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Night and the City: Combining New Camera Technology and Vintage Lenses for HBO’s ‘The Deuce’

DP Vanja Černjul, ASC, had intended to take a break following a stretch of projects, but after seeing the pilot of HBO's "The Deuce," he jumped at the chance to shoot the rest of the first season.

Millennials know New York’s Times Square as a family-friendly area filled with Disney-themed Broadway shows and squeaky clean chain restaurants, but in the 1970s and ’80s it was the nation’s undisputed capital of sleaze, packed with porn theaters, strip clubs and peep shows, and streetwalkers on every corner. HBO’s The Deuce, created by George Pelecanos and David Simon, captures that Times Square through the stories of hookers, pimps, johns and gangsters, whose activities made that few-block area of Manhattan infamous.

Cinematographer Vanja Černjul, ASC, had intended to take a break from shooting following a stretch of grueling back-to-back projects, but after seeing the pilot (shot by Pepe Avila del Pino) and meeting with the creators and executive producer Nina K. Noble, he jumped at the chance to shoot the rest of The Deuce‘s eight-episode first season. The period piece, with multiple intersecting story arcs, was too well written, the characters—including the Martino brothers, Vincent and Frankie (both played by James Franco), and hooker Candy Merrell (Maggie Gyllenhaal)—too well drawn for him to pass on the job.

James Franco plays identical twin brothers. Vincent, a barman with a knack for promotion, and his freewheeling, free-spirited brother Frankie find themselves at the center of the city’s sex trade.
Photos by Paul Schiraldi/HBO

“They wanted everything to feel authentic,” Černjul recalls of his early discussions with the producers. Since so many of the characters live by night, he would need a fast camera sensor, “where I could capture the depth of the city for free, without having to light it.”

Though he’d shot digital projects only on ARRI Alexa cameras until that point, he decided to test the then-new Panasonic VariCam 35, with its much vaunted high-ISO sensor. In testing the camera under contrasty conditions in low-light situations (shooting 1920 x 1080 ProRes 4444), he reports, “I found I could go anywhere from [EI] 800 to 3200 and everything would match perfectly well.”

The Deuce follows the rise of the porn culture in New York from the early 1970s through the mid-1980s. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Candy, a prostitute.

Though Panasonic advertises the camera’s dual native ISO (800 and 5000) sensor, the cinematographer made use of the 5000-speed setting, viewing through LUTs and ultimately dialing down to lower EI settings in post. “The look above 3200 wasn’t to my taste,” he notes, but everything in that 800-3200 sweet spot was. At 3200, two stops faster than he could comfortably set an Alexa, he approached lighting The Deuce in a new way.

He was able to take advantage of Panavision PVintage lenses—rehoused optics that were originally ground nearly a half-century ago. “The old glass gave us a beautiful period look organically,” he says, noting that the characteristics and artifacts of the lenses would be close to impossible, or certainly impractical, to re-create in post even today. “But those lenses are temperamental. They’re not very reliable. So I had to be able to close down on the iris to get them to perform properly. I could only have used them for this project with a camera that could shoot at an ISO high enough that I could close down to a T-2.8/4 at night.”

Cinematographer Vanja Černjul, ASC

Černjul learned quickly about lighting for such low levels as production commenced. “At first I had a lighting package with all the lights I would normally use,” he says, “but I soon realized I was using much less of what I was used to working with, and I started using smaller units. We were using more and more LEDs because I was building my lighting around existing sources, and I had to match the color and light level of those sources quickly. The art department would build [practicals] into an apartment or a bar and then I would light based on the dominant practical source. We had tungsten lights and sometimes streetlights or neon or even candlelight as the key and we would bring in additional LEDs”—many of which were from Quasar Science—”because it was easier to get them to blend in than traditional lights. We could dim them and change the color temperature to whatever we wanted.”

Inspired by period photographs, including those of Nan Goldin, who documented the people of The Deuce‘s world, the cinematographer wanted to capture the color contrast that was ubiquitous in the Times Square of the era: a cacophony of rich red and yellow neon, tungsten bulbs of varying ages and strengths, and the greenish hue of mercury vapor streetlights. “I was very respectful of the existing light sources,” he says. “The color was always motivated by the source. Overall, the idea was that no light should feel white. Every light source should have its own character, and then we would mix them.”

