Skip To Main Content

Robert Elswit, ASC: The Cinematography of Ripley

The cinematographer reflects on his collaboration with writer-director Steven Zaillian to bring the Netflix limited series to light.

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s bestselling Tom Ripley novels, Netflix’s eight-episode limited series Ripley stars Andrew Scott as the eponymous antihero, a grifter scraping by in early 1960s New York. When Tom is hired by a wealthy man to travel to Italy and convince his vagabond son, Dickie (Johnny Flynn), to return home, he takes his first step into a complex life of deceit, fraud and murder.

The series was written and directed by Steven Zaillian, who partnered with cinematographer Robert Elswit, ASC for all eight episodes. Elswit’s primary lenses for the production were Panavision VA primes, supplemented with select Primo 70 and Ultra Speed focal lengths as well as Primo 70 and prototype VA zooms. Here, in his own words, the cinematographer details the creative collaborations that brought Ripley to the screen.

I’d worked with Steve Zaillian a few years earlier on the pilot of his series The Night Of. I knew from that experience that Steve has very specific ideas about the lighting design and overall pictorial style of his shows. Very much like a cinematographer, Steve believes that the lighting of a film, the way the spaces and characters are lit, is a way of making a direct connection to the emotions of an audience. When he told me that he wanted to shoot Ripley in black-and-white, I knew he had very different ideas about the nature of the character and story in his version of Highsmith’s novel.

When I came on the show, both Steve and our production designer, David Gropman, had already spent months scouting and photographing locations throughout Italy, and they'd created a vast collection of black-and-white images not only of the  locations but also the work of many Italian photojournalists that Steve felt were evocative of the era. The pictures became a great reference tool for thinking about shooting in monochrome.

In Steve's script, Tom's actual talent initially seems to be simply that of a con man.  A cold and calculating sociopath who's able to manipulate and exploit, to hide his emotions and play any role. But soon after Tom arrives in Europe and is exposed to the life and culture, language, food, architecture, and especially the music and art of Italian culture, it changes him in unexpected ways. It's Tom's introduction to the work of the 17th-century Italian painter Caravaggio that makes a particularly strong emotional impact on him.

Behind the scenes of the Netflix limited series Ripley

Caravaggio appears nowhere in the Highsmith novel. The inclusion of his art and then the painter as an actual character in Ripley is a pure Steve invention. Tom's initial response to the painter’s work is reinforced as he learns more about the painter’s life. He begins to identify with him as he learns of the many parallel events in their two lives. As Tom travels through Italy to avoid the police, he seeks out Caravaggio’s paintings wherever he is. His obsession and identification with the painter becomes one of the central themes in the second half of the story — and it’s Caravaggio’s depiction of characters and spaces with a strong emphasis of contrasting light and dark that could also be seen as a metaphor for the narrative drama in Ripley.

The specific style of Caravaggio's painting, chiaroscuro, refers to the use of strong contrasts between light and dark that direct the eye and also strongly affect the overall composition of his paintings. This creates an underlying sense of drama and tension that we see in much of Caravaggio's work. It's this lighting style, emphasizing the contrast between light and dark, that is particularly well suited to black-and-white cinematography. We see examples of it in early cinema, especially in the great German expressionist films of the silent era. It's a lighting style that becomes associated with the American film noir movies of the '30s and '40s.

From the very beginning, Steve wanted this style of lighting, along with strong graphic compositions, to become the unique way we see the world in Ripley. With the sets, locations, costumes, weather, time of day and lighting, we tried to emphasise strong contrast between light and dark. For me, this meant the use of harder light sources throughout with the resulting stronger shadows and emphasis on texture that, in colour, could seem theatrical and unrealistic, but in black-and-white becomes dramatic and somehow more truthful.

