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Power Struggle: Realizing J.J. Abrams’ Post-Apocalyptic Series 'Revolution'

Set in a post-apocalyptic future without electricity or any of the technology we rely on today, NBC’s Revolution tells the story of a young woman, Charlie (newcomer Tracy Spiridakos), who must face warlords and unpredictable militias as she attempts to discover the role her family played in the disaster that set civilization back centuries. The new series from creator/executive producer Eric Kripke, with executive producer J.J. Abrams and co-executive producer Jon Favreau, asks audience members to imagine what they would do if the lights went out for good.

Tracy Spiridakos as Charlie Matheson in Revolution. Photo by Trae Patton

I spoke to David Moxness, who alternates as director of photography on the series with David Stockton. (Michael Bonvillain shot the pilot, which was directed by Favreau.) “The big trick is keeping the emotion and feel of the show without having the option of changing the color of the light,” Moxness declares. “We can set something at sunrise or sunset or at noon or it can be a night scene, but we don’t have the option of using practicals except for the light of a torch or a lantern or campfire.”

Shot in and around Wilmington, N.C., the production takes place on some recurring stages (characters’ homes, etc.) and swing sets built on a soundstage in Wilmington itself. The rest is shot on locations, generally in undeveloped areas in and around the town. Each episode shoots for eight days of principal photography, with a ninth day set aside generally for stunt work and other second unit photography.

The cinematographers cover most of the action with two ARRI Alexas mounted with ARRI Ultra Prime and Angenieux Optimo zoom lenses (for handheld and Steadicam work) and record ProRes Log C format to SxS cards. The shooters rate the cameras at the native EI 800 for night shooting and as low as 160 to accommodate the bright North Carolina sun, allowing them to shoot days without having to stack a lot of optical ND glass in front of the lens.

Moxness explains that the sun is obviously the source for scenes set during the day. “We’ll use real sunlight and some HMI lights through doors and windows for interiors. Then at night,” he continues, “darkness goes dark! Sometimes we’ll bounce some light to add ‘moon’ ambience, but primarily the source is fire—things like oil lamps and torches.”

(Foreground L-R) B-camera operator Mike Repeta, A-camera operator Matt Doll and director of photography David Moxness (blue shirt).

He makes use of the Alexa’s 800 speed to allow the firelight to do a significant amount of the actual illumination, rather than bringing all the levels up with big lights simulating the firelight. Working at that kind of sensitivity can have its drawbacks when working in a park just down the street from a residential neighborhood. “Last night we were shooting in the ‘woods,’ and way back in the frame you could see the odd street lamp very clearly. During the surveying process we try to get those lights turned off, but we can’t always.”

Though the fire does contribute to the exposure, Moxness and Stockton augment with smaller lighting units (primarily tungsten) through warm-colored gels and bounced into soft gold lamé fabric. These lights, hooked up to flicker boxes, allow the cinematographers a bit more control, especially for close-ups. “We have more choice of color we introduce onto the actors by using these lighting instruments instead of relying on the color of the flame itself,” he says.

Holding color and detail in firelight and the people or objects it’s illuminating is always a tricky thing for a cinematographer. Moxness credits the Alexa’s speed and latitude in letting him hold detail in the fire and in the surrounding scene, but he also uses some bounce from HMIs and helium balloon lights. “In a forest or desert environment, you can get a very dark black hole in the middle of a shot in a hurry, so I use the balloon lights and large bounce sources to give overall ambience. We also use a lot of backlit smoke, which helps give another element to the shots.”

Billy Burke as Miles. Photo by Bob Mahoney

Still, with so little variety in motivating light sources, he notes, “we get a very warm look and feel, where you don’t get contrast in the image through other color tones. Instead, we’ll shape the ambience with a bit of backlight and possibly key off the color tone of a wall or a building to allow us to shift to another tone so night scenes don’t become monochrome.”

Camera movement on the show is designed to be different from the style of many one-hour dramas on television today. “We approach movement the way it was done in old westerns,” he says. “Look back to John Ford films, with these big vistas with long dolly shots and slow moves, and then they cut into a crisp close-up. It’s not this frenzy of handheld shots and quick cuts, the road television’s gone down for awhile. We’re trying to give this a refreshing flavor.”

Ironically, the more kinetic, handheld work is reserved for the flashbacks to the pre-apocalyptic America of 15 years prior to show’s main storyline. These sequences, set roughly in the world we inhabit today, use “harsher, cool tones and crisp whites,” Moxness says. “We have electricity in that world, so we see hot practicals and things move at a frenetic pace. You might think that the post-apocalyptic times would be that way, but we play them more warm and fuzzy. There aren’t all kinds of electronic devices everywhere or vehicles speeding around. When we do see a car, it’s covered in vines. Nature has kind of reestablished itself.”

Moxness says that Revolution provides the cinematographers with exciting challenges. “It’s a great opportunity to explore a world week after week that has no electrical power or practical sources. I enjoy taking on the challenges. I like when the work is kind of tricky, rather than just coming in and shooting run-of-the-mill situations. I’m really enjoying this show.”
 


The pilot episode of Revolution