It’s not what you expect to see on anyone’s fall schedule, really. A
period piece set during the Great Depression, Carnivale zeroes in on
the mysterious lives of traveling carnies: the fortune teller, the
Siamese twins, the snake man, and the burlesque dancers. The environs
are harsh and sapped of color. The presence of Michael J. Anderson,
immediately recognizable from his multiple appearances in David Lynch
projects, only heightens the strange vibe. Think Lynch’s Twin Peaks
meets Tod Browning’s Freaks.
Is this the greatest show on earth? HBO hopes so. Despite a classic
good-versus-evil storyline, the series aspires to eschew formula- and
that means it demands unusual, but distinctive, photographic
techniques. Getting exactly the right look- equal parts poverty and
mysticism- requires an approach that begins with the sets, according to
Jeffrey Jur, one of three cinematographers involved in the fall season.
Cinematographer Tami Reiker, who shot the pilot, established a visual
strategy. Jur, who alternates with James M. Glennon on individual
episodes, strives to keep that style.
"We all admired the simplicity of Tami’s coverage in the pilot," Jur
says. It was different from anything else on TV. There was a leisurely
pace that was a respite from all the fast cutting that you see. We are
maintaining that look.
"There is a portentous undercurrent. I’m always looking for the one
perfect angle to shoot a scene from. It’s almost a tableau style, even
when the camera moves. I’m looking for that frame that is almost
iconic, the frame that is about more than what is literally happening
in the scene. The show is about the landscape, the small dustbowl
towns, and the carnival setting itself, which is so rich and deep."
Most episodes have an equal amount of exterior and interior scenes,
according to Jur. Most exteriors are shot at locations near Santa
Clarita, CA, and the interiors are filmed on nearby stages. "All of our
sets are washed out and faded," he says. "We are avoiding the
stereotypic warm and glow-y nostalgic period look, and we are building
contrast and desaturating colors. The blue California skies are taken
down a lot and the greens are drained out. It’s very evocative of that
era, almost a black-and-white feel. We refer to the look asÃ¢Â€Â˜desperate.’"
In one episode, a dust storm overtakes the carnival. Jur describes it
as a nightmare that takes over the daytime. His crew created dust using
such practical effects as Ritter fans, Fuller’s earth, and smoke. "We
tested and found that smoke worked as a dust element as long as it has
some force and direction and is backlit, he says. You also have to
expose and print it dark enough. It was impossible to cover a large
enough area, so more dust will be added digitally in post. I think
we’ll darken it further."
Many tent interiors are constructed on stages. Jur often creates a
daylight effect by surrounding the tents with a white cyclorama and
overexposing it. "Light comes from unusual places, like through gaps
between the tent walls or holes. We burn out the highlights so it looks
like day outside, and always with the feeling of hot sunlight coming
in. Sometimes it reaches the characters and sometimes it doesn’t.
Sometimes they are in silhouette. You can light the canvas from behind,
or not light it and let it go dark, or you can rake it with light for a
third look. We ask the effects people to wave it a little bit, so
there’s a little feeling of wind and life. It’s constantly shifting,
which keeps it interesting."
Jur says that he and Glennon "didn’t get too technical about discussing
how we would light and shoot. It’s more about a general sense of what
the look is. We talked about it being dark and avoiding anything
glamorous; trying to be as naturalistic as possible, while creating a
heavy mood and a sense of foreboding. But each cinematographer does see
the other’s dailies. We egg each other on. He takes a chance, and that
inspires me to take a chance. We have a lot of support from HBO. They
have an excellent post-production group and they really care about what
their shows look like."
Jur composes the TV show in Super 35 format, protecting for the 16:9 HD
frame. Most exteriors are recorded on Eastman EXR 100T 5248 film with
occasional use of the 250-speed Kodak Vision 5246 daylight film. He
shoots the 320-speed Kodak Vision 5277 tungsten for most interior
scenes. "We tested the 320 stock and pushed the contrast," he says. "We
wanted the highlights to blow out, to go to a beautiful warm white
tone. It has a grainier, more photographic structure that works for
this story. There’s so much detail that can come through in telecine. I
usually end up just lighting by eye, making sure the balance is right."
Jur says that while the technical aspect of the cinematographer’s job
is important, it’s only there to serve the artistic ends. "A good
cinematographer can be like a good musician who has the chops and knows
the notes, and how to get a particular sound," he says. "I’m still
learning, but I feel I’m getting some of those chops now. I don’t have
to worry too much over the technical part of cinematography, which
really helps at the pace we’re working. It allows me to respond to the
material in an emotional way, based on the script, the director, and
what’s happening in front of me with the actors. It’s more instinctual,
which is a way I love to work."
Creator: Daniel Knauf
DPs: Jeff Jur, Tami Reiker, and James M. Glennon
Post-production: Encore Hollywood
Final Colorist: Pankaj Bajpai