Taking a look at cinematographer Manuel Billeter’s resume, you will not see the expected list of exquisite period dramas akin to his latest work in HBO’s The Gilded Age. Billeter’s previous work falls more into the gritty action worlds of Netflix’s Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, or Iron Fist, among many other titles including the upcoming Netflix limited series Inventing Anna. Staying in New York but dramatically shifting eras, he found his way into Julian Fellowes’s The Gilded Age through its characters, particularly Louisa Jacobson’s Marion Brook.
“What really interested me when I read the first script was this character of Marian Brook who takes the audience on a journey into New York. We are outsiders to 1880s New York as much as she is an outsider to living in the city during the time period,” Billeter explained, “and so in a way, we make the same discoveries at the same time. That was a very intuitive and very immersive way to get to know these time periods, its behaviors, and its ways of life and rules.”
The Gilded Age is a complex exploration of all things New York circa 1882. On the surface, it’s about new money (as represented by Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector’s Russell family) versus old money (as represented by Christine Baranski’s Agnes van Rhijn). Yet, through its myriad collection of characters running the gamut of property and social status, it becomes an engrossing history lesson of the social mores and customs of the period.
Sharing lensing duties with fellow cinematographer Vanja Cernjul, Billeter’s camera not only highlights the splendor and opulence of the production design but also underscores much of its theming. Old monied homes boast darker scenes set in smaller, more reserved locations. The new money mansions were full of light and offered vast spaces reminiscent of European palaces.
Billeter’s camera needed to navigate both with ease.
“[Cernjul and I] discussed the visual approach: how to differentiate the two worlds of the ‘nouveau riche’ and the more traditional, conservative old money side of New York. We started devising lighting schemes and compositional schemes quite early on. We decided to take a portraiture approach to the old New York story lines, a very painterly approach to those scenes with more static frame and a bit more headroom that would be expected in TV,” Billeter said. “On the other side, the new rich of New York have much more vast palaces and open spaces. They have shameless ostentatious displays of their wealth. There, we would resort to much more dynamic compositions and more camera movements to differentiate the two worlds.”
Given the time period, Billeter and team needed to reflect the candle and gaslight of the period. In addition, they didn’t want the resulting product to appear too dark even though gaslight wasn’t particularly bright. Trying to accurately reflect gaslight would require an extensive amount of flickering as gaslights traditionally danced with currents in the air. Large quantities of flickering light would likely prove intrusive to viewers. Additionally, a darker visual palate would obscure much of the brilliant production design Billeter wanted to highlight with his shots.
To solve these lighting concerns, Billeter filmed the night sequences perhaps a little brighter than they would have been in the actual period. For day sequences, he relied on large quantities of natural light shining through the set’s windows.
Some exterior shots returned Billeter to the task of accentuating the themes of the series. In one simple yet memorable scene, two characters — one white and one black — leave the same building yet on different levels, reflecting the way people of the period would have been expected to exit a building. The camera outlines the difference by filming the scene from above — sort of a God’s eye view — before craning down to a street-level vantage point of the performers.
It’s a quick yet extraordinary effective moment that reminds viewers of the very real social divisions in 1880s New York, many of which remain in existence today.
“I just wanted to have this dynamic shot that exemplifies the social structure in one shot. Then, they walk down the street, and the camera’s level with them while they have a meaningful conversation about their respective roles,” Billeter recalls. “So, that definitely was, in a way, a rare time where we moved the camera in or around the actors. It illustrated the power structure between the upstairs and the downstairs world or white America and Black America.”
The end result of Billeter’s brilliant camerawork helps create a beautiful cinematic palate highlighting the vast social differences between the characters of The Gilded Age.
The Gilded Age airs Monday nights on HBO and HBO Max.