With the rapid proliferation of well-written, compellingly dark dramas emerging from avenues old and new, the brightest stars of cinematography have followed suit, projecting the dark side of the soul onto the screen. This year’s Emmy nominees in cinematography for single-camera and limited series have brought a new cinematic aesthetic to television, pursuing the darkest projects and the darkest images—made possible by the incredible visual range of modern camera technology—all in the pursuit of a good yarn. Below, a selection of this year’s nominees share their methodologies in bringing their dark visions to light.
A thrice-nominated DP with a 1996 win for The X-Files, John S. Bartley is excited by the challenge presented by a certain brand of dark, complex storytelling. “With just a normal soap opera, that kind of stuff—that wouldn’t be much of a challenge for me,” Bartley shares. “I like it to be difficult.” With Season 4 of the A&E series, the cinematographer found the opportunity to take more risks, as Norman Bates slid fully into his dark destiny. “I just thought, I can just push this until there’s nowhere else to go,” he says.
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Working with long-standing, shadowy sets on a Vancouver soundstage, and reckoning with the temperamental weather patterns of British Columbia in his exterior expeditions, Bartley brings to bear a specific methodology, continuing to experiment with lighting scenarios in an effort to keep it fresh. A selection of lights hang down from the ceiling of the soundstage, though Bartley uses them only sparingly; the DP utilizes a large arsenal of camera filters, in contrast to many of his contemporaries, and prefers to execute the shot in-camera, without leaning on the crutch of the post-production fix.
One of the challenges Bartley has set for himself in recent seasons is the use of wide-angle lenses, which makes lighting the set a more difficult proposition. “There’s just nowhere to get a light in,” he explains. “And sometimes it gets a little frustrating—you just can’t find a place to put something.”
Soon, Bartley will be on to new challenges, as the upcoming Season 5 brings the dark tale of Bates Motel to a close—but the cinematographer is at peace with it all. “I quite like the idea that there’s a final thing to it,” he says. “And it’ll be over in January!”
Receiving his second nomination for Fargo—which matched its first season with 18 nominations this year—Dana Gonzales recognizes these accolades as the fruits of lessons taken from Season 1. “Season 1 was the first time a lot of us ever shot in Calgary, so there was a little learning curve there, and we made adjustments, even in our stage space,” Gonzales says.
Starting out in unsatisfying commercial work, Gonzales has found in Fargo a perfect platform for his talents—a crime drama that pulls the viewer along, on an elegantly dark journey. “With this show, you really have to play with the tone, and nuance it a little more. I always take that into account,” he says. “There’s always an arc of tone and contrast and color in every episode.”
More now than ever, in the days of HD and home theaters, Gonzales and his peers are embracing darkness, or the absence of light, as tools to be used in the pursuit of a more compelling viewing experience. “In television, you have to think about the maximum amount of information you’re going to get out of a shot, and I think the cameras have really helped that because of the dynamic range; now, you can use less light. You can be more practical. And I think there’s a lot of us in television today that have really figured that out.”
Playing with contrast—the confluence of light and darkness—to great cinematic effect, Gonzales also arrived at several other techniques to augment the mood of the series. The series’ second season features frequent use of the color cyan—a specific, bluish-green tint that was the DP’s ‘death color,’ present after the death of key characters, or in the moment of the act itself. And unlike John Bartley, who finds smoke an alienating presence for the performers, Gonzales frequently uses smoke to add depth and shape the scene. “I think with a period film, especially, because you’re going to give these sets a lived-in look, it’s imperative,” he says. “It just gives it life.”
Game of Thrones
Already five weeks into prep on Season 7—in which he will be shooting the season’s first and final episodes—two-time Emmy nominee Gregory Middleton has been entrusted with several of the show’s most-discussed and most controversial episodes, always in collaboration with director Jeremy Podeswa. Last year, the DP was on hand for the infamous rape scene in Episode 6, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken;” and this season, Middleton shot the resurrection of Jon Snow. “It’s both incredibly exciting and a little bit nerve-wracking because you’re trying to honor what a lot of people have imagined,” Middleton says. “That’s always a delicate thing to bring across.”
