Kramer Morgenthau, ASC, takes a midnight ride through history for the thrilling new FOX series Sleepy Hollow

A contemporary retelling of the Washington Irving tale, writer/producers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman’s Sleepy Hollow features an Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) who is not the nebbish seen in past incarnations, but instead an atypically bad-ass Oxford scholar. Sent on a secret mission by President Washington to kill a particular Redcoat – a Hessian mercenary – he succeeds in managing to cut off his opponent’s head and then is placed in a cave in a kind of stasis. Centuries later, in modern day Sleepy Hollow (up the Hudson River from New York City), Crane is awakened in response to the now headless horseman – revealed, in contemporary times, as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse summoned back to action.

The pilot for the FOX series attracted considerable feature-film talent, including director Len Wiseman, who says the major difference (with TV production) is the absence of previs for action and visual effects. “The day I see a television schedule that allows for previs,” Wiseman grins, “sign me up! For television I end up doing quick storyboards myself, and print them out for the crew the morning of each shoot so they have a guideline of what shots I am planning. Then it’s a scramble to see how many we can actually achieve.”

To get the best bang for his visual buck, while still keeping to the tight demands of a TV schedule, Wiseman looked to cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau, ASC, who has moved seamlessly between features (Havoc, Fracture and the upcoming Thor: The Dark World) and television (pilots like Vegas, and The Playboy Club, ICG September 2011, along with multiple episodes of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones, winning an ASC award for the latter).

Morgenthau, who first worked with Wiseman on a Paul Oakenfold video a decade ago, says it’s interesting to do pilots because of their creative freedoms. “You are challenged to deliver something with its own unique visual impact,” he explains. Wiseman wanted a look that was dark but not drab or depressing. “Kramer developed a variety of looks – from Thrones to his horror films to the new Thor,” describes the director. “I had confidence in his ability to create the right kind of mood for the show.”

While Wiseman had shot a lot of film and some RED in the past, Morgenthau made a (successful) pitch for ARRI’s popular ALEXA system. “Rated normally, Alexa is sensitive enough to pick up even small amounts of light, so for a lot of our many night exteriors we could get by just using streetlights, usually only adding a bit of light to bring up faces,” Morgenthau explains.

Shooting ProRes, the DP handled most color work issues on set, creating looks with DIT Ryan Kunkleman, before passing the work onto Modern VideoFilm for dailies. Sequences set in the past were shot with Panavision’s Portrait lenses, which feature a soft-edged look recalling photography from around 1850. To create a “softer, more nuanced” look for contemporary scenes, Morgenthau used re-housed Panavision PVintage lenses from the 1970s. “We used a lot of smoke and textures and wet everything down for night work, relying on physical effects to achieve as much in-camera as possible,” he adds. “Len had a very ambitious visual style that’s in keeping with his approach to feature work, which might involve mounting the camera to objects the characters interact with.”

Wiseman’s visual embellishments were not mere flourishes but all character-driven. “I wanted some of Crane’s reaction to his new world to come through the camera work, rather than just have him comment,” the director shares. “We developed a few specialty rigs to do a kind of POV approach. I thought if we were to attach our cameras to some of the things he was experiencing for the first time, it would add some awkward fun, like when he discovers power windows in a car, or, for that matter, enters a car for the first time. Little details like that were just fun to twist our view a bit.”

The director says he’s never been a fan of green screen for car scenes, and with the schedule not allowing time for a conventional process trailer shoot or towing, he (cautiously) accepted Morgenthau’s pitch for an LCD system of rear projection – derived from plates shot on a 5D – for both day and night scenes. “I was nervous,” Wiseman admits. “Would the blacks be black enough? But once we saw it together with a second projector that was used to create reflection passes over the car’s windows in the foreground, I was sold.”

A-camera and SteadiCam operator Bob Gorelick affirms the success of the process. “Setting up took a little while, but once everything lined up, wow! Everybody on set could see what was being photographed, so unlike greenscreen, there was no guesswork about how much we needed to bounce the camera or the vehicle. Eliminating questions about what would get put in later helped tie it all together.”

Production was based in North Carolina, which was extensively scouted. “It’s always a two-part process with locations,” explains Wiseman. “Finding them is one process, filming at them another. I was very specific about what I was looking for. Sometimes that’s great. Other times it sucks because it takes a long time to find that picture in your head. Then when I would find the look, it wasn’t safe enough to shoot in, or it was a historic reserve and would require us to do fake pyrotechnics, which I hate.”

In the case of the latter, Wiseman and production designer Alec Hammond [Red, RIPD] would use the locations as a basis for what would be created on set. “Alec built some sets and adapted others found in the Charlotte, North Carolina warehouses where Homeland is shot,” Morgenthau reports. “We used a lot of the existing infrastructure from their sets, including the police precinct and an interrogation room. Those were largely pre-lit, using existing fluorescents on the station, with additional light brought through the windows to give it some mood, since this was horror, not documentary.”

