How a Natural, Traditional Storytelling Approach in Camera and Lighting Helped Give HBO's Beloved Old West Yarn the Finale It Deserved

HBO’s acclaimed Deadwood, created by David Milch, drew numerous accolades during its three-year run on the cable giant. But the pricey series, starring Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane, was cancelled before its storyline — derived from real-life 19th century events and personages — could play out to completion. Milch never gave up on the idea of revisiting the series, and this hope finally came to fruition with a recent cable feature, which provides some much-needed closure for its many devoted fans. Cinematographer David Klein, ASC, began his career with the indie hit Clerks, then shot several other Kevin Smith features. In recent years he lensed numerous episodes of HBO’s True Blood, plus the last several seasons of Showtime’s Homeland. StudioDaily interviewed Klein about his sojourn into the Western mythos of Deadwood: The Movie — which earned him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited Series or Movie.

StudioDaily: Can you get into the pre-production discussions about how best to shoot this final chapter of Deadwood, with respect to location, production resources and the like?

David Klein: I hadn’t been involved in the original. Pre-production for me was spent with [director/executive producer] Dan Minahan working out how to best tell our new story and also be as honest and true to the original as possible without imitation. We re-watched all three seasons and approached everything as if we were continuing where the third season left off, with some specific changes.

Changes showing how the march of time and modernization have affected the camp?

[Setting the story] 13 years later brought electricity to the city of Deadwood, but electric light wasn’t our narrative; our story was more about modernity encroaching on this town and those who were either pushing for it or angling against. Obviously, the human element of this story was what interested us most. and all creative or technical aspects of lighting and camerawork were discussed with this being our main focus. It meant that each character had their own place in the story and how they or their businesses, homes, etc. were lit was based on this position. Hearst [Gerald McRaney] was trying to run power and telephone lines to every inch of town, so his locations were lit more by electric light. Al Swearingen [McShane] wanted things to remain the same so his bar, The Gem, was lit by torches and oil lamps, and he inhabited a more interactive but antiquated lighting dynamic.

Ian McShane

Ian McShane in Deadwood: The Movie
Warrick Page/HBO

With the show’s history of being originated on 35mm film, was the method of acquisition an issue among the creatives or with HBO? Can you go into some detail on camera/lens selection and workflow?

We tested the Alexa LF against the Alexa Mini and modern Zeiss Supreme Primes vs vintage glass — rehoused Canon lenses provided by Christopher Probst, ASC — all with a 2.0:1 aspect ratio. As modern lenses had been used on the original series, we thought the Supremes worked for us better. With our muddy locations and various camera rigging needs, the Alexa Mini’s benefits outweighed the benefits of the LF. All tests went to HBO, and because they were extremely happy with the results they saw at the time on dailies from Chernobyl, [the aspect ratio of] 2.0:1 wasn’t questioned at all. We started out shooting for a 2.0:1 common-top extraction so as to protect our frame later in case of an eventual 1.78:1 version, but after HBO and [executive producer] Gregg Fienberg assured me that there would never be a 1.78:1, we started framing for center extraction. Fienberg and I also had extremely great results with Suny Behar’s LiveGrain when we switched True Blood from 35mm film to digital, and so relied on him again to add realistic grain to our Alexa-originated footage for Deadwood. What I love most about LiveGrain is that it puts underexposed grain in the lows, normally-exposed grain in the mids, and overexposed grain in the highlights, so it changes with your image and is very organic. It feels more like film than any other secondary grain overlay that I’ve ever seen. It helped us match the original, and with every new version he comes out with, we’re more pleased with Suny’s product.

Since the drama leverages heavily on flashbacks that do not look to have been tweaked or colored, was the look for the ‘now’ part of the movie intended to have a distinctly separate look? Was this a matter that resolved in the DI?

The flashbacks were not a part of the Deadwood movie script and were added during editorial. We tested some desaturated looks and other ways to give the flashbacks a different look. but ultimately it worked best to let the audio play and let the audience know what was going on, leaving the visuals as they had been originally.

Jade Pettyjohn in <i>Deadwood: The Movie</i>

Jade Pettyjohn in Deadwood: The Movie
Warrick Page/HBO

The naturalism of the interior lighting throughout the series and on the movie seemed effortless, but with advances in lighting now favoring LED did that impact your options for illumination?

