Sunday, October 23, 2016
  • Friday, Aug. 19, 2016
Emmy Nominees Reflect On "Game of Thrones," "Homeland," "The Night Manager," "The Man In The High Castle," "Black Sails"
Director Jack Bender (r) and actor Jonathan Pryce on location for "Game of Thrones" (photo courtesy of HBO).
Director, EP, cinematographer and VFX supervisor perspectives

A four-time DGA Award nominee for Lost, a series which also earned him three Emmy nods as a director, Jack Bender—whose first directing Emmy nomination came for Northern Exposure— now finds himself again in the running for a TV Academy statuette based on his directorial prowess, this time for the “The Door” episode of Game of Thrones, his debut on the lauded HBO series. Bender actually helmed two Game of Thrones episodes this past season, the other being “Blood of My Blood.”

“The Door” was a pivotal, emotionally charged episode highlighted by the death of Hodor. Written by series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, “The Door” posed varied creative challenges for Bender who set as a prime priority the task of doing justice to Hodor’s passing. While there was some temptation to skew towards the gory, violent and vicious—which the subsequent episode did, and “appropriately so,” said Bender—“The Door” episode had to be treated quite differently. “Early on we realized that the most important thing is that we feel something at the end of this episode, that horror or a graphic depiction could not in any way overpower the emotion of Hodor’s death.

Another challenging aspect, observed Bender, “was to create a sequence that was scary, believable and lived up to the quality of the action which is a very high bar set by Game of Thrones. We have a big action sequence in a small cave with thousands of dead guys outside trying to get in. Inside is our small army of heroes. The work of the stunt people, cinematographer Jonathan Freeman and many others was stunning. Jonathan had to light a cave that had no light source, to keep it dark and scary yet viewable and credible. All the while we had to keep our eye on the prize—that we were going to sacrifice a beloved character and the audience had to feel the gut-wrenching emotion of that at the end. Hodor makes the choice to hold the door as the White Walkers bang through against it, wrapping their arms around him. The camera moves in on Hodor as he becomes engulfed with the dead around him. We also had shots of Wyllis, the young Hodor, giving us parallel views of those two characters we could intercut. We moved in on these two characters in a parallel way so that they become one rhythmically. At the end of the day, the audience would have its heart broken.”

Garnering an Emmy nomination, while gratifying, “isn’t the only reward of working on Game of Thrones,” affirmed Bender. “To work in Northern Ireland with these incredible artists who are so committed, to get the chance to dive into another world with them, is inspiring. As a director, you end up building a pyramid one day and one block at a time, surrounded by great people. At the end of a day you’re just making a show—but in this case some say the greatest show ever on television; certainly it’s the greatest show in the world right now.”

The Emmy nomination itself is special, continued Bender, noting that it’s a reminder of how the stars have favorably aligned for him over the years. “I was lucky to get a script like that [‘The Door’]. David [Benioff] and Dan [D.B. Weiss] were very enthusiastic about me doing that episode because of my experience on Lost where we played with the element of time, where time starts to merge. The story of ‘The Door’ was something iconic and it was a privilege to get the opportunity to direct it. I’ve been blessed, going back to coming together with [series creators] J.J. Abrams on Alias, David Chase on The Sopranos, Abrams, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse on Lost. I was there from the beginning on Lost. I’ve been very fortunate to catch certain waves that ended up being extraordinary stories that the world seemed to really care about.”

Bender added that Game of Thrones departs from the television norm in yet another key regard. “Most shows start big and end big during a given season, with the middle episodes helping to pull the threads leading to the finale. But given the episodes I directed, Game of Thrones went for bigger stuff, aspired to do more, was not afraid to go for the most pivotal moments and story turns during the middle of the season.”

Game of Thrones topped the field of Emmy nominations this year with 23, including for Outstanding Drama Series.

Besides the Emmy nominations for his directing, Bender has over the years also scored as an executive producer Outstanding Drama Series nods for Lost in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2010—winning the Emmy in ‘05.

