Friday 30 July 2021

Home - Academic - Frames: “The Plot Against America” in 24 Frames by Martin Ahlgren


24Frames: The first step to making an exceptional film is to have an enriched visual language. In an attempt to bring aspiring filmmakers practical advice on how to improve their visual storytelling, 24 Frames has asked some noteworthy Cinematographers to share their tips and tricks on how they approach a film’s cinematography. In the coming weeks, we will publish the article series “The Frames,” written by many outstanding cinematographers about their projects, on their favorite frames.


On the first Installment of “Frames,” Martin Ahlgren, who had been previously nominated for an Emmy award for a Single-Camera Series for his work on “House of Cards,” shares his experiences as a DOP on the  TV Mini-Series “The Plot Against America,” for which he had been again nominated for the Emmy Awards 2020.




The Cinematography of “The Plot Against America” in 24 Frames

By Martin Ahlgren



Deep Focus


One of my main visual inspirations for the show was the photography of the Golden Age of Photojournalism during the 1930s through the 1950s. This era was defined by the photographers who published in magazines like Life in the US and by Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, Vu and Picture Post in Europe, and by Magnum Photo, the cooperative founded by some of those photographers.


A characteristic of this photography that I found myself gravitating towards was the use of deep focus. I don’t think it was necessarily a conscious choice to go for the deepest focus possible, but there also wasn’t this romanticism around shallow focus that we have today when wide open seems to be the default setting. So many compositions in these photos have great levels of depth in the frame, and the deeper focus gives us an opportunity to scan the image and find different areas of interest.


Being able to frame with deep focus became one of our key aesthetic choices, and we achieved this in part by using a smaller portion of the sensor, which increases the depth of field for the same field of view. We windowed the sensor on our Sony Venice camera to 3K, making it just 18mm across, which is right in between the size of Super35 and Super16. The second factor that determines depth of field is the size of the aperture, and this was helped by the camera’s native 2500 base ISO, which allowed us to stop down the aperture even in lower light scenarios.


When you’re shooting mostly on location on a show that takes place in the 1940s, there is a lot that needs to be addressed, even when you find locations that are mostly period correct. With our deep focus approach that meant an incredible amount of attention to even small details in the background, and everyone had to be on board to make it work. As a general rule, our art department would handle anything below 12 feet, and visual effects would take over above that. Lamp posts would be dressed in wood up to 12 feet and the top of the lamp would then be created as a visual effect. Air conditioners would be removed on the first two floors but left to post beyond that.


In the opening scene of the show, we are introduced in a medium close-up to one of the main characters, Bess Levin, played by Zoe Kazan. In the same frame, we can also see children playing in the street behind her, also in focus, establishing the lively neighborhood and expanding on the atmosphere of the scene. Working with the background actors and extras in this way puts a lot of responsibility on the assistant directors to coordinate that action and also to make sure it repeats the same way for all takes.



In this wider shot below, a slightly longer lens compresses the perspective while the smaller aperture keeps everything in focus. This gives it a flatter and perhaps more two-dimensional quality. We’re used to a longer lens having more shallow focus so it’s an interesting effect. To me, it feels a bit like an American realist painting, in that it has the naturalism of photography, yet doesn’t seem to obey the laws of optics.



I love this image of the three family members looking at a potential new home, all kept in focus in the same frame, with various expressions and body language. Sandy imagines the freedom of his own bedroom, while Herman seeks the approval of his wife for a move that would allow him to accept a promotion and give the family a step up the financial ladder. Bess knows all this but is also reminded of what it feels like to be a jew living in a non-Jewish community, such as this one.



It was also great to be able to frame up a raking profile shot and have all the faces in focus, like in this one. 



Shallow Focus


On a few occasions, we used Shallow focus for a subjective emotional effect. Because the Sony Venice is also capable of recording in large format, which inherently gives you more shallow focus, we carried a few fast lenses for this purpose. When used sparingly, and in contrast to the deep focus look, the shallow focus shots stand out dramatically. Shooting at T1.5 in 6K gives you tremendously shallow focus, even in wide shots. This stood in stark contrast to the many other scenes that were shot at stops as high as T11 or T16, framed for 3K extraction.


Anytime we set up a shot in large format mode, the operators just loved it. It definitely has a very cinematic look to it. I had to tell them that anyone can make shallow focus look good – our job was to make frames strong enough that they hold up for deep focus.


Here, an extremely out of focus Sandy frames a sliver of his dad during a tense moment between the two.



In this scene, we chose to frame Philip in focus with the world around him falling off quickly to an out-of-focus blur. His actions have had larger ramifications than he could ever have imagined, forcing his neighbors to pick up and leave their home in New Jersey for a farm in Kentucky. He is overcome by guilt while also keeping his complicity a secret. With large format photography, it is possible to have a character in a wide shot deep into the frame and still singled out with narrow focus, like here where he is watching his mother in the foreground discuss the fate of her friend’s family.




Over the Shoulder


I’m usually not a big fan of traditional over-the-shoulder shots which forces you to use a longer lens and places the camera further from the actor than I normally like. However, the “over” can be used effectively for emotional purposes, and allow you to include some movement cues or actions of the actor in the foreground. When doing “overs” we were constantly looking for creative ways of doing them that supported the story and the emotions of the actors.


Here we are with Bess, waiting for the doctor’s assessment of her son. By placing the camera close to the side of her face we have a chance to sense her anxiety up close, while still staying in the scene and with the interaction across the table. We called these kinds of shots “insiders,” as a reference to the Michael Mann film “The Insider” which used this technique effectively.



