Cinematographers & Cameras: Emmy Nominees Reflect On "True Detective," "Hanna"
Germain McMicking, ACS, an Emmy nominee for his lensing of "True Detective"
Germain McMicking discusses lensing the HBO series; Dana Gonzales scores 5th career nomination

One cinematographer just earned his first primetime Emmy nomination; the other garnered the fifth of his career.

The latter is Dana Gonzales, ASC, whose fifth nod came for the very first episode of Hanna (Amazon). Back in 2016, Gonzales had won an Outstanding Cinematography Emmy for Fargo, a series which also scored him nominations in 2014 and 2017. And last year he was nominated for an episode of Legion.

Meanwhile our first-time Emmy nominee is Germain McMicking, ACS for his work on “The Great War and Modern Memory” episode of True Detective (HBO).

SHOOT caught up with McMicking and Gonzales who provided backstories and insights into their Emmy-nominated work this awards season.

True Detective
Season three of True Detective, the series created by Nic Pizzolatto, brought new protagonists, the backdrop of the Ozarks and arguably the most ambitious, certainly most expansive story arc yet. Characters’ lives are seen over 35 years, with a particular focus on Wayne Hayes, an Arkansas state police detective (portrayed by two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali) who’s haunted by a macabre case centered on the disappearance of a young brother and sister in Arkansas. We see Hays on the case as an in-his-prime detective all the way to his being an older man suffering profound memory loss, albeit with some lucid moments.

McMicking’s Emmy nomination is one of nine bestowed upon True Detective, the others including Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series for Ali, and best Single-Camera Picture Editing for Leo Trombetta.

McMicking was drawn to the show immediately upon reading the scripts. “I loved the world Nic had created and this beautiful and deeply layered story of a man desperately trying to find context and truth, in a life challenged by dementia.” The DP described the show as “in some respects a classic and richly woven crime and family drama” which “challenged us with a deeply philosophical rumination on the abstract nature of time and memory. There was so much to play with visually and structurally in terms of telling these character journeys.”

The cast was a magnet for McMicking as well. “The opportunity to work with someone of the caliber of Mahershala Ali doesn’t come around every day,” said McMicking, who also cited actors Carmen Ejogo, Stephen Dorff and Scoot McNairy. The DP also found the prospect alluring of working with director Jeremy Saulnier.

“This was the first time I had worked with Jeremy, and I think the first time I actually met him was when I landed in Arkansas on the Monday in January to start work. It was actually pretty strange, as normally you’d bank on knowing who your collaborators were, but we were all a little bit blind,” related McMicking. “I was certainly a fan of Saulnier’s work, especially Blue Ruin, which was such an incredible achievement regardless of its small budget and size. For him to pull that off, it was obvious to me and the rest of the world that he’s got a strong voice and is very talented.”

McMicking felt that his working relationship with Saulnier “solidified pretty quickly during pre-production. We both soon found similar aesthetic desires for the show.”

Saulnier had also brought his production designer Ryan Warren Smith to True Detective. They had worked previously on the features The Green Room and then Hold The Dark. McMicking observed, “Ryan was like the oracle on this show (True Detective). As directors changed he was a constant, and was definitely a significant voice in holding the whole thing together. Those two had been working for a couple of months before I started, so they were well advanced in terms of reference material and design. They had a great book of photographic references, things specific to Arkansas and the 1980s, and also ideas and feelings specific to this show. It was a great resource especially for 1980s’ scenes, where I could get a real feeling for the color and light of the time. I love this period of pre-production, where everything is possible and through the process of sharing references and talking through the script you start to form a specific language and style for that particular show.”

Visual references, recalled McMicking, included the photography of Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, and the personal and open American landscapes they portrayed. “Mike Brodie’s book ‘A Period of Juvenile Prosperity’ was also a great reference for its beautiful color and tone.”

There was also the influence of Saul Leiter’s abstract expressionism. “We had hopes to play in this world,” said McMicking, noting that he and Saulnier “loved Leiter’s use of reflections in his work, and felt that was something we could utilize, as we felt that reflection could reveal something about the elliptical nature of time.

“‘My America’ by political photographer Christopher Morris also became a personal inspiration for scenes in the 1990s and 2000s. I loved the quality of his photographs, the cool austere feeling of them, and the way he could isolate characters within a landscape.”

Among the films referenced were River’s Edge, At Close Range, and Picnic At Hanging Rock.

Relative to choice of camera, McMicking gravitated to the ARRI Alexa. “Obviously the Alexa is an industry workhorse, its reliability is proven and I love the aesthetics of its sensor. HBO and production were happy with Alexa, shooting ProRes 3.2K, and they also had a preference to shoot this series spherically. I was in agreement here, as I knew I wanted the ability to be quite subjective with our lensing of Wayne Hayes, and get physically closer to him on slightly wider lenses at times, so spherical it was.

“Whenever possible I try to work with Panavision on my shows,” continued McMicking. “I love their service and inventory of glass. Given we were shooting entirely in Northwest Arkansas, where there isn’t any local support or film industry, it was especially comforting knowing we had their backup.”

McMicking and Saulnier initially had a mind to mark each time period with different sets and eras of lenses. “But the more we tested,” explained McMicking, “we just kept coming back to an opinion that the added texture and feel of more vintage glass would work across all the time periods. Also because of the cross boarded approach, I realized on a practical level that running different sets of lenses for different time periods would have been expensive and a logistical headache. We were constantly moving back and forth from 1980, 1990, and the 2000s. Saulnier and I also felt that there were so many other signifiers, in front of the camera, to mark the jumps in time. Production design elements, to wardrobe and makeup all made these times so distinct.

