Creative Analysis: Part 9 - Cinematographer Cathal Watters On Alienist: Angel Of Darkness

Recreating a period New York in Hungary might seem an unreasonable challenge until it becomes clear that the country has become a hub for international production with at least two large-scale backlots for just that purpose. In the summer of 2019, these facilities were leveraged by The Alienist: Angel of Darkness, based on Caleb Carr’s book of the same name. Produced for TNT by a consortium led by Paramount Television, the series stars Daniel Brühl, Dakota Fanning and Luke Evans as a group investigating a serial killer in 1890s New York. Cinematography on the first season by P. J. Dillon, ISC, was nominated for a Primetime Emmy, leaving Cathal Watters, ISC, with big shoes to fill on the second.

Watters began making images in a very hands-on manner. “When I was ten or eleven, my brother was a press photographer. He had a darkroom, so I started developing my own photographs. With my first pay packet I bought a Pentax P50 and started shooting my own 35mm, and developing it myself.” Watters studied Theater and Drama and the Irish language at Trinity College in Dublin, eventually writing his final thesis on Goodfellas. “I really wanted to shoot. There was a TV station starting up in Ireland, the Irish language station TG4, in 1998. I started shooting news for them then broke into documentary. I shot documentary for the next fifteen or sixteen years, traveling the world, on any topic you can imagine.”

“I went down the shoot-as-much-as-you-can route, and I was lucky enough to get my break to shoot a short film which led to a feature, and another feature, which led to developing different relationships. Watters’ credits as a cinematographer mix shorts, documentary and drama since 2008. Highlights include Viva, shot in Cuba, which reached the final nine for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, and Papi Chulo, directed by John Butler, was, Watters says, “a childhood dream come true to be shooting in LA, to be doing an Irish story that had nothing to do with Ireland! I did a horror film, Dark Song, as well. I was very happy with that, and with Rosie, which was written by Roddy Doyle and directed by Paddy Breathnach, who also directed Viva.”

The BBC series Peaky Blinders was perhaps Watters’ breakout into high-end television, winning him the American Society of Cinematographers' award. “People were contacting me from India, Colombia, Brazil, all over the world via social media to say they've seen it. The idea that someone takes the time out to say ‘we saw that and really liked it’ is amazing.”

Involvement with the production came via director David Caffrey, who had met Watters on Peaky Blinders; the two met again on Taken Down the following year. Caffrey encountered Alienist showrunner Stuart Carolan on the long-running Irish production Love/Hate, andDermot Diskin, the editor, had also worked on Peaky Blinders, creating an experienced group. Despite these promising connections, though, and some commonality between the look of Peaky Blinders and The Alienist, Watters was not excused producers’ scrutiny. “It's nerve-wracking waiting to hear,” he says. “The people at TNT and Paramount have to go through your showreel, but David was pushing for me and it came through.”

The Alienist: Angel of Darkness was photographed during the summer of 2019 in Hungary. Watters describes it as “a massive show. I did six out of the eight episodes so while I was shooting five and six I was prepping seven and eight.” Production was based at Stern Studios outside Budapest, and at a large independent New York backlot, which was redressed to represent different parts of the city. Watters began his prep in late February, fitting in other work before returning to Hungary to begin principal photography in June.

In contrast to the first season, the second takes place, he says, “a lot during the daytime. We had to have a lot of sun control wherever we were, sometimes four or five twenty-by forty-flags. The sun would race around. The buildings were tall, the streets were not massively wide but the shadows would flow very quickly. For a short sequence we'd live with whatever it was, but otherwise, I had four or five machines at my disposal.” Even so, Watters says, “you had to be careful… to bring a flyswatter in will take fifteen minutes, and that's the longest fifteen minutes of your life with four hundred extras standing round!”

Much as a modern story might set conversations during car journeys, Angel of Darkness had its equivalent. “We did carriage rides. We shot one scene practically on the move and I thought it was a little bit too frenetic,” Watters recalls. “We decided we'd do it on bluescreen after that, but we had a brilliant reference of what the light would really be like on the people inside. I remember listening to Seamus McGarvey on how he'd lit The Avengers, and he had mirrors on top of the buildings to get shafts of light going down. I had them tape a mirror onto this four-by-four, directed a 4K HMI at it, and they'd spin it around as if it was light coming down off the windows, from the buildings. It gave a great sense of movement.”

Watters created moonlight with Skypanels behind diffusion, positioned overhead with telescopic boom lifts. “I used Rosco 725,” Watters recalls, “which is called ‘old steel blue’. I think I might have had ten Skypanel S60s which made each soft box. I'd put up four of those in a square, so wherever I was looking I could always have it as backlight and use the others for fill, and I'd do whole streets like that.” Arri’s big S360 Skypanel turned out to be overkill: “they were just S60s, but a lot of them. I might be up at only five per cent on some of them.”

