The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Boardwalk Empire
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Presidents Desk
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Though the cinematographers coordinated that evolution, stylistic consistency wasn’t a rigid rule. Much like series writers who build an overarching storyline but also create self-contained dramas that run for an episode or two, Freeman and Morgenthau could develop a look that played for just one or two episodes. “We were encouraged to treat each episode as its own mini-feature and, to a certain extent, give each one a unique look,” says Morgenthau.  

For example, Freeman exaggerated his natural inclination toward sidelight in a storyline involving Harrow (Jack Huston), a World War I veteran whose face was severely disfigured in combat. The character wears a tin half-mask with his features painted on it. “That was actually common for a lot of veterans who’d been disfigured that way,” notes Freeman. Though Harrow’s mask is literal, he continues, “many characters are hiding behind masks, including Nucky; his girlfriend Margaret [Kelly Macdonald]; and his brother, Elias [Shea Whigham]. So I thought I’d play more with half-light in the episode. I often do a lot of sidelighting, but in this case I let the other side of the face almost fall off completely, not just with Harrow, but with all the characters at certain moments.” He also pushed a chiaroscuro look at times, heightening contrast “not just in deeper shadows, but in higher highlights, so the skin tone sometimes became alabaster. Ironically, because modern film stocks are so great at retaining highlights, that’s actually hard to achieve.” 

Morgenthau, in turn, favored toplight. “Kramer uses toplight in exquisite ways, creating very moody faces that just have a prick of eyelight,” says Freeman. “In terms of our split, he had a lot more work with the Al Capone/Chicago storyline, so tonally, it becomes its own little style within a style.”  

Morgenthau’s toplight was on display the day AC visited Steiner Studios, where Thompson’s penthouse suite and other sets were built. The crew was filming a scene in which Thompson accepts a visit from Jimmy (Michael Pitt), a former protégé who has partnered with the wrong people and is about to face Thompson’s wrath. “Number 25 at 75 percent!” Oates yells into his walkie-talkie. Overhead, a “chicken coop” comprising five 500-watt Photofloods in a chicken-wire frame comes up. These units cover every inch of Thompson’s suite, hidden behind the removable muslin ceiling. “They were designed to be ambient light, but I’m actually using them as key light in some positions,” Morgenthau explains. “The toplight shapes people’s faces in a more imposing way and makes Nucky look more powerful. I want to fill out the faces in the room, but not see so much that there’s no mystery.” For the reverse on Jimmy, Morgenthau reverts to lighting through windows, the norm for daytime scenes, pushing a 20K through a black-lace curtain and cutting it right at Jimmy’s brow. 

The chicken coops and 20Ks were part of a sizable permanent stage package. When the Steiner sets were built, Dryburgh successfully argued for them to be built on an elevated platform; the production settled on a height of 8'. “I was very strong on that, because that enabled us to approach the windows without seeing the deck,” he says. “I also wanted the ability to have a full ceiling, but be able to lift a corner of it. The general rule of thumb was to key it from the windows, so we talked a lot about windows with Bob Shaw. Then we did extensive rigging around the outside of the building so we could direct beams of sunlight or the glow of the sky from wherever was appropriate.” Sunlight came from eight 20Ks on motorized trusses around the perimeter of the set, while 30 Skypans were on hand to light the painted ocean-view backdrop on one side and storefront set pieces on the other. On the floor were various additional units, including a 10K that raked the set piece and a 20K on standby to provide light from angles unavailable to the truss. Everything was wired to a dimmer board. 

In the 1920s, electricity was a luxury, so the filmmakers tried to avoid using practicals during day scenes. “There’s a temptation to use them because they’re so beautiful, but in 1920, electricity was a precious resource,” says Morgenthau. “Nucky has many practical lamps on everywhere in his hotel suite, but somebody like Jimmy is in a cold-water flat and wouldn’t have his lights on during the day.” 

The Atlantic City boardwalk spared no expense on its lighting, however. Boardwalk signage was meant to create excitement, so the boardwalk set featured marquees with hundreds of bulbs. Behind the amusement-pier marquee, a 20K Fresnel on a lift amplified that illumination, providing backlight, while more light emanated from the storefronts (supplied by 2Ks or 5Ks on stands). Maxi-Brutes were used to light the side alleys, and Skypans provided a wash on the bluescreen. “It’s not tricky, it’s just big,” Oates says of the boardwalk lighting. “We had a lot of equipment going on.” When AC visited this set, hovering near the actors was a huge “moonbox” designed by Oates and Sherron. Hung from a 135' lift, the 12'x12' softbox contained 6K space lights, all on a dimmer, and provided either keylight (Morgenthau) or fill (Freeman). “The Flyswatter,” a 20'x20' silk positioned on a Condor, was used to control light on sunny days. “It’s basically a moving cloud,” says Morgenthau.  

All the storefronts were rigged with practicals, and some had extra features. The Ritz lobby and adjacent dress shop, where Thompson’s girlfriend works, have skylights, which were common to the luxe architecture of the day. They were actually dimmable light boxes that could be switched from daylight to incandescent light; they held 1,200-watt Pars for day and Blondes for night. “A lot of thought went into those skylights!” says Dryburgh.  

The full splendor of the boardwalk is captured in wide shots, which the filmmakers didn’t hesitate to use. “A big, beautiful crane shot brings Nucky and Jimmy out of the Ritz and through the complete madness of the night before Prohibition,” notes Dryburgh. “There’s all kinds of mayhem going on, and we follow them with this big Technocrane shot that reveals this whole world, then brings them to the entrance of Babette’s Supper Club. It’s very nice.” 

Entire scenes were sometimes played quite wide. “That’s something Kramer and I picked up from the pilot,” notes Freeman. “We weren’t afraid to let things play in two-shots.” As for crane shots, says Morgenthau, “we did a shorthand version, because we had a lot fewer days than they had on the pilot!” 

In the pilot, “the camera moves with the characters a lot in classic Scorsese fashion,” says Dryburgh. Moves were accomplished with dollies, cranes and Steadicam, although regarding the latter, Dryburgh observes, “Martin is cautious how he uses it. He doesn’t like Steadicam to be too noticeable. We all think of the famous shot in the restaurant in Goodfellas, but when you think about it, you’re not aware of the moving camera, you’re aware of making that journey with the characters. We tried to apply that idea to our Steadicam shots.”

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