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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.

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