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Crime Scenes, Creative Storytelling: Production on HBO’s ‘True Detective’

Set among the bayous, bars and revival tents of rural Louisiana, HBO’s anthology series True Detective follows a pair of investigators (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) through a years-long investigation that begins with the discovery of the victim of a bizarre, ritualistic murder and only gets stranger from there. Much of what makes this eight-episode story particularly dark is the fact that writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto is at least as interested in the emotional turmoil motivating his detectives as he is in their investigation. Both lead characters have demons to fight and it’s not at all clear that their very human frailties transform them into superhuman sleuths.

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in

True Detective

. Photo by Michele K. Short.

Framed by a present-day story of the two recounting their protracted investigation, which ran from from the mid ’90s until 2002, the majority of the action takes place in flashback. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre) has said that he responded the “minimalism” of cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s work on the Jane Campion-helmed murder-themed miniseries Top of the Lake.

Arkapaw, an Australian native, elaborates on that idea. “For the whole series,” he says of True Detective, “we wanted the lighting to essentially have a motivated, natural feeling with just a few exceptions”—the “exceptions” he refers to are some of the unexpected turns the story will take as it unfolds—“and occasionally to give it a more poetic sensibility.”

Arkapaw shot primarily on 35mm film—Kodak Vision 3 50D and 500T—and used two different sets of lenses to help differentiate the two time periods. He used Panavision PVintage optics—rehoused Panavision Ultra Speed prime lenses—for the main portion of the story and regular Primo primes for the contemporary portions. “It’s about recalling the past,” the cinematographer explains, “so we wanted all that footage to be shot through something suggesting a thin veil of time. Those older lenses are a little softer, less contrasty and [capture] a little less color.”

Using wider framing for the action set in previous decades “makes it a little bit more cinematic in a traditional sense, giving us some more of the setting,” he adds. “For the present day the Primos are a bit sharper, they have more contrast, they’re more vivid, and we shot longer on those lenses to bring the characters out of the environment and make their shots more subjective, more of a character study.”

Arkapaw admits that the visual characteristics of the older lenses could theoretically have been added in post, but he preferred to capture the look on the negative. “I knew we probably wouldn’t have the time in post to go to that level of rendering [the vintage look] for such a large amount of material,” he explains. “And I find that when you do plan to add a look like that later, you don’t always take it as far in the grade as you’d intended. Everybody has been relating to the images without the look and maybe you don’t have the guts to go all the way with it. But if you’ve got a lens with the characteristics you want, then it’s there and you don’t have to worry about it later. Cary and I loved the look those lenses gave us so we just decided to go for it in camera.”

Photo by James Bridges.

Arkapaw shot with Panavision Millennium XL2 camera bodies for the majority of the action but used ARRI Alexa digital cameras for some helicopter shots throughout and for one elaborate night setpiece in episode four in which a handheld camera follows the action through several houses and all around a neighborhood in a single 10-minute take. The Alexa, which captured to ProRes 4:4:4:4, really helped make that shot possible; it would have been difficult for an operator to carry the Millennium and its 1,000-foot magazine of 35mm film through that sequence. Arkapaw also preferred having the ability to dial the EI to 800 and even 1600, where the the fastest film stock available is 500.

Although filmmakers tend to portray the Deep South in warm tones, the True Detective production team wanted to make the most of the striking greens they found in the flora. “It was coming into summer and the green was very striking,” Arkapaw says. To add some color contrast without suppressing the green, he and production designer Alex DiGerlando worked on finding ways to add in blue hues. “I like when you add a blue tone into a largely green landscape,” the cinematographer explains. “For me, green can be too vivid a color. Some blue pulls everything together in a nice way.”

As for interiors, there are a lot of rural bars and churches, as well as the comfortable middle class home Harrelson’s character and his family live in. Arkapaw likes to mix color temperatures in interior environments, often only partially correcting the tungsten stocks when daylight-temperature illumination comes through windows.

He made extensive use of Antique Suede filters in front of the lens to add warmth while retaining some of the daylight blue. “Blue light makes a nice silvery white and the filters gave me a different kind of feel than if I just completely corrected for the daylight,” he says. “I could adjust between the different strengths of Antique Suede depending on how much blue I wanted to remain. It also adds a kind of chocolaty feel to the tones that was very useful, particularly for the ’90s and early 2000s.”

Michelle Monaghan. Photo by Michele K. Short.

Arkapaw and gaffer Chris Strong carried a full complement of tungsten and HMI units, as well as LED strip lighting of the type used in displays and architecture. The LEDs could be coiled up and taped in corners either as part of a set or just to give a slight accent to a person or object in a shot. The strips, which come in daylight and tungsten, could be deployed anywhere. Additional strips with adjustable levels of red, green and blue added the perfect touch to a bar set.

Although the DP strove to capture much of his desired look on the negative, he also relied on colorist Steven Bodner of Encore New York to fine-tune it. Bodner, who worked on Autodesk Lustre, handled both the dailies and final color. The negative was scanned via ARRILASER to DPX format and colored as DPX, then output to the various deliverable formats. Arkapaw shot stills with his Canon EOS 7D—“my ‘cheater meter’”—and then applied some basic looks in Adobe Lightroom. He e-mailed those to the colorist to use as a guide. Arkapaw was able to check in during the final color grade and discuss the progress of the show.

The filmmakers prepped for seven weeks and then shot in a single chunk, like a 100-day feature, so Fukunaga developed a style of blocking and making use of the two or three cameras that covered each scene. “We storyboarded a lot of the first four episodes,” Arkapaw explains. “Obviously Matthew and Woody often had ideas about the blocking that were much better than anything we had come up with while sitting around a coffee table, but it was very good to do all the planning we did. As we went on, we had our aesthetic strongly mapped out, so toward the end we didn’t have to plan much at all because everyone was on the same page.”   

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