Three Wishes for Flow
Christopher Lucas

Flow 2016 logo

This column is published as part of the “Flow: Ten Years of Un-Conferencing” plenary, held during the 2016 Flow Conference.

Flow started, like a lot of interesting things, from an admixture of naiveté, discontent, and ambition. At least, that is how I remember it. Most people have probably heard some version of the origin story: Avi Santo and I in the back of a meeting room at SCMS, complaining about how the conversations in the hallways were more interesting than what was happening on the dais. The question was: how might we get those conversations into the room? Or maybe we just create a space online to encourage those conversations. And that led to Flow.

Which, frankly, has survived and thrived for about twice as long as I expected, thanks to the enthusiasm and support of the RTF department, along with the efforts and curiosity—and ambition—of the graduate students here. Your delight in reading your colleagues’ thoughts—maybe using them in class. There is no doubt in my mind that, back in 2004, without contributions from some well-known names in our field, offered to us generously and in the spirit of disciplinary exchange—and perhaps, ambition—the site would not have taken root. Kidding aside, we really owe thanks to those first writers.

image 2

A 2004 flyer for FLOW.

That year—2004—some of us might remember, was blogging’s big moment. Blogs were my main reference point—sites with the energy and verve of Daily Kos and Television Without Pity. Movable Type and Typepad had been out for a while, WordPress had launched, it seemed like everyone was Livejournaling. Lots of new verbs. I wanted to hear the blog-thoughts of people I was meeting or reading—and short-form online seemed a natural place for it. Looking back, I can see there were disciplinary currents—a rising interest in responding to contemporary texts, interactivity, fandoms, new media industry practices—that supported the appearance of more ad hoc writing platforms. I really am not the best person to describe that genealogy, though, so instead of diagnosing the past I want to offer three wishes for the future of Flow:

birthday candles

Three wishes for Flow on its 10th anniversary.

1) I hope Flow continues to model bridge-building toward media practice—practitioners as contributors and/or practice as a object of study. One of my unrealized goals for the site was to link that divide within the RTF department and many departments like it—the gap between studies and production. This goal—I admit—was born of my own pathological hope of healing a divorce in my professional lineage—media maker or media scholar? That split was readily apparent in my research as well, if you want to go looking for it. I know we have professors and instructors out there making films, documentaries, podcasts and more for audiences outside the academy, either directly or by supervising student production, radio stations, and the like. Unfortunately I know a lot of that work remains an add-on—the “personal project”—and doesn’t play much role in promotion and tenure. Maybe this is changing and I hope so. The pedagogical arguments for this sort of boundary crossing—media literacy through media making—still seem valid to me, and recent work in media industry studies and management studies is providing more theoretical arguments and historical perspectives, too.

FLOWtv 1.0

Ethan Thompson’s TV Family models bridge-building, blending media making and media scholarship.

2) However, my argument for including media makers—by which I mean people who are, or hope to be, paying their mortgages, childcare, or just the next cup of coffee with media industry money—is more about process than content. Another inspiration for Flow, from my side, came from retreats I had attended in the 1990s using the so-called “Open Space Technology,” agenda-less meetings that used techniques of self-organization to find latent order and energy in a work team that shared some mission or interests. Open Space was one of the threads that led into Unconferencing and Bar camps—it is still in the structure here when we submit questions and responses, rather than papers. Wild cards are important in Open Space events: the possibility to surprise, to shock, to break convention. And this often comes from outsiders. So, my second hope for Flow is that it finds even more Open Space in the future. One of my short-lived projects at Flow, called “Pass the Remote,” was a brief attempt at this—pen-palling three academics just to see what happened. In retrospect, when Flow started, our reliance on those leading lights in media studies to get attention—your attention, your department’s attention, our future employers’ attention—created an unintended consequence: arguably, we just re-created an existing hierarchy of topics, methods, and values in a more informal framework. For better or worse, we recreated the discipline, writ smaller and a little woolier. Naïve, I know, but this surprised me.

FLOWtv 1.0

“Open Space Technology” was an influence on the un-conference model.

