Hannibal and True Detective—about serial killers who are the devil personified—as well as House of Cards—about a devilish politician—all embrace lighting and camera work that is cinematic yet subtle, manipulating audiences into the suspense of the moment and helping frame some of the most unforgettable characters on television. House of Cards director of photography Igor Martinovic, who was enlisted for the second season, used lighting to reflect a marked shift in story surrounding the dastardly Francis Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey. “The cynical attitude and a crime story that happened toward the end of season one could be represented through low-key lighting,” Martinovic says. “For season two, we decided to change the lighting completely. We very carefully tried to wrap characters in shadows, into half-lights, turn them into silhouettes, and overall kept them on the edge of darkness.”
The shift owed much to the influence of the Netflix show’s executive producer, Oscar-nominated director David Fincher. “He’s very constant in all of his work,” Martinovic says of Fincher. “It’s this objective camera work where you don’t come too close to the characters. Your camera is objectively—as much as one could do—capturing the situation . . . It was also very appropriate for this because we were telling a political theater. Part of it is the staging, where we try to stage a kind of elaborate mise en scene, but also not encroach into the actors’ space.”
For that reason, there also aren’t a lot of close-ups in Cards. “All the moves were done by a dolly, so when the camera would move, the operator would not touch the camera,” Martinovic says. “The camera would be locked, and when we would go, for example, from a wide shot into a close-up, the entire move would be done with a dolly. We would never pan and tilt at the same time. That was the rule. There are certain rules that were developed as a part of the visual vocabulary, and we followed those rules.”
Emmy winner Adam Arkapaw (Top of the Lake) had a somewhat different task with HBO’s crime drama True Detective, which stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as crime sleuths Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, whose story had to be captured in 1995, 2002 and the present. To get the desired effect, Arkapaw was particular about the type of lighting and lenses that were used. “We wanted to make subtle delineations between the three different time periods,” he says. “In this case, what you are seeing are recollections of the events that happened before, and for those… we wanted to be true to the veil of the time that had passed.” Arkapaw used an older, larger set of vintage lenses from Panavision for the flashback scenes. The re-housed lenses “aren’t technically perfect; they have aberrations in them, so it was a little bit softer and impressionistic,” he says.
For the 2002 time period, Arkapaw wanted the audience to focus more on the characters, so he used longer lenses. “The focus is a little more shallow,” he says, adding that the audience has less information in the shots and “is forced to be in the head space of the characters themselves.” Standard lenses were used for the present-day shots. “It was the other end of the story, like you would see the world today, so we wrapped it up in a sort of natural way,” he says. “We didn’t make much of a change (from 2002) for that reason.”
Also ever present in Arkapaw’s mind was to allow space for the actors to perform without thinking about the cameras or lighting. “That’s kind of what excites me as a DP,” he says. “I like to see a great performance more than a great sunset . . . In this case, I used as little light as possible and not as many stands and equipment so (McConaughey and Harrelson) could move wherever they wanted.”
For the dark and gruesome tale of NBC’s Hannibal, about the titular serial killer (played by Mads Mikkelsen) and his relationship with FBI profiler Will Graham (portrayed by Hugh Dancy), DP James Hawkinson used what he calls an “arc” to the cinematography, which was possible since he has shot nearly all of the episodes over the course of the show’s two seasons. “I’ll kind of shroud things in darkness and mystery to start, and then I’ll open it up and show you more as you get midseason,” Hawkinson says. “Then as we approach the end of the season, I like it to get darker and darker and send you back into that mystery and suspense. It kind of maybe works as a visual cliffhanger as you proceed.”
Hawkinson and executive producer David Slade, who also directed the series pilot last year, spoke about the photographic concepts and the mood of the show early on. “It’s like Satan hiding in plain sight,” Hawkinson says. “We talked a lot about how to photograph Hannibal and what his presence should be like cinematographically.”
Hawkinson was aided by how Mikkelsen’s angular facial features cut into the light, as well as the actors’ technical understanding of what the DP was doing on-set. “Mads’ face is a wonderful landscape,” Hawkinson says. “I try to make the lighting complex so even just from (him) sitting back in a chair to leaning forward it feels like a different world.” Dancy would sometimes watch a rehearsal with the stand-in while the crew was lighting. “He’ll see the subtlety in the lighting and know how to play it to dramatic effect. This is my fourth series, and I’ve never worked with such focused actors in that way. I think they are instinctually aware of (the lighting), and they use it to tell the story and show things about their character.”
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