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Cinematography of 'American Horror Story: Asylum' Uses Classic Tools to Terrify in 35mm

If you didn’t watch last year’s premiere of FX networks’ American Horror Story, you missed out on some seriously daring television. There was sex (and scandal), there were scares (and some blood-splatter), and there were spirits — though which characters were truly flesh-and-blood and which were a bit more ghostly didn’t become clear until much later  – all in the context of an addicting melodrama. The series (created by Nip/Tuck and Glee masterminds Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk) recently began its second season with some cast-members returning (to play different roles), but the setting has been moved to a darkly-imagined Massachusetts mental institution. One vital piece of the puzzle that is AHS is its look, which is being achieved on 35mm film — especially notable when FX’s own Sons of Anarchy and Justified, for instance, have opted for Alexa and EPIC respectively. Courtesy American Cinematographer, here’s a look at the shooting style of this aggressively original program — and just in time for the show’s Halloween episode premiere!

Here’s the first five minutes of Season 2 Episode 1, “Welcome to Briarcliff” (be warned — material NSFW, but definitely fit for Halloween — if the embedded video is blocked for you, try here):

Jumping back-and-forth through time was prevalent in the show’s first season, and seems to be all the more key for the show’s narrative style now (the opening titles demonstrate’s this seasons’s primary setting of 1964). Accomplishing a visual differentiation between time periods was one of the many aesthetic elements season 2 cinematographer, Michael Goi, ASC, had to imbue into the imagery. To do so, Goi used different combinations of 35mm Kodak film stock and chemical processing techniques (among other things), which, interestingly, Goi says are almost impossible to produce (or replicate) otherwise — for instance, shooting hand-cranked Eastman Double-X 5222 black-and-white negative to capture a fitting tone for scenes taking place in the 1940s, and one of Kodak’s color-reversal Ektachrome daylight stocks for modern-day scenes. Here’s his testimony on the matter to AC:

“I really wanted to separate the present from 1964 in a major way, and [Ektachrome] became an integral part of our 2012 look. We shoot 1964 scenes on Kodak [Vision 3 500T] 5219 and desaturate it slightly with pull-processing… [as well as when] there are elements we need to see, like blood or detached limbs, that might get swallowed up in the reversal. In those cases, we’ve saturated the color, deepened the blacks and jacked up the contrast to bring the 5219 more in line with the reversal footage. The color-reversal material looks so extreme you can’t duplicate it exactly, but we get pretty close!”


Keep in mind, selection of film stock and push-or-pull-processing aren’t quite the only qualities responsible for the show’s overall look — like just about anything else shot on 35mm these days, the show uses a digital intermediate process (in this case mastering at 2K) but one in which Goi participates fairly hands-on. Of this stage of the process, he states he prefers to create an effect or look organically, leaving less to be done in post. Along with appeasing some ‘classicalist’ tastes (I must admit I have my own), there are practical benefits to this as well — ‘doing it live’ allows everyone to see something close-to-final almost immediately, not to mention the fact that it saves money and therefore time in post.

Goi states that he and his camera and lighting teams try to never duplicate quite the same representation of a given space, while maintaining enough consistency to not be overly disorienting. The various areas of the institution — which exists as a massive fully constructed set —  as well as character-driven moments of trauma or violence, each offer Goi the opportunity to reflect these things in-camera and fittingly degrade the image. He says that he has thoroughly enjoyed using a Panavision Primo 10mm lens, even for dialogue scenes, because it allows so much of the set to be realized within frame. For one setting, Goi used old and discontinued Wilson SupraFrost filters to create “blown-out highlights and glowing whites,” assisted by over-exposing by three-to-four stops — and even as far as six stops over in one shot.

I know that I myself can often forget — given that by some accounts digital acquisition has actually broken the film latitude barrier — is that just because we have latitude doesn’t mean our imagers are dealing with over-exposure in the same way film is. That strange blown-out quality that emulsion can possess in the way it decays in detail is just plain special, and different than the outright clipping that eventually can (and does) occur in highlights with digital systems — even those with 38 stops of latitude. I think this is part of the reason Goi is able to achieve some really stunning results in the show, because he is able to abuse (I use the word in the best possible way) the older medium to effects that may not be achievable in the non-chemical world.

Here’s a clip with Goi discussing additional shooting tricks (back from season 1):

For other scenes, Goi has employed the use of such measures as split-focus diopters or tilt-shift lenses to heighten and emphasize dramatic moments or ones key to the show’s story arc. Given some insight into future episodes’ revelations, he has the advantage of fore-sight in using these techniques — meaning he can visually highlight a seemingly “normal” moment whose true relevance won’t be revealed until several episodes later. I think all these techniques are a great example of how each tool has its proper applications — we’re all likely quite familiar with the arguments over which format is better, and why. What I find inspiring about Goi’s work here, though, is that it demonstrates that film as a progressively less common format can still be creatively applied to work for the story, and by using many classic techniques!

Goi and American Horror Story use Panavision and Arri cameras, assorted lenses (including Panavision and Angenieux), and shoot both 3-perf Super 35mm and 4-perf 35mm all-Kodak film. I highly recommend you check out the full, fascinating, and all-around fantastic article by American Cinematographer – and tonight’s premiere of this season’s Halloween episode!

Do you guys think the work here makes a good case for the ongoing relevance of film to certain projects? How do you feel about the movies and shows that continue to use film, and in a special way, among the great migration to digital?

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  • This show has by far the most impressive cinematography out of any show on TV. AHS quite literally “feels” like a weekly horror “film” in every way. From lighting, to camera movement, to the use of 35mm… it’s truly amazing. Other shows get very close, like breaking bad, but no show has an overall style that completely looks like a legitimate movie in every way.

    35mm is so rare on TV now, that when you see it… you SEE it. It really stands out among even the best digital cameras out there. I hope that it continues to persevere in small ways (a special show here and there like AHS, or once in a blue moon for the Silver Screen) just to remind us… film in many ways still can’t be beaten.

    • David Komer on 11.1.12 @ 4:09AM

      I’ve been consistently impressed by the lighting in Castle too. Definitely worth learning from imho… Bill Roe isn’t afraid of letting the less important details fall into shadow and use art direction rather than unmotivated light to separate the planes. It’s the way I’d like to light at least… natural yet beautiful and dramatic

    • I don’t see it, mostly. I often think it’s Alexa, because of the glowing highlights, maybe with film grain applied. But no, it’s the old guy 35mm. Well, good for them.

  • shaun wilson on 11.1.12 @ 5:22AM

    What is the point of attaching a video to an article that can only be viewed inside the US when its blocked for everyone else?

    ***”Hulu: Sorry, currently our video library can only be watched from within the United States”***

  • the main character is taking like 20 photos of his girlfriend with his leica M7, which is a film camera, wasteful.
    except that, the cinematography is amazing

  • Micheal Goi also acted as director and cinematographer for his film “Megan is Missing”. *rolls eyes*

    Truly, a legend.

  • Pretty! This was an extremely wonderful post. Thanks for supplying these
    details.

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