No stranger to serial killer series and period dramas of all kinds, cinematographer P.J. Dillon found his latest great challenge on TNT drama The Alienist, looking to capture both the ornate architecture and the seedy underbelly of 19thcentury New York.
Certainly, this is a place and time that has been well documented on screen, through films including The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York. But with The Alienist, Dillon worked with production designer Mara LePere-Schloop and director Jakob Verbruggen to give an all-new, immersive take on this world.
Centering on a crime reporter and a psychologist investigating a serial killer operating in New York’s Gilded Age, The Alienist involved 360-degree visuals—with six-story tenement buildings designed for the series—complicated Steadicam shots, and practical light sources of the period, which lent another degree of authenticity to the production.
Looking to painters and photographers of the period for inspiration, it was only through the examination of photography in its earliest iterations, and mapping out complex night sequences on the backlots’ streets, that Dillon was able to bring the series to fruition.
And The Alienist isn’t the only complex project the DP has taken on recently. Shooting two episodes of Game of Thrones’ seventh season—on top of three prior episodes over the course of several years—the challenges with this most recent installment were not what one might expect.
What was it that compelled you to take on The Alienist?
I was attracted to the story, as well as the period. I quite liked the period of turn-of-the-century New York, that sort of Gilded Age. The visual possibilities of that were very attractive to me. I’d been aware of the book. I read it when it was published, so I knew there was a lot to work with.
Specifically, what kinds of opportunities did you see when it came to this series? Where did you look as you were developing your first visual concepts?
It started when I first began my discussions with Jakob, the director. He outlined his vision of what he was trying to do. I then visited Budapest where Mara, the production designer, showed me all of the concept art that they had, and what their vision was. They were relying heavily on photographs and art from the period, and I sort of continued that process then, looking at painting especially—the American Impressionists and stuff like that. That was our way into it.
What we were very conscious of was that the story is very much about the rotten decay beneath the gilded surface. We were very conscious that we would be shooting in these wonderful sets and locations, which were very ornate and had a lot of visual possibilities in that way. But then the challenge and also the opportunity for us was to try to portray the flip side of that, and create something that was very visceral.
Were there particular painters or other artists that you drew inspiration from?
Paul Cornoyer was one, and Frederick Childe Hassam. There was a group—Alessandro Guaccimanni, Charles Hoffbauer, William Merrit Chase, and John Atkinson Grimshaw. James Whistler’s Nocturnepaintings were a strong influence, in terms of color choices for night work—especially the use of yellow and green—and Alfred Stieglitz’s photography from the period was also very influential. But the American Impressionists were the biggest influence.
What camera and lenses did you land on for this series, and why?
A lot of shows nowadays have a 4K delivery, so that dictates the camera choice a lot of times. That wasn’t the case on this job. It was just a high-def delivery. That opened up the possibility of using the ALEXA, which I would have been very familiar with from Game of Thronesand a bunch of other jobs. One of the reasons that ALEXA became attractive to us, or the idea that we could shoot it 2K rather than 4K, was that a lot of the modern cameras are very clean and sharp.
That works great for a lot of jobs, but we were looking especially at photography from the time, which was still in its infancy, really. Lenses weren’t that sharp, and you had a lot more halation. They were softer. We wanted to try to get a sense of that without making it look mushy. What we decided was, we would shoot high-def anamorphic 16:9. We tested a bunch of anamorphic lenses, to knock the clinical edge off the images—to try and soften them a touch whilst maintaining a sort of modern aesthetic. The ones we settled on were the Zeiss Master anamorphics, and they worked very well for us.
What was the approach to lighting a series set in the 19thcentury? Obviously, the frame often features oil lamps and other light sources from the period.
For the most part, we were trying to avoid going down the route of putting electric bulbs into oil lamps. We would actually try to use oil if we could to get that authentic feel. Gas fittings in buildings and interiors, there are health and safety issues with that. It’s difficult to work with real gas, so some of those were electric fittings. But where we had the possibility to actually use real gas, or real oil, we did that. So the sequence on the bridge at the beginning of Episode 1 where everybody’s holding lanterns, they are actual oil lanterns, rather than battery-operated units.
We were shooting at quite low light levels, so if somebody struck a match for example, it would flare up—and we wanted to try to imbue it with that authenticity, rather than it being a thing where the lights effectively became props. The lamps were actually practical a lot of the time.
