived, that served as the basis for added imagery. Computerized on-set technology “allowed us to actually see the extensions on the set so we were able to light accordingly, and the actors were able to see themselves in the monitors.”

“Vikings,” “Demons” and “Candelabra” are all cable shows (the latter will also play theatrically outside the U.S.), but another Emmy contender this year, Netflix’s “House of Cards,” won’t appear on conventional television at all — at least not yet.

Also shot on Red, the series’ first two episodes were helmed by David Fincher, with production design by Donald Graham Burt. The project’s budget was reported as close to $4 million per episode — certainly high enough to support feature-film production values — which were achieved, Burt says, by using the Red camera, extensive location and stage work in Baltimore, and elaborate greenscreen production for the presidential inauguration scene that placed the film’s characters into historical footage.

More TV

  • Sky

    Comcast Expected to Appoint Maximo Ibarra as New Sky Italia CEO

    Colombian-Italian executive Maximo Ibarra is expected to be appointed CEO of Comcast-owned pay-TV operation Sky Italia, which has been without a chief executive for the past seven months, a source close to Sky Italia tells Variety. An announcement is believed imminent that Ibarra will be the Italian paybox’s new chief after it was announced Tuesday [...]

  • Lil Nas X arrives at the

    Lil Nas X, Young Thug, Jamie XX Highlight Adult Swim Festival Lineup

    The second annual Adult Swim Festival is set to take place on Friday, November 15 and Saturday, November 16 at Los Angeles’ Banc Of California Stadium. Music acts on the bill include Lil Nas X (pictured), Jamie xx, Vince Staples, Young Thug, Dethklok, Captain Murphy and Tierra Whack, among many others. Additional offerings include comedy [...]

  • 'Live P.D.' Host Dan Abrams Brings

    'Live P.D.' Host Dan Abrams Brings New Order to Law-Focused Media

    Each weekday at 2 p.m., Dan Abrams talks to America for an hour about the law, politics and media. He’s been working steadily to expand the conversation. Abrams hosts an afternoon show on satellite-broadcaster SiriusXM, where he holds forth on the Mueller Report (if you haven’t read it, don’t try to debate him on what [...]

  • Sky takeover. Undated file photo of

    Katie Keenan to Head Sky Cinema Acquisitions

    Katie Keenan is joining Sky as head of acquisitions at Sky Cinema, and will oversee film deals for the pay-TV giant’s channels. Keenan is a seasoned buyer. Most recently she was at Viacom’s international division and acquiring programming for its free-TV Channel 5 operation in the U.K., as well as for cable channels including Comedy [...]

  • NEW YORK, NY – JUNE, 24:

    LGBTQ Stars Honored at Variety’s Power of Pride Celebration

    New York City felt the full power of pride on Monday, as Variety celebrated its inaugural issue devoted to the annual recognition of LGBTQ people worldwide. At an intimate gathering at Mr. Purple, the rooftop bar at Hotel Indigo Lower East Side in Manhattan, Variety’s cover stars and luminaries gathered for cocktails and the unveiling [...]

  • WWE

    WWE and PP Sports Extend China Partnership

    WWE and PP Sports have signed a new multi-year agreement that will keep WWE programming airing live in Mandarin in China. In the past three years of the partnership, PP Sports has delivered more than 300 episodes of WWE programming. PP Sports will offer “Raw,” “Smackdown” and the WWE Network as a subscription VOD service [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content