3) So that’s my third hope for Flow. That it finds ways to challenge disciplinarity. This may be a faint hope. But who could we have here that would disturb notions of media studies as a discipline? I know there is cross-pollination and diversity in your topics and approaches, but what would the shock of Open Space look and feel like at Flow? Scholarship we don’t recognize from people we don’t know. I don’t know if media makers and media executives are the best source of the unexpected, but they might be a start. Other departments. Production students. People using video or the web as their medium for other art forms and political projects. And how would you attract people like that—people with other priorities—mortgages, but no conference stipend? I never cracked that nut while I was involved with Flow. Maybe you show their work. Probably you have to pay them. You definitely have to go looking, because they are no less creatures of ambition than us, and spending three days—or one day—on a college campus holds no particular appeal. I guess what I’m saying is, I think there are fruitful connections to be made when we plug into and discover the naivety, discontent, and the ambitions of others. Unexpected things happen. I’d like to see that.

Image Credits:

1. Flow 2016 logo.
2. A 2004 flyer for FLOW (journal document).
3. Three wishes for Flow…
4. Ethan Thompson’s TV Family
5. “Open Space Technology”…

Please feel free to comment.




Expanded Cinematography, or the Problems Workflow Won’t Solve
Christopher Lucas, Trinity University

Bradford Young
Bradford Young, cinematographer for A Most Violent Year.

In 2013, two articles came to my attention that raised difficult questions about the future of cinematography. One was a critical look at the state of gender equity in the trade. The other was by the founder of a forward-looking education project attempting to reclaim a share of authorship that has seeped away from cinematographers with the rise of digital filmmaking techniques. The art and craft of cinematography is changing, and certainly new technologies fo dissertation writer and specializations will be part of the new definition of the craft, but I want to suggest here that the idea of an expansive, open cinematography may rely less on the number of new workflows it learns, and more on the openness of its practitioners, and those that hire them, to new types of artistic voices.

Precisely what cinematography means in this day and age has become a pressing question for the craft (and, hopefully, some educators). Yes, skilled cinematographers continue to be hired for projects large and small, although, as I wrote in my last Flow submission, pay scales have become severely depressed in the growing online and non-union sectors of the industry. And, of course, Academy Awards are still awarded to the high-end practitioners in this branch of the “art and science” of motion pictures, helping extend our image of cinematography as a coherent professional locus. Increasingly, though, there is widespread confusion over how the visual design of films is conceived and executed and who is responsible for that work. For example, between 2011 and 2014 the academy awards for cinematography and visual effects were awarded to the same films: Avatar, Inception, Hugo, and Life of Pi. The 2015 Oscars may be an exception that proves a new rule as Birdman’s Emmanuel Lubezki won for Cinematography (for a film with many visual effects elements) and Interstellar won for Visual Effects (for elegant if rather familiarly-defined “outer space” visual effects).

In 2012, two established and respected cinematographers, Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, and Yuri Neyman, ASC, founded the Global Cinematography Institute, a training program in Los Angeles built around a concept they call “expanded cinematography”—arguing that cinematographers must find a way to expand their craft influence into the pre-visualization, visual effects, and post-production stages of film production. GCI promised to do that with courses and workshops from experts from those neighboring specializations. As Neyman wrote in a series of articles and op eds accompanying the group’s launch, GCI has recognized that the “pre- through post-“ workflow of classical film production is increasingly a weak construct for understanding how creative decision-making actually happens in film production. The new by-word is non-linear/real-time: workflows in which decisions about look, contrast, color, tone, and grain (or any number of aesthetic qualities usually associated with cinematography), as well as editing, visual effects, and other craft work may be taken at any point in the production process. GCI’s stated goal is to create a new model of cinematographer, better able to assert “image control” and cinematographers’ intentions in this new work process.

The Global Cinematography Institute
A new training program founded by Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, and Yuri Neyman, ASC promises to expand the definition of cinematography.

Alongside this narrative of technological obsolescence, cinematography has periodically grappled with the lack of gender equity in its professional ranks. In 2013, The New York Film Academy issued a report that raised this question yet again. To the surprise of many, the report showed the industry making almost no headway, with women photographing only 2-4% of the Top 250 films over the last five years. This, despite broad discussion of the issue, increased enrollments of women in film schools, films like Women Behind the Camera and efforts by some cinematographers to advocate for more diverse crews. In the wake of this sobering report, lists emerged highlighting talented women DPs (often recycling the same small pool of names), and yet more think-pieces dwelling on the sources of this disparity.

