THE GILDED AGE
Period drama requires latest technologies to flourish.
JUNE 15 2022
The Gilded Age is creator and executive producer Julian Fellowes’ foray into the American upper crust of New York City circa 1882. The conflict at the heart of the HBO drama series is between old and new money. Fellowes, who previously depicted British landed gentry and class conflict in Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, had the foresight to bring on a director of photography quite early in the process.
“It was a very smart group of producers,” says Vanja Cernjul, ASC, who shared cinematography duties during the first season with Manuel Billeter. “It was amazing to be involved as the sets were just being built. I had about three months of pre-production, and it was great to work closely and make tests with [production designer] Bob Shaw and [costumer designer] Kasia Walicka-Maimone.”
Cernjul says it was an unusual sensation to feel completely ready as production started. Of course, Covid then intervened, and many locations had to be abandoned to comply with a 50-person limit on the set. After adaptation, and a move to Troy in upstate New York, the nine-month endeavor finally got under way. Cernjul estimates that Covid protocols added 30% to the timelines and the budgets. He shot the first three chapters, and then Billeter shot his episodes while Cernjul prepped the final three.
"WE WANTED THE DIFFERENCES TO BE FELT AND NOT SEEN... OLDER NEW YORK WOULD BE MORE CONSERVATIVE AND ROMANTIC..."
The kernel of the visual strategy was to delineate the old money and new money worlds without distracting the audience. PIX, the Oscar-winning collaboration tool that offers secure access to production content of any description, and CODEX, the industry-standard image recording system, played a key role.
“We wanted the differences to be felt and not seen,” Cernjul says. “Older New York would be more conservative and romantic, with the more modern, industrial world feeling more kinetic and boisterous.”
This dichotomy lay behind many of the specific choices in terms of camera and lenses. For example, anamorphic lenses were used to give that hint of nostalgia for old New York, and sharper, more clinical spherical lenses were chosen for the contemporary, new world. In both cases, the lenses were Cookes, and their color consistency allowed mixing and matching without worry.
Texture was similarly important to the vision. Along with Panasonic VariCam Pure cameras, Cernjul used LiveGrain, a real-time texturing tool, to emulate the look of Kodak EXR film emulsion or the more modern, tighter grained Vision3 negative film, depending on the scene.
“LiveGrain is an amazing tool, and when I saw it, I immediately started to think of how we could use it to enhance the drama,” he says. “The Gilded Age was a great opportunity, since we were looking for ways to create subtle differences without being too on the nose.”
The production team used PIX to share all their references and tests, including hair, makeup and costumes, which were elaborate.
“The director, producers and other collaborators were making decisions based on how these adjustments affected each other,“ says Cernjul. “PIX is a valuable tool. Every test and every bit of reference that I found in prep was shared though PIX. All those files were available to everyone at all times. For example, I sent a test to Kasia, the costume designer, with her costumes in frame. We did daylight conditions as well as under gaslight. I know she referred to those carefully to get a sense of how her creations would be affected by a given lighting situation.”
The costumes are nothing short of astonishing, and they are an important part of the non-verbal storytelling.
"PIX IS A VALUABLE TOOL. EVERY TEST AND EVERY BIT OF REFERENCE THAT I FOUND IN PREP WAS SHARED THROUGH PIX"
“Kasia was so passionate,” he says. “Working with her so closely made me a better cinematographer. Once we were on the set, she was in the tent with me a lot, and she would always talk about how she was seeing and what she was expecting to happen with the costumes. I became more aware of certain aspects of individual costumes and how she was hoping they would translate. I began to pay more attention to how I lit the costumes, and when it was important to her I would add specific lights to bring out and enhance her ideas. Communication and collaboration with your talented peers is so important in filmmaking – and it’s the best part, really.”
Controlling these nuances required robust images and accurate, instant communications throughout the production and post process. Panasonic’s Pure workflow offers impressive low light capability, wide dynamic range and high resolution in a compact camera, using integrated CODEX recording technology to dependably capture more than enough image data for the LiveGrain and other manipulation in visual effects and post. The Panasonic VariCam Pure can capture in 4K RAW for 4K UHD TV or 4K DCI cinema deliverables, and its 4K Super 35 sensor offers 14+ stops of latitude, recording internally to CODEX Capture Drives.
“I started using the VariCam Pure on The Deuce in 2016,” says Cernjul. “I discovered it when I was looking for a great low-light camera. When Pure became available, I was already in Malaysia prepping Crazy Rich Asians, which became one of the first VariCam Pure projects that utilized CODEX recording. I tested it and I was very pleased by the whole system. I’ve been loyal to that combination for a long time, having shot two features, a couple of pilots and a series with it.
"COMMUNICATION AND COLLABORATION WITH YOUR TALENTED PEERS IS SO IMPORTANT IN FILMMAKING..."
“It’s not just another camera,” he says. “It’s amazing what it allows you to do. It has become part of how I think about lighting. The flexibility in ISO meant that suddenly I had more control over the depth of field than I ever had. I find it’s totally acceptable to go from 800 ISO as a base up to 2000 ISO, even within the same scene. I can shoot a close-up at 800, and turn around and shoot wide at 2000, and it’s seamless. Sometimes you set up a shot and when you come to the DIT tent, you might wish the foreground was a little sharper. I can make that decision and adjustment on the fly, just before the camera starts to roll. You’re seeing the final frame with the final lighting and contrast, and you can adjust the depth of field in the right context.
“Also, I appreciated the fact that the image stays very clean, because I needed a clean base in terms of noise,” he says. “Then, when we applied the Live Grain, it wasn’t fighting or working against the noise. Otherwise, you could get into trouble very quickly.”
Cernjul had originally planned to use a bit of atmospheric haze to help separate interiors, motivated by the omnipresent fireplaces and other smoke sources of the period. Covid restrictions eliminated that option, but Cernjul and the LiveGrain experts worked up an approach that used different colors and shapes in the grain to set off foregrounds and backgrounds, shadows and highlights. Often the mid-tones were closer to neutral while highlights showed a slightly warmer grain. The result was greater three-dimensionality.
All this careful attention to detail and combined artistry paid off in January 2022, when The Gilded Age premiered. By the end of season one, the show was the top series on HBO Max and the second most-watched drama series on television. In February, the show was renewed for a second season.
Watch Designing The Gilded Age