How do you re-create the unforgettable Bronco chase that preceded O.J. Simpson’s murder trial without it screaming “fake” and taking viewers out of the story?
That was just one of many questions the four Emmy-nominated DPs in the limited series/TV movie category had to answer on the road to their own awards-season turn in front of the camera.
For the car chase that transfixed a nation — and preempted Game 5 of the 1994 NBA Finals — The People v. O.J. Simpson DP Nelson Cragg had to revisit well-documented history. “You had to get it right to make the audience believe it’s happening again, in real time,” he says.
The scene was photographed on the 710 freeway — not the 405 as it was in real life — which dead-ends south of Pasadena. “The City of Los Angeles was kind enough to let the production close two miles of the northbound side of the road on Saturdays and Sundays to shoot the scene. We had exit ramps and an overpass — it gave us the necessary space to shoot the sequence,” he adds.
“It wasn’t about the most flattering lighting, it was about being the most realistic,” says Cragg.
And while audience members might remember the actual helicopter footage of the chase, the production team made the decision not to re-create those images. “The audience had already seen the helicopter shots, and we had that archival footage,” says Cragg. “[Creator] Ryan Murphy said, ‘Let’s see it from a new perspective. You’ve never been in the Bronco.’ We put cameras in places where you haven’t seen them before. We shot a lot in the car, handheld, and got the performances that way. But there were a lot of moving pieces. We had a second-unit shooting cop cars weaving in and out of traffic. We had a 50-foot Technocrane, a Steadicam, four dollys, an electric cart and an Ultimate Arm — a remote head with a crane, which was great for the driving shoots.”
For a period series of a different sort, the Benedict Cumberbatch-starring Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, DP Suzie Lavelle faced a very different challenge during the 29-day shoot in Bristol and London: “Keeping the cinematography modern while fitting into the period setting,” she says. “And since we had amazing design and locations, we could keep the lenses wide and immerse ourselves in the world and Sherlock’s mind. Director Douglas Mackinnon wanted the light to be full of vibrancy and color, so I tried to plan the palette to develop as the story went along. Since The Abominable Bride basically takes place in Sherlock’s mind, being aware of this but not revealing it to the audience too early was a fun challenge.”
Paintings, including Monet’s Houses of Parliament series, were Lavelle’s main references for Victorian London and its fog, as well as color.
Lavelle’s work includes Doctor Who and the moody, Emmy-nominated Sherlock.
“Interpreting the ‘bullet time’ and other in-camera sequences that were scripted were fun challenges that took a fair bit of planning and discussion,” she says. “We literally froze the actors in the street, made them stay still, as the camera moved around them. We also carried half of the [221B Baker Street] set to the street in Bath and replayed the scene there.”
By contrast, director of photography John Conroy approached BBC America’s British crime drama Luther by keeping the cinematography “visceral and following the narrative so that we are being brought along by [the titular detective chief inspector portrayed by] Idris Elba,” he says. “In particular, we try to do a lot of the stunts with very few [cuts]. For instance, the scene where Luther is knocked off a motorbike was done in one shot with no stunt man; it’s Idris. We wanted the [audience] to believe it was really John Luther.”
Conroy operated the camera himself during the U.K. shoot. “We tend to do wide shots off a dolly or crane, and they get in and get that visceral coverage handheld,” he says. “There was a scene where Idris goes into an apartment [and finds an important clue]. We did it in one take. It flowed, and we thought if we cut into it too much, it ruins it, since it was very natural. So we left it. We finished three hours early.”
“It should never feel preplanned,” says Conroy of Luther’s cinematography.
Luther‘s overall look was inspired by Conrad Hall’s Oscar-winning work on Road to Perdition. Says Conroy: “The principal is very similar in terms of the lighting and shape, and we wanted it to feel black and white, almost silver.”
For FX’s Fargo, cinematographer Dana Gonzales took a long view of the work at hand. “Every season is a new story with new characters,” he says. “It’s like a 10-hour movie that needs an arc of lighting and tone that would carry it from the beginning to the end. When I’m prepping, I’m always thinking [about the full story].”
“Lighting and the colors give it the tone and feeling of the [1970s] period,” says Gonzales.
This season, the limited series was shot in Calgary and set in 1979. “What drove the period piece, for me and the production designer, was color. … There were specific colors, oranges and greens, and certain patterns,” he says. “I also only used lighting colors from that era. For instance, streetlights at the time in that part of the world had more incandescent, warm lighting, with very little sodium and a little bit of mercury vapor.”
Gonzales also referenced the work of photographer William Eggleston. “His images showed the period and how the colors played an important role in shaping that time,” he says, adding that to complete the look, he used vintage lenses from the ’60s with his digital Arri Alexa camera — the camera used by all four nominees — “to make it look like a film from the ’70s. Lenses have changed so much. Today, modern lenses are perfect. The lenses of the ’60s and ’70s had their own character.”
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.