NYFA Chart
A study by the New York Film Academy showed little progress for gender equality if key roles in film production.

These crises within cinematography may seem unrelated or only loosely joined, but its notable that both are rooted in a very traditional notion of the division of labor in film production. Ultimately, in each, the concept of cinematography circles around the notion of the “on set” cinematographer. Not without reason, since the idea of director of photography as head of the camera department retains significant currency in labor force organization to write my essay, and within the union definitions that guide hiring and compensation. In this traditional conception, the on set cinematographer is the primary interpreter of story in visual terms—the “visual storyteller”—second only to the director in the realization of the look of the film. To include women in this vital role, prescriptions of groups like IATSE typically involve bringing more women into entry level camera crew positions or focusing on making camera crews more welcoming to women (sexism on set remains a pervasive problem). Even the “expanded cinematography” of GCI envisions the cinematographer as needing to reach out, seeking invitations from beyond his or her base on the film set to influence other parts in the production process.

All of these discussions may miss an important point in the emerging film production process. Simply put, in more and more cases the job of a film crew is to realize shots (or even just elements of shots) planned, designed, and conceived by others in the filmmaking process. Such work requires a lot of skill and collaborative sensibility, of course, but it also cuts against the discursive construction of the cinematographer as artist/technician contributing their singular vision to the film. Arguably, Sharon Calahan is one of the most influential cinematographers (man or woman) of the last 15 years. As first a “lighting designer” on Toy Story (2005), then Director of Photography on later Pixar projects, she has translated the language of cinematography into the created at https://grademiners.com/research-paper worlds of animation. In 2014, Calahan was invited to join the ASC—the first cinematographer the group invited a member whose entire body of work was digitally created. I find this both remarkable and entirely predictable in that, as Calahan has noted, her work represents the most visible edge of hundreds of animators and coders tasked with creating visual looks in the virtual animated worlds of Pixar’s films. In other words, it’s a definition of the cinematographer that fits quite nicely with ASC’s efforts to define the work of its members as primarily “conceptual.” Given the prominence of next generation DPs like Calahan, it’s not surprising that some respected traditional cinematographers have also moved into animation in a “consultative” role, as with Roger Deakins’ work on Wall-E (2008), How to Train Your Dragon (2010), and Rango (2011).

Sharon Calahan
Pixar “Lighting Director of Photography” Sharon Calahan was admitted to the ASC in 2014, the first member whose entire body of work was computer generated.

So, what kind of “expanded cinematography” do we want at the end of the day? For both the digital crisis and the equity crisis, “solving” the problems is placed almost entirely at the feet of cinematographers. In keeping with craft’s long-standing investment in individual virtuosity, the (by-now familiar) refrain is: innovate or die. In practice, though, producers and director are responsible for hiring cinematographers, and have enormous influence (through budget and stylistic goal-setting) on the workflows built around specific film projects. In other words, although cinematography absorbs a great deal of blame for its resistance to digital cinema, as well as residual misogyny and slow acceptance of women in the workforce, a large part of the essential conservatism of the craft comes from these hiring practices in which older, established cinematographers, laden with awards or thick CVs, always get the first call from risk-averse producers and directors.

The old school of cinematography can do its best to train itself in these new specializations, although the industry has already created and staffed those roles and it unlikely to “un-crowd” the workflow with technicians. Battles over creative authority will be eternal, and next generation cinematographers will push back on pre-viz artists, colorists, and the VFX department to make its contribution known. But the recent trend is toward more centralization of that authority under directors and producers, now enabled to bring visual design decisions further “above the line” than they have since the earliest days of the art form. Meanwhile, craft areas will fight over smaller crumbs of creative input, and more hyphenates (director-cinematographers, etc.) will emerge reflecting that centralization. Cinematographers can continue to circle the wagons around their traditional notion of the journeyman-craftsperson on-set, a blue-collar, classed and gendered concept of the work, or it can embrace its more creative legacy, the pluralism of artistic endeavor. It can open the doors to a wider variety of artists. It’s time for cinematography—and the producers and directors that support it as an art form—to consider a truly expanded cinematography, a more intersectional cinematography, that welcomes more women, people of color, and greater diversity of sexualities.

