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Hand of God Shoots Film for a Timeless Feel

  • August 28, 2015

Amazon Studios’ Hand of God, which stars Ron Perlman as a corrupt, born-again judge who becomes a vigilante, is the latest example of original production by an online streaming entity. Making his television directorial debut, the pilot was directed by Marc Forster (World War Z, The Kite Runner, Finding Neverland) and photographed in a film-noir style by Matthias Koenigswieser. Viewers of the premiere episode were asked to give opinions on Hand of God before the decision to proceed with the series was made, and soon season one, consisting of nine episodes, was moving forward.

The story takes place in a small town in California where an economic bust makes the populace desperate. Joining the production team for the episodes was Rasmus Heise, a member of the Danish Society of Cinematographers whose work has garnered an impressive array of accolades. Helium, his live-action short with director Anders Walter, won an OSCAR® in 2014.

“I was immediately blown away by the pilot for Hand of God,” says Heise. “It’s a very interesting story and I loved the look of it. The scripts are unique and filled with constant surprises. In prep, Marc and I talked about the pilot and how we saw it moving forward. We talked about film noir as an inspiration for a timeless feel.”

Although the time and place are not specific, production designer Suzuki Ingerslev chose and designed the sets and locations with an aged and vintage feel, “like time had stood still since the booming 1980s,” notes Heise.

Forster and Heise referred to LA Confidential and The Insider, both photographed in the widescreen Super 35 film format by Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC. “The Insider is a cinematographic masterpiece,” Heise conveys. “The way the camera tells the story via the emotional point of view of the characters is really amazing. When I’m looking for a style in a project, I try to not make the rules too rigid. It’s easy to lend style to your project by saying ‘I’ll shoot everything handheld,’ or ‘I’m only using long lenses.’ On The Insider, Michael Mann uses any tool in his arsenal to tell the particular scene in the best way.”

For all these reasons and more, Forster and Koenigswieser shot the pilot on 35mm KODAK Film. Heise followed suit on the episodes.

“Film is a great choice for this project for several reasons,” the DP explains. “For one, the film look really fits our style. We wanted something that didn’t feel brand new, but instead had an older, familiar look. Another reason for 35mm film is that we are producing a 4K show. Of course it’s possible to shoot 4K in digital formats. But if you have to blow your image up to these huge resolutions, why not see grain instead of pixels?”

After testing, Heise chose PANAVISION PVintage lenses, which use older Superspeed glass that is restored and rehoused with modern mechanics and the latest bells and whistles. “At first I was afraid they would be too ‘flarey’ and soft, but after testing I decided to embrace that fact,” says Heise. “I really love the milky look they give us, and I think it fits our style perfectly. We also carry a 24-250 zoom that has been partly de-coated to match our primes, which it does quite well. I almost never use the zoom – only when I need a really long lens or the flexibility to move fast.”

When it comes to lighting, Heise tries to keep it simple and avoids overlighting. In most cases, that means soft top light. Backlight is rare. In one nightclub scene, he lit for 360-degree freedom in shot choice. He also wanted to be able to include the beautiful ceiling, and that precluded a balloon light.

“We could shoot the whole scene in all directions without changing any lights along the way,” he says. “It freed up so many interesting angles, and that really made the room come to life. It’s not always possible, but I really like it when it works out so that I can light the scene one time and not change anything between wide shots and close-ups. I strive for that.”

Heise considered shooting Hand of God entirely on tungsten-balanced film stocks, but in the end he chose KODAK VISION3 50D Color Negative Film 5203 for day exterior scenes. “Everything else, I shot on the (KODAK VISION3) 500T (Color Negative Film 5219),” he adds. “I pushed it one stop, rating it at 800 ISO for almost all my night exteriors. The grain looks so beautiful when the stock is pushed. I even considered pushing one stop on the whole show.”

Dailies were done at Encore Hollywood by colorist Will Lawrence. Final grade is being done at Company 3 by colorist Sofie Friis Borup.

After 76 shooting days, Heise and his team wrapped season one of Hand of God, which will premiere on Amazon this year.