Darkest Before Dawn

Fast-paced and somber, the Fox show Gotham expertly balances several storylines at once, featuring David Mazouz as a young Bruce Wayne, Ben McKenzie as Detective James Gordon and Donal Logue as Harvey Bullock, Gordon’s sidekick cop partner. The show is as much about the criminals as the good guys, and the iconic Batman characters are still on screen, including The Joker, Catwoman, The Riddler and The Penguin. Now in its second season, Gotham has been lauded for its character-driven plots, strong writing and solid acting, all complemented by cinematography that makes great use of moody lighting and incredible sets to underscore the drama at hand.

Subtitled “Rise of the Villains,” this season has been good news for bad guys, including The Penguin, as well as the other psychotic characters in tow. The show’s cinematographers have eagerly embraced the dark side amid the Gothic gloom, lit and shot by rotating DPs, Crescenzo Notarile, ASC, AIC, and Chris Norr (Sinister, Believe). Both cinematographers were recently nominated by the ASC for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in a Regular Series for their work on Gotham. Crescenzo is a veteran of many hit TV shows including CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (44 episodes) and Ghost Whisperer (41 episodes), and opens our interview noting that Gotham is a textured, visceral show with elements of kitsch and comic book flair.

ADP Crescenzo Notarile, ASC, AIC (center), with Donal Logue (Harvey Bullock) and Ben McKenzie (James Gordon).

“We have a lot of creative license to raise the bar and stretch it visually,” explains Crescenzo on shooting the show with Norr. “We get to reinvent and stylize the show, and add our personal signature. Shooting Gotham gives me creative license to think outside the box, to be visually bold and striking, and it’s this indulgence that helps sustain visual attention from our audience.”

Before starting on Gotham, Crescenzo immersed himself in the look and language of comic strips to prepare himself for the look of the show. “I really loved what I found,” he recalls. “Gotham has a very strong graphic look, with grand perspectives and wild, imaginative compositions just like the comics. You’re often very high looking down or very low looking up, with very little in the middle.”

Crescenzo’s visual approach was radically different from his previous show, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, where long telephoto lenses were used for close-ups. “All the sets and exteriors have an old-world architecture feel,” says Crescenzo of Gotham. “We’re underneath bridges, in alleyways, in Sin City, with looks that cry out for wide-angle lenses. My lens range is from 17mm to 32mm, with my favorite lens being the 28mm.”

Gotham chronicles the early years of James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), and the origin stories of classic Batman villains. The series is lensed by rotating DPs Crescenzo Notarile, ASC, AIC, and Chris Norr. “We have a lot of creative license to raise the bar and stretch it visually,” says Crescenzo on shooting the show with Norr. “We get to reinvent and stylize the show, and add our personal signature. Shooting Gotham gives me creative license to think outside the box, to be visually bold and striking, and it’s this indulgence that helps sustain visual attention from our audience.” Both cinematographers were recently nominated by the ASC for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in a Regular Series for their work on Gotham.

Shooting half the nine-days-per-show schedule on stage at Steiner Studios, Brooklyn, and half on location around the five boroughs of New York City, Crescenzo works closely with his camera operators, Gerard Sava on A camera and Alan Pierce on B.

“They both contribute so much in terms of composition and how to block our actors, as well as moving our cameras around to help maintain the show’s signature look,” he says. “I used zooms most of the time on CSI, but we rarely use them on this show. Instead, every shot is calculated on a prime lens to exaggerate the geometry of the composition. Sometimes the image distorts, but this strengthens the ‘hero-ness’ of the architecture behind the subject in frame. When you’re low using wide-angle lenses, the architecture grows like giant skyscrapers looming in the background. In this way, we treat Gotham City like another character.”

“I tend to shoot very cool, cyan hues that effectively give the show a decadent, cold feel. The look becomes a very emotional, evocative color to the audience, who, in turn, feels the coldness of the city.”

Crescenzo works with ARRI ALEXA Studio cameras—the main camera is the ALEXA Plus, with the ALEXA Classic used in tandem—and Panavision lenses supplied by Panavision, New York. On occasion, he also uses Canon EOS 5D Mark III equipment for various stunts and crashes and for “precarious camera placements.”

Lenses are standard Panavision Prime and Ultra Speed glass, with the occasional use of Primo lenses and zooms. However, Crescenzo favors old standard Primes. “The older Primes are softer and more pleasing to me when shooting the human face because they give you a glamorous, Hollywood motion-picture look,” he notes. “They capture texture as opposed to an ultra-sharp image.”

He also embraces the lights on set. Says Crescenzo, “The old lenses give you very soft and impressionistic flare, another look that I like. I also use close-focus prime lenses that allow me to shoot very close to an actor’s face—maybe just six inches away. This distorts the image slightly, but in a good way, and really gives a character’s face more of a 3D feel, as well.”

