Magazine article American Cinematographer

Shooting a Procedural Western in Winnipeg

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Shooting a Procedural Western in Winnipeg

Article excerpt

Through the changing seasons of the prairie countryside, my daily commute to set has provided a lot of time for me to reflect on my latest shooting experience. I grew up here in Manitoba; this was where, in my father's photo studio, my dreams of working in film and television were born. I left almost 30 years ago in order to pursue a career behind the camera - a career I discovered existed through reading American Cinematographer when I was a kid. I consider it serendipitous to be back here, shooting a dramatic series, and writing about it in these pages.

The Pinkertons is a 22-episode, first-run syndicated TV show, a "procedural Western" if you will, set in 1865 Kansas City, Mo. It follows the exploits of the fabled Pinkerton National Detective Agency, and specifically its founder, Allan Pinkerton (Angus Macfadyen); his son William (Jacob Blair); and Kate Warne (Martha Madsaac), America's first female detective.

The real-life agency became legendary for utilizing then-revolutionary methods in its investigations, including the use of mug shots, police lineups, the first "database" of archived newspaper clippings of criminal activity, and new technologies such as the optically improved microscope (thanks to Carl Zeiss) and the electric telegraph. Just as the agency employed the latest technologies in its work, we are utilizing new technologies to bring these stories to life while maintaining the style of a classic Hollywood Western.

I was excited by the prospect of shooting a Western, and the bar was set high when executives likened the series to premium cable shows such as The Walking Dead and Boardwalk Empire. But I had to wonder: Why shoot in Winnipeg? Not exactly the first place that comes to mind for this genre. Well, beyond the obvious answer (the province offers an aggressive tax credit), Missouri and Manitoba do share a similar topography. Additionally, Winnipeg was called "Little Chicago" in the early 1900s, and Chicago was where the actual Agency offices were located (although this isn't the focus of the first season).

Together with pilot director Paul Fox (a true Western aficionado), production designer Réjean Labrie (who routinely pulls rabbits out of his arse) and the wonderful costume designer Heather Neale, we established a look inspired by the modern-day Westerns Ride With the Dew? (shot by Fred Eimes, ASC) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC). We very quickly agreed on a color palette of muted earth tones that respects the period, and we chose to embrace a classic cinematic style where camera movement would be motivated and shots would have scope with actors placed within wider frames - we really wanted to stretch our 16:9 frame. Handheld would be used sparingly and only with intent. And we would always look for interesting and unusual angles to support the drama. We knew going in that with the amount of work to do each day, standard coverage of master, mediums, overs and close-ups would not be possible for every scene. Something would have to give. It was an approach perhaps more suited to a feature, but we've stuck with it as much as possible even as the show, now in series mode, has evolved.

Our sets are primarily located in the town of Grosse Isle, just north of Winnipeg, where the Prairie Dog Central steam locomotive runs. The train station there is a period building that we have dressed for Kansas City. Several of our sets are built inside, and a limited street set surrounds the station.

We shoot 10 pages a day in five-day blocks, which makes it challenging to maintain quality. I'm very thankful for the expertise of the Winnipeg crew, who are committed and hard working, and have gleaned a tremendous amount of knowledge while working on major productions that have come through here. My gaffer, John Clarke, and key grip, Bill Mills, are second to none.

I've long admired the work of Deakins and John Seale, ASC, ACS (Witness and Dead Poets Society are among my favorites) for their naturalistic sensibilities, and for this show, I've employed a simplified, natural approach. …

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