Television shows establish the foundation of their look and visual language with their pilot episode. This is especially true for “House of Cards,” in which one of Hollywood’s most distinct visual storytellers, David Fincher, served as both executive producer and the director of the first two episodes. From its precise and dramatic compositions to its monochromatic color palette to the often dark, low source light photography, “House of Cards” embodies some of the most recognizable elements of Fincher’s style.
Which is precisely why cinematographer David M. Dunlap faced a challenge when the show’s forty-fifth episode called for something very different. In the episode, President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is unconscious and fighting for his life in a hospital, having been shot at the end of previous episode. A good portion of the episode takes place inside Frank’s hallucinations, where he is confronted by Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) and Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) — two key characters he murdered in the first two seasons — as he battles them as the try to pull him into Hell.
Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix
The near-death hallucinations were scripted to take place in the show’s principal location, The White House, but creator Beau Willimon wanted Dunlap and director Tom Shankland to create something that was visually distinct from show’s established visual style. Dunlap — who was an enormous fan of the show before joining at the end of Season 3 as a camera operator and then a cinematographer in Season 4 — tossed around a number of ideas, including trying to add saturation and altering the show’s color palette, when he came up with the idea to go in the opposite direction.
He’d stick with the show’s established look, but simply amp it up. “I came up with what could be called the hyper-‘House of Cards,’ when you sort of strip away everything — I gave it a very cool feel, which is the opposite of going into Hell,” said Dunlap.
The first step in executing this concept was collaborating with production designer Steve Arnold. The show’s sets already have a modern, sparse and uncluttered aesthetic, but for the hyper-look Dunlap and Arnold decided everything but the immediate furniture necessary to block the scene would be removed.
Another key element Dunlap wanted to play upon is the show’s heavy reliance on working in low light, so much so that often the light from an iPhone or computer screen can be used as a source light. For this episode, Dunlap would let the light fall even lower, leaving brighter practical lights in the background and let the foreground at times fall somewhat into darkness. What is also distinct about this particular episode is the light in the hallucinations is not particularly motivated to a specific time of day which, when combined with the stripping down of the set design, results in the creation of an unique psychological space.
Dunlap says experimenting and working with practical light sources is the aspect of shooting “House of Cards” that he most embraces and likes to test. He credits the RED Epic Dragon camera for making it easier for him to push the boundaries of working in low and available light. “The RED Dragon camera we’re now using has an HDRx function where you can bracket a scene and shoot — where, for instance, you have a window and it’s so bright that it won’t bounce — you can use the HDRx and choose how many stops [to lower the window] and then marry those things together, which is something I use whenever needed,” explained Dunlap.
Like with his 2014 movie “Gone Girl,” Fincher utilized the extra resolution of the RED, shooting in 6K and then in post reframing the shots in 5K so he can be even more precise in his framing decisions. Dunlap says it’s a way of working that has allowed him to channel the pilot’s compositional aesthetic.
“We’re a show that shoots wide angles,” said Dunlap. “The camera is observing in a simple way, it doesn’t become an active member of the scene. It isn’t a very cut-heavy show, it requires the actors to sustain a performance.”
The key, according to Dunlap, is to find dynamic and dramatic angles for the coverage to unfold, which is what David Fincher established in those first two episodes. Dunlap explained that, for the hallucination scenes, he and Shankland decided to keep this same compositional approach, relying on their standard 32mm lens and continuing the show’s tradition of avoiding closeups.
That is, until the very end of the hallucination sequence.
At the end of the hallucination, Frank is trying to break through and escape. Spacey’s face is squished up against Stoll’s and Mara’s, as the actors’ cheeks rub up against each other.
“Frank is struggling with trying to push through,” said Dunlap. “We used a longer lens, to compress him a little more. Then in the next shot, the last shot of the hallucination, was an extremely wide lens of Frank just sitting on the couches about to come out of this hallucination.”
The sharp break in the show’s language — using a rare long lensed close up, then cutting to extreme wide lens — was exactly the visual trigger the show needed to mirror Frank’s transition out of the hallucination and the relief of avoiding hell. It’s one of the bold choices Dunlap made in playing with show’s style that he has spent so much time trying to honor and execute. In discussing the final product, he seems almost relieved by the reaction.
“I was happy — people on the show seem to have really reacted well to what we did in that episode,” said Dunlap.
Editor’s Note: This article is in collaboration with Red Digital Cinema with a special thanks to David Dunlap and RED.