Image Credits:

1. Bradford Young, cinematographer for A Most Violent Year.
2. A new training program founded by Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, and Yuri Neyman, ASC promises to expand the definition of cinematography.
3. A study by the New York Film Academy showed little progress for gender equality if key roles in film production.
4. Pixar “Lighting Director of Photography” Sharon Calahan was admitted to the ASC in 2014, the first member whose entire body of work was computer generated.

Please feel free to comment.




When YouTube Discovered Craft
Christopher Lucas / Trinity University


Ryan Higa

YouTube Star Ryan Higa, 2007 & 2014

From the time of its launch in 2005, YouTube has been the cornucopia of video culture – a stew of webcammers, Vbloggers, home movies, bystander video, rips, skits, and sketches, rants and elegies, mash-ups and backyard movie spoofs. Plus, the occasional cat video. The low-resolution ad hoc style of populist video mingles with the latest high-end looks from music video, film trailers, and advertising. On YouTube, the notion of a dominant style, much less some devotion to a classical model, seems laughable. The “modes of production,” if we can call them that, are as various as the types of people that take to the Internet looking for expressive, community, or communicative satisfaction.

This unruly mixture took on more form after 2007, when the company launched its Partner Program, allowing uploaders to share in advertising revenue generated by views of their videos. In 2011, it established the Creator Hub, a popular blog and related sites with tutorials on production techniques, building a fan base, and a means for creators to meet, share knowledge, and collaborate. (( YouTube. 2011. “Welcome to the New Hub!” http://youtubecreator.blogspot.com/2011/07/welcome-to-new-hub_29.html. )) Today there are creators with audiences in the millions, predominantly youth oriented Vblogs and game-oriented series like PewDiePie (33.5 million subscribers), NigaHiga (13 million), Rooster Teeth (8 million) and Good Mythical Morning (5 million). (( VidStatsX. 2015. “YouTube Top 100 Most Subscribed Channels List.” http://vidstatsx.com/youtube-top-100-most-subscribed-channels; O’Neill, Megan. 2010. “How Content Creators Make Money on YouTube.” AdWeek. http://www.adweek.com/socialtimes/make-money-youtube/13040. )) A star system of sorts has emerged from the wild and wooly of YouTube and the company has said that the Partner Program enables top YouTube Personalities to earn upwards of $100,000 a year. (( ReelSEO. 2013. “What it Takes to Make a Living From YouTube’s Partner Earnings.” http://www.reelseo.com/youtube-partner-earnings/. ))

As YouTube has moved from a sort of public archive to a daily destination for millions of people, I’ve watched with curiosity as style, aesthetics, and what professionals like to call “production value” began to shift in response to the competitive dynamics, cheaper tech, and creators’ sensitivity to their respective fan bases.

Good Mythical Morning

YouTube Star Good Mythical Morning, 2009 & 2014

Last year, YouTube began publishing a series of production workshops intended to educate creators on the finer points of creating quality videos. This series reveals how YouTube is addressing the amateur realities of most of its users, while it steers them toward classically inflected production techniques focused on script, sound, light, cinematography, and editing. For instance in the cinematography workshop, the young, British cinematographer (YouTube handle: MichelleDOP) begins by acknowledging that most viewers will be both director and cinematographer of their project. She then introduces the 3-point-lighting system, segues into the “rule of thirds” and other basics of framing, and then into a discussion of lenses and depth of field. Personable and skilled as a presenter, she fits well as a resident of YouTube. On the other hand, she is using a Canon C300 camera and a range of lenses, as well as a typical field lighting kit with four instruments—a commonplace but not cheap collection of gear.

