Shifting Perspectives: Recording and Revealing the Complex Narrative of 'The Affair'

Cinematographer Steven Fierberg shot the television series with the cinematic approach he’s brought to his many indie features, including cult favorite 'Secretary.'
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The Showtime series The Affair offers cinematographer Steven Fierberg, ASC, the opportunity to shoot a television series with the cinematic approach he’s brought to his many indie features, including cult favorite Secretary (2002). While he’s also found great success shooting television, including Entourage and many other two-camera-style series, he got a particular creative charge out of covering so much of The Affair in single handheld shots positioned extremely close to the actors.

Fierberg shot the entire 10-episode first season, which traces the course of an illicit relationship between two people—Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson), who are married, but not to each other—through flashbacks of their Hamptons affair as relayed by each during police interrogations that frame the story. These interrogations are related to a crime whose details will be revealed over the course of the season.

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Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/Showtime.

Show creators Hagai Levi and Sarah Treem (House of Cards, In Treatment) were particularly interested in the concept of point of view, a component of storytelling often given short shrift in movies and television shows. As with the classic Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon, the audience is shown events quite differently depending on who is relaying them. In Noah’s version of events, for example, Alison’s costume, makeup and demeanor are more overtly seductive, while in her recollection, Noah comes off as a pompous lech. The camera frequently captures characters in wide-angle close-ups that tend to feel extremely intimate, even invasive.

The cinematographer recalls early discussions with the show creators and even Showtime execs that referenced actor/director John Cassavetes, known for a series of independent films he made in the 1960s through the 1980s, generally on a shoestring budget, that portrayed a level of raw realism rarely seen in films before or since. (Suffice it to say that Cassavetes’ name is not a staple of TV development meetings.) “I’m a big fan of Faces,” Fierberg says of the director’s 1968 feature that studies the emotional pain in its small group of characters with unremitting honesty, and often with long takes and very close shots. “It would be one of my top ten of all time. There’s a naturalism to the camera style like that that I don’t think you can capture any other way.”

Scenes in The Affair designed to deliver the greatest emotional impact were shot single-camera style, with the ARRI Alexa operated either handheld or on Steadicam in a tight frame using a very wide 29mm or 35mm lens, often within a foot or two of an actor’s face. “A close-up with a 32 looks very different than a close-up with a 75,” Fierberg explains. “As a rule, most people look more beautiful with a 75. But there’s an emotional connection you get from the camera being physically close to somebody that I think is much more real.”

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Ruth Wilson as Alison and Kaija Matis as Mary-Kate. Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/Showtime.

It’s also harder to light. There are fewer places to hide lights and far more ways to cause unwanted shadows, including those inevitably caused by an operator positioned between a light source and an actor. “You obviously can’t use hard lights,” Fierberg notes. “We do a lot of bouncing into white muslin and we have grips walking around with bead board. But that doesn’t mean it has to look flat. If you can let something in the frame go dark, you can use very soft sources and still get a nice, rich image.”

While this kind of shooting essentially limits filmmakers to a more traditional shooting style—there’s nowhere to hide a second or third camera when working so close—Fierberg believes it helps delineate a point of view. “You’re close to the character, and when they look away, you’re seeing the scene the way they see it. And to be honest, I think that’s ‘cinema.’ It should be subjective. Whatever you see should allow you to be emotionally connected to another person. Much of Faces was shot close-up with a wide-angle lens and those are some of the greatest performances in the history of cinema, in my opinion.”

While he’s made great use of two-camera shooting on shows such as Entourage, and he resorted to the approach for some complex multi-character scenes in The Affair, the heart of the story is told in single-camera style.

Fierberg employed Panavision PVintage primes, which offer “a softer look,” he says, “less ‘digital’ and I think prettier. There’s an impressionistic feel to the way backgrounds go out of focus.” To further soften the images, he added light Tiffen Soft/FX filtration. “I don’t think there’s any other way you can get the look we were after,” he says, admitting that some DPs today prefer to shoot clean and dial in digital “filters” later. “You might like the look you can get in post. And maybe, if you have unlimited time and money, it is possible to create something identical digitally. But nothing I’ve ever seen has done it, so I still achieve the effect through lenses and filters.”

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Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/Showtime.

In addition to the PVintage primes, the cinematographer carried an Angenieux Optimo 15-40, which he used for some multi-character scenes (“It’s definitely faster to shoot with a zoom,” he admits) and for all the interrogation scenes. The sharper, more contrasty image and extremely wide 21mm focal length helped separate these more “objective” portions from the style of the main story. Fierberg also shot these sections locked down or on a dolly to further distinguish their look from the volatile, handheld camera work used for the flashback elements that comprise the majority of the action.

The 10 episodes were shot over a five-month period on location in Montauk, Long Island, primarily in the off-season. A number of interiors were shot on sets at Brooklyn’s Broadway Stages.

The ARRI Alexas recorded 2K ProRes 4444 Log C files to SxS cards (for 1920 x 1080 delivery). Fierberg says of the 2K resolution for HD delivery, “You never know. They might want to convert it to 4K at some point. 2K ProRes was new at the time but I’m glad we shot it at 2K. We didn’t shoot for theatrical distribution but Showtime projected the pilot in a big theater and I was very pleased with how good it looked. I’m glad we worked in 2K.”

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Cinematographer Steven Fierberg

While the director of photography preferred to build the look in-camera, he did have digital imaging technician Ted Viola build a LUT for use on-set and in the dailies that slightly softened the blacks—an effect he would later use to varying degrees in post, particularly to take a bit of the edge off material shot with the sharper, more contrasty Optimo zooms.

Fierberg has enjoyed working in many different styles, but he definitely relished the opportunity to bring the indie cinema mentality that put him on the map to this Showtime series. “I couldn’t have been more thrilled working on this,” he says. “The whole time it felt like we were really doing something artistic and truthful.”

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