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How Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw Captured ‘True Detective’

There are often seminal moments in a popular TV show that critics and fans cite when recommending it.

For HBO’s “True Detective,” one of those was the six-minute tracking shot that used a single take to follow Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s Louisiana detectives through an epic bust.

So it wasn’t much of a surprise when that shot earned Adam Arkapaw, the show’s director of photography, his second Emmy nomination in two years (he won for cinematography in a movie or miniseries for SundanceTV’s 2013 “Top of the Lake”).

“The main challenge was always time,” explained Arkapaw. “In a film, you might be accustomed to shooting two to three minutes of screen time a day. On ‘True Detective,’ we were shooting five to six minutes every day. Basically, your time to devise, prepare and execute your work is cut in half.”

Other challenges, he said, included the workload, the volatile weather — and “the temptation to drink a lot of daiquiris.”

The tracking shot, which the script suggests results from an improvised act, actually took months of planning.

“We used half a day to light and rehearse it, and then shot it for the rest of that day and half of the next day,” he said. “We built replicas of the houses on our stage so the stunt team could rehearse it. Then we did a couple of scouts of the neighborhood to make plans, rehearse and see what equipment we’d need. The challenge of a long take is always to figure out how to light it without making too many compromises on the aesthetic you are going for. For that reason, we were pretty specific about what the camera would and wouldn’t see. There were small lighting units hidden almost everywhere offscreen.”

But even modern technology couldn’t solve everything. “Getting the camera over the fence at the end was a fun thing to figure out,” he said. “We ended up going with the age-old ‘grip jumping off the crane platform as the steadicam operator jumps on’ trick.’ ”

For the Australian Arkapaw, who had already spent some time in Louisiana with Behn Zeitlin during “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” capturing the look of the state’s humid swamplands and unique culture was just as important for setting the tone of the show.

“In pre-production, I wrote a manifesto about the ideology behind the images we would create for the show,” he said. “Much of it was about what was unique about Louisiana for a guy who came from far, far away.”

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