Kramer Morgenthau, ASC, gets all spiffed up for the new Chicago-shot pilot, The Playboy Club, from Imagine/NBC. By Ted Elrick. Photos by Matt Dinerstein.
In February 1960, magazine publisher Hugh Hefner opened the first Playboy Club in downtown Chicago. Sometimes referred to as “Disneyland for adults,” the clubs featured a hip blend of cocktails, entertainment and, of course, the eponymous Playboy Bunnies, who were stuffed into brightly colored one-piece costumes that featured a white fluffy tail, high heels, collar, bow tie and cuffs, all framed by those magnificent 1960’s beehive hairstyles and trademarked bunny ears. Designed as the ultimate male fantasy world, the clubs somehow eluded becoming a backdrop for a TV series, until now.
The Playboy Club, a Fox Television/Imagine Television series on NBC, is not a historical account of Hefner’s famous party spot so much as a fractured fairy tale of all the club represented in American culture. It features hotshot attorney Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian), who’s tight with Chicago’s power brokers, including the mob. Nick comes to the aid of Maureen (Amber Heard), the stunning and innocent new bunny who accidentally kills the leader of the Bianchi crime family. Executive producer/writer Chad Hodge (Tru Calling) says the genesis for the series had been Imagine and Playboy’s long partnership trying to develop a biopic on Hefner’s life.
“I had been doing a number of historical projects over the last few years, so they asked if I wanted to do a series about the original Chicago Playboy Club,” Hodge explains. “They gave me Bunnies, Playboy Club, early ‘60s and I took it from there.
Hodge says his starting point for recreating this fantasy playground turned on an 80/20 balance. “In other words, let’s look at the research, what the club looked like, the make-up, hairstyles, let’s know the rules, then pop it by 20 percent to give it that patina, that shine. That’s because when I spoke with the former Bunnies and with Hef, who lived it, they had this twinkle in their eyes, saying, ‘Oh, you should have been there’.”
Hodge chose director Alan Taylor to helm the pilot episode. He’d proven his skill with the same time period via a 2008 Emmy and a DGA Award for directing the pilot episode of Mad Men. For his DP, Taylor turned to Kramer Morgenthau, ASC. The pair met on Boardwalk Empire, though they had not worked together on an episode.
“I worked with Alan’s wife, Nicki Ledermann (an Emmy-nominated and 2004 Hollywood Makeup Artist and Hair Stylist Guild Award winner for her work on Sex and the City) when I did Curtis Hanson’s Too Big to Fail,” Morgenthau remembers.
“And Nicki was just raving about the DP,” Taylor picks up. “She said he was fast, that everything looked great and that he was fun to work with. So when I started working on The Playboy Club pilot, Kramer was the first guy I thought of.”
The two men dissected their visual approach to shooting the pilot during what Morgenthau calls a “brisk” preproduction period.
“We researched the Playboy archives,” Morgenthau describes, “and studied movies appropriate for the story – La Dolce Vita, which had that living in the high life sensuality and same kind of leisure class; Goodfellas for its proactive and exploratory use of the camera in a nightclub. We have a lot of nightclub scenes in The Playboy Club along with some great musical numbers, such as a recreated Ike and Tina Turner with the Ikettes. On selecting the ARRI ALEXA to shoot the pilot, Morgenthau says, I found it to have at least a stop or tow more detail in the highlights. The widest dynamic range of any of the digital cameras I’ve worked with. It’s physically well constructed, has an ability to interface with other accessories, and very simple to use. It’s just a well thought out camera and captures very pleasing skin tones, nice color rendition and incredible resolution.”
In addition, the ALEXA combined with Truelight on-set workflow allowed Morgenthau and Chicago-based digital imaging technician Tom Zimmerman to create detailed instructions for the colorist on the dailies.
“The ALEXA is capable of recording on SxS cards using the Apple ProRes codec. That can then be imported into Final Cut Pro or transcoded for other uses,” Zimmerman states. “So we’re recording in Apple ProRes 4:4:4 Colorspace, but it’s also outputting in Log C. It has a logarithmic response curve similar to film. When you look at the log signal on a monitor the blacks are raised up and it looks kind of washed out and mushy. However, because of the range of the signal, this camera captures all the color information, and the digital colorist can go in and drop the blacks a little bit, saturate the color a bit, open up the highlights a bit. All of the information is there for them to process.”
The DIT adds that with Truelight, and an MCS Spectrum trackball command station, he could take the Log C output and manipulate the signal to Morgenthau’s specifications.
“We send that to the editor and the dailies colorist [at Level 3 Post],” Zimmerman continues. “He doesn’t have to be in the color bay because he already has an idea what he wants it to look like. We also took screen captures, and Kramer would put them into his computer and, using Lightroom, do a little manipulation of the stills and send that to the editor. That provides us with a base knowledge. For instance, when we’re shooting Amber Heard, we can say, OK, this is what we’ve done before with her.”
“It was almost like having a little DI suite on the set,” Morgenthau continues. “You’ve got the three track balls –lift, gamma, and gain. You can create a CDL look-up table that is quite precise to what you want.”
Workflow benefits aside, the show encountered a number of challenges, not the least of which was finding a suitable location to stand in for the long-since demolished Playboy Club. Production designer Scott Murphy scoured Chicago for a building that had been trapped in time. Eventually, he suggested using the former airline terminal at Meigs Field, a small Chicago airfield closed since 9/11.