Susanne Bier
Based on John le Carré’s novel of the same title, the AMC-BBC miniseries The Night Manager is a crime drama which introduces us to British soldier Jonathan Pine (portrayed by Tom Hiddleston). Now a hotel night manager, Pine is recruited to spy on businessman/entrepreneur Richard Onslow Roper (Hugh Laurie) who’s suspected of espionage and secret arms trading. Pine becomes a felon himself to get close to Roper.

Susanne Bier recently earned her first career Emmy nomination on the strength of The Night Manager which was recognized in the Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special category. Bier’s fellow nominees are Jay Roach for All the Way, Noah Harley for Fargo, and Ryan Murphy, Anthony Hemingway and John Singleton for different installments of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. The Night Manager tallied a dozen Emmy nominations, including for Best Limited Series.

Bier said she was conscious of many tasks when directing The Night Manager, perhaps most notably doing justice to the story and building a character dynamic for Pine centered on the question of “moral integrity.” She wanted the audience to wonder if Pine will be seduced by the world and charm of Roper. “Richard had to be irresistible, the characters in his world had to be exciting and engaging,” said Bier. “And in the face of all this, will Pine stay true to his mission and his moral compass?”

Bier quipped that she was in a key sense on board with the project before she even got to read the initial version of the very first episode. “I’ve always been envious of anyone directing something based on a John le Carré novel,” said Bier. “I jumped at the chance and was drawn in once I read that first script.”

The Emmy nomination adds to a feature filmography for Bier which includes Academy Award recognition. Bier, who’s Danish, has to her credit In a Better World which won for Denmark the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2011. In 2007, Bier directed Things We Lost in the Fire, starring Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro, the filmmaker’s first English-language feature. Prior to this as a writer/director she helmed the lauded After the Wedding (2006) which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, and Brothers which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Bier also directed the 2013 winner of the European Film Award for Best Comedy, Love Is all You Need, starring Pierce Brosnan and Trine Dyrholm. In 2014, Bier directed Serena, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, and A Second Chance, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival.

While more TV and features are likely on the horizon, Bier has also positioned herself to return to commercialmaking which she was involved in early on during her career. Bier recently joined production house Smuggler for select spots and branded content projects. She was drawn to Smuggler by the affinity she feels for EPs Brian Carmody and Patrick Milling Smith. Bier further noted that she began to think again about the challenge of telling a story within the confines of a shorter format. “To connect with someone in 30 seconds or a minute is something I’ve always liked and now want to experience again. The creative community changes over time but I’d like to collaborate with them on not only commercials but many of the branded content opportunities that are emerging.”

Lesli Linka Glatter
The kickoff installment of this season’s The Road To Emmy series of feature stories included Lesli Linka Glatter. One didn’t have to be clairvoyant to project her into the Emmy conversation. Fast forward to today and she has earned two more Emmy nominations for Showtime’s Homeland: Outstanding Drama Series as an exec producer on the series; and Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series on the basis of “The Tradition of Hospitality” episode. This marks her third directorial Emmy nod for Homeland, the first coming in 2013 for the “Q&A” episode, then in 2015 for “From A To B And Back Again.” Glatter’s first directorial Emmy nomination came in 2010 for Mad Men.

Glatter noted that being one of the six directors nominated for drama series work this year is a high honor. “We are in an extraordinary time in that there is so much great drama on television. To be selected by your peers at this particular time means a great deal. It’s apples and oranges. You can’t compare but I know I’m in great company—especially when you realize that there are many fantastic directors out there who weren’t recognized in this category yet who’ve done tremendous work.”

Nominated along with Glatter in this category are directors Bender and Miguel Sapochnik for two separate episodes of Game of Thrones, Michel Engler for Downton Abbey, Steven Soderbergh for The Knick, and David Hollander for Ray Donovan.

For “The Tradition of Hospitality” episode of Homeland, Glatter said among the biggest creative challenges was one tinged with irony. She remembered being thrilled when finding out that season five of Homeland would be set in Berlin, “the epicenter of what’s happening in Europe, an exciting focal point where the old and the new are right next to each other. I couldn’t have been more thrilled to go to Berlin. Then I read the script for episode 2, ‘The Tradition of Hospitality,’ to find one of the settings being a refugee camp at the border of Syria and Lebanon. At first I thought they, including [series creator] Alex Gansa, were playing a joke on me. The fact was that we had to recreate a refugee camp in the Middle East.