Looking back at Episode 2, “Home”—the episode the DP submitted for Emmys consideration—the visual foreshadowing of events to come is considerable, a feat which the DP attributes to the vision of series co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. It’s surprising to note that, with a series as popular and as sensitively handled as Game of Thrones, Middleton was given all the scripts for Season 6 prior to shooting. “We do prep the entire season at the same time, so we don’t shoot episodes in consecutive days, unlike most TV series,” Middleton says. “You are kind of watching the whole season being filmed while you’re making your episodes.”
Like his peers Bartley and Gonzales, Middleton often finds himself shooting in the dark—all in an attempt to capture “the delicate inner workings of people”—though the DP has his own approach to these scenes. Middleton tends to proceed with caution in filming the series’ darkest scenes, with an eye toward post-production. “Sometimes when we do very dark scenes, I will slightly overcompensate and make sure that I’ve got detail in all those areas,” the DP explains. “You treat digital a little bit differently than you would film, in the context of trying to avoid digital noise.”
One of Middleton’s most challenging sequences of this season was the bridge scene in Episode 2, in which Balon Greyjoy is pushed to his death. “That was an all-nighter—we shot until 4:30 in the morning, and it was actually shot in a storm,” Middleton laughs. “Some of that’s fake rain, but a lot of it is actually real rain, and a lot of it is real wind. I had to change my lighting plan completely.”
Trial of the Century
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
The recipient of 22 Emmy nominations, The People v. O.J. Simpson is in a league of its own, and a very different animal in all regards. Shot by two-time nominee Nelson Cragg, the series takes place primarily in broad daylight, or in fluorescent-lit courtrooms—away from the shadows. And yet, in contrast to the false advertisement of Fargo, the story is true, and the darkness all the more imposing.
With the anthology series, Cragg’s work was a process of faithful re-creation, in hopes of creating a world that felt recognizable, and reflecting authentically the period of his youth. “I had the production designers build a beautiful full ceiling in all the sets,” Cragg explains. “We always had fluorescents and real, working lights in all the sets that we controlled, so we could make them look like real spaces.” In terms of exteriors, Cragg’s mission was to imagine the smoggy quality of the light in ’90s L.A.—a subtle difference from the Los Angeles of today. “I had to re-create that as best I could, because that was an emotion; it was a memory that everybody has,” he says.
Re-creating ’90s L.A. for the series—and the courtrooms where much of the series takes place—Cragg arrived at a color palette that was predominantly, noticeably beige. “A lot of those courtrooms—they were using a lot of beiges in the ‘90s,” the DP explains. When speaking of color palette and his most specific, controlled choices, Cragg references the gauche pink colors used in re-creating the Kardashian home’s interiors. “I remember sitting down with the production designer, and he showed me this salmon color that he was going to paint the entire Kardashian house interior. I was like, oh my gosh—it’s hideous,” he says. “But at the same time, that was a really trendy color in the ‘90s, that kind of skin tone. We decided to embrace that and make it look real.”
Of all the fascinating visual elements of this series—this unique color palette, and the in-your-face, immersive experience created for the viewer, to name a couple—perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the photography is a certain meta element, through which life and art are repeatedly blurred. Using archival footage isn’t uncommon in period TV; yet The People v. O.J. involves a combination of archival footage, dramatic re-creations—which take the viewer behind closed doors, and into private conversations of the time—as well as re-creations of actual footage of the time. Notably, TV and radio personality Larry King participated in a re-creation of an on-camera interview he had done during the time of the trial, with Nathan Lane stepping into the role of attorney F. Lee Bailey. “It’s really weird. Larry walked on the set and he goes, ‘Whoah! This looks exactly perfect,'” Cragg recalls. “It was challenging, but I think that pays off because it grounded everything.”
Reflecting on his favorite image in the series, the choice was obvious. “For me, it’s definitely the iconic shot of the white Bronco cresting the hill, with the 15 police cars following,” Cragg shares. “When we shot that on the freeway, [the freeway] was closed, and it was kind of eerily silent. When we saw that car crest the hill, it gave me chills.”
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