Creative Arts Emmy Cinematography Contenders Meet Challenges of TV’s New Golden Age

Proliferating channels have led to an upsurge in quality and creativity

Sense8 Creative Arts Emmys
Courtesy of Netflix

The formerly sharp line dividing television cinematography from feature film visuals continues to blur.

Technology is certainly a factor, but the trend is also driven by new players — and attitudes — in TV production.

“There’s a lot of groundbreaking cinematography in television,” says Michael Goi, DP on “American Horror Story: Hotel.” “With new companies like Netflix and Amazon producing edgy material, there’s an openness on the part of the audience to seeing things in ways they haven’t before. And that drives openness on the part of producers and studios.”

Goi shot “Hotel” on film, using hand-cranked cameras for scenes depicting silent-era Hollywood.

Another throwback getting Emmy buzz is Fox’s “The X-Files.” The original show made television imagery darker and creepier in the early 1990s. DP Joel Ransom returned for the six-episode season 10.

Lana and Lilly Wachowski brought along Oscar-winning DP John Toll, who lensed their features “Cloud Atlas” and “Jupiter Ascending,” on another journey: their ambitious “Sense8.” In the Netflix sci-fi series, eight characters live in different cities around the world. “That required a lot of flexibility,” says Toll, who shot in 4K using Sony F55 cameras. “It became a very fluid, spontaneous style out of necessity.”

HBO’s “Game of Thrones” has rewritten the manual for multi-location shoots. This year, Emmy voters will consider the team camerawork of Anette Haellmigk, Fabian Wagner, Jonathan Freeman, Gregory Middleton and P.J. Dillon.

Tech tricks also improve the art. On Netflix’s “Bloodline,” DP Jaime Reynoso avoided traditional TV coverage and added cinematic traits by using Hawk 1.3x anamorphic lenses, adding a subtler squeeze than 2x anamorphic.

Similarly, Peter Menzies Jr. shot three-quarters of History’s “Roots” miniseries remake using the Hawk 1.3s, prizing the resulting background separation and depth of field. A glance at the original 1977 mini on ABC illustrates how high the bar has been raised for TV cinematography.

DP David Klein uses specially adapted Canon Cinema Primes on Showtime’s “Homeland,” and Manuel Billeter uses Panavision PVintage glass, which mimics the flavor of older lenses, on Netflix’s “Jessica Jones.” Michael McDonough, on AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead,” uses Hawk’s Vintage ’74 glass.

Other productions getting a look from ATAS members: USA’s “Mr. Robot,” shot by Tod Campbell; FX’s “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” lensed by Nelson Cragg; and Netflix’s “Master of None,” shot by Mark Schwartzbard.

Not to mention HBO’s “Vinyl,” with period cinematography by Reed Morano and David Franco; and Fox’s “Empire,” shot by Paul Sommers.

“I don’t think that television cinematography, as good as it is right now, has even reached the artistic heights it is capable of,” Goi says. “I think we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.”

Pictured: “Sense8”