The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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2012 Television
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Presidents Desk
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Cinematographers: Christopher Manley, ASC  and Nelson Cragg III
  One of the most popular new shows of 2011 was Homeland, a psychological thriller that was loosely adapted from an Israeli series about prisoners of war who return from captivity. The story concerns U.S. Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), who returns to the United States after spending eight years as an Al Qaeda captive, and CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), who collects intelligence suggesting Brody may have been “turned” by the terrorists. Mathison also struggles privately with bipolar disorder.   The pilot was shot by Christopher Manley, ASC, perhaps best known for his regular work on Mad Men (AC Oct. ’09), and the series was shot by Nelson Cragg III, the only cinematographer so far to win both the ASC Heritage Award for student cinematography (AC June ’04) and an ASC Award for a professional gig (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation).   Cragg has also shot episodes of the series Flash Forward and Breaking Bad, and he notes that his experience on the latter show “taught me that you can produce great, intimate stuff and take chances [on premium channels] that you can’t take on network television.”    Homeland co-executive producer Michael Cuesta, who directed the indie features Twelve and Holding and L.I.E. (AC Oct. ’01), directed Homeland’s pilot as well as the finale and pivotal seventh episode. “Michael likes to work very organically,” Manley says. “His ideas come out of what he sees the actors doing in rehearsal. He’s open, intuitive and improvisational.”   Cragg describes Homeland as “a jazz-based show — the score is jazz, Carrie listens to jazz, and the show became very improvisational in the hands of directors like Michael and Clark Johnson.”    In that vein, Homeland had no “look book” to follow. But there was the equivalent of a musical key: an emphasis on naturalism. “The story is based on what’s going on around us now, so I wanted it to feel as real as possible,” says Cuesta. “I didn’t want it to come off as an action thriller, but as a psychological piece. You have to hang onto the shot, stay with these characters, get into their heads. The look is not stylized. I’m always turning lights off on set, saying, ‘Let it be real.’”   While prepping the pilot, the creative team revisited the 1970s thrillers Three Days of the Condor and The Conversation, “which feel like documentaries in that they capture the action in a simple way,” Cuesta says. But their most important touchstone, according to Manley, was Michael Clayton, shot by Robert Elswit, ASC. “That became my go-to point of reference,” says Manley. “The photography is so naturalistic and unobtrusive, yet every scene feels correct. [Elswit] never tried to do anything flashy or tip his hand and let his presence be known, and that’s really hard to do. It’s easier to make things look beautiful than natural and correct.”    As the storyline develops, Homeland’s look evolves correspondingly. “It started as a show about people observing people, and we created that feeling of surveillance by emphasizing longer lenses through episode four,” says Cragg. “Then, as more of the story was revealed, our style got more visceral, with more handheld [camerawork].”   Showtime mandated that pro-duction be based in North Carolina to take advantage of local tax breaks, and the network also mandated digital acquisition. The team chose Charlotte, and local rental house Illumination Dynamics provided Arri Alexas, Arri/Zeiss Ultra Primes and a range of Angenieux Optimo zooms.    The pilot was shot on practical locations in North Carolina, Israel and Washington, D.C. The episodes were shot on soundstages built in some vacant tobacco-processing factories and warehouses in Charlotte.    The main sets are Brody’s and Mathison’s residences. Brody’s rambling ranch house “is designed to be the warmest, most comforting place,” says Cragg, “because we need to ground him, to care about his family, because this family is what ties him to reality and keeps him alive.” By contrast, Mathison’s townhouse has a cool palette, few windows and spare lighting. “The space feels contained and closed, just like her character,” says Cragg.   The sets were copied closely from the pilot’s practical locations. “Michael requested 8-foot or 9-foot hard ceilings on every set,” says Cragg. “They were expanded from the real locations by about 2 feet on each side, but beyond that, they were pretty much practical locations. We didn’t have the luxury to fly walls or put in backlights or sidelights where we wanted, which was a good thing.” Cuesta adds, “It’s hard to get cameras in there, but when you make it too easy to shoot, it starts looking like a TV show. So I prefer to be crammed in the corner and not be able to get the angle.”    Both Manley and Cragg based their lighting on practicals that were augmented by China balls and small instruments, bounced light and lots of negative fill. “With the Alexa, I was basically using smaller and lesser lights,” says Manley, who was working with the camera for the first time. “You think you need a 4-foot double [Kino Flo], but then you find you only need a 4-foot single — and then you end up putting tape all over the front to knock it down more. It’s kind of amazing that way.”    Cragg’s go-to units were “Tommy boxes,” small softboxes created by gaffer Tommy Ray Sullivan. Built in five sizes, they accommodate different-sized globes, all wired to dimmers. “They’re incredibly versatile and low-profile, and we used them all over the place, hiding them or clipping them to things,” says Cragg.    The creative team worked with a digital-imaging technician on the pilot, but Cragg opted to do without one, using a data loader instead. “I don’t think you need a DIT with the Alexa,” notes Cragg. “I just used Iridas SpeedGrade to create our look-up tables. The Alexa can save frame grabs, and I’d just load them onto the program, color-time them and then have them sent off to FotoKem.”    Cragg and FotoKem colorist Keith Shaw calibrated their iPads so Cragg could give notes on the QuickTime files or DVD he received. “It’s not a perfect system, but we achieve a lot of the look of this show in-camera,” says the cinematographer. “We gel the lights if we want a specific look, and because we’re going for a raw, naturalistic feel, we let fluorescent lights go green and let warm colors play with cool ones. So there weren’t many corrections to be made [in the final timing].”   However, the look of the show changes completely for Brody’s flashbacks to his experiences in captivity in the Middle East. For glimpses of beatings and torture, “we wanted something that looked hot and frightening,” says Manley. He used the Alexa’s CC correction to warm the images in-camera and then added some grain. To create an image that might suggest Brody’s fragmented memory, Manley used Arri Swing & Tilt lenses and added flares and fogging by shining a Scorpio flashlight or Pocket Par straight down the barrel.   When testing revealed that the Swing & Tilt lenses could be removed from its mount, Cragg had 1st AC Patrick Borowiak maneuver it by hand. “You can jiggle it and shift the focus in weird ways that you couldn’t do by turning the little dials,’ says Cragg. “We also used a 90-degree shutter to give the images a jarring crispness and went for some supersaturation to give the color extra pop.”   


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