True Blood, the death-obsessed HBO television series that portrays vampires as a misunderstood, oppressed minority, begins its fifth season in June. In a world with dozens of vampire entertainment options, the show has earned such a devoted following that it has become HBO’s most-watched series since The Sopranos. Recognized by critics and fans, True Blood has also received more than a dozen Emmy® nominations.
Based on “The Southern Vampire Mysteries” novels by Charlaine Harris, the storyline centers on a telepathic waitress (Anna Paquin) and her blood-soaked adventures in a small Louisiana town. TrueBlood, according to the story, is a synthetic blood substitute that helps the undead keep their thirsts quenched. But for some reason, regular folks are still less than accepting of the pale, persecuted — yet sexy — Vampires.
Cinematography duties on the series are shared by David Klein, ASC and Romeo Tirone, who shoot alternating episodes. Tirone has enjoyed a prolific career as a cinematographer, and in addition to shooting, he has directed episodes of True Blood and Showtime’s Dexter. Klein broke into filmmaking in the 1990s with Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy, and has added more than 30 narrative projects to his resume, including Good Time Max, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Red State, as well as episodes of Flight 29 Down and Pushing Daisies. John B. Aronson, Joseph Gallagher, Matthew Jensen, Stephen St. John and Checco Varese, ASC, AMC all previously contributed to the series.
Describing the look of True Blood, Tirone says, “One of the major things that separates True Blood from most shows is that we shoot on film. That helps us keep our look consistent. There is nothing like the ‘romance’ that film gives to a show. We shoot a lot of night exteriors, and are very careful to keep our night look constant. Darkness is a big part of the character of True Blood, we are always on the edge trying not to be too safe with our look.”
“Slick and sexy, with an edge,” adds Klein. “I try to take the sharpness off of the edge a bit, because I think when you’re dealing with such supernatural material, if the look starts to stray too far from reality, everything begins to feel phony and lame. So at its core, the lighting of the show, for me, needs to feel based in reality.”
Generally, the approach features wider lenses with somewhat saturated colors. The lenses are usually COOKE S4 primes, with the occasional use of ANGENIEUX OPTIMO zooms. Klein says he prefers to move closer and do a close-up on a 50mm rather than using a longer lens and hanging back. “To me, it feels more like a feature film that way,” he says. “The combination of the Cookes and the Angenieux zoom is one of the best I’ve found, but I still prefer the look of the primes.”
“More importantly, I lean on film so heavily every day. I know that I can blow out a highlight by five stops and it’s going to look gorgeous. “
An episode is usually shot in 10-15 days. The main format is 3-perf 35mm, usually shot with a single ARRICAM and KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 and KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207. But Klein notes they use a wide variety of cameras and formats when the story requires.
“We’ve used a hand-cranked ARRIFLEX, CANON 5Ds, REDs, ARRI 235s and 435s,” says Klein. “Our stories contain many flashbacks, and we use many different tools to depict them. We’ll sometimes push one or two stops to add some contrast and grain, just noticeable enough to make it dance — and that grain is wonderful. It’s one of the best tools I have at my disposal. It’s something I really miss when I shoot digitally. Grain can be an actress’s best friend.”
During season four, Klein used the technique for a sequence that flashed back to a 1920s Louisiana sharecropper’s house at nighttime. “I went all moonlight and oil-burning lamps inside the house,” he says. “I knew that I wanted to desaturate the image and add grain, so I did a two-stop push and asked my dailies colorist to drop the color out by 60 percent. The initial idea was to shoot 16mm, but we wanted to do something with our existing equipment, and this was the solution. The grain really sang. We were already rating at 2,000 ASA, but at times I underexposed the negative even further.
“After lifting the image up, it was like looking at a faded, old photograph from that era. In final color, we desaturated everything that was brown and blue a little further than anything else, so the reds and skin tones held out the best. Suzuki Ingerslev, our production designer, really helped me out with this by painting the house very neutral and keeping most of the color out of the frame. It really felt like a faded, color photograph from that era that had sat in the sun for too long.”
After a series of cost comparisons, the production determined that the choice of origination format was not a money issue. “(Executive producer) Gregg Fienberg and I decided to keep the show on fi lm,” says Klein. “The current crop of digital cameras is amazing, but to switch a show from film to digital will change the look of the show. That was one of my main arguments: If you’re happy with the way True Blood looks right now, then don’t change it.
“More importantly, I lean on film so heavily every day,” he says. “I know that I can blow out a highlight by five stops and it’s going to look gorgeous. I know that a certain actor’s face, when lit one-and-a-half stops under, is going to glow perfectly. There’s no monitor I have to babysit. I can light by eye, through the lens, instead of going back and forth between the monitor and the set, which takes time.
“Also, with film, I can lock in the look by exposing the negative a certain way, which you can’t currently do with digital. With digital, you expose to capture all the information, and then you push it around in post. You’re basically creating the entire look in a color suite. I prefer to lock 90 percent of the look into the negative on the set, and then fine tune it in the color suite.”
The post facility is Technicolor, where Peter Ritter serves as dailies colorist and Scott Klein handles final color. “They know what I mean when I say, ‘Make this scene almost dark enough to get me fired,’” says Klein with a laugh.
Key grip Bud Scott introduced Klein to CHIMERA cloth, which he uses for large, diffuse sources. “I tend to go somewhat big on the show,” says Klein. “Vampires come out at night, so we have a lot of night exteriors, and we often use Condors and big sources — last week we had two 20K Fresnels — to simulate moonlight. CHIMERA is one of the thickest diffusion materials I’ve used, so it takes a lot of firepower and manpower to make it soft, especially when we go through two rags.”
True Blood provides the cinematographers and their crews with an ever-shifting array of challenges and opportunities. Whether it’s a modern-day scene shot on one of the show’s six stages on The Lot at Santa Monica Boulevard and Formosa in Hollywood, or a 1920s flashback on a remote location, they are ready.
“What keeps me most engaged in this show, and what is also exhausting, is that we’re constantly given new storylines, new flashbacks, new stories to tell within our story,” Klein says. “Every episode has something that requires a different look. It definitely keeps us on our toes.”
“It’s one of the best aspects of shooting a show about vampires,” adds Tirone. “They have lived so long that it lets us shoot flashbacks from any era.