With so many low-light scenarios in Season 1, were you typically shooting scenes brighter than they look in the final product, and bringing down light levels in post?
Absolutely. That is the safety blanket. But even within that, we were still shooting at quite low levels. There was a lot more in the Log than ended up on the screen ultimately, but it’s about the contrast ratio. For example, in a lot of the street scenes, we would have burning barrels, and real flames, and if you light it up too much, the effect of it gets lost. So we did try to keep the levels down to a level where that flame did actually have impact in the way that it would do in real life.
Could you expand on methods used to achieve the gritty texture at the core of this series’ aesthetic? Weather conditions often seem to factor in.
For the first three episodes, we were wintertime, so we wanted to have that feel, where you could feel the elements. In the later episodes, the story moves into summer, so we didn’t do so much of that. But for the first three episodes, we wanted to feel that elemental thing in the image, especially deep in the backgrounds—to have atmosphere. It was special effects with smoke and rain machines, and snow. We started shooting in March. We were shooting the first three episodes into summertime, so all of the snow obviously is fake snow. That’s down to special effects, all of that.
What informed the series’ color palette?
We had looked at early color photography, Colorama and stuff, and we played around with a few different things. What we wanted to do was to have color, but have it be subdued, and at certain times, pull certain tones through so that it didn’t feel monotone, and it didn’t feel super desaturated.
That was something that Mara, Jakob and I looked at very closely. We settled on roughly where we wanted to be and then created some looks in testing, which I probably modified over the first week of shooting. But by the end of the first week shooting, we had pretty much found where we were sitting, in terms of the look. It got polished up in the final grade, but anything that we did in final grade was not that far from what we were looking at on set.
When you’re working with large-scale environments—the opera house, or the tenement blocks—what’s the key to achieving a certain level of visual control?
A lot of our street sequences, especially the night sequences, were shot on the backlot. Mara built an absolutely amazing backlot—it’s huge. The buildings are six stories high and 120 meters long. So from that point of view, what we tried to do is light all of those night street scenes pretty much with huge softboxes. We built big softboxes out of SkyPanels—one of our softboxes had 36 SkyPanels in it, and that was then suspended from a construction crane.
We tried to avoid the traditional mode of shooting night exteriors, which is to have a hard backlight, and then some soft fill. We tried to do everything with soft light to keep it more natural, so these softboxes were big, big units. We placed those at the end of every street, and because the SkyPanels are so user-friendly—in terms of changing color and intensity—we could just dial it in and dial it out pretty much as we wanted, and really quickly. Because we had lots of restrictions in terms of the night work, one being that when we did a lot of it, it was getting towards summer, so there wasn’t that much night anyway. But also because we were working with children, their working hours meant that we needed to be finished by 10:00PM. Any of the night work with children, we only ever had about an hour and a half of shooting time, so it had to be quick and efficient.
Could you speak to the choreographing of the series’ chase sequences? Were these sequences all boarded out?
Yeah, very much so. This backlot was basically two very long streets, which ran parallel to each other, and then there were two or three cross streets. So without shooting off the set, or with a minimal amount of shooting off the set, you were able to go around corners and streets and those carriages. It was just that at the end of some streets, we needed to put blue in order to do some extension. But for the most part, it was done in-camera, so we would’ve plotted it quite carefully.
In terms of the lighting, that is quite complex because once you change direction, suddenly you’re on the front-lit side and it maybe doesn’t look quite so good. For a lot of those street sequences, I would actually have been dimming lamps as the shots progressed. And again, the SkyPanels gave us that ability. I had a dimming desk beside me, and as the shot developed, I would be taking some of our softboxes and bringing others up gradually, and pretty seamlessly.
You also shot two Season 7 episodes for Game of Thrones. What was most memorable to you about the episodes you shot this season?
That ship sequence—the night battle on the ship—technically, that was a very difficult thing to achieve. The other thing was this season, in the episodes that I shot with Mark Mylod, the director, we had a lot of very long dialogue sequences. When Jon [Snow] meets Dany in the throne room in Dragonstone, I think it’s a nine-minute sequence. Other people had dialogue, but effectively it’s a two-hander, so the challenge was to keep that visually interesting across what is a very long sequence.
It’s such good writing and they are such good performers, that it’s not that difficult, but it certainly is a challenge, in visual terms, to keep it dynamic across such a long sequence. It was definitely something to think about.