David Katznelson on using the D-21 to shoot ITV's hugely successful period drama

Written and created by Julian Fellowes, who won a screenwriting Oscar for Robert Altman’s GOSFORD PARK in 2002, DOWNTON ABBEY is a lavish period drama produced by Carnival Films/NBCU for ITV. Set in an English country house in 1912, it portrays the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and the servants who work for them. David Katznelson and David Marsh served as cinematographers on the series, while directorial duties were shared between Brian Percival, Ben Bolt and Brian Kelly.

DOWNTON ABBEY was filmed with ARRIFLEX D-21 cameras supplied by ARRI Media and a lighting package supplied by ARRI Lighting Rental. Katznelson, who shot five of the seven episodes, spoke to ARRI Media about his work on the series.

ARRI Media: How did you set about visually exploring the contrast between life above and below stairs at DOWNTON ABBEY?

David Katznelson: Well the upstairs was shot on location, at Highclere Castle, and the downstairs was on sets built at Ealing Studios, so that affected it. I suppose you get inspired in a different way being on location; but then being on a set gives you other options and you’re not dependant on things like the daylight. The main idea was to make the upstairs look colourful, rich and reasonably bright, while the downstairs was a bit more muted and drained of colour, which we partly did in the grade and partly in the production design. In terms of camerawork we went with wider lenses and smooth Steadicam or dolly shots upstairs, whereas downstairs we did a lot of handheld operating to give it more energy. That reflected the performances, which are more composed upstairs, in contrast to the hustle and bustle below.

AM: Did you shoot all of the location scenes in one block and all of the studio scenes in another block, or were you moving back and forth between them?

DK: If it had been a one-off drama we would have finished one before moving on to the other, but because it was a series with three different directors, spanning several months, we did go back and forth a lot. Highclere Castle is a private home and they had quite a busy diary, with conferences, weddings and private visits from rather important people, so we couldn’t plan it exactly as we wanted to. We basically moved back and forth between Highclere and Ealing every two weeks, although sometimes we were only at Highclere for a couple of days at a time. That did make it hard; there were a few gambles in terms of the weather, especially because some of the rooms at Highclere have such great big windows and we were shooting through the summer. If the sun is shining and you’ve got ten huge windows, trying to control the light is nearly impossible.

AM: Were you inspired by the fact that England in 1912 was a world on the precipice of a technological revolution that would change almost everything?

DK: That's very much part of the story, yes. So for example electricity has just been installed upstairs on the ground floor at DOWNTON ABBEY, while downstairs they’re still using candles and oil lamps, which is why it has a slightly duller and darker look. There's a great scene with Maggie Smith – who is of course part of the upstairs lot – saying that she can't bare electrical lights because she thinks they give off glare and a bad smell. Then later a telephone arrives and we had to try and illustrate the weird sensation it must have been for them to be able to speak with someone they can’t see. So we were all aware of wanting to give it a sense of modernity; to give it a bit of a fresh look and not go with some of the conventions associated with period dramas.

AM: You were working with Otto Stenov as your gaffer; what kind of lighting solutions did you come up with?

DK: Generally speaking we used very soft lighting; pretty much everything was bounced into poly boards, or a lot of the time we used Chimeras and put frames between the subject and the Chimeras to get the light as soft as possible. I don’t think we actually ever used candles or oil lamps as a sole solution; we pretty much always supplemented them with something, just to get a reasonable exposure so the blacks didn’t go too milky or noisy. But we did have a lot of the fixtures on dimmers so we could change the colour temperature and get everything reasonably warm. It has to be said that quite a bit of the warmth was taken out in post afterwards, and sometimes I think it has possibly been lifted a little bit too high, but I suppose that’s the trade off with doing something reasonably mainstream for ITV.

We knew the downstairs scenes would have less light, so we did tests to see how much exposure we would actually get if a character was walking down a corridor with just a candle or a little oil lamp. I really liked the results that we got... I just loved the feel that came from the D-21.

AM: Did the design department have to build and install practical fittings appropriate to the period?

DK: In Highclere Castle everything was incredibly precious and we basically had to use what they had, supplementing it with just a few lights that the art department brought along. But actually the lights they did have were from the right period; they hadn’t been changed or maintained since the castle first got electricity. So they were the right fixtures and they were mainly on dimmers as well, which made it really handy. At Ealing Studios we had the lights built into the set of course, and then had everything going back to a dimmer board so we could take them right down. Mainly we would try and keep them at a level where we could see the detail of the lamps and whenever we were very close to lamps we would use real oil lamps or candles so there was no doubt about the source of the lighting.

AM: This was your first shoot with the D-21; what made it the right camera for this production?

DK: I really enjoyed working with the D-21. We knew from day one that we were going to be shooting digitally, so we looked into the various top-end digital formats and actually tested most of them to see what would best suit our needs. I have to admit that at quite an early stage I felt the D-21 would be my preference, simply because I enjoy operating and find it really hard operating with viewfinders that aren’t optical. Looking at a digital image as you’re operating is just very hard; digital viewfinders are much better than they used to be, but there is something about the D-21 that makes it more like a film camera than other digital options.

AM: What did your testing process involve?

DK: We did both interior and exterior test shots, and tried to see what the dynamic range would be. We knew the downstairs scenes would have less light, so we did tests to see how much exposure we would actually get if a character was walking down a corridor with just a candle or a little oil lamp. I really liked the results that we got, and of course you can instantly see what they are like; I just loved the feel that came from the D-21.

AM: Your recording solution was Log 4:2:2 to P2 cards; did that help with the handheld operating?

DK: Together with my focus puller Paddy Blake and the operator who started out on the show – a guy called Jeremy Hiles, who is a really great operator but who unfortunately couldn’t finish off the shoot – I started looking into how we could break the D-21 down. We wanted to find the best possible configuration for our handheld shots and for Steadicam work as well, which Jeremy did quite a bit of. We basically ended up taking the P2 recorder off the camera and buying some bags to put it in. Doing that made for quite a good system; the camera was OK to operate handheld or on a Steadicam rig and then we just had the assistants running along with the bag, trailing the shot with the operator.

Following huge critical and ratings success, ITV ordered a second series of DOWNTON ABBEY from Carnival Films - an eight-part run scheduled for autumn 2011, followed by a Christmas special.