Set in New York during the 19th century Gilded Age, The Alienist takes place in a time before either of its key themes—serial murder and psychiatry—had even been named. In the story, based on Caleb Carr's mystery, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) is an alienist—a precursor to the psychiatrist—who, with the help of journalistic illustrator, John Moore (Luke Evans), secretary Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) and others, including a pre-San Juan Hill Theodor Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty), endeavor to solve a series of grisly murders.
Cinematographer P.J. Dillon joined director Jakob Verbruggen (The Fall) for preproduction of TNT's adaptation, a 10-part miniseries, in Budapest. Dillon was fresh off shooting Game of Thrones in Spain and was fascinated by the possibilities offered by The Alienist. His job would certainly be different from that of helping evoke the fantasy world of GoT, but with its setting nobody alive has experienced, it also would be far from straightforward naturalism.
"You can never really tell how people saw things at the time," offers Dillon, who shot the initial episodes; Chris Seager, Gavin Struthers and Larry Smith took on cinematography duties for later episodes. "But if you look at the art from the period, it gives you a good impression of how some people saw the world—or better yet, how they perceived it."
In conjunction with Verbruggen, production designer Mara LePere-Schloop and other department heads, Dillon researched paintings and photographs of the Manhattan of the period, with the city's contrasts of conspicuous consumption and grinding poverty. "We looked at American impressionist painters like Paul Coroyer and [Frederick] Childe Hassam and photographers like Edward Steichen and Alfred Steieglitz. We weren't going for a documentary look, trying to recreate exactly how things were; we wanted to see how the environment was represented and work from there."
The painters' use of color was a key factor that the group responded strongly to. "They rarely used bright primary colors," he explains. "A lot of the artists tended to use a very subdued pallet and then punch individual strong colors through. That was something that we tried to bring in to the look of the show – pushing certain colors through an otherwise not too colorful scene.
"This idea played a part in the design of the sets and costumes and, of course, something I always thought about in the cinematography."
Dillon recalls being quite impressed when he arrived at the Budapest lot with where six New York streets had already been erected by the production. "They were quite long and very tall," he notes. "The producers didn't want to do too many VFX top-ups on the street work so the backlot was built to six stories high. We really only had to do set extensions [digitally in post] for far distances. So if the viewer would need to see all the way down a street and beyond, we'd put up large bluescreens at the end."
The streets of this New York complex were interlinking, "and the attention to detail was incredible," Dillon says. During shooting, they'd be able to traverse multiple city blocks without cutting, a feature of the space that Verbruggen makes use of several times. In the first episode, we follow a speeding horse-drawn carriage as it transports John Moore up busy streets and around corners to the scene of the story's first murder.
The series was shot entirely on ARRI Alexa Minis in ProRes 4444, except shots that would undergo substantial VFX work, which were shot in ARRIRAW. During preproduction, Dillon fine-tuned a viewing LUT, which he continued to work on for the first couple of weeks of production.
"You can test and test but things always change when you actually start to shoot," he cautions. "It was around the tenth day of shooting that we hit on one LUT that I felt was a catchall for the show that would work in pretty much any circumstance—day interior, night exterior—everything in terms of how we wanted it to look. We pretty much stuck with that LUT for the rest of the show and the telescopic crane [with a stabilized head] with a self-leveling platform on a 100-ton construction crane.
"The crane on another crane allowed us to achieve camera moves at heights we couldn't achieve from the ground," the cinematographer explains. The production made use of Technocranes for specific shots and carried a GF8 at all times. They would rent various sized Technocranes specific days and also flew the camera from some wire-based systems.
"With a lot of our sets, it was important to have the ceilings be ornate and photographable," he elaborates. "So we had to develop a discipline of having to light through windows that suited the sensibility of what we were trying to achieve. The approach was to find the best placement for these lamps so that their light would bounce around the set and then we could supplement lighting for close-ups a little a bit with smaller sources on the floor."
Beyond that, as with the exteriors, the gaffers also built LED soft boxes to house Lite-Tile+ (by LiteGear) strips. "Like our big exterior SkyPanel softboxes," Dillon says, "these were fed back to a dimmer by monitors in the DIT tent so I had instant control at all times. They proved extremely reliable throughout the shoot."
All the LEDs, he adds, "were very light and didn't emit heat that would have made the stages impossibly hot. The fact that we could change the levels and colors on the LEDs so easily was also enormously effective. It would have been next to impossible to have crewmembers running around and changing out gels on that many lights. Here, we could change the [output] within a take, as we did sometimes for shots from inside a carriage moving through the streets. The LEDs definitely helped us do what we wanted to do in a reasonable amount of time—which was particularly important shooting in Budapest in midsummer, when you're lucky to get six hours of darkness."