The pilot was shot with two cameras, with a third employed for major action sequences. “We didn’t try to shoot crosses with the two cameras,” Gorelick adds. “Kramer, very wisely, is not a fan of trying to do that much on one setup. Operating B-camera, Darin Moran would try to complement what A-camera did, which was the best way to get the extra coverage.”

Creating Sleepy Hollow’s feature-level effects encompassed a variety of techniques. Having begun his career in props and special effects, Wiseman has evolved his own set of rules about practical versus visual effects.

“I have always responded better as an audience member if something amazing or fun on screen was actually real,” he states. “Obviously visual effects can be stunning when done really well, and there are things you could never achieve practically. But it’s often hard for me to feel connected to the danger when you’re watching a character narrowly escaping that danger built from a computer. I think there’s something that subconsciously disconnects you from the tension. I’ve always felt people are more emotionally engaged by a real stunt rather than a CG double. If I can’t achieve something practically, my goal has always been to ground VFX with practical limitations, always building from something that is shot in-camera as a base.”

Visual effects supervisor Ariel Velasco-Shaw oversaw work on set and then worked with Pixomondo on the nearly 160 VFX shots required, which were completed in just two-and-a-half weeks. “Ninety percent of those shots were massive dedicated VFX,” Shaw explains, “with very few of the fix-it-in-post variety. That shows how well planned this was, because we didn’t have to remedy inadequacies arising from what they couldn’t get on the day. Because of that, our meager budget could be stretched across these shots to deliver in a feature-film way.”

Shaw worked with Gorelick to ensure the operator’s Steadicam shots would work for VFX. “Ariel said I should do what I needed to do, but just try and remember framelines corner to corner, so we could get tiles shot afterward,” Gorelick reports. “For example, when we’re following the Headless Horseman with a floating camera, I tried to keep that in mind. I’ve been on enough of these effects shows to understand they need to be able to see behind the subject being replaced. Effects can get in the way if you’re not careful, so we both kept each other informed about how things were progressing, and I did my best to include him in decisions being made on the fly.”

“I cannot laud the efforts of the camera crew enough,” Shaw adds. “Every time Headless turned up, we had to have HDRI and a clean plate, which was never a trivial matter because the camera is always in motion. Plus we included as many subtle real-world aspects as possible, blowing a lot of smoke and leaves, and that meant these elements would pass through the area where his head was missing. I don’t know that it is so overt as to be noticeable, but the base of the brain feels that aspect, and that subtlety really helps us sell the gag. We also had to put in a CG element for the back of his collar.”

Even with such a pronounced supernatural element, the director’s preference for grounding effects in reality was retained. “Headless is very much a physical rather than spectral presence,” Shaw continues. “Even when dealing with werewolves and vampires, Len doesn’t hang his work on magical stuff like emanations coming off the creature. There are witch characters possessing magical abilities. Would we use particles of animation to emphasize their talents? The answer was no, the manifestations of their power would be seen via leaves kicked up in growing winds, which is practical and organic rather than spectral or ‘effectsy.’

“The one thing we did do,” he adds, “was that anytime a head gets cut off – which happens quite a lot on this show! – the wound cauterizes as soon as the head leaves the shoulders. To sell that story point, the ax was heated up to around 500 degrees at the moment of impact. So there is just a bit of CG glow and smoke coming off the ax, which also gave Headless a bit of mojo as well.”

Even the film’s flashback to the battle in which Crane originally kills the Horseman was accomplished without resorting to the usual endless field of CGI soldiers. “Tarrytown [New York] off the Hudson is not that big a space,” Shaw describes. “It isn’t a wide field like you’d see in Civil War films or, say, The Patriot. We looked at all that reference and at the real area, with the woods leading right up to the water, which was small enough to make the battle seem more a spot for guerilla warfare. So we didn’t have to extend too much beyond what live-action provided, though we provided some battle augmentation in post. This approach let Kramer and the actors work with physical and corporeal things. And then visual effects can flesh that out while matching to the look, keeping the filmmakers’ notion for how the scene is supposed to play, mood-wise.”

Even with the limitations of a TV shooting schedule and its accompanying abbreviated post, Sleepy Hollow delivers an impressive level of feature-film visuals and sensibility, making it one of the most highly anticipated new additions to the Fall television schedule.

“I was looking to give Sleepy Hollow its own signature in how it was shot,” Len Wiseman explains. “[Kramer and I] share this kind of passion for new techniques with cinematography. [Bob and Alex’s] idea of creating a mystery and mythology that has puzzle pieces in both past and present-day Sleepy Hollow was very appealing to me. And that situation creates a really different type of Ichabod – a man in an unknown world.”

CREW

Director of Photography:
Kramer Morgenthau, ASC

Operators:
Bob Gorelick, SOC
Darin Moran
Paige K. Thomas
Jerome Fauci

Assistants:
Mark Spath
David O’Brien
Richard Massino
Christian Shonts
Jamie Marlowe
Nicole Lobell

Steadicam Operator:
Bob Gorelick

Digital Imaging Tech:
Ryan Kunkleman

 By Kevin H. Martin / photos by Kent Smith/FOX