Emmys: Why 'Gotham's' Penguin Is a Favorite Among the Series' Cinematographers

Feature film shooters are flocking to television series — and bringing their oversized ambitions with them as several top DPs reveal the secrets behind their craft.
Courtesy of Netflix
Brian J. Smith and Tuppence Middleton on the Iceland set of 'Sense8.'

Arty, ambitious cinematography has been attempted on television before — remember Hill Street Blues and its jittery cameras or the eerie shadows of The X-Files? But these days, it's hard to turn on the TV set (or fire up a laptop) and not be dazzled by the feature film-like artistry of even the dog food commercials. Indeed, some of the best cinematography being done right now is being sized for home and mobile screens.

Take Netflix's sci-fi drama Sense8, for instance, created by Lilly and Lana Wachowski (along with J. Michael Straczynski). Its director of photography is none other than the renowned John Toll, one of the few big-screen cinematographers to win consecutive Oscars (in 1995 for Legends of the Fall and 1996 for Braveheart). The show, which follows eight mentally linked strangers who live in different, far-flung cities, has Toll and his team shooting on more locations than a Bond movie: London, Berlin, San Francisco, Chicago, Nairobi, Mumbai, Mexico City and Seoul. "We went to those places because it was important to feel those environments," Toll tells THR. "The idea was to take advantage of the individual locations to establish their characters."

Toll used a Sony F55 camera to photograph Sense8.

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For the sequences set in Korea, for example, featuring the character Sun Bak (Doona Bae), a businesswoman who studies ancient martial arts, Toll tried to capture both traditional and modern elements of Seoul. "Being there, we were able to get a feel for the environment and how it could enhance the story," he says. "A cooler palette felt most appropriate for it."

Another TV cinematographer with big-screen chops is Steven Meizler, formerly Steven Soderbergh's "A" camera first assistant. Starz's The Girlfriend Experience — produced by Soderbergh and based on his 2009 film about "transactional relationships" — isn't shot in exotic locales (just Toronto), but Meizler gives the show a moody, naturalistic, at times voyeuristic atmosphere that owes more to cinema than it does to TV.

"I approached it as a feature film," he says. "Steven's mandate was to be bold. It was about not being afraid to let actors go dark and shoot into lights, using more of the light source. We planned lots of reflections in the foreground so it's not always a clear image and you get a sense of voyeurism." He also used a "cool, sometimes cold [palette], reflecting the main character's detachment."

To shoot Amazon's The Man in the High Castle, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's counterfactual novel about a Nazi occupation of the United States, James Hawkinson (who earned a 2016 American Society of Cinematographers Award nomination for the series' pilot) studied old Kodachrome photography of the postwar era. "It's set in 1962, even though this is not the 1962 that any of us remember," he says. "We wanted a vintage, futuristic look. And when you look at color photography from the early 1960s, the colors of the film stocks are different from what we have now."

Norr calls the look of Gotham a cross between Blade Runner and Seven.

But getting the colors right wasn't Hawkinson's only mission. "I also wanted the images to have a certain oppression to them," he adds. "This is an oppressive totalitarian world. I didn't want the photography to be light and open and airy. I wanted it to be noirish and expressionistic and much more dramatic." While the show is made in high dynamic range — providing the widest possible distance between the whitest whites and blackest blacks — Hawkinson often found himself dialing back. "I think it's too much for people to see primary red on a swastika."

Two cinematographers who shoot Fox's Gotham — Chris Norr and Crescenzo Notarile (also 2016 ASC nominees) — describe the look of their show as a cross between Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and David Fincher's Seven. The aim of their photography, says Notarile, is a "very monochromatic, dark look. We deal with Gotham in cool colors with something warm to juxtapose it. We use a lot of wide-angle lenses to bring out the backgrounds in focus — you want to feel the textures of the sets and backgrounds. I try to exaggerate the composition by getting closer and wider, with a stronger contrast of colors so it's more eye-popping."

One of Notarile's favorite characters to shoot, he says, is Robin Lord Taylor's Penguin. "He has such a wonderful, exaggerated face, with prosthetics on the nose. And because of the flamboyant story arc of the role, I try to be a little more dramatic with light — giving more contrast with the lighting of the face and getting a nice backlight to chisel the character out from the background with a hard edge."

Norr also likes working with the Penguin. "Our world isn't realistic," he points out, "so you can get away with very stylized lighting that wouldn't make sense in other shows."

Gotham is shot at Brooklyn’s Steiner Studios and on location in New York.

The Man in the High Castle was finished in 4K with high dynamic range, a standard for all of Amazon’s shows.



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This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.