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How HBO’s ‘The Night Of’ Prepared DP Robert Elswit for ‘Nightcrawler’

Even though HBO’s “The Night Of” premiered just last month, the miniseries’ camerawork informed the look of “Nightcrawler,” a film released in 2014.

A case of cinematographic time travel? Not really. When gearing up for Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” in 2013, DP Robert Elswit knew he’d have to shoot digitally, because the feature required many nighttime exteriors and had a low lighting budget. But he had always shot on film.

That experience gap figured into Elswit’s decision to first take on Steven Zaillian’s 10-part miniseries, which began production three years ago but was stalled after the untimely death of star James Gandolfini (later replaced by John Turturro). “The Night Of” would serve as a testing ground for the Arri Alexa digital camera.

“I was able to use everything I learned in ‘The Night Of’ to help me get the most out of ‘Nightcrawler,’” Elswit says. “[Alexa] was a great way to go because it’s a little faster. The exposure index is twice as high as the fastest Kodak film stock, and you can get away with murder. By shooting in places that had a lot of street and business lighting, I didn’t have to light backgrounds.”

Set in New York, the 10-part mini tells the story of a man accused of murder, and the suffocating judicial system that works against him. Elswit, who could commit to only the aesthetic-setting first two episodes, says he and Zaillian were inspired by New York-set movies shot there in the ’70s, particularly the “raw-energy ones,” like “Report to the Commissioner” and “The French Connection.”

In Demand DP
Robert Elswit has more than 70 film and TV credits.
Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (2015)
The latest “Mission” is darker than the franchise’s earlier films, including his own “Ghost Protocol.”
The Town (2010)
The Boston-set film features a shootout-in-the-streets finale.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Elswit earned the cinematography Oscar for Paul Thomas Anderson’s tale of an oil baron, starring Daniel Day-Lewis.
Good Night and Good Luck (2005)
Elswit was Oscar-nominated for George Clooney’s B&W saga of Edward R. Murrow’s battle with Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

“It wasn’t a documentary style in the sense that it was handheld camera or anything, but you really felt like you were in the city,” Elswit says. “Things were theatrical but not artificial. You were in real locations. The lighting would be dictated by the places you picked to shoot.”

Elswit also looked back to the 1961 television series “The Defenders,” starring E.G. Marshall. “It was all in black and white and in the streets,” he recalls. “It was a courtroom drama, but it wasn’t like ‘Perry Mason.’ It wasn’t a Hollywood version. You weren’t looking at a lot of sets. And that’s what Steven was hoping you’d come away feeling here — that you’d seen a kind of slice of life.”

The other eight episodes in the series were shot by lensers Igor Martinović (“House of Cards”) and Fred Elmes (“Olive Kitteridge”). But Elswit doubled back in the end to shoot some additional photography on different parts of the series, which is set all over New York, including Rikers Island.

“I matched what they did in the courtroom and some other places,” Elswit says. “I couldn’t pull it all apart, and I didn’t want to. Steven is a hands-on director and I think that’s why the thing looks vaguely consistent with three different DPs. He believes what cinematographers believe, which is that how something is lit … how light, how dark it is, where the shadows fall — all of these things are keys to an audience’s emotional response.”

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