One of EnergaCamerimage Film Festival’s most closely watched sections in a world where streaming shows rule the roost is the First Look TV Pilots Competition and this year’s winner, the Amazon Original “Hunters,” kept veteran cinematographer Frederick Elmes on his toes, he says.
Elmes, with more than 60 director of photography credits spanning five decades, brought to the job a wealth of expertise, ranging from his early days capturing the haunting monochrome shadows of “Eraserhead” to Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” via “Blue Velvet” – a film that shares some of the hyper-reality qualities of “Hunters.”
The 90-minute opening episode of the show, “In the Belly of the Whale,” sets up eight characters who form a crack team of Nazi hunters in 1970s-era New York – led in the chase by a wise-cracking Al Pacino. It kept Elmes busy capturing distinctive performances, he says.
“We had to establish these characters quickly,” he recalls. “Some of them only get a scene or two and then they’re not going to show up for three or four episodes down the line. So we had to sort of get them in there and see who they were and then move on.”
The production was lucky to have 90 minutes for the pilot, he says, “So we had that time on the screen.” Shooting days weren’t quite as generous, he adds: 23, Elmes recalls. “It was more than most pilots,” he grants, but “less than you would expect on a bigger, dramatic story.”
“Hunters” also gave Elmes and the production team the chance to employ technology on the edge. With a kinetic, super-saturated graphic novel look, shooting the show with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon involved complex camera moves and fluid takes that rove through shifting rooms and compositions, from closeups to rich, wide master shots.
“Alfonso and I came up with this notion that keeping the camera moving in creative and interesting ways was a good way to tell this story,” said the 74-year-old Elmes, describing balletic moves required of the crew, camera and actors. “So it drove us to use some fancy TechnoCranes among other things so we could make those moves in a seamless way.”
“It forced us to be creative in terms of where to hide edits when we had to do that. It also caused us to work in a different way with the actors because I had to sometimes impose a little bit of blocking restrictions on them to get a shot to work.”
With such precise timing and logistics called for, Elmes recalls, the original plan for shooting multi-camera, an approach that’s helpful on a tight schedule, had to be scrapped because the shots called for so much of the set to fill the frame, leaving nowhere to hide backup cameras getting different angles.
Another demanding element of “Hunters” was the transformation of its setting. “We were trying to take it out of the realm of the real 70s of New York,” a place Elmes recalls as “pretty grungy – the city was bankrupt, it was in bad shape physically. We tried to impose another reality on it. One way I tried was with color – to push color into the scenes. Color schemes that were not so natural, or off-putting or a little jarring, but in order to change the reality.”
And rather than pump up colors in post as most productions do, Elmes said, he did it in-camera. “That was our plan. During the testing once we started to find the locations I came up with a plan for color in terms of the lighting and Curt Beech, the production designer, came up with a plan for hidden meanings of colors in his set design and wardrobe. We had all sorts of things going on in the background, sometimes subtle and sometimes less subtle, depending on the scene.”
The technique fit with the comic-book heroes ethos of the show, Elmes, said. “We wanted to have some fun with it, basically. And it seemed like a good story to do it with and the showrunner/producer was all for it – making it a bigger-than-life story and not going for gritty reality. And Amazon was very supportive of that.”
Shooting with the Arri Alexa LF and Cooke S7 lenses, Elmes says, gave him the characteristics of the 1940s-era Cooke Panchros while offering a much higher glass quality. “I get the large format coverage and a pretty fast T-stop. It’s a little bit organic, it’s not quite as razor sharp and contrasty as some modern, computer-generated lenses. They’re a little more forgiving for faces, I believe.”
Recognition of the work at Camerimage means a lot, says Elmes, who has a history with the fest, having shared the director-cinematographer duo prize with David Lynch in 2000.
“What’s special about this festival is that it’s about and for cinematographers – and the wonderful thing is that we cinematographers sit on the juries. We run the show and it’s wonderful to be so integrated in the focus of the festival.”
Although Elmes – along with most other guests – couldn’t make it in-person this year, he says he values the experience. “You see films from all over the world that you would never see any other way. And you meet people you’ve only heard about – you see their name on the credit of a film from another country and you never had a chance to be there and never would have seen that film in the U.S. probably anyway.”