Daredevil: Lights and Shadows. Interview to Martin Ahlgren (DOP)

We present an esxclusive interview to Martin Ahlgren, Director of Photography in Marvel’s Daredevil season 2. Before Daredevil, Ahlgren workded on tv series as House of Cards and many short movies.  

How did you end up working on Daredevil?
Producer Michael Stricks contacted me to see if I was interested based on recommendations from other producers in television. I quickly watched the first half of the first season to acquaint myself with the show and then had a Skype meeting the following day with the show runners and producers to discuss how we could approach the new season. They then hired me the next day. So it was very fast. I had just had a baby so I hadn’t planned on taking a long-term job like this right away, but I felt that this was something that was was going to be very fun and creative and that I just had to do it.

What kind of tools do you use while you work? How is your typical day on set?
We shot on RED Dragon cameras and used two cameras most days, occasionally three, and second unit had two cameras as well. Even though the camera can shoot 6K, we shot 4K since that is the format the show is finished in and post production didn’t want unnecessarily much data to deal with. We use a range of lighting tools, from big HMI’s and tungsten, to smaller LED fixtures. A tool we used a lot this season was 4×4 Light Blankets – flexible sheets of LED that was small enough to fit into tight locations and light enough that it could be taped to a wall, yet outputs a very nice soft light that can be adjusted from daylight to tungsten color. We also lit with practicals in shot: lamp shades, fluorescents, car headlights, police lights… For movement of camera we used dollies and handheld mostly. Occasionally we would use a steadicam for longer traveling shots, operated by B-camera operator Rod Calarco. For crane work we used the Libra crane a lot, a 30-foot long telescoping crane, as well as a SuperTechno 50, and for a car chase scene (in episode 8 ) we used an Ultimate Arm, a motorized crane mounted on a Porsche Cayenne.
Each day we shot about 7 pages of script. However, some days when there were a lot of stunts, we would shoot a lot less, and then we had to make up for that on other days with more dialogue. So the actors have to come in some days prepared to do many pages of dialogue, and other days to be ready for hard physical work! It only works because they are absolute professionals that work very hard.

Most Daredevil’s episodes, especially in the second season, are dark and set during the night. It surely does not look like an easy job. How do you enhance small facial details or the costume components?
Finding the balance between dark and moody looking, and not going too dark, is always hard, especially in television where people watch on many different type of devices. Since we want it to look cinematic we still went for the look that we like and hope that audiences will pull the shades and watch in darkness so they can enjoy the nuances of the shadows. Working with colorist Tony D’Amore we fine-tuned the look in the DI.

You replaced Matthew J. Lloyd, season one’s director of photography. What did you keep from the previous arrangements and what innovations did you add?
I loved the look of the first season and although we decided to go in a slightly different direction for season 2 one of the main things we decided to keep was the yellowish street light color that gave season 1 a very distinct style.

The fight scenes are a game of lights and shadows. How do you coordinate with actors, directors and stuntmen to get the best result?
Stunt coordinator Phil Silvera, who also directed second unit, rehearsed and shot the stunt sequences on location ahead of time with the stunt players, so that the director and rest of the crew can see what we’ll be doing. Then on our main shoot day we shoot the main establishing shots to set the look of the scene, and anything involving the principal actors. The insert work and shots where a stunt double can be used is shot on the second unit day.

Working with a strict budget that surely is lower than the most famous series usually means finding tricky ways to ‘hide’ these limits. In this matter, what is your job?
Working in television your biggest concern is always time. You can usually have the equipment and the man power you need to solve most situations, but it has to be fast. We shoot each 60-minute episode in nine 12-hour days with about 2-3 days of second unit, a pace that is far higher than most feature films.

Which scene was the most difficult to work on during this season of Daredevil? And why?
The car chase at the beginning of episode 8 was a fun challenge. When I read the script I was really wondering how we were going to be able to pull it off on a TV schedule. A car that is chased by running ninjas on the street as well as on rooftops, all shooting arrows at the car using while one ninja jumps up on the car and travels on the roof for a block before he gets knocked off by Daredevil. Meanwhile, inside the car Elektra is bleeding to death and Stick is shooting at the ninjas with a cross bow while the driver is using the car as a weapon to mow down oncoming ninjas.
We ended up shooting two nights on a couple of streets in Greenpoint in Brooklyn and in typical Daredevil fashion all the stunts were done on location. In a situation like this the drivers of the cars (both the picture vehicle as well as the car with the camera) have to be as precise as the stunt doubles. We shot the interiors of the car in a studio against green screen – one of the few moments in the show where this was used – in order to give the actors a better environment to act in.

What are your future projects?
Right now I’m doing commercials for a while before committing to my next dramatic project, in film or television. We’ll see!

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