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Power, Politics and Pixels: How Eigil Bryld Envisioned 'House of Cards'

House of Cards is Netflix’s bold, $100 million foray into episodic television production. Executives at the streaming video service saw a perfect opportunity to break into original programming, in part because executive producer David Fincher’s movies do well on Netflix, as do political thrillers in general. Netflix is breaking more new ground by releasing the entire 13-episode first season at once, an acknowledgment that viewing habits have changed.

Kevin Spacey in a scene from Netflix’s House of Cards. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon for Netflix

Fincher, known for directing feature films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, Zodiac and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, saw potential in the BBC series of the same name, and recruited writer Beau Willimon (The Ides of March) to reinvent the story of power and politics in an American milieu. Kevin Spacey, taking a break from his role as artistic director at the Old Vic Theater in London, also came on board and served as catalyst and star.

Netflix is planning to premiere other original shows this year, including Hemlock Grove, Orange Is the New Black and Derek, a Ricky Gervais comedy. But House of Cards is being billed as the first show made for Netflix. Fincher has been quoted as saying that the “hands-off” approach of the company reminds him of the 1970s studio environment he’d heard about in which filmmakers pitched an idea and were then allowed to follow through as they saw fit, without interference from standards and practices or number-crunching execs.

“I wanted to create an environment where you go in, point at the left field wall, and swing as hard as you can,” Fincher told DGA Magazine.

To handle cinematography duties in this endeavor, Fincher turned to Eigil Bryld, an Emmy nominee for Barry Levinson’s 2010 Kevorkian portrait You Don’t Know Jack. Bryld is a Danish-born, Welsh-educated cameraman whose other credits include In Bruges, Kinky Boots and Not Fade Away. Bryld shot 11 episodes of the first season of House of Cards, including the first two, which were directed by Fincher. There was not a pilot per se. A succession of directors that included Joel Schumacher, Carl Franklin and James Foley oversaw subsequent episodes.

A behind-the-scenes shot from Netflix’s House of Cards that features Kevin Spacey and Kate Mara. Director of photography Eigil Bryld is pictured on the far left. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon for Netflix

“Our initial conversations were very hands-on,” says Bryld. “David outlined an approach that included no zooms, no Steadicam and no handheld. Everything was to be very composed, and designed to communicate a sense of power and space. He wanted each frame and each composition to really grab the audience with its volume, gravity, drama and darkness.”

In addition to the Baltimore-area locations, the production built a number of sets at a converted warehouse, including congressional office interiors, corridors, the Oval Office, and the Underwood residence, home of Spacey’s character. More than half of the show unfolds on these sets, which were designed to emphasize perspective and facilitate moving from room to room.

The plan called for most scenes to be covered with two RED EPICs and ARRI/Zeiss Master Prime lenses—a versatile combination, according to Bryld. Ten days were scheduled for each episode, with three or four additional days of prep for the early installments. Lighting was to be generally simple. A custom camera van, designed to carry lenses, cameras and dollies, was parked near pre-lit location sets. Bryld’s goal was to be unloaded, set up and shooting within 30 minutes of arrival at a location. Existing lighting sources played an important role, with some specific additional fixtures.

“The strategy was to devise setups where we could shoot very quickly and not spend time turning lighting setups around,” says Bryld. “The emphasis was on moving very quickly between sets, and being very lean, with the smallest possible crew. Most of our lighting approach was to take light away, and to manipulate what was there while keeping its shape and texture. We wanted to work at low light levels to get shallow depth of field, but also for practical reasons. The focus pullers really had to be on their game.”

Director of photography Eigil Bryld on the set of Netflix’s House of Cards. Photo by Patrick Harbron for Netflix

Blocking and coverage were crafted to be efficient and minimal. Both cameras were usually on dollies, one usually equipped with a Ravensclaw Talon remote head. “As we got better at it, we would often try to choreograph things around a wide shot that would become an over,” says Bryld. “Many scenes are done with two or three setups. We tried to plan so that we could use every single frame of every setup. This also worked really well for the performances. Very often we would get all the coverage on an actor in one setup. That way, you can use a very specific performance. Because it doesn’t have to cut with a different take, it allowed the actors to give each take its own character, and really explore.”

Bryld worked without a DIT on set, setting the look in the camera as much as possible. He usually adjusted the camera and lighting to a base of about 4,000° K. He used 6:1 compression (Fincher often opts for 5:1) because it allowed the use of secondary exposure, usually one stop under, which helped to achieve a more dramatic look. The aspect ratio was 2:1, and Netflix plans to present it in that format. Fincher graded all 13 episodes of season one himself, in part because Bryld was busy on the set.

“We shot fairly cool,” says Bryld. “We didn’t want to have the magenta or heavy orange feel throughout. But I tried to build in a lot of subtle color and variations. If there was sunlight, we really tried to respect that. Depending on the time of year, we would gel that either a little paler or warmer. If it was a blue sky, we really worked the shadows a little cooler, almost like a naturalist approach. Most of the sets had fleece muslin ceilings. We put in fluorescent tubes in a mix of daylight and tungsten so we could play it a little cooler or warmer and vary the intensity.”

Kate Mara and Kevin Spacey in a scene from Netflix’s House of Cards. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon for Netflix

Spacey’s character has a smiling, public politician side, as well as a scheming, ambitious facet. He often moves into and out of light, creating a visual analog to his dual nature. Occasionally he speaks directly to the camera, breaking the fourth wall—a device that survived the transition from the original BBC House of Cards.

Bryld says that the overall approach, depending on the situation, was to have slightly stronger highlights, with a more classic contrast and slightly warmer light. “We didn’t want it to be too managed,” he says. “The most important thing for us was to get drama, texture and strong composition. Obviously it has to look good, but it had to feel real as well. We would choose real over manicured or cosmetic.

“It’s all those subtle things that add up and give it the drama and visual interest,” says Bryld. “I learned that on a project like this, you have to build a knowledge base. Then you keep moving it forward and adjusting, bringing a fresh eye to it all the time.”

Bryld was recently named one of Variety’s “ten cinematographers to watch for in 2013.” House of Cards premiered on Netflix on Feb. 1.