Creative Analysis: Part 2 - Penny Dreadful From The Cinematographer

For anyone who’s seen the first series to bear the title, the name Penny Dreadful will conjure up images of occult happenings in a shadowy, late-Victorian world. After twenty-seven episodes across three highly successful seasons, Showtime aired the last episode of Penny Dreadful in June 2016. By November 2018, the network had ordered a successor: Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, which premiered in April 2020 and looks very different to its gothic predecessor.

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Set in 1938 Los Angeles, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels began production in summer 2019. Cinematographer John Conroy, ISC, shot six of the ten episodes, with the other four handled by Pedro Luque. Conroy’s experience includes Broadchurch, Luther, Mr. Selfridge and Silent Witness as well as the first incarnation of Penny Dreadful. Producer John Logan was insistent, though, that the approach would not be the same. “One of the first conversations I had with John was that this was not gothic noir. This has to be its own thing. Anything gothic we steered away from. We wanted to embrace the fact it was a new place, it was LA. It was an approach we took on Broadchurch - bad things happen in beautiful places. It doesn't have to look gritty and grim all the time.”

Conroy spent eight weeks preparing the production, discovering early that it had ambitions to match the vast scale of the period London exteriors built in Dublin for the first series. “With period drama, you can't just turn up to a car park and shoot it,” Conroy reflects. “I started prep on the first of July last year. It was at Melody Ranch up in Santa Clarita. That's where we built the main street – we put a brand-new face on the Deadwood set, tarmacked the road and built a 1930s downtown LA street. In the backlot we built a sort of Latino community, housing. It was huge.”

With a period feel in mind, Conroy chose Cooke Speed Panchro lenses, supplied by Panavision and rehoused for ease of use on a modern set. “I wanted the optics to come from the era. Even though they had little aberrations and softening of edges I really loved them. They were born out of the twenties and thirties when they had to make the sound cameras quieter, because they didn't have the blimps. They come from that era and I wanted to be as true to that as possible.” The production was shot on a set of four Alexa Minis, in the camera’s 3.2K mode recorded to ProRes 4444 XQ.

As with any modern period drama, especially one shooting on location, subtle visual effects work would be required to remove anachronistic details. For those moments Conroy retained a set of more modern lenses because, as he says, “of the practicalities of filming and VFX. Anywhere where the edges were too soft for extreme framing, we carried a full set of cooke S4s. If you wanted to put someone on an extreme edge and it wasn't sharp, we could switch to the S4s and we were able to match them in the grade no problem.”

Much of the production would depict real-world LA locations, depicting a face of the much-photographed city not often put on screen – its 1930s architecture. Conroy particularly remembers “the public works buildings. The waterworks, or the power works. It's beautiful stuff, beautiful bridges - even if you go out to Pasadena. That’s really beautiful and I didn't realize it was there. We were able to block off the street outside City Hall for establishers and scenes that happen outside.” Such was the level of access that Conroy raises fears the audience might perceive trickery where there actually was none. “There's a scene in [an office] we were in the LA Times building across the street from City Hall. I'm convinced everyone will think we did it in the studio and it was greenscreen because it looks so perfect.”

At the same time, one natural environment was so key that the production went to the lengths of planting a crop. “We drove out a little way to Lake Piru for the opening sequence. We grew all those mustard greens. One of the first things we did in July or August was to plant the mustard greens wherever we wanted them to grow… I'm trying to get them to plant them, so I know where the path of the sun is for shooting, and the gardeners are saying we wouldn’t usually plant them this way because of the lie of the land, [but] everything grew!”

The production shot at Universal in Burbank, on the New York-themed area of the studios’ backlot, as well as a set built in Santa Clarita to represent the Crimson Cat club. Club scenes for episodes three and four were shot by Pedro Luque, and Conroy reports a certain relish in having the opportunity to spend eleven days on the set, filled with 110 dancers, for episodes nine and ten. Perhaps the grandest scale, though, was achieved on Broadway between 5th and 6th streets in downtown Los Angeles, when the production set up with not one but two Technocranes.

“We blocked the whole block off,” Conroy says. “Because of the period cars moving, it was very hard to light closeups. If I'd wanted to have a light for a closeup on the floor, I wouldn't have been able to have cars going by.” The solution was a Grip Factory Munich GF-8 crane, which Conroy had rigged with two Litemat 8s so he could “oversling the cars, keep it out high for the wides and use it as a key, and as we'd come in for the closer shot I'd be able to jib down on the crane and dim down on the light but get a big soft source.”

At night, on Malibu Beach, the production shot scenes to represent Santa Monica using some new technology – a lighting drone capable of 52,000 lumen output. “We weren't able to put any lights up on the cliffs, so I had no way of backlighting the water. I didn’t know what to do, so I researched and met this company. They flew this drone out over the water and it was a revelation. The drone is a good three or four hundred feet away and with the waves crashing you don't hear it. You're able to light up the whole water with this drone. Move the moon a bit - left, right. It was quite good.”

Capturing the Californian sun was something Conroy had prepared for carefully. “I would literally go to each location in prep that I know we're going to and I'll sit there for the day. It sounds terribly boring, but you can be doing things, other work. I'll sit there and watch what the sun is doing, and I'll plan to chase the sun all day. We have a big riot sequence at the end of episode one which was shot over three days. We shot in one direction in the morning and chased the sun around to the evening.” Anyone with an eye for practicality might connect this desire for sun with the dark, enclosing wardrobe worn by Natalie Dormer in her leading role; Conroy assures us that “we had to bear in mind things like that for her, for costume and heat. There was always a cold tent.”

Despite the famously reliable southern California climate, Conroy took care to ensure he could react to weather issues. “I always had to make sure that we had lights on cranes because it does cloud up. We had a couple of day exteriors that were quite cloudy. On the beach in the morning, I always had to prep 18Ks on Manitous so that I could light the closeups. By ten or eleven o’clock, the mist would have burned off. John always wanted it sunny, so I always had to have that up my sleeve to make sure we could always maintain that heat. There's only so much you can do in the grade.”

That grade was performed by Jeremy Sawyer at Light Iron on De Longpre Avenue in Los Angeles. “We built a LUT in prep. We did a lot of testing. We thought of Kodachrome then we thought it might be a bit red-and-bluey, but John [Logan] definitely didn't want a sepia look… color has a vibrancy and a life and an energy.”

With this in mind, Conroy worked with Sawyer to “figure a way of having creamy whites without venturing into sepia. It's a hard balance, to keep it looking period and also keep the color. The default thing is to desat, desat, desat - suddenly everyone's lips are black, and it looks period.” Conroy chose another route. “If everything becomes kind of beige it might be good in terms of putting you back in an older place, but there's a lot of vibrancy that's lost in the storytelling. You can't pinpoint colors to separate emotions.”

Conroy was still remotely supervising the grade at the time he spoke to Broadcast Bridge, with several episodes yet to be broadcast. There was, though, one fortuitous coincidence which rounded off his experience of Los Angeles, a city in which he had previously only spent limited time. In January 2020, Conroy won the American Society of Cinematographers Award for his work on AMC’s The Terror: Infamy, an award for which he had also been nominated for the original Penny Dreadful. “It was a nice thing to be there in LA when I was nominated,” he says; “there was a lovely nominees’ dinner the night before. It was nice to be part of it.”

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