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Precise, Perfect Images Define Netflix’s ‘House of Cards’

Netflix was already a globally successful content distributor before "House of Cards," but it may not have become the powerhouse of original content production it is without the political drama.

Netflix was already a globally successful content distributor before House of Cards, but it may not have become the powerhouse of original content production it is without the political drama.

Strange to recall now just what a risk this first original commission was for the streaming service and arguably all those involved creatively, from showrunner Beau Willimon to star Kevin Spacey and executive producer and director (of the first two episodes) David Fincher. Overnight critical acclaim and watercooler popularity woke the industry up to a new creative force in long-format storytelling.

From the very first scene of the first episode in 2013, it was clear that there was a striking visual aesthetic at work. Every shot is composed with precision and austere elegance, emphasizing the cold, calculating world of Frank Underwood. The color combinations tended toward pale yellows and pale blues and, unlike many other shows, the camera movement was minimal.

Entering its fifth season, the challenge facing cinematographer David M. Dunlap was to maintain the pedigree established by Fincher, while at the same time adding his own creative stamp as an artist.

“Part of coming into a successful show is that there are so many brilliant choices in telling the story to which you want to stay faithful,” he says. “At the same time, every cinematographer brings their own creative input and has a different way of working.”

Dunlap—who was a fan of the show before joining at the end of season 3 as a camera operator and then as cinematographer in season 4—says his overriding goal was to return to the first season in terms of look and compositional style, while overlaying his own aesthetic sensibility.

“What struck me on watching the show was that the camera is observant. It’s not trying to get in the way of telling the story,” he says. “In our show, the acting and script are so riveting that there is less need to cut, and more time to let the scene breathe.”

There are other keys to its visual language too. The camera never pans and tilts at the same time, helping to create a sense of stillness. “There are no zooms, no handheld, and no Steadicam,” explains Dunlap. “From the start, the design of the show has been about keeping the camera simple and stable.”

Continuity is enhanced by using RED cameras, on which every frame of each season has been captured to date.

Together with DP Tim Norman (the pair lensed alternate episodes), the cinematographers ran tests with the RED EPIC Dragon to create a fresh color and contrast palette. “We wanted the camera settings to be like a single negative stock that we can always trust rather than performing much manipulation in camera.”

As in previous seasons, the team takes advantage of the extra resolution of RED imagery. By shooting at 6K and framing the shots for 5K at a 2:1 aspect ratio, the director and cinematographer can be even more precise in their framing decisions in post.

The RED raw files are sent from the Baltimore set to Deluxe’s Encore Hollywood for conform in Autodesk Flame and grading using FilmLight’s Baselight.

RED has recently developed the Helium S35 sensor, which can capture at 8K resolution, and which Dunlap hints could feature in future seasons. “We are doing research on this to move forward,” says Dunlap. “It’s extremely exciting.”