A show like “House of Cards” is the sum of its parts. Things like the plot, actors and setting are important, but there’s another factor that often goes unnoticed by the untrained eye: the production.
For “House of Cards,” most of the production ethos comes directly from the styling of Mr. David Fincher, who serves as an executive producer and is known for his work with renowned films such as “Fight Club,” “The Social Network,” “Se7en,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” among others. Fincher, who directed the first two episodes of the show, set the “production rules” with the style he developed through his background in film.
One of the biggest rules was no Steadicam shots. Every shot is on a jib, dolly or tripod rather than hand-held, which means that every shot is intricately planned out and not left for cutting together in post-production. This is a large divergence from the traditional TV-style filming where many shots are crammed into a very limited shooting window and features multiple camera setups filming at the same time to capture different shots.
Steering away from the typical TV-show approach is not new for “House of Cards.” After all, it is the first show of its kind, both for the provider (Netflix) and for the content delivery model (releasing the whole season at once). This unique approach also trickles into other aspects of production. Each of the episode directors has final cut privilege, which means if the studio doesn’t like an extra steamy love scene between Frank and Zoe, the director could choose to keep it. This isn’t only true for content, but also for the scene’s pacing, actor performance or shot selection.
While most of the directors work in traditional cinema settings, shooting only on film, House of Cards is all-digital workflow which is shot on RED Digital Cinema cameras. This is another Fincher influence. The show is also shot in 5K, one of the largest film resolutions. Even though the show’s blocking was for a 4K frame, shooting in 5K provides flexibility in post-production with reframing or any needed stabilization without losing resolution.
The digital format also lends itself well to this as traditional film reels only last for about eight minutes or so. Therefore, replacing these reels takes time and stops everything on set. Digital, on the other hand, offers the ability to keep rolling between takes to keep momentum and intensity. This is advantageous because stopping every eight minutes can kill workflow or kill the actors’ vibes and the mindset of their characters. This can also increase production costs as the majority of lights are run off generators and most of the staff is paid hourly.
The show’s unique shot composition also plays into the production value. Actors are the main focus of the composition. This allows them to focus solely on the embodiment of their character and move naturally within a space without feeling constrained. It allows the actual acting to fill the scene, a common trait for Fincher’s productions.
The lighting of the show is also unique. The majority of the lighting in “House of Cards” appears to come from natural sources, such as a window or lamp, but in actuality it is set lighting designed to appear that way. One of the major changes from season one to season two was a reduction in overhead lighting, which is a conscious effort to connect the audience to the performance and mood, and to create a more natural environment. If you look carefully, you’ll also notice that they love placing Kevin Spacey in shadows whenever possible because shadows are where Frank Underwood’s best schemes are born.
In addition to the lighting, the color palette of the show lends itself well to the theme. There are no color filters used on the cameras and most of the setting features de-saturated hues. This was a conscious decision as most of the spaces where the scenes take place are offices, Freddy’s BBQ Joint, Frank’s dimly lit house or in some apartment or hotel room.
Even though the series is set within Washington D.C., a majority of the scenes weren’t even shot within the Beltway, but rather in Baltimore and other places in Maryland. The reason for this is two-fold: Maryland offers generous tax benefits for film production, and filming in the District can be a nightmare. (Remember the car crash from “Transformers”?)
Over the past two seasons, Maryland has provided about $40 million to the series through tax credits. However, there have been talks about the state cutting back its tax credits, which is causing the production crew to reconsider shooting in Maryland for the third season.
Devin Leisher is Tier10’s in-house videographer and editor. In addition to his work at Tier10, he has also provided his talents to documentaries and short films.
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