Different optical systems used to invoke early 1800 romantic paintings versus the kinetic energy of modernist art
Set in in New York City in the 1880s, a period marked by the clash between old traditions and new paradigms, Julian Fellowes’ HBO original series The Gilded Age tells a story of two families from different socioeconomic backgrounds and the relationship between them as they are trying to navigate these times of immense change. Cinematographer Vanja Cernjul ASC HFS used Cooke Optics spherical S7/i and Anamorphic/i to visually show the contrasts between these two groups.
The Gilded Age chronicles the wide-eyed young scion of a conservative family who moves to New York City in 1882 and finds herself in the middle of a social war between old money and new money battling to preserve, or ascend, the social hierarchy. The first episode became available for streaming in the US on HBO Max on 24 January, 2022.
“The first question we had to answer was ‘how do we visually distinguish the two social contexts at the heart of the story?”, according to Cernjul. “We didn’t want to use any formally distracting or obvious stylistic choices but wanted the differences to be felt rather than easily seen. We wanted the world of ‘Old New York’ to feel like the romantic paintings of the early 1800s, with their sense of idealised past and escapism from waves of change that came with industrialisation. In contrast, the ‘New New York’ would have the kinetic energy of modernist art, invoking rejection of conservative values and preference for bold, loud visual statements. In the words of Kasia Walicka-Maimone, our costume designer extraordinaire, ‘Old New York’ should feel like being inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art and ‘New New York’ should feel like visiting MoMa [the Museum of Modern Art].”
“In order to achieve this distinction, we came up with multiple, yet subtle, photographic choices,” according to Cernjul. “One of my early ideas was to use different optical systems for different parts of the story. I thought that the use of anamorphic lenses and the characteristic artifacts they produce would add that hint of nostalgia and romance we were looking to give to the ‘Old New York’ milieu. Spherical lenses on the other hand, being sharper and cleaner, would serve the part of the story that takes place in ‘New New York’.”
“We chose the Cooke Anamorphics and the spherical Cooke S7/i. The unique, round ‘Cooke Look’ we all love so much bonded the two looks together,” said Cernjul. All Cooke lenses are colour-matched, which allowed Cernjul to interchange with confidence.
The Gilded Age ‘Old New York’ Anamorphic/i lenses were the 25mm, 32mm, 40mm, 50mm, and 65mm MACRO. The ‘New New York’ kit consisted of the S7/i 18mm, 21mm, 25mm, 27mm, 32mm, 40mm, 50mm, 75mm, 100mm, 135mm, and 180mm primes. In addition, Cernjull had the S4/i 180mm and 5/i 65mm. Lenses were mounted to three Panasonic Varicam PURE cameras.
“Another distinction was the texture. We used the real-time texturing tool LiveGrain to give the two worlds slightly different grain textures. The ‘Old New York’ texture was based on the shape of the Kodak EXR colour negative grain, while the ‘New New York’ had a slightly different grain shape based on Kodak Vision3 colour negative. These two film stocks were from different eras in film history and we wanted to use their textures for storytelling rather than to just simulate film grain.”
“Production designer Bob Shaw and his amazing team have built incredible sets at the Broadway Stages in Queens, NY and at the Gold Coast Studios in Bethpage, NY. Our backlot set was built next to the Museum of American Armor, also close to Bethpage, NY. Originally, the plan was to use few locations in Manhattan, but because of pandemic restrictions, crews larger than 50 people were not allowed to shoot in New York City, so we had to move out of town. Most of our location work was done in Newport, RI and Troy, NY.”
According to Cernjul, the competition between the ‘Old Money’ families like the Astors and the ‘New Money’ entrants like the Vanderbilts to showcase their unprecedented wealth is still on display in the extravagant Newport mansions of the Gilded Age super-rich. “These mansions provided perfect locations for us. It was truly a privilege to be able to shoot in these amazing historic locations. I come from Europe where most locations like these were burned down at least twice in the last 100 years alone, so it was fascinating to see that most of these grand salons, dining rooms and master bedrooms still had original window dressing and carpeting.”
“Most of the Newport mansions are now museums, which presented production challenges, but they were well worth the time and effort,” said Cernjul. “One of the first observations I had when we scouted these grand locations was how everyone behaved when they first entered the rooms. When seeing the space for the first time, everyone would first move their heads from side to side in awe, then they would look up at the magnificent ceilings and then some people would rotate their bodies around in an effort to take in the space. I had conversations with one of our two directors, Michael Engler, whom I would work with on the first three and last three episodes of season – one about how to translate that experience of entering these spaces for the first time into a two-dimensional film frame.”
“Most of the characters in the story were used to living and working in places like these, so a moving POV wasn’t a way to go,” said Cernjul. “Rather, we wanted to see the characters in a frame wide enough to show the spaces in all their glory and serve as a scale. We didn’t want to use an extreme wide-angle lens because we didn’t want to draw attention to the camera and distort the architecture. The solution I came up with was tiling and stitching.”
Cernjul shot a simple test placing a stand-in into the central ‘master frame’ and then shot eight other tiles that were stitched into an impossibly wide shot. “Our VFX department stitched the tiles together and corrected as much of the distortions and bending on the edges of the combined panorama as they could. I showed the results to Michael and he loved it. We used this technique every time the story took us to a new location. We would shoot the master frame with actors and then we would shoot the tiles of the whole room. There was a bit of a learning curve on how to make this process as fast and efficient as possible, so we could repeat it every time a scene called for one of these shots.”
Cernjul said that the process of shooting and stitching the images together started with putting the camera in a nodal configuration. “Our first AC John Oliveri figured out a quick way to make that happen. The scene had to be lit in a way that would allow shooting additional tiles without major re-lighting and we couldn’t have any lighting or grip equipment visible in any of the tiles. We also had to make sure that all the action fits inside the ‘master tile’ without reframing. Once VFX combined all the tiles and corrected the geometry, each one of these had to be cropped slightly in order to fine tune the compositions. I am not aware if this technique was used this way before, but it became one of our ‘signature’ shots. We called these shots ‘Master Panoramas’. I was very happy with the way the Cooke lenses served the story.”
Although the Panasonic Varicam PURE camera doesn’t have the ability to record the Cooke lens /i Technology data, it can read and pass through that data to the camera’s video outputs. That would become very useful, according to Oliveri. “The /i Technology was very helpful to not only our DIT, Matt Selkirk, but to both of our DPs, Vanja Cernjul and Manuel Billeter. They were able to monitor the iris setting at all times as well as what lens size was currently on the camera. Plus, it was also helpful to our VFX team to see it displayed, so as to not have to constantly ask the camera assistants for the information they needed.”