Whitaker Teams with Vantage Paris on Patriot
Patriot blends comedy and drama into a unique and bold television series. The conflict at the heart of the premise is deathly serious – Iran must at all costs be prevented from developing nuclear capability – and the comedy mostly grows out of CIA agent John Tavner’s cover as a bland employee of a piping firm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Steve Conrad, the creator of Patriot, is known for projects that balance humor and pathos like The Pursuit of Happyness and The Weather Man.
Essential to success of such a project is a sure command of tone, and that’s true of the writing and acting as well as the cinematography. An ever-shifting array of times and places depicted in the script required visuals that help the audience keep track, and cinematographer James Whitaker deftly achieved much of this variation through his choice of glass.
Whitaker’s wide-ranging resume includes features (Thank You for Smoking, King of California), second unit work (Captain America: Civil War), a long list of commercial clients, and Emmy-nominated documentary work (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck).
To explore the possibilities for Patriot’s thriller/dark comedy tone, Whitaker initially made elaborate tests. “Early on, we discovered that the comedy played best when it wasn’t hinted at through the photography at all,” he says. “So we tried to play it straight. We looked at older ‘70s films like The Verdict [1982, directed by Sidney Lumet and shot by Andrzej Bartkowiak, ASC] and The Parallax View [1974, directed by Alan Pakula and shot by Gordon Willis, ASC]. It’s a fairly static and non-flashy camera. We often try to complete a scene in two or three shots. We try not to over-cover. We often close things on the back of people’s heads because we think there’s more tension.”
For season two, the goal was to make the show as visually rich as possible. Step one was to shoot in Paris while avoiding a romanticized, warm version of the city. The palette was designed to be cooler and grittier, and the images would be framed in a widescreen 2.39:1 aspect ratio, with more formal composition and lighting.
“Once we decided to go 2.39, we immediately began testing a bunch of lenses,” says Whitaker. “Hawk has made beautiful anamorphic lenses for a long time. But recently, the stuff they’ve come out with is just amazing. I landed on the Hawk Vintage ’74 primes and zooms as our main lenses. We chose the 1.3x squeeze because they’re slightly less distorted in the wide lenses, and because the bokeh is a little less familiar to the viewing audience. The highlights aren’t quite as stretched, and yet there’s a lovely elliptical bokeh that happens.”
Whitaker and his team sometimes brought in Vintage ‘74s with a standard 2x squeeze when their story calls for pushing the distortion a bit further.
“Our main character is distorted, in a way, and he becomes more distorted throughout the series,” says Whitaker. “So anamorphic felt really ideal. On top of that, the lenses give such a beautiful silkiness to the skin tone that is absolutely untouchable. Also, there’s a not-so-subtle highlight bloom – when you’re looking at a window it can be quite extreme, and a street light can have a real strong bloom and a flare.”
Often, close-ups are done with a 35 mm 1.3x – Whitaker says that focal length in 2x anamorphic might be too intense. “Our character lives in a super shallow, ethereal world,” says Whitaker. “When it’s a shot of him or on him, we want the audience to feel like they are inside his head. Often we shoot wide open, right through. It’s not easy, but we have tremendous focus pullers, and they did an incredible job. The Vintage ‘74s are not huge lenses, which also helps.”
The majority of the show was shot on Arri Alexa SXT cameras – usually one at a time – capturing 3.4K Open Gate Arriraw with Codex Capture Drives. The crew also kept an Arri Mini on hand. Other lenses were occasionally brought in for specialty scenes like flashbacks. Twenty different sets of lenses were brought in during preproduction, and at least eleven distinct lens and optical systems were used on the actual shoot, including Vantage One T1, Vantage 150‑450mm, Bausch & Lomb Super Baltars, Kowa anamorphics, Kowa sphericals, Zeiss High Speed Uncoated, Zeiss Ultra Prime Uncoated, Arri Shift & Tilt, Cooke S4s, and Angénieux zooms. Vantage Strip, Squeeze and Spot Diopters were used in combination with Vantage’s MB-Flex system to create a fractured, partially obscured point-of-view. Vantage Film Paris supplied them all, and more.
“Vantage was amazing,” says Whitaker. “They never tried to push their lenses on us. They simply brought everything to our table to play with. At first I was a little nervous about the Vintage ‘74s because of the strong glaring that happens through windows, but they’re really gorgeous lenses – almost painterly. Vantage has outdone themselves.”
Looking back on the project, Whitaker says he was lucky to have Vantage on his side – both for the glass and for their service during the testing and throughout the shoot. Vantage Paris was perfectly situated to offer the project attentive service, and anything they didn’t have on hand could be shipped within a day from Vantage headquarters in Bavaria. Whitaker’s main contact at Vantage’s Paris facility was Alexander Bscheidl.
“We wanted to push things in an epic direction, and Vantage was super helpful,” he says. “They are fantastic, and they can service cinematographers anywhere in the world as well as anyone. They’re opening a new facility in Los Angeles, which is exciting. They have the right attitude, too. They customized special lenses for Jonathan Sela on Deadpool 2, and now those are a part of their regular line up. Their customer service is just fantastic, and they have pristine, beautiful equipment. Their lenses are conversation pieces both on set and afterwards, because of the quality they deliver.”
Whitaker says that he’s also grateful to Conrad for conceiving the unusual project. “The whole experience was really fun,” he says. “Steve is an amazing writer and a real genuine human being. He’s always looking for you to push yourself as far as possible, so it couldn’t get any more ideal than that. I avoided television production for years because of the stories I heard, but with Amazon, there’s enough money and time to do good quality work.”
Whitaker is currently shooting Troupe Zero using MiniHawk lenses from Vantage. The project is a feature film for Amazon Studios and stars Viola Davis, Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan and McKenna Grace.