Creating spectacle on the small screen calls for skill and ingenuity.

HBO’s “Game of Thrones” employs up to five cinematographers to capture sprawling action across a vast continent yet maintain visual consistency. Says lenser Jonathan Freeman, “we try to keep the schematic close to the basic principal colors of each region.”

All study each other’s dailies and consult flipbooks that document how recurring sets have previously been treated. “There’s a boldness to the work that comes from all of us exploring,” says Freeman. Michael Snyman sought to showcase Lifetime’s titular “The Red Tent” (pictured above) as “a soft, beautiful, womb-like, protected world … from which men were forbidden.” Assembling the structure in studio, “I cut a very small hole in the top and lit through there, and also used the actual tentpoles as stands.” Feminine control within contrasted with male-dominated turmoil without, the latter captured by handheld cameras.

Handheld was the byword for most of the BBC’s “Wolf Hall,” or as d.p. Gavin Finney puts it, “the camera was on my shoulder for 85 days.” Authentic Tudor locations were illuminated through enormous windows by day, and by candlelight and firelight by night — creating near-documentary realism.

“The temptation when you shoot period drama,” Finney believes, “is to show off your lavish locations and to grandstand with crane shots.” But author Hilary Mantel warned, “None of these characters knew they were in history,” and Finney proceeded accordingly.
“We wanted it to look like we dropped in, in 1536 on a Tuesday afternoon, with Thomas Cromwell.”