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'House of Cards' DP Reveals the Camera & Lighting Techniques of the Popular Netflix Series

Igor MartinovicTelevision cinematography has come quite a ways in the past 10 years. In the arena of episodic television, where multi-camera shoots with high-key lighting were once the norm, incredibly cinematic single-camera cinematography has now taken hold. Although many of HBO’s and AMC’s offerings started the ball rolling with this delightful trend, the Netflix original drama House of Cards is the absolute epitome of dramatic cinematography in an episodic show. Igor Martinovic, the cinematographer from the second season of House of Cards, recently sat down with our friends at the GoCreative Podcast and he shared quite a bit about the cinematography of this world-class show.

First and foremost, Igor Martinovic is a world-renowned cinematographer known for his fantastic work on the Oscar-winning documentary Man On WireCheck out his reel below:

And here’s the trailer for the second season of House of Cards, which was released in its entirety on Netflix two weeks ago. This gives you just a basic sense of the show’s intricately dramatic cinematic stylings:


In his interview with GoCreative’s Ben Consoli, Martinovic covered a plethora of cinematography-related topics.

  • The inspiration behind the look of ‘House of Cards’
  • Working with David Fincher and Kevin Spacey
  • Lighting for different environments and characters
  • Working with Netflix
  • The Academy Award winning “Man on Wire”
  • Commercial vs. Film vs. Documentary
  • Igor’s big break

Here’s the interview in its entirety. Jump to the 11-minute mark to get right to the good stuff:

Towards the 16-minute mark, Martinovic starts talking about the show’s philosophy behind camera movement and camera placement. He mentions the 1979 Hal Ashby masterpiece, Being There, with its static and objective (and oftentimes symmetrical) framings as one of the primary influences. One look at the final scene from the film, and the similarities in cinematic style between the two are glaring.

Through keeping the camera at a distance from the characters and allowing the actions to take place within a wider frame (with the exception of a few key scenes), Martinovic is able to emphasize the fact that the world in which these characters exist is extremely cold and inhumane (much like the characters themselves).

Martinovic also talks about how he creates extremely naturalistic (but still incredibly dramatic) lighting for the interior scenes in House of Cards. In almost all of the interior scenes in the second season, the windows of the sets (and locations) were used as the motivation for a strong naturalistic key light, usually from large tungsten lamps. In order to sell the key light as natural window light, however, the lighting team would use small Kino Flo units as a kicker from the same side as the key.

There is a TON of information in this podcast, more than I can possibly write about here, so be sure to listen to it in its entirety, because there is quite a bit to learn from Martinovic’s approach to the modern masterpiece that is House of Cards.

What do you guys think of the second season of House of Cards, especially in terms of its cinematography? Let us know down in the comments!

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COMMENT POLICY

We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 51 COMMENTS

  • Harry Pray IV on 03.2.14 @ 1:56PM

    That’s quite a sensationalist title. I learned no “lighting secrets” from that interview. Pretty standard, actually.

    • It doesn’t say “secrets”…?

      • Title was changed.

        • Harry Pray IV on 03.2.14 @ 8:36PM

          Can confirm. It was changed. Thanks for changing it, Robert. As you probably realize, this is hardly an in-depth article about his lighting techniques. All he really said is something along the lines of, “we didn’t do as much top light and we lit from outside the window often and added diffusion when we went in for coverage”

          I’d like to see someone NFS post some original content in the form of lighting tutorials. All I ever see is lighting tips like “We used soft light.” or other VERY general “tips”.

          While, I am glad not many people share their secrets with lighting (since it’s my bread and butter), I think it’s strange how few tutorials exist online about it.

          I assume it’s because gaffers are afraid of their skills becoming less valuable (which is valid). They act like it’s some sort of secret along the lines of the magician’s code of secrecy.

          Honestly though, the best way to improve your narrative film lighting is by observing the world around you everywhere you, figuring out how you’d imitate/augment that for exposure (sort of irrelevant with the new cameras) and, more importantly, to maximize modeling and mood.

          • Daniel Mimura on 03.11.14 @ 11:14PM

            Wait…so you want others to share their lighting techniques, but don’t wish others to b/c it’s your “bread and butter”?

