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Cinematographers Vying for Emmy Create Powerful Images for the Small Screen

The extraordinary quality of cinematography under Emmy consideration, not to mention the sheer number of shows, makes predicting winners a fool’s errand. Further complicating matters is the array of studios and production entities, each of which works under a unique set of circumstances.

For example, HBO need not concern itself with advertisers, and streaming outfits don’t necessarily have to make their numbers public or even make a profit on a particular project.

Then there are the traditional networks and free cable channels.

Suffice it to say that many of today’s productions rival feature films in terms of excellence. Filmmakers constantly blur the line between films and TV in terms of budget, schedule, cast, mindset and expectations.

Fahrenheit 451” is a good example. Directed by Ramin Bahrani for HBO, the film debuted at Cannes and hit TV screens in time for Emmy consideration, an unusual path. Director of photography Kramer Morgenthau, a five-time Emmy nominee, says he approached the project exactly as he would a feature. The schedule was roughly 40 days, luxurious by the television standards of a few years ago.

“Television screens have gotten so big and so good that you can’t compromise anything,” says Morgenthau. “So much of it is the culture of the shoot. Because of economic pressures, some studios embrace taking bigger chances. HBO does often have more money. I’ve done indie features with a quarter of the money we had on ‘Fahrenheit 451.’ ”

DP Rob McLachlan has two Emmy nominations for HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and is shooting “Ray Donovan” for Showtime. McLachlan is adding an executive producer credit on the new season, reflecting his expanded role in the decision-making as the show moves to New York. He says more money doesn’t always translate to top quality.

“Shows have tried to match what was done on ‘Game of Thrones,’ thinking that a huge budget is enough,” he says.

“It’s not. It still comes down to taste, and the way you light. You have to recognize when something is overlit and overproduced cinematically. The tools, especially the sensitivity of digital cameras, have allowed us to raise the visual bar significantly. The ability to have input on locations and sets really helps, too.”

DP Loren Yaconelli, whose work on nine episodes of Showtime’s “The Chi” is garnering praise, agrees that the proliferation of content and the resulting competition has had a beneficial effect.

“It’s really allowing some incredible storytelling,” she says. “People are watching movies at home, and we have to compete with that. We find ourselves making it look as much like a film as possible. On [TNT’s] ‘Animal Kingdom,’ we’re shooting with anamorphic lenses, and we embrace the flares and flaws in the lenses, which gives it a more cinematic look.”

Using feature techniques like anamorphic lenses and shallow depth of field can take more time and require more takes, so the DP and the camera crew must perform at a very high level, according to Adriano Goldman, who shot the first two seasons of “The Crown” for Netflix.

“We had 15 to 20 days per episode on season one, which is rare even for Netflix series,” says Goldman. “We always wanted to go very cinematic, so we agreed on a less-is-more philosophy regarding coverage. Every shot is a dedicated shot, in a way. We insisted on blocking everything for a single camera, which allowed us to be much more precise and sophisticated — very feature-like overall.”

Everyone seems to agree that the days of clearly delineated feature and television sectors are behind us — good filmmaking is good filmmaking no matter the form of distribution or manner of display.

(Pictured above: “The Crown”)

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