A Distinctly Cinematic Feel

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Wed, 02/14/2018 - 11:56 -- Nick Dager

DP Dane Lawing on the set. Photo by Jon HirschFor the historical vignettes in the upcoming CNN six-hour, six-part miniseries Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History, cinematographer Dane Lawing wanted each era to have its own look and a distinctly cinematic feel. To achieve this, he relied exclusively on Cooke S4/i prime lenses.

Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History uncovers the truth about the one world leader who is neither a politician nor a general — but commands the attention of both. Combining never-before-seen footage, exclusive interviews, and dramatic recreations, this six-part series focuses on the men who have held this unique and complicated position, and reveals the unexpected true stories from the Vatican’s past.

“I just love these lenses,” said Lawing, referring to the Cooke S4/i prime lenses he used on the project. “For the last year and a half, I’ve used either the S4/i series or the miniS4/i primes pretty much exclusively. I like the cinematic look that Cooke gives me; they’re not harsh — especially with digital cinematography — and they have a contrast I really love, with deep blacks where the midtones don’t suffer and great bokeh. It’s a look I’d call creamy.”

Lawing also likes the discipline of shooting with a prime lens, and with 25 to 35 setups a day he says he didn’t spend any more time switching lenses than he would have if using a zoom lens.

“We used a lot of candlelight in this production, and at one point considered lighting almost entirely with candles, as that was the actual source of light for many of those real events. But we faced legal issues with locations and the art department was terrified of dealing with the continuity issues,” said Lawing. “So we created a convincingly natural look with LED lighting and placed practical candles in our frames to complete the effect. The bokeh and falloff were really nice and not at all distracting. The way the Cooke lenses handle flame and flaring is very nice, and something I can happily utilize creatively.”

Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History uncovers the truth about the one world leader who is neither a politician nor a general — but commands the attention of both. As a cinematographer with more than 20 years of experience, Lawing was familiar with Cooke lenses by reputation and from other DPs, but only started using the S4/i primes himself in 2016. For Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History, Lawing had a Cooke S4/i kit with eight primes relying mostly on the 25mm and 40mm for much of the two-camera shoot, with 138mm +1 and +2 diopters added for close-up work.

Lawing used an Arri Alexa SXT as the A camera, with an Arri Amira as the B camera.

Director Randy Counsman wanted Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History to have a unique look, so Lawing shot at a 32 FPS baseline for editing on a 24 FPS timeline.

“It’s just slow enough that it doesn’t feel so overcranked,” explained Lawing. “I gave Randy a bunch of tests at a number of frame rates, and he liked 32 the best. That’s also the frame rate I use for underwater and fashion work, as it smooths out movement really well. I also enhanced the look with a number of custom LUTs and utilized creative filtration for each location and timeframe. Some of those LUTs were motivated from The Borgias TV series, and the World War II look was influenced by the film, Dunkirk — I wanted to avoid the typical de-saturated look and go for the more cinematic look.”

One of the scenes in which the S4/i primes really stood out is when Pope Pius XII first sees the atrocities of the concentration camps early in the Second World War.

“As we circle around Pope Pius and a group of bishops watching a 16mm film of a concentration camp, we see their faces,” said Lawing. “That scene looked so good that we ended up overshooting it, shooting right down the projector’s lens. I can shoot into a film projector, directly at hot windows, it just looks fantastic. I don’t have to worry the way I would have to with other current or vintage glass. In fact, my first AC told me how little work he had to do to protect the lenses from flaring. At one point our B camera had matting like it technically should have been, but we were able to pull them out for a beautiful artistic look. That’s what you get from the S4/is.”

Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History is produced by Glass Entertainment Group, and is scheduled to air on CNN during Easter Weekend 2018.