sexy crane

I would be lying through my teeth if I said I hadn’t been secretly giddy for Fox’s new fall drama, Sleepy Hollow, since I first saw the teaser this past spring. To be honest, it looked kind of ridiculous and cheesy (which is part of why I was so excited–I love a good whimsical show) but something about it genuinely caught my attention. And I wasn’t disappointed.

This show is BEAUTIFUL. But when I did my second watch, I was having trouble putting my finger on why: it doesn’t have the edgy and stylistic control that Hannibal had. Really, the shots themselves aren’t that varied or non-traditional: opening shots showing us just where we are, medium shots of characters talking and doing things with the background either fairly in focus or previously established, and close ups only after knowing where we are and what’s going on.

On the surface, that seems like it should be pretty safe and visually boring. So why is the cinematography so damn beautiful?

Two words: Lighting, and Atmosphere.

In the screencapture above, we have a fairly well lit space, but the heavy shadows on Crane as well as the twinge of green give us everything we need to know about the setting and scene: its creepy, and he’s in trouble.

But it’s seductively creepy and dark. That shot is essentially a couple iron bars and some ugly bricks, but under this lighting it is a stunning setting (hats off to production design team, though–this entire episode is well done). Just having more of Crane’s face in the light would have made this a less interesting shot.

That’s a big visual theme in this episode: darkness and shadows. Which is perfect for a supernatural show about a murderous headless horseman.

pretty light

Even in shots where a character is in a more pleasant or powerful position, there’s an undertone of unease. The orange key light combined with the green shadows really creates a color tension that is just unsettling enough to keep the creepy feel going. That creepy darkness is only heightened by the large percentage of shadow on screen–there is always darkness, and it is always nearby. To add to the darkness is a lack of light. This show rarely hits really white whites except in the hot spots on faces, creating a further illusion of darkness.

cop car crane

Can we stop and appreciate how sleek, readable, dark, and creepy this shot is? Green lighting on a sliver of his face, just enough information to know he’s in a cop car. It’s like the darkness is swallowing him whole, just like the dark force from the show is encroaching on the world. And again, that greenness. This show is very rooted in green, orange, and blue–a fresh color combination (as opposed to blue and gold. Everything is blue and gold in every movie or show from the last few years).


You know what else this show has? Tonal consistency. When the shot is in broad daylight there is this creeping sense of darkness. His jacket and neck fade into total shadow, and the whites are still not white. There’s this heavy blue-grayness to everything that feels wet and dark and foreboding. Like a creepy headless monster that crawls out of rivers in the dead of night.

These shots have all been relatively crisp examples though: clearly lit figures in an enclosed or close space. But the other place this show really shines is atmosphere, specifically haze.

cu boots and hand on road

Just take a minute to appreciate that image and what it does to you to look at it.

actually feel cold looking at it. The thick bluish gray fog diffuses the light and creates a dark, heavy, cold world. Using the fog brings the entire image to a less contrasted place: there’s nothing even close to white, making it feel that much heavier and darker. And the crisp detail of his knuckles and the cracks in the road against the hazy unknown really captures what the tone of this show seems to be getting at: here’s the stuff you can comprehend, now let’s forge into the dark scary fog.

orange glow

In moments of turmoil, we get a strong but eerie light (and there’s that orange again)–showing us everything, but leaving so much of the frame in heavy and encroaching shadow, with so much of the space in a hazy fog. We can see what’s right in front of us, see the moment, but we can’t see what’s coming or what could be out there.


Even this extreme wide shot showing the town is in on the atmospheric fun: the town cloaked in shadow, hiding the secrets and monsters of Sleepy Hollow.

The last thing this show does cinematically that I am very much a fan of is the trippy-edge filter for flashbacks and anything supernatural occurring.katrina 2

This effect works brilliantly because it creates a clearly compromised space affected by memory, magic, or both but still allows us to see what’s going on. There’s a sense of distortion and unease, but still a sense of trust in the events being presented. Coupling this with the eerie orange-green combination makes for a really effective unsettling supernatural sequence.

trippy zoom waterfall

And finally, we combine all the lovely things about this cinematography: cold undertones, foggy atmosphere, crispness that allows us to see where we are, dulled whites, heavy shadows, and our supernatural trippy edging. The effect? A beautiful, striking image that sums up our show’s tone and world in a single frame.

And I. Am. Hooked. I want to be in this world, and I want to see what happens in it. While I have no idea where the story of this show will go, I will absolutely be tuning in for the design, cinematography, and tone of the world.

The Director of Photography is also responsible for Thor: Dark World, so if you enjoyed Sleepy Hollow be sure to check out the upcoming Marvel flick!

Sleepy Hollow is a Fox drama that premiered September 16, 2013. It was created by Alex Kurtzman, Robert Orci, Phillip Iscove, and Len Wiseman. The pilot was written by the four creators and directed by Len Wiseman. The Director of Photography was Kramer Morganthau, who has also worked as DP on Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, and the upcoming film Thor: The Dark World.


5 thoughts on “Sleepy Hollow: Lighting and Atmosphere

  1. I just finished reading your analysis on sleepy hollow and let me tell you that 1. I haven’t seen the show, but now I want to, or better, I need to, and 2. I love how you bring to words the beautiful work of the cinematographer. I completely agree with you in all the esthetic aspects of the image and I’m impressed with the consistency of his work.

  2. Reblogged this on Atomic Fangirl and commented:
    Oh my god. This piece is so well done. Tillman manages to pinpoint the beauty and awesomeness of films and TV that you kinda knew but didn’t understand. Well done, sir.

    Now go read his blog, dammit.

  3. Pingback: “Hannibal” and Cinematography: Looking is Hard | Michael Hicks

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