Crafting a Quality Look for "The Leftovers"

The Leftovers is a new HBO series that hints at the rapture, a Biblical prognostication. In the story, 2 percent of the world’s population mysteriously and suddenly disappears. Those left behind struggle to understand. Reactions vary. Some characters try to maintain a normal life, others turn to hedonism, and still others give up, with dire consequences.

Based on the best-selling novel by Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers was co-created by Damon Lindelof, best known for Lost. The Warner Bros. Television production stars Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman and Liv Tyler, and the pilot was directed by Peter Berg and shot by Michael Slovis, ASC.

Ann Dowd stars in THE LEFTOVERS. (Photo by Paul Schiraldi/ HBO)

To handle cinematography duties on the first season, production turned to Todd McMullen, with whom Berg had collaborated extensively on Friday Night Lights and Prime Suspect. McMullen is also known for his innovative work on The Newsroom. He says that the nature of the story, along with the compressed schedules and budgets of television production, led the filmmakers to an organic approach that is focused on quickly finding and capturing the right moments.

“We try not to get lost in the details,” says McMullen. “We try to use the camera as though it’s another character in the scene, and we see how the scene develops as opposed to choreographing it with specific marks for the camera or the actors. The camera operator is helping to tell the story as he’s watching the scene unfold. And of course, since the subject matter is a bit darker, so is the mood.”

Shot almost entirely on practical locations, the camera package is provided by Panavision. It includes Panavised ARRI ALEXAs shooting to SxS cards, and Angenieux Optimo zoom lenses, including a 15-40 mm, a 28-76 mm and a 45-120 mm, as well as some Panavision PVintage® Primes. Most of the time, McMullen uses two cameras, sometimes three or more.

As for lighting, spontaneity and flexibility require that McMullen’s lighting be simple and natural, with sources through windows and practical light sources. That helps keep the set free of lighting stands and other clutter, which results in greater freedom.

“What’s wonderful about this style is that you’re given the opportunity to give up some of the preciousness,” McMullen notes. “You might not always have perfect light or a perfect frame, but it creates immediacy with the acting. The director is not waiting around all day for lighting, which helps build momentum. You get in there and do it. My goal is to give the actors and the director enough time, so that they’re not rushing to get the scene.

“Obviously, I am concerned about lighting the scene with best mood and look possible, as well as finding interesting angles,” he adds. “I will look at a new location and see what the natural light is already doing. You can get some very interesting patterns and glows. Sometimes you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” 

In addition to lighting, McMullen relies on the lenses to help creat the look. “I really like the Optimos. They’re not too crisp, and they work really well in that format. We don’t do a lot of zooming, but we do adjust the frame a bit to make things work. We don’t have to stop and put on a different prime lens each time, and that’s important in terms of efficiency.”

In some situations, a prime lens is needed. “I’ve been using the Panavision PVintage Primes, which I think are fantastic,” he says. “I use those if we want to get in a really tight space, like a car or a small room, or if I want to go wide open to get shallow depth of field.”

Whether he’s shooting on practical locations in the Hudson Valley in central New York State, or in downtown Manhattan, McMullen values simplicity and efficiency. “Working in New York comes with its own hassles,” he adds. “Just getting across town is a chore that can take forever. That’s another reason why keeping it simple works for this show. We don’t use a lot of cranes, hotheads or specialized toys. We very rarely use dollies.”

Working through this past winter, one of the harshest in memory, affected the production in many ways. “In daytime scenes, you have so much ambient light coming at you from the snow,” McMullen explains. “It’s bright everywhere, and it creates a challenge because it’s out of your control. We’re not a show that would lock off a frame and put NDs in the camera. Still, it was fun to work in those conditions and see what kind of images we could get. Some of the tones we got were eerie and interesting. At night, we could shoot the scene using the snow to get an interesting glow. I could use balloons or something small high up and out of the way, and the light would bounce around everywhere. So in spite of the unexpected control problems, the snow sometimes rewarded us with interesting illumination.”

The versatility of the ALEXA helps. “In very low light situations, or in scenes where we wanted to go to 48 frames per second, it’s so easy to boost the ASA. You still get a clean image, without having to add more light,” the DP relates. “That is really wonderful. Because of the sensitivity of the camera, I haven’t been using as many big, soft sources lately, because then you need to spend more time cutting and shaping the light. With a smaller, more controlled source, you can highlight one area and let the rest fall off. You get an elegant look, and it’s simpler.”

In the quest for creative visual storytelling under the budget and schedule constraints of episodic television, Panavision is an ally, says McMullen. “Panavision has been really stepping up. We are all getting economically squeezed, but we’re still getting good equipment and the tools we need to make these shows. We’re all in the same boat. Panavision is a great company that has supported me throughout my career.”