Creative Arts Emmy Contenders: Cinematographers Bring a Big-Screen Look to Television

Twenty years ago, when cinematographer John S. Bartley won an Emmy for his work on “The X-Files,” the sci-fi series’ shadowy, cinematic look made it stand out amidst the bright, relatively flat visuals typical of TV at the time.

Today, hour-long TV dramas deliver such uniformly excellent visuals that many viewers find them virtually indistinguishable from what they see in movies.

This is due in part to advances in digital cameras such as the Arri Alexa and the Red Epic, which make it quicker and easier to capture quality images in low light, and to new post-production software tools that can do everything from altering the color palette to fixing out-of-focus shots.

Nonetheless, “in some ways, things were easier with film,” says Bartley, who’s nominated this time around for his work on A&E’s “Bates Motel.”

Bartley points out that chips in digital cameras are so light-sensitive that one has to add neutral density filters or reduce the aperture. The latter step can create too much depth of field, putting background elements in distractingly sharp focus. Furthermore, the generally pristine clarity of HD can reveal imperfections in sets, costumes, hair, and makeup.

“On ‘Bates,’ hair is a big deal, because a lot of shots have wigs, and being able to not see that it’s a wig is [critical],” Bartley says.

DP James Hawkinson, nominated for his retro-futuristic work on Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle,” likes to temper the pristine images of modern digital cameras by using vintage filters, while John Conroy, nominated for BBC America’s police serial “Luther,” seeks out older lenses for a similar effect.

“When we shot on film, all we wanted was sharper lenses to get rid of all the grain … now, we want some of those textures.”
John Conroy

“When we shot on film, all we wanted was sharper lenses to get rid of all the grain,” says Conroy. “Now, we want some of those textures.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is the tight TV schedules. On Fox’s “Gotham,” nominee Crescenzo G.P. Notarile works a cycle of seven days of prep followed by nine days of shooting.

“You’re doing 22 episodes a season on network television, and you’re working nine months, 70 to 80 hours a week, constantly,” Notarile says. “It takes a lot of mental, physical and emotional strength to keep that creative erection up all the time.”

Notarile says the advent of small HD cameras, has helped keep the look fresh. He has used Canon C300s, which have a small form factor similar to old, hand-cranked Bolex 16mm cameras. He deployed 10 of them on “Gotham,” in addition to his main Alexa cameras, to capture multiple angles on a single take of six ninjas crashing in through stained-glass windows.

“When you’re using those cameras, you know it’s going to be a quarter of a second or half-second shot, so [the quality] is more than sufficient,” Notarile says.

As its costs go down and the technology improves, Notarile is increasingly using LED lighting, which allows him to adjust the color temperature with the turn of dial. “That saves cutting the gels and the time it takes to put them on the [tungsten] lamp,” he says.

The DPs interviewed all shoot at 24 frames-per second (23.97 fps, to be precise), the same as film, even though digital cameras and televisions are capable of delivering higher frame rates, resulting in better resolution.

“We shoot 24 because of its judder, which gives us the feel that we’re watching cinema instead of video,” Hawkinson says. Ultra-high resolution is “great for sports, but when you get into doing narrative work, we’re in danger of technology becoming distracting.”

Although most DP’s still strive for that old-fashioned filmic quality, that doesn’t mean they’re nostalgic for the days when film was the only option. “For me, a lot of memory of film is being in a dark room, sweating, as I’m trying to get film loaded in time for the next take,” Conroy says.

More Artisans

  • Chile's Production Incentives Include New 30%

    Chile Incentives Pilot Program Aims to Draw Producers With 30% Rebate

    With over 2,500 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline, the long and narrow South American country of Chile encompasses a remarkable variety of weather patterns and landscapes. Filmmakers traveling there will discover that the Chilean Economic Development Agency in alliance with nation’s film commission recently launched what it calls a Pilot Program for High-Impact Audiovisual Investment [...]

  • Set di "Gomorra 3", regia di

    'My Brilliant Friend,' 'Gomorrah' Show Different Sides of Naples

    When Saverio Costanzo, the director of HBO and RAI’s “My Brilliant Friend,” started to plan how he would depict the grand but gritty city of Naples — one that’s so vivid in the imaginations of millions of Elena Ferrante readers, he quickly decided that the working-class neighborhood at the core of her four Neapolitan novels [...]


    How a Costume Designer Brightened M. Night Shyamalan's 'Glass'

    Paco Delgado’s costumes are as varied as his films. Contrast the drama “The Danish Girl,” the futuristic fantasy “A Wrinkle in Time” and the period musical “Les Misérables.” Now he’s in comic-book territory with M. Night Shyamalan’s newest superhero/supervillain thriller, “Glass,” which Universal releases Jan. 17. The costume designer’s career began in Barcelona and London, [...]

  • Bird Box

    Los Angeles On-Location Feature Filming Surges 12.2% in 2018

    On-location feature filming in Greater Los Angeles expanded impressively in 2018, gaining 12.2% to 4,377 shooting days, according to FilmL.A. Production activity for feature films rose 15.5% to 1,078 shooting days during the fourth quarter, with 146 days coming from projects receiving California tax credits — including Netflix’s “Bird Box,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a [...]


    How Writer-Crew Collaborations Are Changing the Script for the Creative Process

    In traditional filmmaking, once a script is written, the director and department heads break it down and figure out the costs and logistics of production. But if the screenwriter collaborates during the creative process with key crew members, the entire production can benefit.  Such collaboration offers the prospect of help on many fronts. For example, [...]

  • avengers infinity war

    'Avengers,' 'Lost in Space,' 'Ready Player One' Lead Visual Effects Society Nominations

    The Visual Effects Society announced nominees for the organization’s 17th annual awards on Tuesday. Leading the way in the film and TV fields, respectively, were Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War” and Netflix’s “Lost in Space.” Each picked up six nominations. Pixar’s “Incredibles 2” received the most nominations among animated feature contenders with five. “Ready Player One” [...]

  • Dynasties BBC Vundu Pack

    Bush Guides, Night Cameras Help BBC America’s ‘Dynasties’ Catch Unique Moments

    Just getting to one of the locations of BBC America wildlife documentary series “Dynasties” — presented by David Attenborough and following the lives of endangered animals — requires an 11-hour flight from London to Johannesburg, a two-hour connection to Harare, Zimbabwe, an hourlong chartered Cessna 206 trip to Mana Pools National Park airstrip and an [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content