Four of the top cinematography contenders— “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” “Sherlock: The Abominable Bride,” “The Man in the High Castle” and the “Downton Abbey” finale — play with period in ways that are eye-catching and often unusual.
Cinematographer Nelson Craig (“Homeland”), nominated in the limited series/movie category for the “O.J.” opener (“From the Ashes of Tragedy”) , wanted a naturalistic look that made it contemporary and brought us closer to the players from “The Trial of the Century.” That is why he’s the favorite to win the Emmy.
What Craig had in mind was Michael Mann’s “The Insider”: not stylistically showy because the drama and performances were sufficiently heightened already. In fact, director Ryan Murphy initially wanted to shoot on film for the grain and the period look, but Craig found it too cumbersome shooting four or five cameras (for navigating courtroom scenes with lots of coverage).
Craig instead used the Alexa for its great contrast curve, shooting a lot of 360 and single takes (“oners”). The lighting, though, had to be flexible yet broadly lit. In the DA’s office, for example, they built thousands of fluorescents on a dimmer board. They also made magnetic panels of diffusion. Also, the courtroom had a nice fluorescent ceiling for keeping the light natural.
One of the biggest challenges was recreating the crime scene with verisimilitude because it’s so familiar. The condo location in Brentwood had been razed, so they built the crime scene themselves in Brentwood and it was shot in a way that allowed it to pass close scrutiny.
“Sherlock: The Abominable Bride,” another limited series/movie contender, transplants the contemporary Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Morgan Freeman) to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian England as a result of Holmes’ drug-induced ability to manipulate time and space (the “Mind Palace”).
Cinematographer Suzie Lavelle wanted a London full of vibrant color and referenced Monet’s “Parliament at Sunset” (1904) for its ethereal and ghostly tone in keeping with Holmes’ bizarre state of mind. Lavelle also shot with the Alexa, using mostly Master Primes, and carried some beautiful vintage K35 lenses for some of the more abstract, Mind Palace sequences.
One of the more difficult challenges was the waterfall set: shooting on a very thin ledge, with gallons of water flying around, made it tough to get light in and allow space for cast and operators to move. Interpreting the “bullet time” and other in-camera sequences also took a fair bit of planning and discussion.
“The Man in the High Castle,” the audacious contender in the series category, similarly explores an alternate world, but from the wild mind of novelist Philip K. Dick, who turned the outcome of World War II upside down. In 1962 the country was occupied by both Nazi Germany and Japan. For cinematographer James Hawkinson, nominated for “The New World” pilot, the look was oppressively retro-futuristic using the RED camera, with the shadow of Big Brother constantly leaning over America.
There are three sectors: A very gray New York City (run by the Nazis), an aqua blue San Francisco (run by the Japanese) and Canon City, Colorado (the rustic neutral zone). Overall, Kodachrome of the early ’60s provided a nice vintage look to authenticate the period. But a happy accident occurred when shooting the sweeping San Francisco opening: it was warmer and brassier-looking than anticipated because of massive forest fires in Siberia.
The sentimental favorite in the series category, however, is “Downton Abbey” for its joyful finale, capping six extraordinary seasons of old-fashioned grandeur in depicting the aristocratic Crawleys in the 1920s.
The saga culminates with love, romance and three weddings, which cinematographer Graham Frake exquisitely renders with the Alexa, taking full advantage of grand studio sets at Ealing, the magnificent castles and the Hampton Village church near Oxford.
Indeed, Alnwick Castle in Northeast England, the home of the Duke of Northumberland, dwarfs the other castles used. They had to be careful about how they were lit because the fabrics are fragile. A camera came within inches of a Louis XIV dresser insured for £50m.
But each wedding contains its own visual splendor, from the icy Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) finally finding true love to Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) attaining her happily ever after to Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) getting the fairy tale-like New Year’s Eve celebration at Downton.