“So ultimately we settled with multiple sets of Panavision Ultra Speeds, in a mix of both 1970’s ‘Yellow’ speeds, and 1980’s ‘Green’ speeds. They’re very textural, filmic lenses, versatile and fast, have beautiful round bokeh, and some interesting edge fall off especially when shooting OpenGate or 3.2K.”

McMicking also felt that qualities of the Ultra Speeds worked in harmony with the aging makeup applied by Mike Marino and his team. That amazing makeup could even be hit with a hard light. “It was flawless,” assessed McMicking. “Other lenses we employed were a number of ‘Portrait’ anamorphic and spherical lenses for flashbacks in Episode 8, Panavision Primo 11:1 and 3:1 zooms, Super Baltars, and PV/ Century shift and tilts.”

McMicking did alter the color palette for the different time periods in terms of lighting design, and implemented some conscious shifts with lensing.

“The 1980 color palette was somewhat an Ektachrome look, playing off the desaturated tones of an Arkansas winter. We wanted a slight yellow tone to our mids with cooler highlights. I remember a go-to lens for that period was the 40mm Ultra speed, which is comprised of warmer Baltar glass, as opposed to the rest of the Ultra speed Zeiss-based lenses, which are much cooler. I loved this lens for the period as it had a natural yellow cast due to its distinctive coatings, and when shooting wide open it would fall apart in the most beautiful way.

“I think in general,” he continued, “the 1980s’ scenes pushed the lenses more to their limits, and as we progressed through time we gave them a little more stop, to increase contrast and feeling of resolution. We tried to steer toward wider lenses in this period, or sit back from our heroes a little, and have them feel a little more observed. I guess we were conscious that in many ways everything was a memory of Wayne’s from the present. So as time progressed we tried to be become a little more subjective with point of view, and for the camera to begin to subtly close in on Wayne as the story progressed--ever so slowly hinting on getting deeper inside his mind, and communicating a world where the truth is closing in on him.”

As for lessons learned from his True Detective experience--marking the first assignment for the Aussie working in the U.S.--McMicking shared that a prime takeaway which “continually needs to be taught, from project to project, is to trust in the author and their script. Whenever there is doubt or confusion, the answer should always be there.”

Regarding shooting in the U.S., McMicking assessed, “I loved everything about it, the crew, the people and the environment, and I really appreciated the benefits of working on something with such scale. I just felt my palette was so much broader, and I could paint with more subtlety.”

The DP feels honored and humbled to receive an Emmy nomination. “I am immensely proud of the work every member of the crew put into making this show. To have the cinematography nominated by my peers is of course a great validation of the work, of all the artists who contributed to the pictures. For me personally I do feel that my contribution on True Detective marked a ‘coming of age’ so to speak, as I feel like this particular production provided the best opportunity I’ve had so far, to utilize the depth of experience that I’ve gathered over the years. I know professionally that there was an incredible response to the show, and some fantastic interest in what I’m up to next. So, I think for me it just raises the bar higher, and that ain’t bad.”

Cinematographer Gonzales earned the lone Emmy nomination for Hanna, a hybrid high action thriller/coming-of-age drama which introduces us to a girl raised in the forest by her father to be an assassin. The teenager is dispatched on a mission across Europe, tracked by a ruthless renegade CIA agent and fellow operatives.

The show reunited Gonzales with director Sarah Adina Smith; the two had earlier teamed on an episode of Legion.

Gonzales was drawn to Hanna and got the chance to work on the show in part due to Smith. He also was a fan of the Joe Wright-directed movie of the same title on which the Amazon series is based. Further piquing Gonzales’ interest was the chance to work with David Farr, creator of the Hanna series and writer of the feature film that spawned it. Farr was also famously writer/executive producer of the acclaimed AMC series The Night Manager.

Gonzales described director Smith as “a major up-and-coming force” who’s “gifted in storytelling and open to going to places she hasn’t been before technically and creatively.” They had done some major exploratory work together on Legion and struck up a rapport. This time, their combined impact on Hanna would be profound since they took on its first two episodes (“Forest” followed by “Friends”)--in effect setting the look and tone for the entire series. Gonzales noted that the scripts pretty much called for him to reshoot the original movie in those first two episodes, a proposition that captivated him creatively.

Lensing spanned such locales as Slovakia, Hungary, Morocco and Spain, required the building of ambitious cave sets, shooting in the snow, meeting a whole new Eastern European crew, opening up what Gonzales called “a new world.” He and Smith embraced those challenges, with the DP observing that their journey venturing into the unknown was like that of the character Hanna--going to places she wasn’t familiar with and finding the best in those worlds. “I had never been in Slovakia, Morocco, the desert in Spain before,” he noted. “It was exciting on all levels. I love the unknown.”

Gonzales deployed the ARRI Alexa Mini on Hanna, opting for Panavision Primo lenses for the snowy forest world where the protagonist resided for the first 16 years of her life. The lenses captured a sharpness and freshness compatible with that pristine world she knew as a child and teen. By contrast, Gonzales went with Panavision PVintage lenses for the everyday world to which she was transitioning. Gonzales’ lens choices helped to differentiate the looks of Hanna’s two distinct worlds.

Gonzales exploited the mobility of the Alexa Mini, which he noted is very proven in extreme weather. In fact, he used it successfully on Fargo during the winters. Gonzales added that it was a kick to put Panavision lenses on the Alexa, lending a new dimension to the work.

Gonzales’ performance on the awards show circuit extends beyond the Emmy win and total of five career nominations. Last year his work on Legion, specifically the “Chapter 1” episode, earned Gonzales his first ASC Award nomination. And in 2017, Legion made him a Camerimage Jury Award nominee in the Best Pilot category.

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