            You’re not working with patentable intellectual property here. Any lighting technique you use, someone did before you and someone will do after you. It’s just like a good cocktail. Some bartender invented it, maybe gets to name it, but you’re gonna get other bartenders with the same ingredients more or less everywhere else who can make it just as well or better. (Maybe that’s actually a bad example, b/c there are patented drinks, but they’re all lame, like the “Hand Grenade®”)

            Every DP and almost every gaffer I’ve ever worked for or with has been incredibly and completely selfless in what knowledge they disseminate. You’re on a site that’s dedicated to the same thing (sharing knowledge for free). It’s incredibly self centered to want to learn, but not want others to know this. And you start out by berating the writer for a title that didn’t deliver on it’s promise to tell you lighting secrets (or something)?

            Get over yourself.

            I think it’s more or less every production person’s duty to share and pass on what they know. At just about every level, we’re all continually learning, and we should all also be teaching. This is the spirit of the ASC, and I have to say, I’ve seen it from almost every DP I’ve worked for.

  • That sentence after the “Being There” video reads like a college film analysis essay.

  • House of cards is a prime example of the importance of story! The script writing shines through the acting and cinematography. There is no wasted dialogue or over use of metaphors that scream UNREAL! Well done show! Kudos to the script writers

    • You should check out the original 90′s bbc version. It is way more intense for story in my opinion. Cinemetography and lighting not so much but the characters are much more developed and threatening.

  • Fresno Bob on 03.2.14 @ 2:50PM

    What camera was used, to save me from falling for the click bait twice?

    • Red Epic shot @ 5k framed at 4K for stabilizing bumped shots

    • If you care more about which camera was used than the techniques behind this show’s stunning cinematography, then your priorities probably need a little bit of adjusting. I purposefully left the camera information out of this article, because frankly, that’s the real click-bait, not the techniques.

      • VinceGortho on 03.2.14 @ 3:43PM

        Why can’t he ask? Calm down.

        • Fresno Bob on 03.2.14 @ 3:53PM

          You’ve put it in the title as click bait, then have a go at me about wanting to know what it is?
          Priceless.

        • I think Camera in the title was referring to placement and movement not what camera was used

          • rds is correct. Also, by actually listening to the podcast, you would have gotten all of the technical information that you could have possibly wanted, plus a whole lot of useful insights from an esteemed cinematographer. Instead, you went to the comments to deride the article as click-bait.

          • Fresno Bob on 03.2.14 @ 5:27PM

            I suggest you rethink the title, as I doubt I’m not the only one reading it ‘wrong’.

          • Does changing “Secrets” to “Techniques” help to clarify things? I feel that’s more reflective of the content of the article anyhow. Also, sorry about being so defensive. I just feel that there’s a ton of fantastic information here that goes beyond camera choice.

          • Perhaps “…Shot & Lighting Techniques…” would be less misleading. If you’re intentionally going to leave out information on the equipment using the name for that equipment instead name of the technique could be a source of confusion. Just my two cents though.

      • Anthony Marino on 03.2.14 @ 9:02PM

        “yo man it doesnt matter what camera we shot the series on, its the story that counts”…Yea tell that to a producer that wants his/her show to look a certain way and they’ll kick you off the set. Especially a Network, they want it to look good, even though 75% of them wouldn’t know the difference between a GH2 or an Alexa. But trust me I worked with award winning DP’s that are like a kid in a candy shop if a new piece of gear showed up on set. The camera matters. As much as we don’t want to think it does, it does. Of course lighting, an experienced Director, crew etc etc etc count. Maybe even more so than the camera they use, but really the whole “camera don’t matter” is a bit ridicules.

        • I definitely wasn’t trying to go with the “cameras don’t matter” argument. I’m well aware that cameras are an incredibly important aspect of cinematography, but they’re just that, an aspect. This post is about everything else: the movement, the framing, the lighting, and more importantly, why all these cinematographic choices were made. As a cinematographer, I find information of that nature far more enlightening than a simple “what was it shot on” kind of post.