Still this “joke” which turned out to be reality underscores a dynamic of Homeland which Glatter—who’s starting her fourth year as an EP on the series—embraces. “Every year we reinvent the wheel. Homeland is not the same show from one season to the next. We go into a different country and into different worlds. And in each new country, we bring our core crew while assembling local crew members which entails a ‘getting to know you’ phase followed by attaining a great working camaraderie.”

For this past season, Berlin “was a huge character in Homeland,” observed Glatter. “Plus the content touched upon so much, from privacy to ISIS to Russia, making our story prescient and timely. What I love about the show is we try to show both sides of an issue. People on either side believe they are right on an issue like, for example, privacy versus security. By showing both sides, it hopefully leaves us and the audience in a position to decide for ourselves. I think the show is successful because it respects the intelligence of its viewers. I’ve been on other shows where they insist on explaining absolutely everything. We don’t do this on Homeland because we realize we have a smart audience out there.”

For Glatter the quality of the people on the series is key. “We’ve assembled a great ensemble. Alex Gansa has created a wonderful working environment. And Claire Danes is an extraordinary number one on the call sheet. She’s a fearless actress and a wonderful human being.”

Homeland collected four Emmy nominations this year, the other two being for Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Danes) and Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series (David Klein, ASC).

Jeff Baksinski
Amazon’s The Man In The High Castle is up for four Emmys, including for Outstanding Special Visual Effects on the strength of the show’s pilot. The nominated VFX artisans include series VFX supervisor Curt Miller and a Zoic Studios’ team headed by VFX supervisor Jeff Baksinski. 

The VFX ensemble worked closely with David Semel, who directed the pilot, to immerse viewers in a distorted 1960’s America, imagined as if the Nazis and Japanese had won World War II. Effects artisans incorporated period-authentic architectural styles and technology, handling extensive environmental work, replacing anachronistic cars, buildings and signs, and amplifying key action sequences.

Asked what was the biggest creative challenge posed to his VFX team by The Man In The High Castle, Baksinski responded, “Location, location, location.  The pilot was shot in and around Seattle so we had a rough time making it look like 1962 New York and San Francisco.  We also had the additional challenge of figuring out how the architecture would change since those cities had been occupied by Germany and Japan since the end of their World War Two.  So, 17ish years had passed in our show under Occupation.  That’s enough time to still have many of your pre-existing buildings, while also changing up any of the newer ones being built.  New York took on a slightly oppressive, dark, rainy, smoky look, while San Fran took on a lighter feel heavily populated by Japanese signs.  The show production designer Drew Boughton [also Emmy nominated this year] and his team were amazing.  These guys cranked out designs and signage for us to really establish the look.  Since they were also building for the locations, it was great to share files back and forth and really integrate the looks. I’m very thankful for those guys. 

“While I love our work on New York and San Fran, I think some of our amazing work is actually in Hirohito Airport.  We shot that in an empty industrial parking lot with just C-Stands as guides.  The only thing we kept in those shots are the people and the parked car.  All of the airport, grounds, water, and especially the plane...all were added in later.  I love that plane.”

For Baksinski the greatest technical challenge was the weather on location. “I’m not a big fan of green screens to begin with, and our locations would have needed a ton of them.  It was often raining and windy enough that green screens would have been a nightmare.  Plus, I met our DP Jim Hawkinson.  He was discussing light, and what paintings he liked, and how he saw the shots.  Right away I knew I was scrapping all the green screen because Jim knew how he wanted to light.  David knew the looks he wanted to go for.  Drew had great designs.  These guys all knew where they wanted to go, and my job was to make sure I could get our piece of the puzzle there.  There was no way we (VFX) were going to compromise a look just for some green screen that would have been in every puddle, and just killed the mood and feel.  So, the entire show was roto.  All of it.  Take a look at some of the shots sometime and imagine what it was like. Jim helped me out greatly once he realized that I wasn’t pushing the usual ‘green screen everything’ approach.  He made sure I had rim lights, back lighting, and all kinds of tricks so that even in the dark I could get clean roto on everyone.

