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How ‘Sense8,’ ‘The Young Pope,’ and ‘Big Little Lies’ Cinematography Overturned TV Conventions

Emmy-nominated DPs John Toll ("Sense8"), Luca Bigazzi ("The Young Pope"), and Yves Bélanger ("Big Little Lies") brought a touch of bold cinema to TV.

Sense8 Season 2

“Sense8”

Netflix


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Movie directors and their cinematographers continue to migrate to TV for greater visual storytelling. This season, the Wachowskis got bolder in the second installment of their Netflix sci-fi mind-bender, “Sense8,” with Oscar-winning DP John Toll (“Legends of the Fall,” “Braveheart”), and Paolo Sorrentino and Jean-Marc Vallée improved HBO’s slate with “The Young Pope” and “Big Little Lies,” assisted by their go-to DPs, Luca Bigazzi and Yves Bélanger.

While all three cinematographers were honored with Emmy nominations, they had to make certain adjustments to the production demands of their shows. Yet they persevered through a combination of ever-increasing tech availability and insightful aesthetic choices.

Getting in Tune with “Sense8”

In “Sense8,” created by J. Michael Straczynski and Lana and Lilly Wachowski, eight seemingly disparate people from around the globe become linked through telepathy and astral projection. It’s all about empathy and evolution, and Toll’s eye-popping imagery relies on the natural beauty of its international locations.

In the second season, the eight are comfortable with their connection and help each other in their daily lives. Lilly took a break from the production and Lana took over most of the directing duties. Shooting took place in in Germany, the US, India, Mexico, Brazil, the UK, the Netherlands, Kenya, South Korea, Italy, and Malta.

Sense8 Season 2

“Sense8”

Netflix

For Toll, flexibility remained key on this journey because of the logistical complication of shooting in so many locations. But quality control was also important in showing off the diverse richness of the environments. Once again, he used multiple 4K Sony PMW-F55 CineAltas and collaborated with Panavision in keeping with Neflix’s 4K requirement.

It was a matter of coming up with new rules for a new kind of small screen storytelling, always thwarting convention and expectation in search of art and humanity.

Inventing Visual References for “The Young Pope”

“The Young Pope” concerns faith and doubt, starring Jude Law as a rogue Pope, who wants to shake up the system. The visual strategy took us deep inside the secretive Vatican, mixing daytime brightness with deep darkness in stately rooms, candlelit sanctums, and colorful gardens.

Bigazzi went against conventional TV wisdom in his use of contrast. He went for extremely strong lights, almost blinding, and extreme darkness, bordering on the limits of visibility. It was a visual journey about holiness, perdition, transparency, mystery, unspeakable secrets, and revealed truths.

“The Young Pope”

They shot the on the Red with Leica Summicron-C lenses and Promist filters, which accentuated strong lights, endowing every window, every table lamp, with a magical halo of brightness. But visual references had to be completely invented as part of Ludovica Ferrario’s Emmy-nominated production design.

One of the most challenging scenes was the studio reconstruction of the Sistine Chapel because of the vastness of the environment, time limitations, and the number of extras.

Visualizing the Truth of “Big Little Lies”

Monterey is the real star of Vallée’s incisive dramedy, based on Liane Moriarty’s popular murder mystery involving the troubled lives of three moms (Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley).

The sleepy Northern California beach town isn’t so sleepy. Beneath the natural and architectural beauty, lies violence and pain. And Bélanger (“The Wild,” “Dallas Buyer’s Club”) visually captured this through reflective glass and not so calm water at the edge of the cliffs.

Big Little Lies

“Big Little Lies”

Screen Shot

But Bélanger changed his normal routine of shooting strictly on location with natural light and in-frame practicals when forced to work on sets in Southern California and recreate the location lighting from Monterey. But he was aided by the ARRI Alexa with Zeiss lenses to counterbalance the HD look with richness.

Kidman’s exquisite split-level home featured an upper floor shot in a studio with green screen. And Woodley’s interior was entirely stage built. But Bélanger  was able to over light from outside and use in-camera tools to control contrast and reflections on skin. It was about getting the truth in available light, with minor adjustments so it all blended perfectly.

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