Thursday, July 19, 2018
  • Wednesday, Jun. 21, 2017
"MARS" Changes Emmy Orbit; Insights Into "House of Cards," "Bloodline"
Elon Musk (l), CEO/CTO of SpaceX, in a scene from "MARS" witnessing the first successful reusable rocket launch of Falcon 9 (photo courtesy of National Geographic/RadicalMediaLLC).
SHOOT connects with "MARS" EP Justin Wilkes, "House of Cards" DP Dave Dunlap, "Bloodline" production designer Tim Galvin
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While gratified to be in this year’s Emmy conversation, the people behind National Geographic Channel’s MARS took exception to the show being considered in Best Limited Series and related categories, instead contending that it was better suited to compete in a different kind of space race--for Best Documentary/Nonfiction Series and in corresponding creative and below-the-line categories. MARS--produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Michael Rosenberg of Imagine Entertainment, and Justin Wilkes and Dave O’Connor of RadicalMedia--petitioned for a change in categories for Emmy consideration, a request that was recently granted by the Television Academy.

The question of categorization stemmed from the program’s mix of genres and disciplines including interviews with assorted experts (scientists, astronauts, officials from NASA, academia, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy), extensive research, and dramatic footage of what the first colonizing expedition to the red planet would be like in the year 2033. The futuristic enactments are marked by high cinematic production values, perhaps leading in part to the initial Limited Series designation.  But it was the expert interviews and research which informed the future re-creation sequences. So ultimately the groundbreaking show was deemed a docu-series, which is what the producers regarded it as all along. 

Wilkes knows a thing or two about nonfiction fare. He was part of the producing team that won last year’s Emmy for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special on the strength of RadicalMedia’s acclaimed What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix), which also earned a Best Documentary Feature Oscar nomination. Wilkes served as an EP/co-creator on MARS.

“At first blush, the Emmys felt MARS had fallen in the Limited Series category,” said Wilkes. “But together with National Geographic Channel we filed a petition for them to reconsider.” He commended the TV Academy for its open-mindedness and willingness to look into the matter. 

Fittingly it was an open-mindedness on the part of the producers which helped bring MARS to fruition. Wilkes recalled going to a meeting at SpaceX with the indications being that they wanted to create some sort of documentary or documentary series. “I met Elon Musk [CEO/CTO of SpaceX] there for the first time,” recalled Wilkes. “It turned out he didn’t want to do a documentary about himself or SpaceX. Instead the discussion was more about why we as a species need to become interplanetary. How do you bring something like that to life? What tools could we employ as filmmakers? From that, talk about dramatizations came about.”

After that meeting with Musk, Wilkes said he immediately called Ron Howard. The two had collaborated previously including on a film about Jay Z called Made in America, which Wilkes produced and Howard directed. Howard had also directed some commercials through RadicalMedia. “I told Ron about meeting Elon and asked about the possibility of us partnering again to make this into a series. Ron got Brian [Grazer] on the phone and the timing was right. Brian had just gotten back from a meeting with Peter Rice [chairman/CEO for Fox Networks Group who oversees programming, creative and business for varied platforms including National Geographic]. Peter had just informed Brian that National Geographic was looking to extend its original storytelling reach. It turns out this [MARS] was one of the easiest pitches we ever made.”

Wilkes then helped to assemble a first-class production team, connecting with the likes of Framestore and Skywalker Sound. EPs Howard and Grazer hand-picked filmmaker Everardo Gout (Days of Grace) to direct the future colonization and other scripted portions of the series, with filming taking place in Budapest and Morocco. 

Wilkes noted that RadicalMedia and Imagine gravitated towards Framestore for its visual effects work on The Martian and Gravity (the latter earning a Visual Effects Oscar). “We brought Framestore in first so that we could bring this to life in the most realistic way. We tried to give them as long a lead time as possible,” related Wilkes. “We got them to partner with experts at SpaceX and NASA and the results were remarkable.”

This sense of realism was in line with the producers’ big-picture view of the show. Wilkes shared, “From our point of view, this was always a nonscripted series. It’s origins are in the nonscripted documentary form. It was through the production of the documentary that we started to recognize the value from a creative standpoint of taking the audience literally to Mars. The creative development and construct were rooted in non-fiction.