Behind the scenes of the Netflix limited series Ripley

We had a 160-day schedule with an almost endless number of locations in various cities and lots of nights. Because of the large amount of VFX work and the 4K delivery requirement, we decided the best production camera for us was the Alexa LF. Steve was promised a black-and-white release, but there was no thought of using a camera without a colour filter array. The advantage of using a camera without a filter array is that you pick up extra stop and supposedly there's finer gradations in the mid tones - but also, no filter means a sharper image. The digital image is already too sharp, so that's the last thing I wanted.

The images were recoded as colour files, but all the on-set monitors were black-and-white.  I used a black-and-white LUT that I thought looked like a slightly more contrasty version of the old Kodak 5231. It's what I looked at and lit to in the DIT tent. We got two sets of dallies each day, one in colour and the other in black-and-white; we never looked at the colour files, and Steve edited the show with the black-and-white Avid files.

Not needing to deal with colour allowed our wonderful DIT, Marco Coradin, to each day download a very accurate black-and-white version of what would be the final look of the show. I just made sure we were always exposing to hold the sky or whatever highlight detail I hoped to retain, but that wouldn't be visible in the dailies. We worked at ISO 800 for almost everything except the nights, which we shot at 1600.

Behind the scenes of the Netflix limited series Ripley

We shot the entire show with a set of Panavision's VA primes. My longtime, long-suffering assistant Erik Brown put a wonderful set together with Dan Sasaki's help. We also took along some large-format zooms, including the 28-80mm, 70-185mm and 200-400mm. We used the zooms mostly for the water work in the killing of Dickie sequence, which we did off of cranes.

Throughout the show, Steve wanted to avoid any feeling of a sunlit travelogue quality to the visuals. To shoot the killing of Dickie as an exterior and control the light for the six days needed to complete the sequence, we shot in a large swimming pool near Rome. We put scaffolding up on three sides with a mix of greenscreens and heavy diffusion and covered the opening at the top with a charcoal scrim to diffuse the sun. For the all the boat work to look photograph-real, we also had to create a lighting direction so a believable overcast sky that would be added later could have shape and texture. To do this, we added HMIs to the scaffold structure and bounced them into diffusion to keep a consist, subtle shape to the boat and actors.

The amazing Chris Centrella was the key grip on the show, and the great Francesco Zaccaria was our gaffer; together, they handled this and all the many complicated sequences on the show beautifully. Weta FX in New Zealand did the sky and water blends in post. All of their work throughout the sequence is seamless and spectacular.

Along with David Gropman's wonderful sets, I have to mention the extraordinary work of our two costume designers, Gianni Casalnuovo and Maurizio Millenotti. They built every piece of clothing the principals wore. Their coats, shirts, sweaters and suits are character studies in themselves. There are many shots that really came together because of the tonal values and textures of the clothes the characters wore. And there wasn't a stich of clothing, stick of furniture or a prop of any kind that Steven didn't carefully agonize over. There were a lot of props - it took two full days to get through the great prop master David Gulick's show and tell.

Behind the scenes of the Netflix limited series Ripley

Many of us spent over a year working in Italy and the U.S. on this show, but for Steve Zaillian, Ripley has been a five-year-long labour of love. It's been wonderful to see it so well received.

In episode 4, Tom visits a church in Rome where three of Caravaggio's paintings of St. Matthew hang together in one of the small chapels. There's  a tiny window over the altar, but  the paintings themselves are very dark. If you drop a coin in a small box on the chapel railing, three small spots switch on and light up the paintings. We shot the sequence in a deconsecrated cathedral in Naples, but the scene was inspired by one of Steve's earlier visits to San Luigi dei Francesi, the church in Rome where the three paintings are actually hanging. Steve said that after he dropped a Euro in the box, a moment after the lights came on, he heard the voice of a priest standing behind him say, 'It's the light, it's always the light.' It's a quiet and very emotional moment as Tom hears the priest and gazes up at the paintings.

Throughout the making of Ripley, ‘it’s always the light’ was one thing we tried never to forget.

Behind the scenes of the Netflix limited series Ripley

Photographs by Lorenzo Sisti, courtesy of Netflix.

Related Products and Services

This is a carousel with manually-rotating slides. Use Next and Previous buttons to navigate.