YouTube Cinematography workshop

YouTube Cinematography Workshop

Genre lighting is the primary guide to style in the workshop, for example, when Michelle turns off her key light and suggesting this if the creator wants a “noir,” “thriller,” or “spooky” look. She suggests more light and shallow depth of field if the goal is “romantic.” She takes pains to establish how important a “ping in the eye” can be (that is, an eyelight), because, she points out, these videos are “all about eye contact,” and “obviously…about improving production values, engaging your own audience, and building that fan base.”

Finally, the training session shifts to a series of examples, using popular Vbloggers whose “looks” users want to emulate (users are commenting during the live workshop). This is a familiar turn in a production workshop of this type, the long craft tradition of using demonstrations of successful past work to disseminate technique, a combination of the technical particulars with particular aesthetic qualities – with hints and rules of thumbs about how to get there.

YouTube Production Workshop

YouTube Production Workshop

For example, Michelle favorably describes the Vblogging team “JacksGap” (3.9 million subscribers) as “cinematic,” with a shallow depth of field and soft but ample frontal light. Fashion Vlogger Tanya Burr (2.7 million) — described as a “beauty blogger” – is lauded for her use of natural window light to romantic effect, but also for managing her eyelight well. “Bingradio” (46,000) is held up as interesting and “experimental” for showing lights in the frame and high contrast, expressive lighting choices. On the other hand, Phil Defranco (3.4 million) is criticized for his wide lens web cam look, dark frame, and spotlight lighting. In this discussion, Michelle performs as a kind of arbiter of quality in this new medium – naming and assessing these videos aesthetically even as she describes the methods of their creation for wannabe YouTube creators.

JacksGap

“JacksGap”

Tanya Burr

Tanya Burr

BingRadio

“Bingradio”

Phil Defranco

Phil Defranco

Clearly Michelle and many young people in craft areas are enthusiastic about YouTube. Still, YouTube’s choice of the valorizing term “creator” raises familiar questions about authorship and the role of craftworkers like Michelle in this new, highly monetized system of production. Only recently has YouTube acknowledged the collaborative realities of production with an “Add Role” feature in which creators can tag their videos with collaborator names and a variety of titles (director, editor, actor, collaborator, cinematographer, producer, writer, music, etc). (( Doble, Stephen. 2014. “YouTube Streamlines Collaboration with ‘Creator Credits.'” Videoter. http://videoter.com/youtube-streamlines-collaboration-with-creator-credits/. )) The feature is only available to channels with more than 10,000 subscribers (so far) and the tagged collaborator must also be a creator.

Many creators are probably satisfied with remuneration in ‘credit’ and ‘good karma’ – that digital barter economy– but as money floods YouTube debates over fair pay seem inevitable. (( ICG Magazine. 2012. “Bullseye!” http://www.icgmagazine.com/wordpress/2012/09/04/bullseye/. )) (Complaints about YouTube’s payments to musicians did make it into The New York Times last year.) The prevailing image of the single-handed YouTube star is beginning to fade. Many creators do work in a DIY fashion – as director and cinematographer and everything else – but it is clear that many have staffs of writers, producers, and technical specialists. Some hire freelancers, often at below market rates. We should see new media production as part of landscape on which wages for non-union, below-the-line film workers are in a deep and lasting slump. IATSE does have a “new media” contract intended to protect workers on union sets (largely this applies to original production for services like Netflix and Amazon, but also web series shot in Los Angeles or New York). The low budgets of most new media projects put them in the so-called “Tier Zero” or micro-budget category, allowing producers to pay minimum wage. (( Kaufman, Anthony. 2011. “Industry Beat: Below-the-Line Blues.” Filmmaker Magazine. http://filmmakermagazine.com/32724-industry-beat-below-the-line-blues/#.VMKBkmTF9Cs. ))

YouTube has turned a corner from social media curiosity to everyday media experience. Predictably, perhaps, the stylistic and narrative qualities we see on the platform are beginning to reflect its growing visibility, larger audiences, and the ambition of its creators. YouTube seems to have recognized the importance of teaching its masses of eager content creators the virtue of visual style and the conventions of more “cinematic” storytelling. I wonder, though, how and if the craft communities that labor to apply professional gloss to these productions will be brought into the system’s cash flow.

