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Cinematographer PJ Dillon On Creating the Mood of 1896 NYC

Joey Moser talks with DP PJ Dillon on his influences for his stunning work on TNT’s The Alienist

Establishing a mood for any new television show is key, but when you are dealing with a specific moment in time, it can feel downright essential. For TNT’s limited series The Alienist, director of photography PJ Dillon was tasked to capture 1896 New York City as it found itself gripped by a serial killer.

The images in The Alienist are ghastly, to be sure, but Dillon’s cinematography seizes the imagery with a gorgeous flair. He sets the tone for a series that walks a very fine line between beauty and grim.

You’ve done a good amount of period work on television with Game of Thrones and Vikings. Do you seek out those projects, or do they just come your way naturally?

It’s more of a coincidence. Initially, Vikings was very attractive because of the period aspect of it. I did a contemporary film between the second and third series of Game of Thrones then this came along. I didn’t seek it out, but I’m quite happy to do period work. The nice thing about this type of period work is that it needs to be designed, so generally designers are either working from scratch or with stuff that is exceptional. A lot of the locations you shoot in are exceptional. It has a very coherent look. It’s nice to photograph stuff like that.

Dillon (left) on set with director and executive producer Jakob Verbruggen

I love the look of the show. It’s very distinct and dark. Since you shot the first three episodes, how important to you was setting the tone for the series?

That was very much the challenge. I spent 10 weeks prep with (director and executive producer) Jakob and (production designer) Mara. It was definitely our intention to give it a distinct look and feel. I’m glad you think it has that, because we worked really hard to get exactly that. The other directors and DPs that came on board after that bought into that specific look. They really embraced us for the rest of the series.

You worked on Ripper Street for the BBC back in 2012. The stories and characters are obviously different, but the time period is similar. How did it feel to revisit that time?

There are lots of similarities. I think the look we went for with The Alienist is certainly different. Ripper Street would be a more traditional approach. With The Alienist we strived to get it a unique look. I definitely tried to take a lot of the good things I learned on the set of Ripper Street and incorporate them into The Alienist.

One of my favorite images of this entire year is that opening sequence with the cop discovering the boy on the bridge. It almost feels like it was shot in black and white. Did you have a particular shot that you especially loved setting up?

I really like that opening sequence. We were very conscious that that set for the tone very early. Jakob and I decided to go for something very bold and visually distinctive, I guess. I’m quite pleased with how that particular opening turned out with the police banging on the telegraph poles leading right up to Moore going onto the bridge. We did put a lot of thought and effort into that.

It does really feel like these horrific images are captured in a very beautiful way. It’s one of my favorite aspects of the show. 

There’s a lot of sensitivity with working with that subject material. We had to be very careful for it not to be too gratuitous. Everyone was very sensitive at the network and the studio and everything. We were really conscious of the responsibility to try and handle that material in a sensitive manner. I suppose once we set what the parameters were then we were able to try and make good looking image. I’m reluctant to say beautiful, because you’re not trying to beautify that horror. We wanted to create images with a level of integrity. They look good but we wanted to make it visceral—to feel that horror and the unpleasantness of it.

Lighting this type of show is obviously very key because of the time period. Can you talk about how it isutilized? It feels like it is another character in The Alienist

(Photo: TNT)

The first three episodes were set in wintertime, and Jakob wanted it to feel elemental. You got a sense of the snow, slush and the rain. Light would fall into the same category for me. I wanted it to look naturalistic to a sense but heightened. I didn’t want it to look too stylized. I wanted it to look plausible. Any of the light sources were doing what they were supposed to be doing. The way a winter sunlight can really reach into a room and be quite contrast. A lot of interiors in those days wouldn’t have been well lit, so any light coming in would be quite dominant. We didn’t sort of the traditional route of lighting from above to create a level of ambient light. We actually built ceilings on the sets and were very diligent to light through the windows. If there was a window on set, we simply lit through it. We wanted to use light in a way that was natural. We manipulated it, of course, but the approach very much was to position the lamps and let light do what it does without supplementing it.

With a lot of modern shows with these brand new cameras, the resolution is amazing, but we wanted to take a softer approach from that rush. We used anamorphic lenses to soften things a little to give it a slighter softer feel.

I also really love how you set up the actors speaking directly to the lens. It really puts the viewer in the space as if they are having conversations with these characters. One of the first times I noticed it was when Conner interacts with Sara. You can immediately tell that this relationship is going to be explored further. 

Point of view is very important to Jakob. For that situation with Sara and Conner close to each other, you have two matching POVs, so you could really feel like you are in the character’s space. I think Jonathan Demme did it really well in Silence of the Lambs and that would have been quite a big reference for those one on ones. For the most part, we wanted to avoid the traditional over-the-shoulder and make the eye lines tight to camera. We shot that scene on maybe day one or day two of the shoot so we felt it really set. We tended to do it more than more—probably more than we intended originally. And the other directors utilized it as well.

What were your visual influences for this piece?

My approach is to generally look at paintings from the period. Obviously, some periods—like Game of Thrones—there are no paintings, but you can look at medieval paintings or Renaissance paintings. I tried to take a classic painterly approach to some period stuff. We spent a lot of time looking at impressionistic paintings from the North America area generally from the 1880s to the early 1900s. It generally gives you an idea how artists were perceiving their world at the time. Like the color choices and the composition choices and things like that. The green color for the night work came from Whistler’s Nocturne work. It was a big influence there. The use of the green and quite strong yellow really informed the look of the night work.

Can you describe how different it is between a visual effects heavy show like Game of Thrones and The Alienist which uses all practical sets and scenery. 

There’s more freedom when you don’t have visual effects. Generally, the VFX are so expensive and they have to be planned so meticulously. What Mara did with these sets was extraordinary, especially that back lot set where we could shoot 360 without ever shooting off the set. It was really kind of unusual to be able to do that. It definitely allows flexibility creatively. On daytime on the streets if the light is changing and the night is working particularly well—like the right cloud cover—you can adapt to it. You have the freedom to just turn the camera around and shoot again. It just allows more freedom and possibilities. You don’t have that in a VFX environment. You have to stick to the plan.

The entire first season of The Alienist is available now online.