THE LENSES MAKE THE LOOK ON TRUE DETECTIVE

For cinematographer Nigel Bluck, ACS, it's all about the lenses. “You can say the different cameras out there are almost like different film stocks, but the most pronounced difference comes from the lenses,” says the native of New Zealand. “And that's what governs my allegiance to Panavision.”

Panavision's anamorphic lenses, in particular, are the draw, and he was especially keen on shooting the second season of HBO's True Detective series with them. Though the first season was shot on film, the producers approached Bluck with the idea of switching to a digital capture format. “If we were going to shoot digital, I campaigned heavily to shoot anamorphic,” he explains. “I’ve had great experiences shooting with an Alexa and anamorphic lenses, and what those lenses allowed me to do with a digital image. We did some tests shooting anamorphic and extracting the 16:9 image from the 2.35 anamorphic native image. The producers loved it and could see the value in the anamorphic approach and in vintage lenses as a whole, especially since a lot of the films we were referencing were noir films from 1970s America.”

"For me, for anamorphic, the only place to go really is Panavision," -Nigel Bluck, ACS

Season two of True Detective—this time starring Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch and Vince Vaughn—takes place in Southern California tackling a new story of murder and intrigue involving grandiose high-speed rail plans, corruption and the occult. Bluck wanted to capture the seedier side of California rather than its oft-depicted idyllic counterpart. To do so, Bluck armed himself with Panavised ARRI Alexa Plus XT 4:3 cameras, then turned his attention to lens choices. “For me, for anamorphic, the only place to go really is Panavision,” he says. “Historically it has such a steep history in anamorphic glass and, of course, the presence of (VP of Optical Engineering) Dan Sasaki. The thing I love about the digital medium is it's giving these anamorphic lenses, and older lenses and trickier pieces of glass, another life because of the purity of the image that is generated and what you can extract from it. With this project, especially because I am extracting 16:9, I wasn't interested in the outer thirds of the image, so I asked Dan to optimize for the image I'm extracting. I therefore could shoot these lenses wide open, whereas I wouldn't before because I would have to protect the image from banding on the edges.”

The cinematographer selected B-Series anamorphic lenses for Sasaki to optimize, along with some choice C-Series and E-Series lenses. He also managed to get one of the very few 65mm close-up lenses. “Once I got it, I held onto it!” he exclaims. “We used it very carefully as part of the visual language—shooting portraits when we were trying to get into a character's head, to extract them from the background and enter into their psyche.”

Bluck embraced the higher ASA settings on the Alexa, which allowed him to use less light but maintain good performance from the anamorphics. He used ND filters to control the lens' depth of field rather than adjust the iris. “This is a film about four people, their souls and the city,” Bluck explains. “I wanted a way to be able to pull them out of the background and make them these singular objects in this strange world, and anamorphic really gives me that ability to manipulate the depth of field more than any other does.”

He also gave the show an underexposed aesthetic, which was evident particularly in night scenes where the color temperatures of practicals were dimmed into dirty yellows and blacks take on a grungy orange tone. It's a look that reflects the toxic environs the characters inhabit. “I'm beating up the digital image to the point where it is screaming for light,” Bluck notes. “That's also how I like to shoot film. I work very closely with my DIT to just put things right on the edge of what's bearable. I knew this was a small screen finish, and I could push it that much further because noise is a little bit less of an issue.”