House of Cards
While already an established cinematographer, David M. Dunlap was such a fan of House of Cards (Netflix) that he agreed to fill in for a week as a B-camera operator during season three of the series. “It was like being on the road with a Broadway play. I really enjoyed the process and the energy. I hadn’t been a B-camera operator for a long time but I stayed on for another month or so to help them finish out the year.”

During the offseason Dunlap was invited to become a DP on the series, lensing multiple episodes for seasons 4 and 5. His original decision to take on a “B” role proved more than worthwhile on various fronts--not only has his subsequent DP work on the series been creatively gratifying but it has also garnered major recognition. Last year he received his first Emmy nomination--in the Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series category for “Chapter 45” of House of Cards. Earlier this year, the same episode earned Dunlap his first ASC Award nomination as well.

Now Dunlap is again among the candidates being bandied about during awards season. He has deployed the Red Epic and now the Red Dragon on the series, noting that the Red camera made a major initial splash with David Fincher as a creator of and director on the show. Dunlap also turned to Zeiss Master Prime lenses to help capture a look and feel that is “as dynamic as possible without intruding” on the scenes and characters. Dunlap noted that he and others involved in House of Cards try to stay true to the spirit of the show dating back to season one. 

Still, Dunlap has also tried to incorporate new wrinkles, one which paradoxically was sparked by the show’s very first episode. “I loved the look of that first episode in season one which got a little bit more into the actors’ eyes, with a little more eye light. I wanted to capture that again, with lighting that’s somewhere between daylight and incandescent light. It’s a mixture which that first episode inspired--all the while making things look as real and natural as possible.” 

For production designer Tim Galvin, the timing was fortuitous. Scott P. Murphy, the production designer who was on Bloodline (Netflix) from its inception, had moved onto another project during the show’s hiatus. The producers reached out to Galvin’s agent and he landed what he regards as a plum assignment. 

It’s an assignment he’s made the most of, as reflected in part by his first career nomination for an Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award, attained earlier this year in the One Hour Contemporary Single-Camera Television Series category for Bloodline episodes “Part 16” and “Part 21.” 

Galvin’s body of work spans TV (The Following, Parenthood) and features (Lee Daniels’ The Butler). Regarding Bloodline, he said one of the prime challenges was “finding the right places to shoot, embracing the locations in Florida. Everywhere you look is interesting but that’s not enough. You have to find the right spot.” 

Then there’s the matter of set pieces, such as a jail and a courtroom, creating them to be as realistic as possible. Galvin gives overall credit to his fellow Art Directors Guild Award nominees--art director Scott G. Anderson, assistant art director Caleb Mikler and set decorator William A. Cimino. “We built a lot of scenery for those two [Art Directors Guild Award-nominated] episodes--a fishing shack, crummy motel rooms, parts of police stations. Bloodline has a tropical noir style and the contributions of my team are essential. Bill Cimino is a partner and a great colleague. We worked together very closely not only to figure things out but he is integral in helping to run the show day to day.”

As for art director Anderson, Galvin said, “Scott is a friend. You need someone who’s keeping the machine moving at the art department. You don’t need to fret about getting things ready while you’re out with the director addressing the next episode. Scott keeps the ball rolling.”

With his extensive work on Bloodline, Galvin also renewed his bond with Florida. “I had shot there 20 years ago on a film called The Spanish Prisoner that David Mamet had written. It was a strange coming home experience for me. On a personal level, it was like a nice circle coming back. In a place as isolated as the Florida Keys, there’s more of a bond with people. It has made for a better show.”

Galvin has also enjoyed the variety of directors he’s been able to collaborate with on Bloodline. In the current final year of the series, for example, that mix of filmmakers has included the likes of Mikael Håfström, Mario Van Peebles and Michael Apted.

This is the sixth installment of a 15-part series of feature stories that explores the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, animation, visual effects and production design. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy ceremonies on September 9 and 10, and the primetime Emmy Awards live telecast on September 17.

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