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TV Lensers Are No Longer Afraid of the Dark

For many years, true cinematic darkness — the indispensable bass note of any cinematographer’s melody — was a struggle to achieve on television screens. Limitations in capture, transmission and display have been overcome in no small part due to the stubborn vision of directors of photography including Roy Wagner (“Quantum Leap,” “Beauty and the Beast”), John Bartley and Bill Roe (“The X-Files”) and Jonathan Freeman (“Boardwalk Empire”).

The latest controversy involving a darkly lit “Game of Thrones” episode marks another stage in this evolution, but the main takeaway may be the astonishing extent to which the show’s fans are engaged — less-than-ideal home viewing conditions notwithstanding.

Fabian Wagner, the director of photography behind the episode that has millions discussing contrast ratios, says for every complaint he has heard, a dozen or more have communicated their compliments.

“The whole thing was driven by a creative decision to depict the subjective experience of being in a battle,” says Wagner. “I’ve seen it on every type of screen, and I’ve seen the things we intended to show, and what we intended to leave in darkness was in darkness. I’m very proud that we stuck to our creative vision. Another approach would have been wrong.”

Wagner, a two-time Emmy nominee who shares camera duties with David Franco and Freeman, is certainly in the Emmy conversation, as are Ben Kutchins (“Ozark”), Tod Campbell (“Homecoming”) and Gavin Finney (“Good Omens”). Campbell, whose work streams on Amazon, says one key to bold imagery is the right director.

The light-sensitivity of digital cameras — in Campbell’s case, the Panavision Millennium DXL-2 — has had a profound influence.
“Sam Esmail is the reason we’ve been able to push the photography and the story,” says Campbell, who also worked with Esmail on “Mr. Robot,” earning an Emmy nom. “I’ve shot network shows where I’d always get notes about it being too dark. Sam is fearless in every endeavor, and he has allowed me to push this far and this hard.”

With “Good Omens,” Finney benefits from the longer arc afforded by six-hour limited series presentation.

“You can tell a much more complex story,” he says. “We go through 10 time periods before we arrive in the present. There were previous attempts to make this book into a feature film, but the story’s just too big. We can explore the characters in more detail and take more interesting detours. And in some cases, the budgets have come along to match the ambitions that are built into long-form drama.”
Kutchins, nominated for an Emmy last year, says a crucial aspect of the cinematographer’s job is to withhold information.

“We’re often trying to accomplish things in a single shot,” he says. “Rather than telegraphing where the audience should be looking, we give them a frame they can explore. Instead of constantly barraging the audience, we’re revealing things in interesting ways. We talk a lot about the idea of imminent threat, something lurking around every corner. Combined with the incredible acting of Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, I think that’s why audiences are drawn in.”

Kutchins also cites Gordon Willis’ high-contrast 1971 masterpiece, “Klute” — a touchstone for many cinematographers — but not as a literal model for his imagery.

“That film is an inspiration because you can feel Willis,” he says. “There’s freedom and a youthful energy there, and a sense of experimentation that’s unique. It doesn’t look like his other movies, but it’s in the same key, as it were. It shows that each story deserves its own visual language. We’ve tried to do that with ‘Ozark.’ It has its own way of speaking about threat, and safety, and family — things that we can all relate to.”

Perhaps that elusive quality — “cinematic” — can also be found lurking in the darkness.

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