“One of the things that stood out during my research was that the original club had multiple levels, a split level arrangement with the different levels exposed to one another,” Murphy says. “There was a series of interconnecting open staircases, so you could be at one place and look across and see people ascending up to what was called the Penthouse level, or be in the middle and look down and see what they called the Playmate Bar, or look up half a level and see an area that they called the Living Room.
“Meigs Field had these open modern staircases and exposed multiple levels,” he continues. “The middle is essentially a box that had a mezzanine running through it and right in the middle of the mezzanine were these crisscrossing stairways. We took the bones of that building and transformed it into the Chicago Playboy Club.”
As for lens choices, Morgenthau opted to use Cooke S4 lenses rather than Master Primes, which he says would have offered “too much” resolution. “We wanted something a little sweeter and softer since this is a period piece and also a beauty piece,” he reflects. “The ALEXA is so sensitive to light I didn’t need the speed of the Master Primes; shooting at a T2 was as wide as I’d need and most of the time I shot at a T2.8.”
Morgenthau brought along L.A.-based A-Camera operator Jacques Jouffret, and then reassembled many of the Chicago-based Guild members he’d worked with on The Express, the feature biopic of football hero Ernie Davis. Having a team already proven in the field together was key for the tight 13-day pilot shoot.
“I like to look through the eyepiece as with a film camera,” Jouffret describes by way of his working process, “and what’s wonderful about the ALEXA is that it does not require as much power as is needed with the Genesis or the F35. So you can go hand held, with one or two batteries in the pack.”
Adds Chicago-based A-Camera 1st AC Peter Kuttner: “With Jacques operating through the eyepiece, I have a free monitor to use on the camera. It’s not so much that I am staying close to the camera, it’s that I am staying close to the operator. And if we don’t actually speak to one another during the shot, we’ll sense each other by our physical moves.”
Kuttner says he used a single channel Preston FI+Z (focus, iris, zZoom) remote camera control system. “Because we used a lot of practical locations, remote focus is a good tool because you can be small. We did lots of dolly moves through small hallways, so it’s easier to be behind the camera in a hallway.”
Kramer and gaffer Mark Castelaz designed stage lighting for the musical numbers, which the DP says they wanted to keep appropriate for the period.
“I studied photography from Playboy’s archives and other photographers of that period,” Morgenthau says. “We used a lot of pinks, purples, magentas and blues to create this mélange of color – a larger than life type of experience, but still reality based. We didn’t shoot it theatrical or fantastical. Alan wanted to keep it strongly grounded in reality. Mostly single sources appropriate for the spaces we were in. Certainly the style of the Playboy Club had some of the elegance and modernism of the 1950s, with a touch of the outlandishness of the ‘60s just around the corner. Either way, I used much more color than I normally would for a typical club scene.”
“I studied photography from [Playboy Magazine] and the publicity photos from that period,” Morgenthau says. “We used a lot of pinks, purples, magentas and blues to create this mélange of color – a larger than life type of experience, but still reality-based. We didn’t shoot it fantastical. Mostly single sources appropriate for the space. Certainly the style of the Playboy Club had a little more elegance and modernism than the 1950s with a touch of the outlandishness of the ‘60s just around the corner. Either way, I used much more color than I normally would for a typical music scene.”
Chicago-based B-Camera Operator Joe “Jody” Williams praises the DP’s approach. “Kramer didn’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out angles of light. He knew where he wanted it to be, set it and we were off. I really liked that. He just had a knack for where to place the lights. And, still, he was very open to listening to someone who might have an idea. It was a pleasure working with him.”
Establishing the Playboy Club exterior was another key visual. The Chicago Athletic Club on Madison Avenue stood in for the original façade. Based on period photographs, the entrance was constructed by Murphy’s art department and lit to provide a feeling of anticipation and excitement for the risqué world that awaits all who come inside.
“The lighting for the street consisted of a 12×12 cube of light grid diffusion,” Castlelaz explains. “Key grip Art Bartels and his crew built the frame and we put four 6K space lights inside of this cube, put some quarter blue on and placed it in the air with a Condor to give the street an ambient light. Then we brought in some period streetlights. My rigging crew took off the existing street light heads, put on the period pieces on them and rigged in some 1,000-watt bulbs that also lit the street. Inside the canopy of the club, we put six 4×4 Kinos in the ceiling and another light grid underneath for an ambient glow. In photos of the entrance, you could see architectural lights uplighting the canopy above it. We mimicked that with Par Cans and a color gel.”
Given all the time and attention spent recreating the past, one can only wonder what restrictions were placed on the filmmakers by a brand so zealously guarded as Playboy.
Taylor and Hodge provide some insight: “We were called in for one meeting with Hefner at the mansion,” Taylor recalls. “He had three specific points that he was concerned about, and discussed them with Chad at the table. Hefner wasn’t being at all narrow in that the Playboy brand always had to be ‘celebrated’ and ‘look great’. He was most concerned with the show being true to the period. He felt it was most important that his career and his work and this club had sort of been a big history of the time, the shifting in the city of Chicago and the launching of the sexual revolution. He wanted that portrayed accurately, and I came away impressed that that was his focus.”
About the end result, Hodge confides that as a writer, he understands that when he’s writing he isn’t thinking about production limitations, and that the final product rarely ever matches what’s in his head. “How could it?” he asks. “But in this case, the show looks almost exactly like what was in my head. Kramer, Alan and Scott made magic.”