Magazine article American Cinematographer

Power Plays

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Power Plays

Article excerpt

The Netflix series House of Cards exists in the bubble of Washington, D.C, politics, but it isn't a seat of government that connects with the populace at large - it's more like a viper pit with no views in. Says director of photography Eigil Bryld, "Most of the windows in the show are either burned or black. The idea was that the outside world doesn't really matter. What matters is what's in the room, not what's beyond it."

What's in the room - connivers, manipulators and schemers - is not pretty. The master manipulator is Southern Congressman hank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the House of Representatives Majority Whip, who vows to get revenge after he is passed over for a cabinet post by the incoming president.

Spacey is an executive producer on the series, as is David Fincher, who directed the first two episodes and largely created its aesthetic. Bryld, a Danish cinematographer who is based in New York, says Fincher and Spacey's involvement was among the factors that attracted him to his first episodic TV drama. "I don't watch a lot of TV series, and I've always had the rule that I would only do projects that I would watch myself," explains the cinematographer, whose credits include the features Not Fade Away ana In Bruges AC April ?8). But, he adds, "I've always sort of been a political animal," and the combination of the source material (a novel by Michael Dobbs), the script, and the participation of Fincher and Spacey led him to sign on.

Shooting in a slightly cropped 2:1 aspect ratio with two Red Epic cameras simultaneously was the cornerstone of the visual approach. Fincher has worked with Red Digital Cinema since The Social Network and has a strong relationship with the brand. "He loves the look and the camera's design," says Bryld. "He works very closely with the company to get what he needs, He's very technically clued up, much more than I am! "

Images were shot at 6:1 compression and recorded to SSD cards. One option on the Epic that proved especially useful on House of Cards was the HDRx option, which "we used to control the sky and windows, and to reduce contrast if there was a harsh sun," adds Bryld.

Fincher, Bryld and other key collaborators spent 10 weeks propping the series in Baltimore, where most of it was shot. Much of this time was devoted to designing the camera package, which Fincher continually pared down. "David doesn't want a huge camera truck, and he kept an eye on how much gear we were using," says Bryld. "We didn't carry a lot of big lights. We had a van custom-built so we could roll out our dollies and cameras very quickly. We didn't have a DIT [digital-imaging technician]. We basically shot everything around 4,0000K and then adjusted our lighting as opposed to tweaking the camera or building complicated looks. The general idea was, keep it simple so we can stay open and add layers upon layers of ideas, thereby creating something very complex and dynamic."

Fincher's ground rules included "no Steadicam, no handheld and no zoom lenses," the cinematographer continues. The first two techniques were avoided for stylistic reasons. "If people were walking down a corridor, we weren't interested in using a Steadicam or tracking in a close-up," says Bryld, who cites ?-camera operator Gary W. Jay as a major collaborator on the show. "To a great extent, moves are on the dolly or the boom. We wanted to use the space more so people would grow larger in the frame or move away and get smaller. We went for a more composed look; even though we had very shallow focus, we tried to create deep compositions all the time to add a sense of drama and power, and the 2:1 aspect ratio really helped with that."

The rule about no zoom lenses had to do not only with Fincher's preference, but also with the need to work at very low light levels, and with concerns of time and efficiency. Bryld explains, "When we walked into a location, it had to either be pre-lit or have an ambient light level we could work with. …

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