Effortless looking lighting is almost always anything but. We generally did a great deal of work to make it appear like we’d done nothing. Generally I think if anybody notices the lighting, over and above seeing the story being told, we haven’t done our job, a major part of [which] is to be invisible and go unnoticed while still telling the story, visually. A lot of the smaller sources have moved in that LED direction and we relied heavily on them to create interactive fire light and also to streamline our processes and allow us to hide in the shadows, if you’ll pardon the expression. Our approach was as natural and realistic as possible. While getting to that end, we combined tungsten, LED and actual interactive firelight, and HMIs for moonlight where appropriate. Anytime new tech comes out we integrate it as soon as it’s ready. LED technology has been in the industry for almost 10 years, but in my opinion it’s been great for the past two years and only in the last year become a game-changer, [owing] to the battery and wireless side.

Were moving-camera innovations like MoVi a consideration when shooting on the muddy locations, or was the thought to keep the visual approach consistent with what had gone before?

Our approach to camera movement and overall look of the film was a traditional one. We did rely on all of the new technology available to us but also went with somewhat standard, solid support. We rigged a Libra stabilized head onto a wagon pulled by horses rather than go with something easier and lighter like a MoVi. For crane work we went with Moviebird telescopics from ProCam and Libras for a traditional version of techno [crane] work. [A-camera operator] John Joyce got his workout from our few big Steadicam scenes. We favored studio-mode dolly work rather than the handheld camerawork that we’ve all become accustomed to in 90% of what we do these days.

Dayton Callie in <i>Deadwood: The Movie</i>

Dayton Callie in Deadwood: The Movie
Warrick Page/HBO

I’m guessing VFX figured into the show a little more heavily this time around, with some digital set extensions and the opening featuring a train coming into town. Did you shoot plates or was production’s VFX supe looking after that?

Our assiduous VFX supervisor, Eric Hayden, kept his eyes on every frame we set up, whether it was an anticipated VFX shot or not. If we needed plates, he’d coordinate with us to shoot them on an Alexa if necessary, and if not, he’d generally shoot them himself on a Canon 5D. Everything above the buildings in the town of Deadwood was a set extension, which allowed us to leave lifts and fly swatters above the roof-lines if we needed to or if the schedule asked us to not take the time to move them. Whatever the case, Eric was with us every step of the way and made me look better than I deserved to look.

Were you able to sit in on the DI, or has it been more a matter of giving notes and getting occasional review sessions?

I was in Morocco on Homeland when the final grade was happening, but have worked with colorist Scott Klein (no relation) many times in the past, so we have a shorthand. They sent me encrypted, full-resolution files that were unlocked with an iLok dongle and I turned my Moroccan hotel room into a half-assed screening room with my laptop and Thunderbolt monitor. We went back and forth for a few weeks this way, with emailed notes followed up by phone calls, and the results were as good as if I’d been in the room with Scotty.

Timothy Olyphant and Gerald McRaney in <i>Deadwood: The Movie</i>

Timothy Olyphant and Gerald McRaney in Deadwood: The Movie
Warrick Page/HBO

Any particular scene or shot most memorable for you, with respect to the challenges offered and how you and your team dealt with it?

One shot that was both difficult and memorable, was a single shot for an entire scene that didn’t end up that way [in the final edit]. The story was Bullock setting fire to a pile of Hearst’s telephone poles before he rides into town and calls him out for murder. We were on a 45-foot Moviebird from ProCam and started with a shot on a match being lit and thrown on the pile of telephone poles. It scoped back in and over Bullock’s shoulder to the fire, and then wrapped around into a frontal close up before he walks back to his horse. We let the focus remain close, as it had been before he starts to leave. We had to shoot our way around new rules on fire at Melody Ranch, adding interactive fire from sources snuck in by stealthy electricians, all the while not lighting Melody too much, as we were shooting this piece there rather than at Hearst’s claim where it took place in the story. We shot at Melody so Eric Hayden could add fire elements and put everything together to complete the shot. A lot of moving parts and many elements to either figure out or stack on top later, all designed to serve the story and in the end worked as well as the team assembled to deal with such — from operator John Joyce and focus puller Dominik Mainl to gaffer Jeremy Graham and his electricians to key grip Anthony Vietro and dolly grip Ben Van Cleave. And at the end of the day, Eric put everything together like he was batting cleanup. Any one of these elements breaks down and the whole idea and falls apart. They were all hard and presented their own challenges but with this group, we all had each other’s backs and it proved to be a successful endeavor.