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Cinematographers Take Risks on TV With Moody Images

It’s no accident that today’s television renaissance has coincided with a golden age of TV cinematography. The moody, nuanced imagery that now appears on small screens supports cinematic themes, top-notch acting and innovative directing, and audiences have responded.

Rob McLachlan, a contributor to HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and “Westworld,” and Showtime’s “Ray Donovan,” says digital cameras are another major factor in TV pictures.

“When I first shot HD for TV back around 2002, I realized that a monitor on the set showing precisely what you’re recording made it possible to safely go a lot darker,” he says. “On film, only the most experienced DPs could really work on the edge of underexposure. A slightly uncalibrated lens combined with a variation in the film stock and a weak chemical bath in the lab could spell disaster. Now, with digital and a decent DIT [digital imaging technician] or monitoring system, it’s really what you see is what you get.  Courage is no longer a factor in shooting low key images.”

McLachlan adds that today’s producers, having grown up watching “The X-Files” rather than “Dragnet,” are on board. That can mean that schedules and budgets that allow for careful, detailed lighting and shot design.

“The networks used to say that if it was too dark, people would switch to something they could see better in their bright living rooms,” says McLachlan. “Back then, it required the power of someone like ‘X-Files’ ceator Chris Carter to force the network to send those shows out the way he intended. Now, I’m lucky to have the trust of my producers… to let me do what I want.”

On the FX’s “The Americans,” Dan Stoloff shares cinematography duties with Joseph Bradley Smith. He notes the bigger, better screens at home have led to decreased reliance on the close-up to communicate emotion. “Because ‘The Americans’ is a period piece, we prefer to stay a little closer with a wider lens so that there’s more period-specific detail in the frame,” says Stoloff. “Another cinematic technique we try to use is an outside-looking-in perspective. I’ll frame things in doorways and through windows. It’s harder and a bit slower to work that way. There’s less cutting; we tend to hold a shot longer. Television has traditionally been more blatant about directing where the eye goes. I find that as a viewer and a filmmaker, if you respect your audience, they’ll find what’s important. The story will be told in a more participatory and rewarding way.”

On FX’s “Fargo,” the initial brief was to visually echo the 1996 Coen brothers’ feature film, shot by Roger Deakins. Dana Gonzalez and Craig Wrobleski currently trade episodes behind the camera. Each season has a unique storyline and aesthetic, and even the time period changes. Most recently, the look involved removing much of the blue element in the pictures — a technique cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel used on the Coens’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” earning an Oscar nomination in the process.

“On ‘Fargo,’ we are referencing feature films,” says Wrobleski. “It’s about making choices that are true to the vocabulary of the show. And it’s not about volume. It’s about quality versus quantity, and that helps us keep the production value high. It used to be that if someone went to a movie theater they had certain expectations, and when they turned on their television they would have different expectations — about production value, scale, ambitions and more. But I think those lines are blurred now. On ‘Fargo,’ we are of the mindset that we’re making what is essentially a 10-hour movie.”

Pictured above: “Fargo”

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