To present how papacy influenced the world over the years in Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History, cinematographer Dane Lawing wanted each era to have a historical look with a distinctly cinematic feel
By Pradeep Suvarna
Revisiting history for a TV series can be a challenging affair – while on one hand, viewers want to know what transpired years ago, they do not want to visualise it through the dusty lens of antiquity. And when the protagonist at the heart of the series is a character who is always a topic on intrigue, then the ante is raised further.
When CNN decided to come up with its six-hour, six-part mini-series on the centrifugal character of Christianity, the idea was to present how each pope used their influence to shape the course of world history and the religion during their time. Produced by Glass Entertainment Group and Rearrange TV, Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History, goes inside the Vatican to reveal the true nature of power and control held by popes through the ages.
HISTORY IN FOCUS
To present the historical vignettes in this CNN Original docu-series, titled, Dane Lawing, SOC, the DOP for this project wanted each era to have its own look and a distinctly cinematic feel. To achieve this, he relied on Cooke S4/i prime lenses.
“I just love these lenses,” said Lawing, referring to these lenses. “For the last year and a half, I used either the S4/i series or the miniS4/i primes pretty much exclusively. I like the cinematic look it gives; they are not harsh — especially with digital cinematography — and they have a contrast I really love, with deep blacks where the midtones don’t suffer and great bokeh. It is a look I would call creamy.”
Dane Lawing used a Cooke S4/i kit with eight primes: 18/25/32/40/50/75/100/135mm, relying mostly on the 25mm and 40mm for much of the two-camera shoot, with 138mm +1 and +2 diopters added for close-up work.
He used an ARRI Alexa SXT as A camera, with an Amira as B camera.
Lawing also likes the discipline of shooting with a prime lens, and with 25 to 35 setups a day he did not spend any more time switching lenses than he would have if using a zoom lens. His team used a lot of candlelight in this production, and at one point considered lighting almost entirely with candles, as that was the actual source of light for many of those real events. However, they faced legal issues with locations and the art department was terrified of dealing with the continuity issues.
Lawing recalled, “So, we created a convincingly natural look with LED lighting and placed practical candles in our frames to complete the effect. The bokeh and falloff were really nice and not at all distracting,” he added.
As a cinematographer with more than 20 years of experience, Lawing was familiar with Cooke lenses by reputation and from other DPs, but only started using the S4/i primes himself in 2016.
TRIED, TESTED AND APPROVED
Director Randy Counsman wanted Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History to have a unique look, so Lawing shot at a 32 FPS baseline for editing on a 24 FPS timeline. “It is just slow enough that it doesn’t feel so overcranked,” he explained. “I gave Counsman a bunch of tests at a number of framerates, and he liked 32 the best. That is also the frame-rate I use for underwater and fashion work, as it smoothens movement really well.”
He also enhanced the look with a number of custom LUTs and utilised creative filtration for each location and timeframe. Some of those LUTs were motivated from The Borgias TV series, and the World War II look was influenced by the film, Dunkirk, as he wanted to avoid the typical de-saturated look and go for the more cinematic look.
One of the scenes in which the S4/i primes really stood out is when Pope Pius XII first sees the atrocities of the concentration camps early in the Second World War. “As we circle around Pope Pius and a group of Bishops watching a 16mm film of a concentration camp, we see their faces,” said Lawing. “That scene looked so good that we ended up overshooting it, shooting right down the projector’s lens. I can shoot into a film projector, directly at hot windows – it just looks fantastic. I don’t have to worry the way I would have to with other current or vintage glass. In fact, my first AC told me how little work he had to do to protect the lenses from flaring. At one point, our B camera had matting like it technically should have been, but we were able to pull them out for a beautiful artistic look. That’s what you get from the S4/is.”
The premiere episode, The Rise of the Pope is scheduled to air around 1st April 2018 and examines the origins of the papacy and how Catholicism, against all odds, spread throughout Europe. It uncovers the truth about the one world leader who is neither a politician nor a general — but commands the attention of both. Combining never-before-seen footage, exclusive interviews, and dramatic recreations, this series focuses on the men who have held this unique and complicated position, and reveals the unexpected true stories from the Vatican’s past.