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David Dunlap Defines the White House In ‘House of Cards’

Cinematographer David Dunlap takes Awards Daily TV inside the White House on Netflix’s Emmy®-winning political drama House of Cards.

Each shot in Netflix’s House Of Cards feels composed with the utmost precision. The starkness of the Oval Office defines the relationship between Presidents Frank and Claire Underwood. Their bedrooms are shot in the same way. One is all business. The other is a reflection of the character’s thought process. Cinematographer David Dunlap takes us through the transition from Season 4 to Season 5 and highlights some key scenes for us.

 You joined the show in Season 3 as a camera operator, and then DP on Seasons 4 and 5. Talk about how that transition happened and what visual changes you made?

I was a huge fan of House of Cards. I had two friends in the camera department who knew how much I loved the show. After I finished shooting a feature in New York and was between gigs, they called to see if I would cover for their B-camera operator (who was leaving the show) for a week until they found a full-time replacement. Intrigued, I said yes. Already loving the aesthetics of the show, I was taken with people and the creative process on set, so I stayed for the last four episodes.

I made my pitch to be one of the DPs for the next season and things worked out. Coming onto such a successful show requires you to be true to the spirit of the show while using your own techniques. What I wanted to do was review and get back to the original tone and color of the show from Season 1. That meant a little less monochromatic and a touch more saturation with a bit more of a color temperature mixture.

 Can you talk about the lighting set up in Season 5? There’s a very cold feel to the White House.

From the time Francis and Claire moved to the Oval Office, its starkness helped define their characters. In Season 5, there are a number of pivotal scenes that take place late at night in the Oval Office. I wanted to feel the late hour as well as the loneliness of power, so I keep things very dark and natural. I used the color and tone of the cool moonlight supplemented by only the practical lamp sources.

Can you describe how you choose to frame Claire’s bedroom in contrast to the rare moments of Frank’s bedroom?

Frank’s bedroom is all business and daily routine. Not a lot of intimacy happens there, especially during the dead of night. Whereas Claire’s bedroom is the conduit through which much of her most personal thoughts and feelings flow. While we often frame Francis emphasizing his empty bed, Claire’s bed is not empty, so we often get much closer and more intimate with Tom Yates’ inclusion.

What can you tell us about shooting the cult scenes in the wood?

This story line is our version of the elite Bohemian Grove retreat and a very unusual setting for Francis. The one thing I always try to do is keep the light as natural as possible. I didn’t want to get too stylized with the lighting in these scenes as the idea of the 1 percent on a camping trip is already somewhat surreal. I did use lanterns, torches and flame bars to light the nighttime ceremony but stayed away from letting it get too moody or spooky. We also had some big HMIs on condors to get a ¾ overall backlight when possible. The day scenes were mostly done with natural light with some embellishment for closer shots. We also de-saturated the colors in post.

Is there a particular scene you would like to dissect in terms of how you set it up? What were the challenges?

In Season 5, Episode 12, there is a pivotal scene between Claire and Tom Yates that takes place in Mark Usher’s house. This was shot in a home in Baltimore, so we didn’t have the freedom that a stage set would offer. I decided to light the rooms through the shear-covered windows rather than on the set. It was nighttime, so I went with a warm color to suggest sodium vapor streetlights rather than moonlight.

They first talk in the kitchen where we also used the house lighting that set dressing provided to give the room some depth. The scene then cuts to a rather intimate scene in front of a burning fireplace. I wanted this to be very romantic, so I decided to use only the gas-controlled firelight to light the entire scene. House of Cards is never very romantic, but I thought it would be a great contrast to what is actually happening in the scene. Beauty and evil intertwined.

This season we had several new locations, one included the White House roof. What can you tell us about working on those scenes?

Once the Underwoods moved away from their Georgetown townhouse and into the White House, the show lost one of its most iconic set pieces, Francis and Claire smoking by the open window. The rooftop set was an effort to bring back that wonderful complicity but was problematic in that we didn’t have the budget to show the White House surroundings in its entirety. As is often the case on a stage set, we were forced to show as little as possible off of the roof set which also limits us to night scenes.

We hung blacks for the night background and tried to frame judiciously. As scenes were written for the rooftop, its scope expanded. The challenge was to keep it looking realistic without the use of green screens or extensive visual effects. Hameed Shaukat, our post-production producer, added clouds to the sky in post to help bring more of a feel of reality. We also eventually added atmospheric smoke to take the contrast of the blacks down.

This was a wonderful set built by production designer Julie Walker and her crew. It was a very challenging yet also satisfying set.

House of Cards streams all five seasons on Netflix.