Image Credits:

1. YouTube Star Ryan Higa, 2007 & 2014 (frame grabs)
2. YouTube Star Good Mythical Morning, 2009 & 2014 (frame grabs)
3. YouTube Cinematography Workshop (frame grab)
4. YouTube Production Workshop (frame grab)
5. “JacksGap” (frame grab)
6. Tanya Burr (frame grab)
7. “Bingradio” (frame grab)
8. Phil Defranco (frame grab)

Please feel free to comment.




The Golden Age of Television (Cinematography)
Christopher Lucas / Trinity University

HOC

Netflix’s House of Cards

Television and feature film cinematography have long been treated as fairly distinct areas of practice. My past research, for example, focused on feature film cinematographers, in particular their discourses of professional and aesthetic value, and how they navigate technologies that disrupt their production culture. I kept television at arms length in that research as it was a distinctly different work environment from feature films. Recent developments in television production, though, suggest that those distinctions – while not falling away entirely – are beginning to shift. Authorial discourses, as John Caldwell has written, are domains of significant contest in an industry where the boundaries that inscribe above- and below-the-line work represent real frontiers of wealth and prestige. ((Caldwell, John. “Authorship Below-The-Line,” In A Companion to Media Authorship. Jonathan Gray and Derek Johnson, Ed. (Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, MA, 2013).)) These fault lines of professional value and hierarchy are felt within craft areas as well, and television’s recent embrace of complex imagery and visual flair has, to some extent, shifted discourses of craft value as new creative possibilities emerge for that medium’s below-the-line professions.

Of course, high-end, or “cinematic,” visual style has long been a marker of the “quality” end of the programming spectrum on television. Jeremy Butler, among others, has traced how various genres of television have adopted single-camera and other cinematic flourishes over the years—often in piecemeal fashion, as a signifier of quality. ((See Jeremy Butler, Television Style (New York, Routledge, 2010).)) Hill Street Blues (1981-87) pioneered a more low-key, naturalistic style that was very influential and other series followed. Other programs flirted with self-consciously cinematic one-off experiments and there have been many stand-out programs like Thirty-something, Twin Peaks and Homicide: Life on the Streets with memorably expressive photography. In general, though, television cinematography has been limited by broadcaster demands for amply lit sets and faces, and a lack of time (and budget) to create careful effect lighting, colors, or compositions. This difference of creative possibility did much to sustain an unspoken caste-system within cinematography, a hierarchy in which the feature film represented a creative and professional North Star.

Television’s new competitive landscape has contributed to the erosion of that hierarchy. Cable (subscription and paid) and digital platforms have used quality drama to forge a place for themselves in popular culture, and in these productions the cinematographer has found new prospects for creative distinction and professional reward. My discussion here is by no means exhaustive, but, using reports from productions of AMC’s Breaking Bad, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and the Netflix series House of Cards, I hope to introduce a few lines of inquiry around the production culture of television cinematography and I welcome your comments.

The cinematography of Breaking Bad developed following a pattern that seems increasingly common: involving “name” feature film talent (in this case, Oscar-winner John Toll) to help create the pilot. Reynaldo Villalobos, an experienced, older journeyman DP, finished off the first series of six episodes. In the second season, though, showrunner Vince Gilligan hired Michael Slovis, whose work extended and shifted that of Toll and Villalobos to establish the program’s signatures of sharply saturated tones, complex chiaroscuro, use of motivated light, and slightly wacky POV shots. Slovis was formerly one of several cinematographers for the CBS series, CSI, a program also known for a distinctive look, although in a blaring, high key and quick-cut style that quickly became formulaic. All told, Slovis photographed 50 episodes of Breaking Bad and directed four others, and he describes his experience on Breaking Bad as a break from past practice, largely thanks to AMC’s need to create distinctive programming: “It had one original program going on, Mad Men, and they were just starting to build their brand…so, they said, “We know what we’re asking; we’re filmmakers, and we want you to do this.” As a result, Slovis said, “I have been given an extraordinary amount of freedom, never before seen by me in television, and very rarely given to anybody.” ((Both of these quotes from Dave Bunting, “Gliding Over All: An Interview with Michael Slovis,” on Rogerebert.com (August 7, 2013). Other suggested reading: Silberg, John. “Pressure Cooker.” ICG Magazine 84.1 (January 2013).)) We might see Slovis is an example of the cinematographer at his or her most authoritative in the new production culture of television—given wide latitude to experiment, create, and collaborate with others on the team and largely responsible for the look of a series across its run.

