Audiences expecting traditional period drama with exquisitely detailed costumes, grand camera moves, and formal dialogue are in for a shock with The Great.
The production values of the genre have been up-ended to deliver what showrunner and creator Tony McNamara (The Favourite) calls “punk history.”
“This is anti-history,” says cinematographer John Brawley (Queen of the South). “We are not historically accurate at all. Punk history is something we wanted to wear on our sleeve.”
The Hulu original starring Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult is a satire on the rise of Catherine the Great in the Russian court of Emperor Peter that doesn’t censor the vanity, the profanity, the violence and the grotesque. It revels in it, poking fun at the immature and depraved rulers at the turn of the 18th Century in a way that could apply equally to today’s political leaders.
“Visually, we don’t want an audience to expect Pride and Prejudice when they’re going to get something between the Princess Bride and Blackadder,” Brawley says. “One way to do that is through camera which meant leaning away from those epic crane shots and beautiful staging of the genre where everything is packaged and presented to the camera. We didn’t want it to look pretty. It is meant to feel contemporary and naturalistic.”
This conceit translated into production design. The palace sets (built at London’s 3 Mills Studios) are deliberately disheveled and dirty with food left everywhere and people fornicating in corridors in the background.
“It has the feel of a run-down frat house,” Brawley describes. “We weren’t going to make any of the usual signatures of period shows. Where you’d have lots of smoke and atmosphere’s in a room, we started using less and less smoke. Where you might have sedate track and dolly camera moves, we went more and more handheld.”
The Great is principally shot on the Alexa SXT Plus, a decision Brawley inherited from the pilot shot nearly a year earlier by Anette Haellmigk.
He took three SXT models combined with Cooke S5 primes and with Zeiss Super Speeds for occasional shots that needed a lighter weight lens. He shot ARRI RAW on SXT at 3.2K framed for 2:1.
Brawley also worked in a significant number of shots filmed on the Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro G2. He recorded BMD RAW in RAW’s Q0 compression scheme, again with 2:1 aspect ratio for handheld coverage he describes as a “condiment” or “seasoning” to the main blocking and staging.
“I’ll do a pass of some unconventional coverage which is often me walking with a small camera like the G2 and using it to get close up and intimate with the actors,” Brawley explains.
“It’s a technique I’ve been bringing to a few shows and started as a quick way to grab insert shots, such as a letter being opened or a gun being pulled out. Then I started doing coverage with it and following the actors. I noticed that, after a while, the actors started asking for those passes.
“It’s particularly useful when there’s a dramatic and introspective moment of a character thinking about something. When you want be to see the wheels turning it gives you access to a character’s internal thoughts.
“It’s also very rapid. I’ll usually do 2-3 takes in a row and because it’s at the end of the scene and the actors have expended a lot of energy with the conventional coverage, sometimes they are a bit more relaxed and often you get very natural, spontaneous moments.
“With 2-3 takes I can get 13-14 shots that I would never have the time in a normal TV schedule to get. Every now and then I might shoot a whole scene with that style of coverage. It can be very seductive.”
The style is not unique to the G2 of course but Brawley says he likes that the camera shoots Raw and finds that he can rig it with a smaller footprint than an Alexa Mini. Its built-in monitor means he can pivot for improvisational operation.
“For example, [on Fox medical drama The Resident] I could hold the camera above my head point straight down and still while holding the monitor I could pivot 180-degrees and be looking straight up at the surgeon. That shot would be really hard to do and take a lot of time to engineer normally but if I improvise it doesn’t cost anytime and it feels spontaneous.
“Also, if you want to shoot inserts or details to punctuate the coverage – when you want to draw the audience’s attention to something–shooting this way you are not forcing an edit. It’s a very efficient way to shoot that kind of coverage.”
Matching footage and HDR
Matching the footage in post required Staples and Brawley to create a LUT for the Alexa and another for the Ursa which were passed both through a normalising or base LUT.
“The idea is that we can make a specific LUT for a specific camera but when you shoot them in the same circumstances which we did on this show they will look pretty similar in the edit and it doesn’t leap out at you as dramatically different,” Brawley says.
Matters were complicated by being an HDR deliverable - Brawley’s first.
“I was terrified when I realised that there are no HDR monitors that you can take to set and don’t $30,000,” he says. “Even the best DIT set-ups still don’t have HDR monitors. We toyed with having an HDR suite with a scope and other tools near set and we looked at using some consumer grade HDR TVs but, in the end, once we’d done all the initial camera tests, I noticed that the big difference for me was the way I exposed the image.”
He elaborates, “Conventional exposure theory would suggest that with a camera like the Alexa that is ISO 800 it will reproduce a mid-grey as a mid-grey but if you set up for that in HDR then you are going to find objects in the frame over exposed. Candle flames, for example, tend to lose their color and can clip out very quickly and look unnatural. So, what I came up with as a solution, specifically because there are candles in every shot, was to expose from the top down.
“My starting point was not to over expose the candles in the HDR grade and let everything fall in underneath that. Since candles are usually the brightest object in the scene and I wanted to retain detail in them I began by setting the exposure so that the candles weren’t clipping with everything else being lit up to those levels.”
“That was my primitive, lay person, no HDR monitor, on-set logic. Which I think worked out pretty well!”
The only issue was that in the Dolby Vision HDR pass the greater latitude of the ARRI over the G2 began to show in the highlights particularly against the set’s tall windows.
“I’d like to say it was hard for me to match but it really wasn’t,” says Staples. “Often with the windows you want them to clip anyway. You want to see a bit of detail but you’d let it go because it’s just a studio wall outside.”
He adds, “When you work in P3 the gamut is hugely different to rec.709. You see all the nuances of candle light, skin tone and costume which brings it all together in a really natural way. You can ping your highlights but actually if you bring it into a more painterly contrast ratio you can get this really natural looking image with much more depth than we’re used to in .709.”
Simple on-set workflow
The Australian DP relocated to the US in 2017 to shoot Queen of the South has since shot Fox pilot Gone Baby Gone for director Phillip Noyce; the Syfy/UCP series Hunters for producer Gale Anne Hurd and Matchbox Pictures; and The Beautiful Lie, a contemporary retelling of Anna Karenina for ABC.
“I’m not a DP who likes a DIT tent on set where it’s always a hostile environment to get good monitoring and to be consistent,” he says. “I prefer a simplified workflow not an extra circus you have to drag around with you.
“I would much rather do as you did in the film days with a lot of testing in preproduction to understand what the camera could and couldn’t do and you just expose and shoot with that in mind without needing to tweak or grade it on set. That way, you can spend time with the actors and director on the floor. I’d rather do another take than go into a dark tent and look at a waveform of some shot that might change in the edit anyway.
“I’ve always had this philosophical idea to treat the DI like film and to leave the grading until you are sitting with someone like Paul who knows what they are doing.”