Slick and Sexy is the Right Look for True Blood
DP Romeo Tirone is a Five-Season Veteran of the Vampire Show
Vampire tales trace their roots to Central European legends, and many Gothic novelists punched up their stories with bloodthirsty baddies before Bram Stoker published Dracula in England in 1897. In 1921, F.W. Murnau directed Nosferatu, a brilliant landmark of the silent cinema whose German Expressionist overtones were heard even in faraway Broadway and Hollywood. Tod Browning’s 1931 talkie for Universal stamped the character with Bela Lugosi’s inimitable accent, and cinematographer Karl Freund, ASC’s creepy atmospherics still fascinate.
Today’s vampire craze is owed in part to the tradition being wedded to frustrated adolescent love, but in the case of HBO’s True Blood, the sex is not hidden in allegory. Series creator Alan Ball has been quoted as saying, “To me, vampires are sex. I don’t get a vampire story about abstinence.”
Now in its fifth season, which premiered last Sunday night, True Blood has legions of followers. It might just be HBO’s most-followed show since the cultural phenom The Sopranos. Based on “The Southern Vampire Mysteries” novels by Charlaine Harris, True Blood shows vampires as a misunderstood minority trying to gain acceptance among the people of a small, Spanish-moss-draped Louisiana town. A synthetic blood substitute allows the undead to keep their unseemly appetites in check, for the most part.
Capturing the doomed yearning on film has been the job of a number of cinematographers over the course of the series, including Matthew Jensen; Checco Varese, ASC, AMC; John Aronson; Joseph E. Gallagher; and Stephen St. John. Currently, camera duties are split between David Klein, ASC and Romeo Tirone, the only cameraman to have shot episodes in all five seasons.
Tirone broke in shooting music videos and filmed clips for big-time acts like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Ozzy Osborne before moving into commercials. His narrative credits include L.I.E, Cry Wolf, and the television productions Possible Side Effects and Babylon Fields. In addition to handling cinematography on the series Dexter and True Blood, Tirone found time to direct several episodes of both shows. (Read our coverage of his first-season work on Dexter here.)
For four years, Tirone split his time between True Blood and Dexter. “On True Blood, we are dealing with such a fantastic fantasy world that we always try to stay rooted in a very naturalistic world,” says Tirone. “It definitely tends to lean into the dark side with a lot of contrast, but by keeping things closer to reality, it seems more real when people start turning into vampires and werewolves.”
Episodes take anywhere from 12 to 19 days to shoot. Two entire crews work constantly from November to July. A rotating roster of directors means that Tirone and Klein work with a different personality every time out. “Some people we see more than once a season,” Tirone notes. “It’s a great experience. I believe that the job of the cinematographer is to translate the vision of the director onto the medium you’re using. In episodic television, you are the common factor and you have a certain responsibility to the look of the show. Most of the time, directors come in and interpret the script. My job is to execute it. I try to facilitate the director while protecting the look of the show.”
Part of Tirone’s skill set is the ability to sense a director’s strengths and weaknesses, and mesh with them. “I try to be liquid in the way that I work with people,” he explains. “If I have a director who is more focused on the actors, then I will take up the slack in terms of the camera. It’s like playing jazz with someone – sometimes you have to jump in and take the solo, because you don’t want any dead air.”
True Blood is photographed on 35mm film in the 3-perf Super 35 format. The main stock is KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219. For scenes in daylight conditions, the stock is KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207. “I’ve gotten to know the film stocks so well that what I see is what I get,” adds Tirone. “It’s amazing. The film actually reads deeper than you can see, so I always play with that. Day after day, you develop an eye for it. I can see the contrast and where I need to be.”
Tirone generally lights by eye, even with all the extensive night shoots. “There’s something beautiful about working with film, because it’s an organic process,” he says. “There’s a bit of alchemy or magic to it. It adds a sense of romance to what you’re shooting, which is perfect for True Blood. Sometimes I accomplish that romanticism with filters or with the tone of the lighting.”
Using the entire tonal scale of the negative, Tirone avoids flatness and delivers maximum image flexibility to the colorist. Scott Klein at Technicolor is a key collaborator. “Scotty is the last keeper of the look,” says Tirone. “He definitely has a sharp eye and he tends to go even deeper than I envisioned. The show has a great, bold look. We have to make sure that we build in the contrast when we’re shooting, knowing that in the end game, it’s not going to be lifted – it’s going to be crushed down.”
Tirone often uses two cameras to gain minutes during the demanding production day. “I consider cinematography to be a fine art, but I often think of it as a martial art, where the movement of everything on the set is as important as the result. When blocking a scene with the director, I might ask whether an actor can turn this way instead of that – and that might save me five setups because I’m not creating another line. I’ve developed a very keen sense that helps me identify potential hang-ups.
“The ability to streamline, to still get the essence of what the director wants, and do it in a way that doesn’t beat everyone up, is an often overlooked skill,” he observes. “We’re on this show for nine months. We shoot a lot of nights. People get exhausted. Soon I’ll start prepping the finale. You can tell that people are on edge, so I try to make my sets as comfortable and efficient as possible.” When done well, this logistical aspect of the cinematographer’s job results in more time and energy for creativity. “I try to light environments. Once I’m lit, I feel proud if we can get the whole scene without having to move a light,” he says with a sense of accomplishment.
The nature of the show adds a layer of complexity. Flashbacks to other periods often add visual challenges and opportunities. “There’s always someone ripping someone’s throat out,” Tirone admits. “It’s so rare for us to shoot two people sitting in a room and talking. True Blood is incredible in terms of what it packs into an episode. That takes a lot of preparation. It gets done in part thanks to the quality of the people involved. They’re great people, and I’m happier about the success of the show because of it."
Images from True Blood Season 4 and 6 courtesy HBO.