          • Anthony Marino on 03.3.14 @ 1:08PM

            I agree. I enjoy your post Robert, sorry if I sounded one sided but I guess we’re use to knowing right off the bat what cam was used. Not to split hairs here but when I first read the heading I read it wrong also. But as always I find your writings informative as well as entertaining. Thanks

      • Don’t be a snot.

  • Rick Macklin on 03.2.14 @ 4:43PM

    The face of Cinematography for television changed quite a bit earlier then ten years. On the vanguard of that theatrical look for TV was 1′st the X-File Pilot and then The West Wing series, both were considered by the Television Academy as the most influential show’s in changing the look of Series and TV Movie’s going forward. I just looked it up on IMDB Thomas Del Ruth ASC ( 2 Emmys, and 4 ASC awards plus 16 additional nominations in those categories) was the cinematographer on both.

    • Thomas Del Ruth did some amazing work on The West Wing (and on setting the look of the X-Files, for that matter). I still think that some of the newer shows have taken the dramatic television aesthetic well past where Del Ruth did, though, and subsequently the more cinematic approach has become the standard one for episodic drama.

    • I’d definitely agree with that Rick. Even as a eleven/twelve -year-old I realized X-Files had crossed some sort of visual line, particularly from STTNG and cop shows of the era.

  • Haven’t read it yet, but this is the most exciting title I have seen on here in a while.

  • Stu Mannion on 03.2.14 @ 7:01PM

    Thanks for posting. Interesting interview. As always I wished there was more specific information on techniques but I guess that would only be interesting to us shooters.

  • I found the look between House of Cards seasons 1 and 2 completely different. I prefer the look of season 1. Has anyone else noticed this? Or know what the changes are?

    • I actually noticed a significant difference between the two seasons as well. One of the things that is mentioned in the podcast is that most of the lighting is no longer from an overhead grid, but instead blasted in through windows. However, one of the biggest differences that I noticed was in composition. The second season is replete with a ton of centered and symmetrical framings, many of which are beautiful, but kind of uncomfortable and full of visual tension (which I imagine is the point). I’m also convinced that there are differences in the way the camera is moved, but I can’t quite put my finger on what those differences are.

      I’m curious what everyone else picked up in terms of visual differences between the two seasons?

      • Well…. Since the first season was DPed by a Danish cinematographer who happened to win an award for his work on HoC then that pretty much explains it doesnt it.

        I havent seen the 2nd season but I loved the cinematography in the first… Of course I am a bit biased since Im Danish myself ;-)

  • The problem with the “House of Cards” is that it mostly comes off as pretentious twaddle. A great soap like “Dallas” should, at least, have a sense of humor about itself. HoC, on the other hand, doesn’t know if it wants to be a serious examination of the political sausage making like “The West Wing” – which was twaddle as well but it appealed to its target audience with its earnest pontifications – or a black political comedy like “Dr. Strangelove”. But, to give it credit, the pretentious cinematography matches the pretentious writing, the pretentious acting and the pretentious directing. Kudos all the way ’round.

    • I may not have said it so bluntly, but my thoughts exactly.

    • One hundred percent disagree. This comes off as knee-jerk analysis. House of Cards is both over the top dark comedy in addition to being a serious examination of the political machine. It is nothing like the West Wing.

      The beauty of serialized storytelling is that you get to play with tone. One episode can be a dark comedy while the next a somber post moern take on Sun Tzu (how’s that for pretentious).

      Believing that uniformity of tone is necessary demonstrates a serious lack of understanding of the television medium (which has now surpassed pure cinema as the dominant visual storytelling genre).

      I’ve obviously drunk the KoolAid, but I couldnt resist replying to such a lazy, contrarian pop-critique.

      • That’s OK, kidfob. Different strokes and all that. (btw, I didn’t say it was like “The West Wing” but basically the opposite, that it hasn’t decided what it wants to be as a show whereas TWW pretty much nailed its target tone and target audience)
        .
        As a side story, I was once a huge fan of Robin Wright’s, going back to her “Santa Barbara” days in the mid-80′s. I even “met” her once, back in 1989 … but the show still does nothing for me.

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