In 1921, the film industry was dominated by silent black-and-white projects shot with boxy, wood-bodied 120 cameras using 35mm film. It was two years before the 16mm would be invented, and a few more before camera bodies would shift to metal and synchronized sound would become an option.
When depicting this period for a pivotal premiere sequence that sets up not only the protagonist’s family history but also the racism that even an alternate version of America would endure in HBO’s “Watchmen,” executive producer and director Nicole Kassell wanted to root events firmly in historical truth.
The sequence begins with an African American boy watching a black-and-white film about the first Black sheriff, Bass Reeves. “I imagined the film the young boy is watching was directed by Oscar [Micheaux],” Kassell says. (Micheaux wrote, produced and directed 42 films beginning in 1919.) But the calmness of the ritual the boy experiences while watching the movie is interrupted by violence, thrusting him into the center of the Tulsa race riots.
“As we transitioned from the movie to 1921, I wanted to maintain [a] sepia tone so you knew you were still in that period,” Kassell says. “It was such a big period event, and it was true. We felt this extreme responsibility of being truthful and sensitive to the crew and cast who were going to be a part of that. I didn’t want to be too distant from it because this event was really important and it had to feel visceral.”
Kassell is one of many directors who have a wealth of new technology and techniques at their fingertips that can aid in enhancing a previous period’s cinematic style. Whether shooting Tulsa through a sepia lens in 1921, re-creating a black-and-white film during the golden age of Tinseltown in Netflix’s “Hollywood,” following the royal family during the 1960s and 1970s in Netflix’s “The Crown” or capturing both conservative culture and liberal feminist movements in 1970s and 1980s America in FX on Hulu’s “Mrs. America,” television directors this season have married modern ways of working with common film styles of the periods they were depicting. This allowed them to see history with hindsight and also infuse it with as much authenticity as possible.
“There was no debate about whether the movie-within-a-movie would be color or monochrome,” says Jessica Yu, who directed the finale of “Hollywood.” “The idea was to give our reimagined past an authentic grounding, which meant staying faithful to the conventions of the 1940s within our newsreel footage and our characters’ next movie at the end of the show.”
Although that final product was period accurate, Yu says most of the footage was shot in color and in the now-standard 16:9 widescreen frame. This includes the opening scenes of the 1948 Oscars red carpet that are shown as news footage within the show. Filming that early Oscar ceremony allowed Yu to step outside mimicking “the static camera coverage of the time,” simply because back then the Oscars were not filmed at all, only photographed. Those photos were helpful pieces of research, she says, that allowed her to “steep in the jaunty, shiny veneer of that era,” which she needed for the series. But in real life the era depicted “a world essentially devoid of diversity,” she notes, while the show was an aspirational “what if” that celebrated inclusion.
“The aesthetics of [the] era are so seductive, but the spotlight is focused on this narrow vision of who should be famous. To pull off the finale, we needed to summon an authentic representation of the time, but fill it with our story. The challenge was to evoke both the retrospective experience of the Oscars and the personal, emotional journey of our characters. We needed the camera to move, to capture the thrill and the grandeur of the night with the range of tools we have available: cranes, Steadicam, handheld, variable frame rates.”
Similarly, Anna Boden says while she and co-director Ryan Fleck “rarely used a Steadicam in those first two episodes” of “Mrs. America,” they did use it. This is a creative liberty, given that the nine-episode limited series about those fighting for and against ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment begins in 1971, four years before the Steadicam was introduced to the industry. But it seeded a fluid shooting style that would become much more important later in the series, as more Steadicam and even handheld shots were incorporated to “accentuate the ugliness that overcomes this movement” as well as to represent Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) beginning to lose control, Boden says.
Boden and Fleck’s camera team also chose contemporary lenses, and their director of photography, Jessica Lee Gagné, “retuned” the ones they used for Schlafly to infuse them with “a little bit of rosette,” Boden says. This was to further capture Schlafly’s outdated world; though she was living in the 1970s, she and other conservatives looked, dressed and carried themselves as if they were still in the 1950s.
Meanwhile, Jessica Hobbs brought the cinema vérité style that was coined in the 1960s into the two pivotal episodes of “The Crown’s” third season that she directed through the use of movement, specifically to depict the change in attitude and outlook of Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) after meeting Roddy Llewelltyn (Harry Treadaway).
“We wanted to reflect the movement and tone of camerawork of that time and took care not to modernize our approach,” Hobbs says. “The ’60s and ’70s were such an explosion of music, art and shifting societal attitudes. We wanted to allow this to affect our characters and feel the weight of this shift in thinking to apply pressure to the monarchy and our world. Stylistically this encouraged us to break our visual rules. We pushed ourselves to free the camera movement up to reflect Margaret’s desire to experience these newfound freedoms with her much younger lover, Roddy Llewellyn. Having them dancing, drinking, swimming, flirting while allowing a vérité feel that opened up to flares and water and chaos, while set to great music, was very liberating. Hopefully it allowed the audience to feel the same explosion of freedom that Margaret did at that time.”
When capturing the lives of Peter III of Russia (Nicholas Hoult) and Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) for Hulu’s “The Great,” however, the directors had complete creative freedom. After all, the royal couple lived a century before the first motion picture camera was even invented. Executive producer Tony McNamara told his helmers he was more focused on “telling a story about a woman who married the wrong guy” than specifically “trying to document history,” recalls Geeta Patel, who directed the final two episodes of the half-hour comedy. “There are so many moments where we knew it wasn’t period correct, but we wanted to tell our story.”
But sometimes it simply wasn’t efficient to tell a story with complete period accuracy.
To shoot the Oscars red carpet for “Hollywood,” Yu originally inquired about getting vintage klieg lights for the set-piece. While she wasn’t told it was impossible, her gaffer Jeff Chin did say, “The rods in the original carbon arc lights have to be replaced every two hours,” she recalls. “So sometimes authenticity isn’t everything!”