Vanja Cernjul Shoots HBO’s The Deuce With Panasonic VariCam 35 Cameras
HBO’s The Deuce is a drama series set in and around Times Square in New York and tells the story of the legalization and growth of the porn industry in the 1970s, as well as the rise of HIV and the drug epidemic. The series stars James Franco, playing twin brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino, who become fronts for the Mob. Maggie Gyllenhaal also stars as Eileen “Candy” Merrell, a sex worker drawn into the porn industry. Created and written by David Simon (The Wire, Treme) and crime-fiction author George Pelecanos, The Deuce was shot by cinematographer Vanja Cernjul ASC (Orange Is the New Black, Nurse Jackie) with VariCam 35 cameras.
After finishing a few projects, Cernjul was planning on taking a break until he got a call from his agent, who sent him the pilot for The Deuce, which was shot by cinematographer Pepe Avila del Pino. Cernjul was blown away by the characters and the world they lived in. “As soon as I finished watching it, I called back and told her I wanted a meeting,” recalls Cernjul. “I met with George Pelecanos and Nina Kostroff-Noble, and we really clicked. I knew George and David Simon’s amazing work from before, so I knew they would want the series to feel as authentic as possible.”
After reading some of the scripts, one of the challenges was figuring out how to move quickly from one location to another in New York City. Cernjul wanted to capture as much of New York “for free” because he knew he wouldn’t be able to shoot in the distance for blocks since it was a period piece. The production had already created two sets, and Cernjul wanted them to feel the same as the actual locations, so ceilings and practical lights were built into the sets.
For the look of the series, Cernjul had to decide whether to simulate the movies of the 1970s with a faded look or make it feel like he was shooting on location with cutting-edge digital tools. “Rather than trying to impose a ‘found footage’ style, I thought it would be more interesting to make it look real, as if it were happening today,” he explains. “That was one of the early choices we made.
“I looked at all of the films that were shot in New York during the ’70s, which is probably the most amazing period in American cinema,” he continues. “I used all of those films intimately, but I didn’t want to simulate that look. I looked at them mostly to see what the reality of New York City streets looked like during the period. What kind of light sources were there, and how did the city feel? I really tried to eliminate the filter of the medium it was captured on.”
Cernjul used VariCam 35s for the series. Since HBO does not require 4K acquisition, he shot Full HD (1920×1080) ProRes files at 23.98 fps. The lenses he used were Panavision PVintage primes, which were also used on the pilot. “I knew beforehand how unpredictable the lenses could be,” he says. “Sometimes, when you open them up, some of the lenses start to fall apart, which is why I knew I needed a fast camera. It was one of the reasons I gave the VariCam a try.
“I tested the VariCam against the Alexa with a lot of different lenses,” he continues. “The results just blew me away. I tested all the different ISO ratings and found the sweet spot for what we wanted to do with the LUTs, which Senior Colorist Sam Daley at Technicolor PostWorks NY helped create for the show, was 3,200, dropped down from 5,000. I got a very clean and beautiful image that worked really well with the LUT we were using. The clean image was important for me because we made a choice to treat the whole series with a texturizer called Live Grain, which made it feel like a real film grain. I didn’t want this grain to interact with the noise of the camera so it was important to have a clean image to begin with and texturize it to have more control.”
Cernjul captured in V-Log, and, according to the DP, the LUT helped create was an emulation of a Fuji film stock from the ’70s. “All of the light cycs, gels, and colors were pretty much chosen for this LUT,” he notes. “Once I have a LUT that I like, I do all the adjustments for that LUT and I stick with it for the whole show.”
Instead of using native ISOs, Cernjul was all over the map. “The beauty of the VariCam is the flexibility,” he explains. “I could have gone anywhere from 800 to 3,200, even within a single scene, and it will be perfectly matched. Basically, I could decide shot by shot. For example, I started at 800, and, for whatever reason, if I wanted to capture extreme depth of field, I could switch to 2,500. Once you get used to having the flexibility and power, you start doing things that were unthinkable before — using filters indoors that you normally wouldn’t use in a dark setting because you couldn’t afford to lose two stops. Or you start using gels that would take too much light on small light sources. Switching to slow motion when you had no plans for slow motion and you’re already lit for 24 frames, it gives you a freedom. Once experienced, it’s hard to go back.”
With more control over his camera, Cernjul says, he uses less light on set, although it’s essential to have control over every light source. “If you have a very small space but want a soft light source, you can bounce a tiny unit off a wall and get enough of a light level for it to be usable,” he explains. “Traditional light sources are too inflexible because now you’re working with a tenth of a stop. If you use an 800 open face, you have to bring in so many scrims to bring it down to the light level of the other existing light sources for it to match. If you’re working with available light sources as a base and then you have to bring your lights to that lower light level and match the color, it’s a little time-consuming with traditional instruments. I need to be able to adjust the color and the light level quickly and match it to whatever available light source that I’m using.”
Since he was shooting during a very hot summer, in terms of energy consumption, Cernjul is curious to know how much they were saving on air-conditioning since they were shooting with smaller units and LEDs.
The entire series was graded by Cernjul and Daley at Technicolor PostWorks NY. The final look was similar to how Cernjul worked everything out on set through his viewing LUT. They also graded the entire season in DolbyVision HDR.
Overall, Cernjul is extremely happy with the final look of The Deuce: “I think it feels very alive, and you can feel all of the effort we put into the location work, which was a very difficult task. You can really see the beauty of the city.”