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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.

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