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‘Spoils of Babylon’: Creating a Rich Visual Vocabulary for the IFC Series

Billed as the most celebrated achievement in television history, IFC’s miniseries parody The Spoils of Babylon chronicles the dramatic lives of the Morehouse family, from their meager beginnings in the Texas oil fields to the opulent boardrooms of New York City.

Kristen Wiig as Cynthia Morehouse in

The Spoils of Babylon

. Photo by Katrina Marcinowski/IFC.

The all-star cast, led by Tobey Maguire, Tim Robbins and Kristen Wiig, includes Jessica Alba, Will Ferrell, Jellybean Howie, Val Kilmer, Haley Joel Osment, Michael Sheen and Steve Tom. Produced by Funny or Die for IFC, The Spoils of Babylon is executive produced by Ferrell, Adam McKay, Matt Piedmont, Andrew Steele and Nate Young. Steele and Piedmont created and wrote the six-part series, which Piedmont directed, and which kicks off January 9 with back-to-back half-hour episodes on IFC.

The Spoils of Babylon begins in the Great Depression and World War I, then travels through the 1960s, ’70s and on into the ’80s. With a storyline spanning the bulk of the 20th century, cinematographer Giles Dunning collaborated closely with Piedmont and production designer Mark Snelgrove to create distinct looks for the project’s eras that nonetheless remain firmly rooted in a 1970s aesthetic. “It’s kind of like The Prisoner meets H.R. Pufnstuf,” Dunning says. “It’s meant for television, but we wanted it to be as cinematic as possible.”

Tobey Maguire as Devon Morehouse. Photo by Katrina Marcinowski/IFC.

The Spoils of Babylon was shot over four weeks starting in June using RED EPIC-M cameras outfitted with Panavision C Series anamorphic prime lenses, with color correction handled by Company 3 colorist Beau Leon. Dunning and camera assistant Devon Doyle assembled diffusion and filter packs tailored to represent each era. “The philosophy behind the project was that it was all shot in the ’70s but trying to project these different feels. We did some testing at Panavision and came up with different packs for different scenes—combinations of color and diffusion that we would change for each time period,” Dunning relates. “We started off with more of a brown tone, using antique suede in the ’20s and ’30s. For the ’70s we used low-con filters, which were very popular back then. The low-con is such a classic ’70s look. There were times when I wondered if we’d gone too far, but when I see the piece together, it’s like, wow, it’s so beautiful.”

Dunning finds many advantages to shooting with the RED camera. “The chip being so fast was definitely an asset,” he says. “It’s not always fashionable to say so, but I like the RED. Some colorists say it has a slight magenta hue, but I tend to underexpose a little bit anyhow. I love the fact that it’s so small and versatile. With those lenses, the size of the camera makes it such a pleasure.”

A big secret is revealed to Winston (Haley Joel Osment) in episode five, setting his dastardly plan to crush Devon’s world into motion. Photo by Katrina Marcinowski/IFC.

Inevitably Dunning found himself influenced by cinematographer Gordon Willis, who is credited with creating some of the defining looks of the 1970s in films such as The Godfather trilogy, Annie Hall and All the President’s Men. “He was talking about how much yellow he would force into his printing lights, so that’s how I came up with shooting the ’70s with a yellow filter,” Dunning says. “It’s definitely something you could have done later, in post, but that’s not how I want it to be. We want to commit, now. That’s really what it’s about.”

For a sequence shot on the beach, Dunning used what he describes as a “very heavy” Maui brown filter meant to emulate the warm, golden brown feel of Maui Jim sunglasses made popular in the 1970s. For a jungle sequence, Dunning employed an olive day-for-night filter. “I’ve used it on film, years ago, and always thought it such an interesting color,” he comments.

The filmmakers also talked about changing the aspect ratio for certain scenes but ultimately decided against it. “At one point in the ’60s we thought of going back to 4:3, which is what they used then, and there was also discussion about whether the material with Will Ferrell should be shot at a different aspect ratio so it jumped out. I think that would have worked—it still had a late ’70s/early ’80s vibe to it—but we stuck with the anamorphic, mostly because it’s so beautiful.”

Dunning likes pairing digital formats with vintage lenses and filters, although he acknowledges the combination is not without its challenges. “It gives it more of an organic feel, beats it into submission and makes it feel not quite so harsh,” he says. “But you’re putting three to four pieces of glass at the end of a camera at all times, so there are also a lot of reflection problems. Sometimes it was very painful,” he laughs, “but that’s part of the fun. To leave it all to post just seems like you’re giving it away to someone and you’re not committing. It’s nice to do it in-camera and commit to the scene and have a plan. Whenever I’ve worked on a narrative project I’ve tried to come up with narrative visuals and follow them religiously. Especially when you’re jumping around in a script, you need to have everything in place to remain consistent. You need to know where you’re going in the story.”