Kramer Morgenthau, ASC, unveils PLAYBOY CLUB
From Academy Award-winning Executive Producer Brian Grazer, THE PLAYBOY CLUB is a new NBC drama set in the famous gentlemans club in early 1960s Chicago. For the pilot episode, director Alan Taylor teamed up with Emmy-nominated director of photography Kramer Morgenthau, ASC to bring this dazzling world to life. Morgenthau thought the project would be an ideal initiation for him to shoot with ALEXA. I felt it was the best camera and it seemed like a great project to try it with, he says. It was a good experience, everything looked good and after a while I just forgot what I was shooting on and was shooting like I always do.
A series of intricate camera moves begins the episode as we follow Nick Dalton (played by Eddie Cibrian), a prominent defense attorney in the Windy City. Morgenthau explains, "It was a few shots that were merged together. There's a Technocrane and then a cut, then a dolly, then we push into the car with Nick and we pick it up later from outside the car with Steadicam."
Once inside, the club is hopping: bartenders pour drinks, customers laugh, people dance to the live band. "Inside the club it's very moody, low light and a lot more color than I normally use," says the DP whose credits include BOARDWALK EMPIRE, THE EXPRESS and FRACTURE. "There were lots of colored gels from the period to create a club feeling: magenta, purples, blues. I don't usually use that much color in that quantity. The camera handled that beautifully."
With many exterior and interior night scenes, Morgenthau rated the camera at 800 ASA. "The endless shadow and highlight detail just went way beyond any other camera that I'd used," he says. "It was much lower light levels than I was normally used to, I was lighting by eye a lot more. I could go quicker than with film because it used such little light. I could literally light by eye to see what the camera was doing. I lit with a light meter, but if anything, it was trying to get the camera to not see as much. You have to control what it is seeing, but the low light levels and shadow detail of the camera are endless."
Morgenthau found that getting acquainted with the new camera system was a not a major transition. "I was able to paint in broad strokes, see what it was doing on a monitor. After a while I just kind of knew how it was going to react and I quickly got used to it. It was easy and stress free. I didn't really think about it being an ALEXA, which I think is a good thing. It let me concentrate and be creative, do my job, and do it quickly -- which you have to do especially in television," he says. The fast schedule also benefited from the ProRes workflow, shooting 444 onto the SxS cards.
Besides capturing the glamour and beauty of the era surrounding the Bunnies, Morgenthau was excited to shoot musicians performing on stage. Carol-Lynne is a star bunny who sings in the club, while characters such as Ike and Tina Turner are also portrayed. "There's a big musical element to it which was very attractive to me. It's very intricate getting certain story beats, choreography, dancing, singing and words -- almost like doing a musical. It was really fun for me."
The cast of women exhibits a range of complexions with much skin revealed in their signature costumes. Actress Naturi Naughton is a dark-skinned brunette, while the lead played by Amber Heard is blonde and fair. Morgenthau found ALEXA's look was " similar to what youd find with film. Different ranges of skin tones reflect different amounts of light and you have to keep an eye on that. Overall the skin tones were very pleasing and natural compared to any of the other electronic cameras that I've used."
The iconic bunny costume also created special considerations in terms of framing. "Do you keep the ears in? Do you keep the ears out?" laughs Morgenthau. "It was a whole different way of shooting. The ears were a compositional element for sure. It was a choice that depended on the size of the frame."
Production took place in Chicago with cameras provided by local rental house Fletcher Camera. "They were great, they cared about the job a lot and gave us great service," says the DP.
Morgenthau and Taylor have since left the Midwest for Ireland to collaborate on the second season of HBO's acclaimed GAME OF THRONES, currently shooting on ALEXA.
THE PLAYBOY CLUB airs Mondays on NBC.
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