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When In Rome – SPARTACUS DP Aaron Morton on achieving cinematic visuals for tv

Love it or hate it,  SPARTACUS: Blood and Sand, is like nothing you’ve seen before—on the small screen, at least. The success of the original series spawned a prequel Spartacus: Gods of the Arena and inevitably, a sequel Spartacus: Vengeance, which is set to debut on STARZ in January 2012. Aaron Morton, DoP on the original series, explains how he achieved cinematic visuals for a television audience.

The controversial TV show, which follows the life of the legendary gladiator slave, has been both applauded and chastised for its unflinching sex and violence.  A heady mix of bloody battles, political intrigue and steamy romps, it employs green screen and effects techniques usually seen in blockbuster movies. But, although comparisons with films like 300 are inevitable, New Zealand based director of photography Aaron Morton has made it his mission to make Spartacus unique. “We didn’t have a graphic novel like 300; they had a blueprint for their visual direction. We were searching for our own look, we were finding out way over those first few shows, and wanted it to pack a bit of an early punch!”

And pack a punch it certainly does, but Morton is quick to point out that it’s not “sex and violence for its own sake. It’s grounded in decent writing, and there’s always a story point involved.” A series that concerns itself with life in gladiatorial Rome was never going to be family viewing, but Morton admits that the stylised visuals are used as much to make the show’s themes more palatable as to set it apart. “I wouldn’t want it to feel like a snuff movie! It’s obviously contrived. There’s these gritty bad guys who kill other dudes, so I didn’t want to make it glamorous!”

Indeed, get past the initial shock value and Spartacus reveals itself to be hugely watchable, thanks largely to a cinematic look. “The graphic violence was part of the initial brief, and I was interested in making it almost balletic. We were able to get hold of the Phantom HD, which is the high-speed camera from Panavision, developed by Vision Research. When we started testing with that, it quickly became like a science experiment; physics in motion. We worked with the stunt guys, with tests of punching each other in a controlled way. Because [the camera is] so slow, the transfer of energy through the punch, the ripples of energy, is very cool.

“As soon as we were able to test what the camera could do, I really wanted to get it moving very fast,” continues Morton. “I got the grip department to develop a high-speed rail system for the camera, and I managed to get it moving at nine metres per second. Once you’ve got something that is shot in very slow motion, and you can get the camera moving it adds a 3D element to it. You’re looking around someone as they float through the air and chop someone’s head off!”

Spartacus also employs a great deal of green screen and CGI technology to get the look and feel of ancient Rome, something that Morton thoroughly enjoys. “You’ve got complete control, I love it!” he enthuses. “Shooting outside, especially in Auckland, you become a professional victim. You’re completely at the mercy of the elements, but it’s your responsibility to make it look consistent. The difference was [on Spartacus] I would put the sun where I wanted it, and it would stay there until I wanted to move it!”

Using such effects on a TV show is about balancing expectations with a small-screen budget and tight time frame. And that, Morton explains, is all down to successful collaboration. “We had a bunch of people who were between big films, so we were able to hit the ground running in terms of the skill base. Time is the biggest killer, but we were really well resourced; the producers saw that it was to their advantage to give us the tools we needed to do things quickly. And the visual effects guys did a great job in terms of the volumes of shots that they have turned over.”

And, as DoP, Morton was at the heart of the project. “I was one of the main constants. I shot every episode. It was great being able to develop the camera, lighting and grip team and really work on the systems that we had to make the show everything it could be, visually. And then have that arsenal to offer up to each director that came through. On set, keeping track of the style and making it consistent was a great challenge. It was good being able to find a style that worked, and knowing I could stick with that because I would always be returning to those sets. It’s not like a location-based show, where we might be on a different set each week.”

As well as ensuring visual cohesion, Morton also had to be constantly aware that the effects never overshadowed the narrative. “I worked with Rick Jacobson, who directed the first two shows, to set that tone. It’s good when it can be director-driven in that way; you do need to have one voice, a committee can end up watering down something. Rick did a great job of seeing what was possible with all the green screen environments but at the same time developing them in such a way that they still served the story.”

It’s this story that has kept viewers coming back to Spartacus, which has been green-lit for a second series (although filming has been delayed as Welsh leading man Andy Whitfield battles lymphoma; Morton describes him as being “in a positive frame of mind”). So to what does Morton attribute this new golden age of television? “I think [TV] has always wanted to be cinematic,” he says, “and the people holding the purse strings are now seeing the value in it. Talented actors are also seeing value in being in television; it’s not the kiss of death to be in a TV show, like it might have been for a film actor previously.”

Add in the increasing availability of new technology and it’s easy to see why TV shows can rival big-screen releases. It was digital technology that enabled Morton to stamp his own mark onto Spartacus—but that doesn’t mean he’s ready to give up shooting on film. “Nowadays you can’t really argue [digital versus film] on a straight-out quality level. I think the script should dictate it, and the direction, visually, that you want to take that script. I’ve loved shooting Spartacus digitally because of the things that I got from it. At the same time, I’m shooting a lot of film at the moment, and I’m really enjoying that. Without wanting to sound like I’m sitting on the fence, it’s sort of horses for courses now, rather than a snobbery thing. I’d still love to keep shooting film, but I think at the moment you can choose a digital format without having to sacrifice quality.” ♦

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 17 (May/June 2010)
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