Fargo, inspired by the Coen Brothers film of the same name, captures the cinematic elements of a feature film in its ten-episode arc that hosts major players like Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman in its icy Minnesota terrain. In a recent article in HD Video Pro, the filmmakers of Fargo talked about capturing the essence of Coen with a fresh take.
Cinematographer Dana W. Gonzales, who served as a DP on the majority of the episodes, mentioned that one of the things that stuck out to him was Fargo’s ability to take risks that television doesn’t normally go for. "Showrunner Noah Hawley loves to hold on shots for a long while," Gonzales said. "That's something TV directors have to get their heads around. On most shows, they won't even try using a big camera move or dolly because they know it will get cut to bits. We're making TV, but in a feature film-like fashion."
Gonzales also mentioned how helpful it was to have John Cameron, who did seven feature films with the Coens, on set as a creative producer to help make crucial choices to capture the right feeling. "Fortunately, one of our on-set creative producers, John Cameron, has done seven films with the Brothers, and served as a reference and authority for all things Coen," Gonzales stated. "It turns out that until Roger Deakins started shooting for them and using 35mm to 40mm lenses, they had stayed pretty much on an 18mm. We struck a bit of a balance, deciding we wanted to be sure and stick with wider lenses. When using a 21mm or a 25mm, or even a 40mm, there often isn't room to fit in another camera, but we let the scenes play in our frames. When I came on for Episode Three, I brought a jib arm, which is a tool Roger Deakins uses on nearly everything, so that also helped keep us in the Coen style."
Great lengths were gone to match the tonality of the film, including never making use of a rack focus. "One of our stylistic emulations carried over from the feature is deciding to never use one pretty common tool—the rack focus,” Gonzales mentioned. “So letting the director know this also gives him a heads-up that he should plan for making at least two separate shots in an instance when he might have otherwise used a longer one that racked back and forth."
Though the world of Fargo takes place in Minnesota, the television show was actually shot in Calgary, where the crew had to grapple with different light throughout changing seasons by shooting from the brutal winter in November and December through the Spring in April. “We might start the day facing away from the windows til 9 a.m. or so, then turn around and shoot reverses while trying to match,” Gonzales said. “It really became difficult only when trying to maintain the ambient daylight as we went from day to night because adding artificial light can make things get contrasty in a way you wouldn't see if it was daylight alone streaming in."
Knowing the true tone of Fargo was crucial in the execution. "A director coming in fresh on a very big show might initially be thinking of using two cameras and doing a lot of long-lens stuff," muses Gonzales, "but that wouldn't be keeping with our show's unique style. While we have and use two cameras, this is truly a single-camera show; you're not going to be getting a close-up with the second camera, but instead use it to get some bonus shots to help editorial." (HD Video Pro)