Director Minkie Spiro loved to do what we called “dangerous overs”, where the frame is so heavy with the foreground that you risk at any moment to miss an expression from the actor that you are shooting.



The “dangerous over” can be used to convey something emotionally, like a person feeling trapped or intimidated. Here we used the big shoulders of the press in the foreground to create a sense of how Bengelsdorf’s world is starting to close in on him.



Having the actor’s face away from each other during a conversation can lead to interesting “overs”, as each shot now actually become more about the face of the person in the foreground, while also showing the body language of the other actor.



In this scene, we were able to tell the whole story in one shot over Sandy’s shoulder, with Bess reflected in a mirror. We can sense Sandy’s emotion by just watching his back as he sketches on a drawing and ignores his mother, while she is trying to get him to change his mind and join the family. When she leaves, she disappears from the mirror and we hear her walking down the stairs as Sandy finally looks up and after her.



Frames within the Frame


We often tried to use elements in the set to create another frame within the frame, liking how we could use that to separate characters that were in the same space, but distant from each other emotionally. The Levin family apartment was our only big set piece as the show was almost entirely shot on location, and we took advantage of the ability to build it with sightlines in mind. We designed it so the camera could look through multiple doorways to see into a room, installed doors with glass windows, and built walls with interior windows – all things that offered opportunities to frame with depth and to create frames within the frame. We also finished the exterior of the set walls so we could shoot from the outside looking in. Outside the windows, across the alleyway, we built a complete facade with rooms behind it so that when we see our family setting up dinner in the foreground, we can see that action mirrored in the apartment across the alley with the neighbors.


Here we have a tense moment in the family, with the members separated by door frames and an interior window.



Vintage cars were a great help in establishing the period, and when they weren’t breaking down, we loved to use them as framing devices. In this shot, we timed a crossing car to the action of the two brothers coming towards the camera. By setting the height of the camera so that we could see through the windows of the car as it passes, we got an effect that almost feels like film going through a projector.





We also loved using reflections in windows and mirrors, or in other reflective surfaces and objects. Here it was possible to tell the story of Philip’s anxiety about his cousin returning home after having lost his leg in the war, while he’s watching a street peddler outside his window.



Winona Ryder’s character Evelyn has traveled to the top of American political life, but has now fallen from grace and been ostracized by her family. As she closes the window to the noise from political campaigners outside, her face is caught behind the reflection of the weblike pattern of a tree. It felt like a suitable parting image of her, as she’s been forced away from the spotlight in disgrace.



Including Interior and Exterior Environments in the Same Frame


Part of what we loved about the deep focus approach was the way in which it helped us build complete worlds full of detail. This thinking also continued into our framing and camera movement. We tried to connect environments visually as much as possible, by having the camera travel between rooms, from interiors to exteriors, and by walking onto trains and into cars. We also tried to include, and expose for, views out windows and doorways.


Here we see the approach of Herman’s car and the farmer in the foreground that expects him. To be able to connect the interior and exterior we had to balance the lighting on the inside to the bright sunny day outside, building up the interior light level significantly.



Choosing the Right Location


This political rally was scripted to take place in a town square, but I think director Tommy Schlamme made a wise choice in picking this location under the railway tracks. While still a public outdoor space, this ceiling over the crowd helps to close in the space and makes for a more claustrophobic environment when it breaks into violent moments later.



The realization that Alvin may have been a part of the successful assassination of the president has him reeling and in shock. We liked the way we were able to frame him here, alone with his thoughts and visually lost at sea.



Using the Second Camera


The schedule of television usually necessitates the use of two cameras, and it’s always a bit of a dance to make both cameras work efficiently and to get a coverage that is meaningful. On this show, we had two directors who both approached coverage slightly differently. Minkie Spiro, who directed the first three episodes, is very specific about eye lines and connecting actors visually, as well as finding frames that capture the emotion of the scene. With her, we often made diagrams to figure out where to place the cameras and how to pair them most efficiently, in order get the coverage in as few setups as possible. Tommy Schlamme, who directed the second half of the show, likes to use the movement of the camera to tell the story. His approach is often to start with the A camera and work out a movement together with the actors that will cover most of what happens in the scene. The work of the B camera then becomes figuring out how to fit into that blocking and find things that will add to the coverage.


In both approaches we never wanted to compromise the quality of a shot just to fit in both cameras, so sometimes one camera has to stand down. However, when doing dialogue scenes and framing for a tight eye line of the actor on one camera, a typical B camera shot that can be very effective is the profile. Some directors don’t like these because they feel it’s too distant and they like to see both eyes of the actor, but I think that sometimes the profile can add something important to the scene, and give a different view on the body language.



Turning an Insert into Something More


I try to avoid two-dimensional insert shots that just provide information without visual context. Ideally, they should feel part of the scene and just as alive visually. Maybe it’s my background in commercials that stops me from shooting something that feels flat and visually uninteresting, but I also think they can be opportunities to further the story and build on the atmosphere of the scene.


We took this insert of a newspaper and put it on the move, with the camera on a Steadicam hanging over the actor’s shoulder as he walks briskly having just picked up a copy, with the late day sun projecting the shadows of other pedestrians around him.



The introduction to this US customs office was described in the script in a series of specific inserts, but instead of doing them on longer lenses, we opted for a 16mm macro lens that could also hold the surroundings.

“The Plot Against America” is now available to watch on HBO. You can watch the trailer here.

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