Lighting FARGO

Inspired by the Coen brothers' 1996 film of the same name, FARGO is an Emmy® Award-winning U.S. comedy drama series about a hapless insurance salesman in northern Minnesota who gets drawn into a world of violence and crime. Director Adam Bernstein and cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd, CSC, worked together on the first two episodes, shooting with ALEXA cameras and setting the visual tone for the rest of the season. Lloyd spoke with ARRI News about how daylight fixtures from ARRI's M-Series and X Light range helped him create the signature look of the show.

Being small and lightweight, the M40 was really easy to work with on location.

How did you and Adam set about crafting a look for FARGO?

 

The look the Coens set out in the movie was an important reference, but mainly as a stepping stone to move us into a more contemporary aesthetic, because Adam had a vision for the show that was a little bit darker. Underlying everything was the snowy bleakness that exists in the movie and would obviously have to exist in the show as well. We wanted to see as much of this world as possible and to set everything against that overcast backdrop.

 

What lighting challenges did the consistently overcast look present?

 

Ultimately it became a fairly traditional exposure question of how to balance our rather dim interior locations against the atomic white backgrounds outside. We decided early on not to have windows clipping and highlights that were out of range, but to maintain detail throughout the image. We also didn't ever want to see the sun, which in Alberta, Canada is not an easy proposition. You end up with these massive setups where you're shooting out of windows and using a lot of bounced light, always having to match to existing daylight, so HMI became the only way to go. 

Can you give an example of how you used M-Series fixtures for these setups?

There was a location where I ran 80 feet of Ultrabounce all the way down a building to block the sun and create a surface for bounce light. By spreading six or seven M40s down the building I got enough punch to achieve the level I wanted inside. Being small and lightweight, the M40 was really easy to work with on location, allowing us to light the broad surface area that we needed to create our overcast look. In general the smaller M-Series units were crucial to our lighting approach on FARGO; they were highly controllable, easy to move around and totally reliable, even at −30 °C. Anything else would have involved way more logistics and heavy rigging. 

How were you first introduced to the M-Series?

My commercials gaffer in LA, Jeff Ferrero, was one of the first guys in California to have M18s. As soon as I saw the light output of the M18 I knew that we were finally going to be able to work with HMI in the way we've been working with tungsten for a long time. It's an incredibly reliable light and you can use it in outrageously bad conditions. I've taken those things to an island of 200 people in the Indian Ocean and had them fire up on a transformer with 220 V coming off a boat generator. The electronics are absolutely unprecedented, as far as I'm concerned.

You also had the M18 on this shoot, was that used for interior lighting?

I usually avoided having a lot of equipment on the ground, but I would sometimes use an M18 inside, bounced into some poly and pushed through a frame with a grid on it. Most of the lighting on this show was bounced or diffused, which is another great thing about the M-Series: they're small HMIs but they have so much punch that you can use these diffusion rigs to create incredibly soft sources inside. The reflector design lets you control things in a sophisticated way and opens up a lot of creative opportunities.

How were you using the ARRI X Lights?

We had the X40 and X60, and I found it amazing that I could use them almost as an architectural light by laying them flat on the ground. We had one scene with a big railway bridge in the background, so we just lay two X Lights down to point up at it and the whole thing was lit perfectly evenly; it gave us a huge amount of square footage to shoot into. 

The smaller M-Series units were crucial to our lighting approach...they were highly controllable, easy to move around and totally reliable, even at −30 °C.

They were also useful at some of the tighter house locations where we didn't have room to back the frames off enough. I would attach bleached muslin to the side of the house and point X Lights up from the ground. Inside, the light at the windows was completely uniform -- you couldn't tell one source from another. You'd get a lot of level out of it as well, which is not common. Before this shoot I had used the X Lights occasionally on commercials, but as soon as I worked with them in a narrative environment I realized how versatile they are.

 

Have you tried any other M-Series fixtures since FARGO?

 

Right now I'm doing the pilot of a Marvel series called DAREDEVIL and the two M90s I've got on the truck are my biggest fixtures; I'm not even carrying a 12 kW or 18 kW. The fact that it can go on a combo stand and one guy can move it makes the M90 a total game-changer. I'm able to create direct sunlight wherever we are by putting my two M90s up on a lift or a scissor, which is relatively quick and easy to do. You can literally turn that light on and pick out a water tower six blocks away -- the throw is incredible.