“Internally,  scale and look were big issues,” continued Baksinski. “Those don’t sound like technical problems at first, but our scene files were huge by the end and we were managing a lot of things at once.  For example, our New York walking shot is something like 600 frames where we are keeping some live actors and some live cars and set pieces...then everything else is CG.  Those shots have a few thousand CG people in them to fill the stores, stand in line at the movie theatre, or lollygag in the background.   We have a mix of CG cars matching into practical cars, CG smoke, and every building and sign you see has been re-built off of maps, architecture books, and cobbling together something that will work.  Those shots are something like four blocks of CG buildings in each direction and then additional matte paintings for the far background.  San Francisco’s main shot was 10 or so blocks of buildings going off into the distance along with hundreds of people and the trolley, cars, etc.  It all added up pretty fast on a six-week post schedule.”

Also intricate and involved was how Zoic got the chance to work on The Man In The High Castle. “Our sales team,” said Baksinski, “had mentioned it was out there and that we really wanted to try and get David Semel’s attention but we weren’t sure how to stand out over all the various bids, other houses, etc. So, another VFX supervisor named Todd Shifflet and I both knew the book [also titled “The Man In The High Castle”] very well and were toying around with making stills of New York.  As we were working, we kept lamenting ‘man, if only we had time to make an ad or commercial as if you were living in 1962 German-occupied New York.’  Our producer at the time, Sean Tompkins, overheard us and started with, ‘What would you guys want to do?’ And that was it; we were off and running. Todd actually strung together a number of old black-and-white airline travel spots with people visiting New York while I shot an old 1962 TV (off of craigslist!) in our conference room.  The overall piece ended up being tight on this commercial as it plays with a very happy voiceover of people flying in comfort and seeing all these landmarks, but we altered all the footage to now have German flags, armbands, etc.  In fact, we even took out the original planes and put in a concept V-9 rocket plane.  At first glance, you think it’s just an old commercial but if you watch closely, it’s all been altered.  Then as the spot is coming to the end, the camera pulls back to reveal that you’ve been watching an old TV and keeps pulling back until we see a wide penthouse overlooking downtown New York (now matte painted back to 1962 and Nazi-fied) with a German soldier overlooking it all. We tried to really mimic the various book covers over the years with this composition but still make it something new as well.

“What really sold us to them,” noted Baksinski, “was the effort that went into making something like this, some of the creativity, and also all the little detail work.   We had things in there like ‘Copyright by Blaue Light Ausbringung’ and various German signage.  Things we knew we would need to sell bigger shots if we were to do the show.”

Baksinski also reflected on what the Emmy nomination means to him personally and professionally. “Personally, I’m flattered to be nominated because it means some folks out there must have really liked our work.  That’s pretty satisfying since this show was very special to me and the Zoic crew.  We really wanted to work on the show, and once my crew started seeing plates, they were all in.  So many people added so many touches and details all because they loved the project.  This was an RSA [Ridley Scott’s Scott Free] production, with Semel directing, and a Philip K. Dick story.  I’d also met Isa Dick Hackett a couple of times on set.  We’re the same age, so while she’s of course a client, I also saw this woman whose father [novelist Philip K. Dick] passed away when she was just a kid and who was working to continue her dad’s legacy.  My father passed away when I was in my 20s so I know the feeling of wanting to do right by that person’s memory.  With this kind of pedigree going in and all of these things on the line and with the importance of the story, we knew we had to make it something unique for all these people and for ourselves.

“Professionally, it’s great to be recognized for the hard work.  I’m also exceptionally happy for my crew: Sean [VFX producer Tompkins], Christina [CG lead Murguia], Dan [CG supervisor Kruse], Nate [compositing supervisor Overstrom], and Jim [matte painting supervisor Hawkins] who worked late nights living on the box to make this happen.  As we all know, this is just a small part of all the people who work on something this size, but it’s nice to see the artists get some recognition before I ask them to slog away on the next one.”

James Hawkinson
Titled “The New World,” the pilot for The Man In The High Castle opened up an awards world for cinematographer James Hawkinson, landing him his first career nominations from the ASC Awards and more recently the Emmy competition. The latter came in the Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series category.

