Emmys: How to Re-Create 13th Century China

Braving everything from the rains of Scotland to the sun-scorched desert of New Mexico, TV's top cinematographers share how they find the right light to give shows as different as 'Marco Polo' and 'Ray Donovan' their distinctive looks.
Phil Bray

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

This season, directors of photography ranged far and wide, lensing popular dramas in periods and settings as far flung as 13th century China and 18th century Scotland, 1940s Los Alamos, N.M., and present-day Los Angeles.

For WGN America's Manhattan, which chronicles the top-secret mission at Los Alamos to build the world's first atomic bomb, director of photography Richard Rutkowski (who earlier this year earned an American Society of Cinematographers Award nomination for his work on the series) filmed with an Arri Alexa on location in Santa Fe, not far from where the actual events occurred.

Rutkowski notes that the first DP on the series, John Lindley, was heavily involved in its photographic approach. But when Lindley moved on to other projects, Rutkowski stepped in at episode five. "I had to hold the show to his level and develop it," he says.

The idea was "not to be a sepia-toned period piece, because they were building an atom bomb — not to make it nostalgic, but to remind you that it's still an issue today.

"It's naturalistic but dramatic," he says, explaining that he used single source light and embraced the darkness of night. "It's not lit to be cheerful or comfortable. People are moving in and out of natural light. Sometimes it's almost film noir or expressionistic, but it starts with a naturalistic approach."

Caitriona Balfe as Claire (left) and Duncan Lacroix as Murtagh on the Scotland location of 'Outlander.'

Starz's time-travel drama Outlander — set in Scotland in both 1743 and 1945 — was photographed by Neville Kidd (who won a 2014 Emmy for Sherlock). "We wanted to create a very real look for 18th century Scotland and have its epic scale be a character itself," says Kidd. "I took my personal reference from the Dutch masters from a lighting point of view."

Filming on location in Scotland with an Arri Alexa, Kidd used handheld shots and a Steadicam "to keep it feeling raw and energetic. When required, we used Technocranes to give it the scale.

"We were keen to put Scotland on the map, no matter what weather," he adds. "[We had] rain, snow, sun, wind. You get four seasons in 10 minutes. You feel everything with [protagonist] Claire, who had everything thrown at her — time, violence, weather. I think it adds to the story."

“We shot all over Scotland — Glasgow, the Highlands,” says cinematographer Kidd.

The Netflix original series Marco Polo transports viewers to 13th century China and was filmed in Malaysia, Kazakhstan and Venice, Italy. Noting that many period pieces are monochromatic, cinematographer Romain Lacourbas (Taken 2) says that the goal of Marco Polo was to "explore a less usual path for color. We wanted something more real and exciting. The reds, all the colors, are there."

A key reference for the series was the 2007 feature film Mongol, directed by the Russian Sergey Bodrov. "It's rough and real and brutal. It's also very defined and precise," Lacourbas explains. He also drew inspiration from other films, including The Grandmaster; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; and 13 Assassins, as well as cinematographer Conrad Hall's work on Road to Perdition.

In keeping with Netflix's directive to shoot its original series in Ultra HD resolution, Marco Polo was lensed with Sony's F55 4K camera, using Panavision PVintage lenses. "We were afraid of too much sharpness and definition," Lacourbas admits of his approach to the 4K photography, adding that it influenced his choice of lenses, which gave the images a "gentle touch," as well as his selective use of diffusion filters to "keep that soft feel."

DP McLachlan readies a shot with director Colin Bucksey on the series 'Ray Donovan.'

DP McLachlan says he’s in “cinematography heaven” shooting 'Game of Thrones' and 'Ray Donovan,' which stars Liev Schreiber.

Bucking the trend of shooting in international destinations, Showtime's L.A.-set crime drama Ray Donovan was photographed in Los Angeles using an Arri Alexa. "The big influence on the creators from a visual standpoint was The Long Goodbye, so we embraced that and other classic '70s movies like All the President's Men and The Parallax View," says DP Robert McLachlan (who also was a cinematographer and 2013 Emmy nominee for Game of Thrones).

For Ray Donovan, McLachlan says his work is "classic and heavily influenced by Gordon Willis. It's an updated film noir, but I don't want it to be that stylized. It's more of an enhanced naturalism. We are using a lot of low angles, framing devices and the overpowering L.A. sunshine as part of the show."

He adds, "It's in service of defining our lead [Liev Schreiber] in this urban environment, which is alien to him, coming from South Boston to these powerful, glamorous circles. We use visuals for that basic theme. My concern is that the photography does justice to the great writing and terrific acting."

'Manhattan' stars Rachel Brosnahan (left) and Christina Kirk.

Of shooting 'Manhattan,' Rutkowski says, "It’s a story that lends itself sometimes to a coldness or darkness, and other times to a huge New Mexico sky."

A scene from 'Marco Polo,' whose look was inspired by such films as 'Mongol.' The show was shot for Ultra HD but "approached as if shooting 2K," says cinematographer Lacourbas.

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