Lighting is mainly from a soft source, from 18K Sunrays and 20K Mole-Richardsons to 5K beam projectors, 12K Pars and Xenons. “Those beams of light are another visual signature on the show,” he adds, taking creative license with light placement when on set. “I’ll use light coming through windows and doorways, and add smoke in almost every shot to soften the air and enhance the light. I love to compose around those beams of light.”

Discussing on-set tools, it’s clear that the Technocrane is one of Crescenzo’s favorite tools. “I use it to get very low, wide-angle shots with the camera touching the ground,” he notes. “Very effective on extreme perspectives—and a great tool for adding a comic-strip perspective to any given scene.”

Lighting Gotham on set is mainly by way of soft sources—from 18K Sunrays and 20K Mole-Richardsons to 5K beam projectors, 12K Pars and Xenons. Explains Crescenzo, “Those beams of light are another visual signature on the show. I’ll use light coming through windows and doorways, and add smoke in almost every shot to soften the air and enhance the light. I love to compose around those beams of light.”

Gotham is captured in ProRes 444 at 1920×1080 resolution in 12-bit Log-C. “We record to 32 GB and 64 GB Sony SxS cards and download using ‘ARRI On-Set’ to check results on location, then send that footage with a DPX reference photo and separate CDL [color decision list] file per scene that exhibit any changes we make on set.”

Crescenzo also has his “look” set on monitors for reference. “It’s Rec. 709, and from that look, we get a vision of what we’re doing in terms of color palette, density and saturation,” he continues. “I find myself going very monochromatic on the show, as opposed to the lush, saturated look I went for on CSI. I tend to shoot very cool, cyan hues that effectively give the show a decadent, cold feel. The look becomes a very emotional, evocative color to the audience, who, in turn, feels the coldness of the city.”

Crescenzo works closely with production designer Richard Berg and costume designers John Glaser and Patrick Wiley on set, discussing the color palette to be used in each set in addition to costumes and textiles.

“I compose for widescreen in 16×9 aspect ratio of 1.78:1, so we have a very wide motion-picture feel on the show,” he adds. “Usually, when people shoot with ALEXAs, they work at a base sensitivity of 800 ISO, thereby giving you seven stops of latitude in highlights and seven stops in shadows. I like to manipulate the camera’s sensitivity, as sometimes I need less detail in the highlights and more in the shadow, or vice versa. It depends how I feel when I’m shooting a scene, and I personally like it when my blacks go inky with very deep contrast.”

In terms of the show’s digital workflow, Crescenzo works closely with DIT Dan Brosnan. “We sit shoulder-to-shoulder on set and manipulate the images together,” he reveals. “He’s my strongest ally and liaison for my look and vision, along with my camera crew on set. We all use headsets. It’s very rare for me to have the luxury of a DIT.”

He notes this method is unorthodox. “Most elect to manipulate the image later when they go into color correction, but I like to bake it in on set whenever I can,” he reveals. “Dan helps me with that language, and if I like the look, I sign off on it. Dan will also take a picture of the look on his monitor for reference, so the lab also gets a portfolio of pictures to indicate how I want the image to appear.”

Other key members of Crescenzo’s team include his dailies colorist, Company 3’s John Bonta. When it comes to dailies, Crescenzo admits to having an old-school methodology.

“Each shoot day at lunch I email John my work for the first half of the day, and send along all my notes regarding the color scheme I’m going for,” he explains. “I have to communicate exactly what the look is, and be very specific about the temperature I want. I’ll also send the second half of my dailies when we wrap. Then, first thing in the morning, when John is walking out of the graveyard shift, we’ll discuss everything before I start shooting again.”

Final color correction then goes to Encore in Los Angeles, performed by Crescenzo’s longtime colorist Paul Westerbeck. “He’s the most important person, a true artist and technician, just like a detailed paintbrush in my darkroom,” explains Crescenzo. “Once an episode is locked, I immediately go to him with a copy, sit in an editing bay and shuttle through the picture. I stop and freeze throughout the entire episode writing various notes. Do I want it cooler or warmer? Do I need to add contrast? Should I shape the image a little more with deep-focusing or neutral-density edges? This can be a painstaking process; not so with Paul. His ASC nomination [for Outstanding Color Grading, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation] is a testament to his genius.”

For Crescenzo, Gotham has become a wonderful opportunity for him to experiment as a cinematographer. “You have such great creative leeway to make bold, audacious imagery that doesn’t have to make perfect sense in the real world,” he says. “We’re creating our own world here, and I’m very proud of our signature look that acts as yet another character on a compelling show.”

Gotham is led by executive producer Danny Cannon, producer Scott White and show creator/executive producer Bruno Heller.

Visit the Gotham website at fox.com/Gotham.

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