How 'The Night Of,' 'Big Little Lies' Bring a Cinematic Feel to TV

The Night Of Still Riz Ahmed and Michael Kenneth Williams - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of HBO

More cinematographers with feature film credits are migrating to TV, as this year's Emmy nominees for cinematography in a limited series or movie can attest.

On HBO's The Young Pope, for example, cinematographer Luca Bigazzi reteamed with director Paolo Sorrentino, for whom he has lensed films including Youth and The Great Beauty. The Young Pope was filmed mostly at real locations, primarily in Rome, with the production "striving to reconstruct the inaccessible Vatican complexities such as churches, chapels, secret rooms, offices but also gardens and wide-open spaces," explains Bigazzi. "We tried to avoid indoor sets and stages; only the Sistine Chapel and the pope's private chapel were reconstructed in the studios." In terms of the series' look, he says, "We immediately thought that the series should have strong contrasts, glaring light, deep shadows — a powerful cinematographic visible style. We tried to portray a story that tells of holiness but also of perdition, of reality and mystery, of mysterious secrets and revealed truths."

For HBO's Big Little Lies, cinematographer Yves Belanger again joined director Jean-Marc Vallee, for whom he shot Dallas Buyers Club and Wild. The miniseries, starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, mostly was lensed at California locations, including Malibu and Monterey, along with some studio work. "Outdoors, we used natural light. And in the studio, we didn't do beauty shot lighting; we did realistic lighting," says Belanger. Filming a scene set in an outdoor cafe proved technically challenging, he notes, because "it was shot in a studio on a greenscreen, and I had to re-create a perfectly realistic daylight exterior with artificial light."

Seamus McGarvey, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer on Joe Wright's Atonement and Anna Karenina, again worked with Wright on an episode of Netflix's Black Mirror that shot on location in Cape Town under the South African summer sun. The "Nosedive" episode featured Bryce Dallas Howard as Lacie, a woman obsessed with popularity, and "we wanted the film to have a candy-colored, saccharine feel that would feel cloying and slightly at odds with reality," explains McGarvey. "As things go awry for Lacie, I shifted the look toward a much harsher, contrastier, grainy feel."

Veteran cinematographer Fred Elmes, who has worked on features like David Lynch's Blue Velvet, lensed the final four episodes of HBO's crime drama The Night Of. He credits fellow cinematographer Igor Martinovic for setting the tone for the series in the earlier episodes. "[Director] Steve Zaillian and I wanted to keep the look, though he also encouraged me to take it a step further — darker, a little creepier," says Elmes. Shooting in New York, he wanted to show the grittiness of the city. "At Rikers, you get a sense of the oppressive nature of Naz's (Riz Ahmed) cell. In contrast, in the courtroom he's in a big space but not free. We chose to make a courtroom that had a lot of dark areas and shadows for the dark nature of the story."

While Dana Gonzales has been a camera operator on many feature films, he has worked as a director of photography mostly on television series, earning the 2016 Emmy in this category for FX's Fargo, for which he also is recognized this year. His nominated episode pays homage to the Coen brothers' 1961-set film Inside Llewyn Davis and its cool, moody visual style. "I did a blue suppression to the image, so there's no blue channel," he says. "We also had to channel the wardrobe and production design to create the look."

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.