Hawkinson got the opportunity to lens The Man In The High Castle thanks to his collaborative relationship with director Semel. “David was a guest director on season two of Hannibal. When he took on The Man In The High Castle pilot, he sought out several artists he had worked with from different shows—including myself from Hannibal and production designer Drew Boughton from Hemlock Grove. David put together a team largely based on his recent working relationships.”

For Hawkinson perhaps the biggest creative challenge of The Man In The High Castle from his standpoint was “creating an authentic 1962 even though it’s a fake 1962, a 1962 that never existed. We were asked to create a retro futuristic world. It’s retro, it’s vintage and yet it’s futuristic. This gives the show a unique look, making it quite different from the other nominated series.”

At press time, Hawkinson was already halfway through season two of The Man In The High Castle. Though he originally wanted to shoot the series on film, Hawkinson wound up deploying the RED Dragon on season one and then shifted to ARRI’s Alexa for season two. He has extensive experience working with different generations of the RED as well as different Arriflex models right through to the present Alexas. Hawkinson said he’s had a good experience on both RED and Alexa during the course of lensing The Man In The High Castle. He went with Alexa for season two because he felt it had “a little more friendlier chip, was a little more sensitive, responding a bit better in low light situations. I’m a very low key kind of guy and like low light situations.”

After years of being lauded for his work on Hannibal, Hawkinson said he was glad to finally score an Emmy nomination for The Man In The High Castle. “It’s very rewarding to finally get in,” he said. “It’s a wonderful nod from the establishment and means a great deal to me, particularly when the competition is of such a high level with such great television being done.”

Erik Henry
For the third consecutive year, sr. VFX supervisor Erik Henry is an Emmy nominee for the Starz series Black Sails. He and his compatriots won the Outstanding Visual Effects in a Supporting Role Emmy Award for Black Sails in 2014. Last year Black Sails was shifted to the Outstanding Special Visual Effects category for its nomination, and that’s where the current nod again resides.

“I’m a big baseball fan and the toughest thing to do is repeat a championship season,” related Henry. “We can look back and say that this is quite an accomplishment, scoring a Visual Effects nomination three years in a row. And this is for work that has to be as realistic as possible. This is not fantasy. We’re creating work that includes pirate ships and water sequences. People have seen ships. they’ve seen a sail or think they have. Our work is up against the human eye and perceptions. We’re not creating dragons and fantasy spectacle—which is often what we’re up against in the category.”

Grounded in reality, Black Sails was originally written as a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel “Treasure Island.” The latest Emmy nomination is for episode “XX,” which is highlighted by a storm sequence in which a ship is tossed about, tilting to one side to an extent that would be virtually impossible for live-action ships to duplicate. Construction of about a quarter of a ship’s deck was paired with hydraulics that could attain the desired tilt. Also deployed were water cannons and huge water tanks. Henry recalled that special effects supervisor Paul Stephenson told him that he could dump some 4,000 gallons of water at one time to help re-create a heavy storm. Digital water was added to create a water flow the size of an enormous wall.”

Adding to the visual challenge was the ship’s captain struggling to cut the ropes on the upper mast sail. His journey across the deck and up the mast—with others falling to their deaths from the height—required painstaking effects work, with valuable contributions from Digital Domain, noted Henry. “With our work, viewers aren’t supposed to know there are any visual effects. It should instead play as incredible live-action stunt work, which we were able to pull off as evidenced by being selected as one of five Emmy nominees in the category. It’s very select company.”

The other four VFX nominations this year went to: Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful, The Man In The High Castle, and Vikings.

Black Sails has two Emmy nominations this season, the other being for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Series.

Henry’s fellow current nominees on Black Sails include visual effects producer Terron Pratt, visual effects production coordinator Ashley J. Ward, on-set visual effects supervisor Jeremy Hattingh, special effects supervisor Stephenson, lead VFX artist Aladino Debert, lead CG artist Greg Teegarden, and lead CG artists Olaf Wendt and Yafei Wu. Debert and Teegarden are with Digital Domain. Wendt is with Crazy Horse Effects and Wu is affiliated with Sweden’s ILP.

This is the 14th installment of a 15-part series that explores the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, animation and visual effects. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmys ceremony on September 10 and 11, and the primetime Emmy Awards live telecast on September 18.