Gbenga Akinnagbe as volatile pimp Larry Brown

This process involved working with a considerable amount of actual neon, which presented a challenge because the neon was so much brighter than the rest of the shot. “We tried to build [fake neon] signs with LED technology but it just didn’t look like neon,” he says. “So we searched for ways to keep the neon from blowing out. Sometimes we would put a hard ND gel over the window or paint the neon tubes down or build boxes around the signs with hard ND gels of 9 or even 12 around them.” Then he would fill in areas with tungsten or LED lights, gelled with similar colors. The ability to use some of these rich, dense gels came from the VariCam’s high ISO. “I can’t normally use many of those gels, even though I like them, because I can’t afford to lose that much light. But here that wasn’t a problem.”

For the exteriors, the production re-created portions of the old Times Square and Hell’s Kitchen in a two-block space they took over roughly 170 blocks north, in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. New York City streetlights no longer use mercury vapor technology and so are missing the greenish color cast typical of the era. In order to create the appropriate look in show exteriors, crew members would shut down the actual lamps and light with a couple of 20K tungsten units gelled to give off a greenish illumination. These would be up on 80-foot Condor lighting cranes positioned several blocks from the action.

Beginning in 1971, The Deuce follows a cast of barkeeps, prostitutes, pimps, cops and other night workers who swirl through a world of sex, crime, high times and violence, as the porn business begins its climb from Mafia-backed massage parlors and film labs to legitimacy and cultural permanence.

Interiors were shot there and on location in apartments, restaurants and bars in the city. Two main sets—Vincent’s bar and Candy’s apartment—were created at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn, but the DP lit them just as he would a real location. “We built low, hard ceilings and never lifted them to light from above,” he says.

Shooting at these light levels made the cinematographer think differently about some aspects of production. He had to be considerably more vigilant about blocking out stray light bouncing into a set or the color of a wall or someone’s shirt off camera polluting the frame. “It becomes more about taking the light away, rather than adding the light. I was fortunate to have a key grip [Chris Skutch] who really understood the lighting approach.”

Emily Meade as young streetwalker Lori

But the flipside was that he could make use of available light in ways he wouldn’t normally have thought of. “There is a beautiful scene of Maggie as she leans by a poster,” he recalls. “I saw how good it looked in rehearsal with just the light bouncing off the poster, so I took away all the other lights and shot it like that. As we would block scenes, I started to train my eye to notice things I would never have paid attention to before because the levels would just be too low to shoot.”

Finally, the sensor offered one more indirect but significant benefit to the cast and crew. “We were shooting in some very hot locations and we didn’t have to make them even hotter with traditional light sources. I don’t know if there’s somebody who measures the differences in the amount of air conditioning we used compared to what we would have needed, but I’m sure we spent a lot less!”

Color in Times Square

Although the many shots of Franco playing both roles would once have required a panoply of complex, rigid blocking and motion control, Černjul insists that the doubles work on The Deuce was not particularly constraining from a cinematographic standpoint. He gives credit for the illusion to the VFX team for their masterful blending of the elements in post—as well as to Franco, of course.

“We’d shoot for one character first, and then James had to switch wardrobe and hair and makeup, which could take an hour or more,” he says. “We couldn’t just lock the set and the camera and wait for him to come back as the other character. Initially we thought it would be a very hard task for us, so they didn’t have too many shots with both characters in the frame, but we took a lot of pictures of where the cameras were, and the operators got very efficient at getting back to the same positions for the second part, so as the series progresses, you’ll see more and more shots with the brothers together.”

Dueling Francos

Some of these shots were set up as straightforward split-screens, while others would involve rooting and repositioning in post, but Černjul doesn’t feel that he or the directors had to compromise the look or movement in any of the double-Franco setups.

Černjul sums up, “We did a lot of things on The Deuce that we would never have even tried just a couple of years ago.” 

Download the October 2017 issue of Digital Video magazine