Manuel Billeter (‘The Gilded Age’ cinematographer) on using spherical lenses, ‘dynamic’ angles to capture New York’s nouveau riche [Exclusive Video Interview]

When cinematographer Manuel Billeter sat down to read Julian Fellowes’ scripts for HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” he immediately connected with the story of main character Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson). “Marian comes into the big city by herself without knowing much of how the city works,” notes the director of photography, something he felt was “intriguing” because he also came “to the city as a newcomer” some two decades ago. He shares that he thinks of his work on the show as an “homage” to his New York home. Watch our exclusive video interview above.

Billeter is one of two cinematographers on the series, sharing responsibility with Vanja Černjul. He talks about how they collaborated to “establish a look that is consistent throughout the episodes.” Černjul lensed the first two episodes, so Billeter had the opportunity to “observe and learn and adapt” to his style. For the cinematographer’s four episodes, he worked with director Salli Richardson-Whitfield, a partnership he describes as “wonderful.” Together, they tried to find “interesting and compelling” ways of shooting each scene and treating every one as unique, since “each scene has a specific purpose… new discoveries that want to be conveyed.”

WATCH our exclusive video interview with Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon, ‘The Gilded Age’ stars

The production process on “The Gilded Age” can be quite complex, as the series shoots at The Breakers in Rhode Island, in Troy, New York, and on sound stages in New York City. The cinematographer takes us behind the scenes of that process, revealing how “in one day in the same location, we’d shoot three scenes from three completely different episodes.” Billeter calls the work both “crazy” and “quite stressful” but also incredibly “fulfilling.”

“The Gilded Age” focuses predominantly on two households: the newly-arrived and affluent Russells (Carrie Coon, Morgan Spector) and the “old money” Van Rhijns (Christine Baranski, Cynthia Nixon). To capture the contrast between them, Billeter approached lensing each house differently. “We shot all of those storylines with spherical lenses that were a little bit sharper than what we used for the ‘old’ New York storylines, which were shot with anamorphic lenses to give it a sense of nostalgia and an ‘old-fashioned’ look,” details the director of photography. For the nouveau riche, he notes how he and Richardson-Whitfield used a “lot more movement, a lot more dynamic camera angles,” whereas for ‘old’ New York they did not move the camera much at all to make it feel “claustrophobic” and “enclosed and rigid.”

WATCH our exclusive video interview with Julian Fellowes, ‘The Gilded Age’ creator

Billeter is currently hard at work in production on Season 2 of “The Gilded Age.” Although he cannot share any specific plot points, he does tease that the show is “evolving in a very interesting and unexpected way for many of the storylines.” He also emphasizes how “magical” it is to work on the sets of this series, especially seeing the “monumental” transformation of Troy, New York, into the 1880s and its “incredible exteriors” like the Scott house, which is set in Brooklyn amongst the Black bourgeoisie. “It was quite an honor to be part of it,” says the cinematographer.

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