WW

Breaking Bad

Boardwalk Empire follows a more common template, in which a small group of cinematographers alternates duties, temporarily paired with each episode’s assigned director. The challenge with this “team” approach for today’s productions is maintaining a consistent look when cameras and digital tools allow so much flexibility in creating and revising images. Many programs create a “look book” that becomes a guidebook for the series’ cinematographers and other craft areas. However, Boardwalk’s pilot, directed by Martin Scorsese, and photographed by Stuart Dryburgh, ASC, did not generate a look book. ((Thomson, Patricia. “Mob Money.” American Cinematographer 91.9 (September 2010), 34.)) Jonathan Freeman (who completed the first season, alternating with Kramer Morgenthau, ASC ) reported that in the absence of an established look he and Morgenthau had some freedom to develop unique looks for each episode, treating each as a “mini-movie.” Freeman specifically mentioned the painterly Ashcan School as reference point for his episodes. ((“A Salute to the Emmy Winning Cinematographers.” American Cinematographer 93.11 (November 2012), 86.)) Still, the team works in close collaboration: watching each other’s dailies, visiting each other’s sets, sharing much of the same crew, and coordinated some basic stylistic elements, such as avoiding practical electric lights much of the time (except on the Boardwalk), avoiding primary colors and consistently de-saturating images to support the period mise en scene. ((Thomson, Mob Money.)) In this model, the control of the look is relatively loose, but the team works together to maintain consistency across the series based on the look of the pilot.

In my final example, House of Cards, we see a much higher degree of control from the program producer. Series executive producer David Fincher directed the first two episodes with Danish cinematographer Eigil Bryld and Bryld stayed on to photograph the next nine episodes. Igor Martinovic, a relatively young cinematographer best known for his documentary work, took over in the second season. ((“Below-the-Line Impact Report.” Variety Online. (July 29, 2014).)) Unlike my previous examples, the look of House of Cards was largely established in an intensive 10-week preparation cycle in which the workflow of the series was thoroughly mapped out. In most productions, the cinematographer’s vendor relationships (with Panavision, for example) would be crucial in this stage – however, it was Fincher’s relationship with the Red Company that held sway here—the program is shot in an unusual 2:1 aspect ratio, using the Red digital cameras that Fincher has used on every project since The Social Network. According to Bryld, much of this time was spent designing the camera package, custom-building a camera truck, and absorbing Fincher’s stylistic ground rules, such as prohibitions on Steadicam, handheld, or zoom shots. Motifs such as having Frank emerge or disappear into darkness, or using more uniform, bright colors to signify settings close to power were also discussed. Two camera set-ups were used regularly, limiting lighting and other cinematography options, and the intensity of the shooting schedule kept Bryld from being involved in post-production. ((Calhoun, John. “Power Plays.” American Cinematographer 94.2 (February 2013), 18.)) This degree of pre-planning and on-set control doesn’t negate the creative role of the cinematographer, but the sum of these seems unavoidably to shift control of the look toward the producers.

In the past, limitations of budget, schedule, and the home viewing experience have created obstacles to scripted television that aspired to a fully “cinematic” look. Over the last decade, though, the crafts that supply cinema with its distinctive artisanal feel—cinematography, editing, production design—have moved to the foreground in television and more daring, ambitious visual styles are the result. Certainly, this new ambition owes much to producers’ willingness to define (or defend) a novel look against the concerns of studio executives (although in some cases, as we’ve seen, executives are demanding more distinctive looks). The efficacy of new, lower cost imaging technologies, tools for look management, and the better home screen are important aspects here, too. However we parse its source, the emergence of a more ‘cinematic’ television raises questions about long-standing verities within cinematography’s professional and stylistic hierarchies, as well as our sense of the complexities of authorship in television’s latest “golden age.”

Image Credits:
1. House of Cards
2. Breaking Bad

Please feel free to comment.