MARCO POLO ADVENTURE CALLS FOR A UNIQUE APPROACH

Marco Polo is a new original series from Netflix that dramatizes the epic sweep and personal politics of the Venetian trader and traveler who changed the course of history in the 13th century. Marco Polo’s published tales of his exploits in China and Mongolia were the first time most Europeans heard about the Far East firsthand.

Series writer and creator John Fusco reportedly worked on the script for three years, traveling the old Silk Road route to lend authenticity to the story. To photograph the first season, the producers brought in three cinematographers: Vanja Cernjul, ASC; Xavier Grobet, ASC, AMC; and Romain Lacourbas. Lacourbas shot the two-hour pilot episode that established the look of the series, along with episodes 7 and 9.

In the pilot and early episodes, Marco Polo travels to the court of Kublai Khan in what is now Mongolia. As a result, Lacourbas says, these early scenes often depict grand exteriors, usually filmed in Kazakhstan. Subsequent episodes spend more time on sets. Lacourbas also shot in Venice, Italy, and on sets and locations at Pinewood Studios in Malaysia.

In testing, Lacourbas established the right combination of contrast and color. The producers told him something that cinematographers love to hear: “You could go even darker.”

“It was amazing to realize that I had the trust to go quite far in terms of darkness,” Lacourbas says. “Also, I think audiences expect some degree of desaturation with a period piece, but the directors and I agreed that we should explore rich, saturated colors. The production designer, Lilly Kilvert, controlled the palette carefully, and the sets are so amazing.”

Lacourbas says that a clear distinction was made between scenes taking places in China, which were richer, and those taking place in Mongolia, which were more brutal. “The directors created a great ‘bible’ explaining the path they wanted to take for the visuals, including the framing and editing,” he adds. “They arrived with an idea of the style that was very different from what you might expect for a period piece. The approach is very modern and unconventional. From John Fusco on down, they wanted to make something different, and that was a blessing for all departments.”

To capture the subtleties and richness of the production, Netflix insisted that the series be photographed at 4K resolution, and posted using a 4K pipeline. After testing at Panavision’s Paris facility, Lacourbas chose to work with “Panavized” Sony F55 cameras. The F55 would allow him to work with multiple cameras, often handheld.

The possibility of the anamorphic format was raised, but in the end, the filmmakers chose to go spherical, with a 2:1 aspect ratio – similar to the approach on Netflix’s House of Cards. Two other important ingredients in Lacourbas’ recipe were lenses and filtration. “I found the Sony F55 cameras to be very filmic, but a little too sharp given the 4K resolution, especially for a period piece,” he revels. “We were going to be working with many painted backdrops, and there’s almost no green screen in the show. When these painted backdrops are a little softer, it helps the audience buy the illusion. Close-ups were also a concern.”

The solution was to use Panavision PVintage Prime lenses with a touch of diffusion – sometimes a 1/8 black diffusion filter. For the PVintage lenses, Panavision took older Ultra Speed glass elements, and retuned and rehoused them with modern, up-to-date mechanics. In certain specific situations, zoom lenses, including a 24-275 mm Primo zoom, were used. But the vast majority of the shoot was done on the PVintage lenses.

“I was impressed by the color consistency of the PVintage lenses,” says Lacourbas. “I really liked the way they flare, too. And most of all, I love the softness. On close-ups, the skin is still sharp, but with a gentle roundness. They were also more forgiving for the painted backdrops. Those lenses were the right way to go with 4K capture.”

The far-flung production drew on Panavision’s offices in Paris as well as Sydney. “Shipping things to Malaysia can be difficult, but the service was solid,” says Lacourbas. “Everything went smoothly.”

Looking back on the experience, he notes, “It was wonderful working with two other directors of photography. We all learned from each other. It’s unusual to work while another cinematographer is working a few meters away. We could talk to each other about specific scenes and share ideas and techniques.

“I’m used to shooting features, which usually last four or five months,” Lacourbas explains. “This was almost a year. It was so interesting to have producers who were not afraid of going too far. It’s great when collaboration with open-minded and talented people leads to opportunities to use new ideas and new tools.”