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Night and the City: Location Production for the AMC Crime Series ‘Low Winter Sun’

This summer’s record-setting heat wave is enhancing storylines in Low Winter Sun, a 10-part AMC series shot in Detroit that premieres August 11. The show is a co-production of Endemol Studios and AMC Studio. The ensemble cast includes Mark Strong (Zero Dark Thirty) and Lennie James (The Walking Dead, Jericho).

Charles Dawson (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) and detective Frank Agnew (Mark Strong). Photo by Alicia Gbur/AMC

Low Winter Sun is a contemporary story of murder, deception, revenge and corruption in a world where the line between cops and criminals is blurred. The show’s executive producer, writer and show runner is Chris Mundy (Criminal Minds, Cold Case).

Mundy’s pilot follows the murder of a cop by a fellow detective, who seems to have carried out the perfect crime. The murder sets up the series’ drama, changing the detective’s life and pulling him deeper into the Detroit underworld. The story is based on a 2006 British miniseries of the same name.

Director of photography Patrick Murguia (Brooklyn’s Finest) chose three ARRI Alexas to capture the 10 one-hour episodes of season one. His lens package included Zeiss Ultra Primes, Zeiss Super Speeds and an assortment of Angenieux Optimo zooms ranging from 15-40mm to 24-290mm.

“All these lenses are very practical and easy to shoot quickly. Having three different [zoom] lenses, you’re covering a big range from 15mm to 120mm, which allows us to work really fast when we need to. These zoom lenses have a great quality, and we use them for maybe 60 percent of what we do,” Murguia says.

Photo by Alicia Gbur/AMC

He adds that he was able to shoot a scene lit with only two candles situated around a table with a Super Speed lens. “When we are doing scenes outside, I like to use only the lights of the city, and those kinds of lenses make it possible. I really wanted to use these particular lenses because they’re older. HD is too sharp. When you use older lenses, it makes everything a bit softer and more cinematic. And by using the Ultra Prime lenses, we can point at a very bright background or window without flaring. They hold up very well.”

Murguia believes the option of shooting in low light is a huge advantage of digital technology. “I’m trying to make it look real. By using the Alexa … that helps a lot. With film, you have different texture in terms of grain and contrast and saturation. With HD video, you lose some of the palette of colors, notably in some facial shots. You have to think about every resource you have to get the right feeling for every scene.”

And apparently some fast-thinking innovation never hurts. “We shot a scene for the pilot where [key characters] Frank and Geddes are throwing a car with a body into the river. We were working with very low light conditions. It was very late, with very little light in the sky. I ended up using my iPhone and someone else’s iPhone to light the scene. I used a free [flashlight] application called Just Light. The two iPhones we used were slightly different in color—one more green and one more magenta. We used those two iPhones to replicate the lights on the car’s dashboard.”

Photo by Alicia Gbur/AMC

Murguia says principal photography on the first season was not set to conclude until early August, thereby taking the Motor City shoot well into the summer. “Detroit as a city is a very interesting backdrop, full of texture with a wide range of locations. The set itself is located in a big warehouse near the Packard Automotive Plant, the largest abandoned factory in the world.

“The Detroit Masonic Temple is very well preserved and one of my favorite locations to shoot. We did a boxing fight scene there in this beautiful hall with balconies and ornate decor with wood detail and big chandeliers, and in the middle of this place we have a boxing ring. It was one of my favorite locations because of the contrast between the set and what was happening in the scene,” Murguia says. “Then we jump into the city streets, which are filled with buildings and homes that have turned into ashes.”

The DP says Low Winter Sun has a much more cinematic feel to it than typical television content. “We have to achieve that cinematic look in such a short period of time. That’s our biggest challenge. Fortunately we have an incredible production team and production designer. As I am shooting, I don’t have a lot of time to prep with a new director for each episode, so on Sundays I go with the new director and scout locations. I can’t work a location before seeing it and thinking about it. The only way to make it happen is to give it extra time and effort,” says Murguia. “Our work hours are not just our shooting hours.”