Certain exteriors were shot in Budapest, including a representation of the famous Sing Sing prison, though interiors were shot on stage at Stern. Again, Watters says, bluescreen was used to extend real-world builds. “We only had about five cells and it looked like it went on forever! I wanted to set it up so it's a stylized show. You see the shot of the prison, you have the light streaming in. That’s 10K tungsten coming in through each window. I blued them up as well, to 4300 Kelvin, then the practical tungsten bulbs are old tungsten bulbs and they're dimmed down so they're more orange. The little tungsten bulbs were the only thing illuminating the set.”

The Alienist depicted its titular detective’s base of operations on a sound stage. There was a strong imperative to make the set feel part of the city, and a Rosco SoftDrop background was used with photographs of the backlot to suggest the buildings outside. “Her main office is three rooms,” Watters says. “It's very big. We had 10Ks for each window and Skypanels as well, with eggcrates so we could choose between hard and soft light. They were all on a truss. We could go in a split second from day to night. With the SoftDrop, you have to decide how out of focus it is, so when you're shooting interior looking out toward it looks real.”

Angel of Darkness was shot on Alexa Mini using Arri’s Master Anamorphic lenses, which Watters chose over older anamorphics because “the contrast was very good at holding up the details in the blacks but still giving you inky blacks. They were heavy lenses, but we were on dollies most of the time anyway.” Older anamorphics, he says, might have been less appropriate. “Papi Chulo I shot with Lomo anamorphics. They have such an anamorphic feel, but I didn't want too many anamorphic flares across the screen because of all the candles we were going to be using, and all the blue screen.”

Though the first season had been framed for 16:9 exhibition, Watters pushed for a wider frame. “I asked Paramount and TNT whether we could shoot 2:1. I had to put up my reasons and they let us do it, which I was delighted about.” Pictures were recorded in the Alexa Mini’s 3.2K ArriRaw format, although Watters took several measures to reduce the harshness of the high-contrast lenses and high-resolution format. “I used Schneider Hollywood Black Magic and Classic Soft diffusions. I tested everything and I always come back to those diffusions. I used a lot of smoke, I was breaking down the harshness of it. I wanted a very stylized feel with the shafts of light coming in.”

While many productions keep a B-camera available, Watters kept both employed at all times. “Robert Arrowsmith and László Bílle operated; Rob was A-camera. I'd only shoot one direction, I’d never cross-shoot, and I'd always use the B-camera to get an interesting profile or detail. Those are the shots that help it stand out, to creep in, to get that profile, or higher than the eyeline looking down, so we're trying to search into what people are thinking. Sometimes B camera operators spend half the day drinking tea, but László never went drinking tea!”

Despite the scale of the backlot, it was often digitally extended. “We'd put blue down either end of the street,” Watters recalls. “That was broadway and that went on forever. You're talking massive, massive bluescreens – incredible.” To keep the visual effects workload under control, Watters conferred closely with VFX supervisor Douglas Lamour and Jessica Smith, the VFX producer. “I didn't want to shoot a couple of tight shots on a long lens and waste blue on those. I'd much prefer to use a big blue somewhere to give it a sense of scale. We’d categorize it into big wides, medium and tights. Doug and Jessica would say ‘you've got two big blues left!’ Every ‘blue’ shot was planned.”

The Alienist: Angel of Darkness was finished at Lightbender in Santa Monica under the supervision of colorist Juan I. Cabrera. Watters supervised remotely via “a little box which they sent over to Windmill Lane in Dublin. I was able to sit in a grading suite on my own, call them on Facetime and as he graded I was looking at it. It was instant and I was sure of what I was seeing. I was very happy. It took us a while to find episodes one and two, and then it became a lot easier. For the rest of the episodes he'd send a very high bitrate ProRes to me, like a forty-gigabyte ProRes. I'd look at it on my laptop and give notes on that. It was quite good because I knew what I'd seen on the monitor and that's the way we worked it. Only last week I was sending him notes.”

The collaboration between showrunner, director, cinematographer and editor with a shared and very relevant shared production history was, Watters feels, key. “There was a very collaborative feel to the whole thing,” he says. “Just brilliant. Ruth Ammon, the production designer was brilliant at what she and very collaborative too. We had a great relationship throughout the whole process. We were backed up by the producers and it's just a really great thing when you have that. It doesn't feel like you're fighting anybody.”

While the modern video-on-demand market has created huge opportunities in well-produced television, Watters finishes with a thought about traditional technique. “It's very hard now to go style over substance. You can be very stylistic with a show and people accept that. What's difficult is to be consistent, and to tell the story with intent. It's not just pretty pictures. It's using the push in at the right time... that's really important. On a small intimate low budget feature it's easier to do... on something like this, on a bigger scale, it's more difficult. You have to have intent behind the camera. That's what I tried to do, and to keep it consistent from the first day of filming to the last.”

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