By Karen Moltenbrey
For antiheroes like Frank Castle, the lead character in the Netflix series Marvel’s The Punisher, morality comes in many shades of gray. A vigilante hell-bent on revenge, the Marine veteran used whatever lethal means possible — kidnapping, murder, extortion — to exact revenge on those responsible for the deaths of his family. However, Castle soon found that the criminal conspiracy that set him on this destructive path ran far deeper than initially imagined, and he had to decide whether to embrace his role as the Punisher and help save other victims, or retreat to a more solitude existence.
Alas, in the end, the decision to end the Punisher’s crusade was made not by Frank Castle nor by the criminal element he sought to exact justice upon. Rather, it was made by Netflix, which just recently announced it was cancelling all its live-action Marvel shows. This coming a mere month after Season 2 was released, as many fans are still watching the season’s action play out.
The Punisher is dark and intense, as is the show itself. The overall aesthetic is dim and gritty to match the action, yet rich and beautiful at the same time. This is the world initially envisioned by Marvel and then brought to life on screen late in Season 1 by director of photography Petr Hlinomaz under the direction of showrunner Steve Lightfoot.
The Punisher is based on the Marvel Comics character by the same name, and the story is set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, meaning it shares DNA with the films and other TV shows in the franchise. There is a small family resemblance, but The Punisher is not considered a spin-off of Marvel’s Daredevil, despite the introduction of the Punisher (played by Jon Bernthal) on Season 2 of that series, for which Hlinomaz served as a camera operator and tandem DP. Therefore, there was no intent to match the shows’ cinematic styles.
“The Punisher does not have any special powers like other Marvel characters possess; therefore, I felt that the photographic style should be more realistic, with strong compositions and lighting resembling Marvel’s style,” Hlinomaz says. “It’s its own show. In the Marvel universe, it is not uncommon for characters to go from one show to another and then another after that.”
Establishing the Look
It seems that Hlinomaz followed somewhat in the characters’ footsteps himself, later joining The Punisher crew and taking on the role of DP after the first 10 episodes. He sussed out Lightfoot to find out what he liked as far as framing, look, camera movement and lighting were concerned, and built upon the look of those initial 10 episodes to finish out the last three episodes of Season 1. Then Hlinomaz enhanced that aesthetic on Season 2.
Hlinomaz was assisted by Francis Spieldenner, a Marvel veteran familiar with the property, who in Season 1 and again in Season 2 functioned as A camera/steadicam operator and who shot tandems in addition to serving as DP on two episodes (209 and 211) for Season 2.
“Steve and I had some discussions regarding the color of lighting for certain scenes in Season 2, but he pretty much gave me the freedom of devising the look and camera movement for the show on my own,” recalls Hlinomaz. “I call this look ‘Marvel Noir,’ which is low light and colorful. I never use any normal in the camera color temperature settings (for instance, 3,200K for night and 5,600K for day). I always look for different settings that fit the location and feel of the scene, and build the lighting from there. My approach is very source-oriented, and I do not like cheating in lighting when shooting scenes.”
According to Hlinomaz, the look they were striving for was a mix of Taxi Driver and The Godfather, but darker and more raw. “We primarily used wide-angle lenses to place our characters into our sets and scenery and to see geographically where they are. At times we strived to be inside the actors’ head.” They also used Jason Bourne films as a guideline, “making Jon (the Punisher) and all our characters feel small in the large NYC surroundings,” he adds. “The stunt sequences move fast, continuously and are brutally real.”
In terms of color, Hlinomaz uses very low light with a dark, colorful palette. This compliments New York City, which is colorful, while the city’s multitude of lights and colors “provide a spectacular base for the filming.” The show highlights various location throughout the city. “We felt the look is very fitting for this show, the Punisher being an earnest human being in the beginning of his life, but after joining the force is troubled by his past, PTSD and his family being brutally slaughtered, and in turn, he is brutal and ruthless to ‘bad people,’” explains Hlinomaz.
For instance, in a big fight scene in Season 1, Episode 11 at Micro’s hideout, Hlinomaz showed the top portion of the space to its fullest extent. “It looks dark, mysterious. We used a mixture of top, side and uplighting to make the space look interesting, with lots of color temperature mixes,” he says. “There was a plethora of leftover machinery and huge transformers and generators that were no longer in use, and stairwells that provided a superb backdrop for this sequence.”
For the most part, Hlinomaz has just one day to prep for an episode with the director, and that is often during the technical scout day. “Aside from reading the script and exchanging a few emails, that is the only prep we get,” he says.
During the technical scout, a discussion takes place with the director concerning how the scenes should look and feel. “We discuss lighting and grip, set dressing, blocking, shooting direction, time of day, where we light from, where the sun should be and so on, along with any questions concerning the locations for the next episodes,” he says.
During the scout and rehearsal, Hlinomaz looks for visually stimulating backgrounds, camera angles and shots that will enhance and propel the story line.
When they start shooting the episode, the group rehearses the scene, discusses the most efficient or suitable blocking for the scene and which lenses to use. During the shoot, Hlinomaz takes stills that will be used by the colorists as reference for the lighting, density, color and mood. When the episode is cut and roughly colored, he then will view the episode at the lab (Company 3 in New York) and make notations. Those notes are then provided to the post producer and colorist Tony D’Amore (from Encore) for the final color pass and Lightfoot’s approval.
The group employs HDR, “which, in a way, is hard because you always have to protect for overexposure on sources within the frame,” adds Hlinomaz. In fact, D’Amore has commended Hlinomaz, the directors and Lightfoot with devising unique lighting scenarios that highlighted the HDR aspect of the show in Season 2.
Tools of the Trade
The Punisher’s main unit uses two cameras – “we have crew to cover two at all times,” Hlinomaz says. That number increases to three or more as needed for certain sequences, though there are times when just one camera is used for certain scenes and shots.
According to Hlinomaz, Netflix and Marvel only shoot with Red 4K cameras and up. For the duration of The Punisher shoot, the crew only carried four “Panavised” Red cameras. “We shot 4K but frequently used the 5K and 6K settings to go a bit wider with the [Panavision] Primo lenses, or for a tilt and swing lens special look,” he says, adding that he has used Red cameras for the past four years and is still impressed with the color rendering of the Red sensors. Prior to shooting the series, he tested Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses, Leica Summilux lenses, along with Panavision Primos; Hlinomaz chose the Primos for their 3D rendering of the subjects.
The lens set ranged from 10mm to 150mm; there was also an 11:1 zoom lens that was used sparingly. It all depended on the shot. In Episode 13, when Frank finally shoots and kills hitman Billy Russo (aka Jigsaw), Hlinomaz used an older 12mm lens with softer edges to simulate Billy’s state as he is losing a lot of blood. “It looked great, somewhat out of focus along the edges as Frank approaches; then, when Frank steps closer for the kill, he comes into clear focus,” Hlinomaz explains.
In fact, The Punisher was shot using the same type of camera and lenses as the second season of the now-cancelled Marvel/Netflix series Luke Cage (Hlinomaz served as a DP on Luke Cage Season 2 and a camera operator for four episodes of Season 1). In addition to wide-angle lenses, the show also used more naturalistic lighting, similar to The Punisher.
Hlinomaz details another sequence pertaining to his choice of cameras and lenses on The Punisher, whereby he used 10mm and 14mm lenses for a fight scene inside an elevator. Spieldenner, the A cam operator, was inside the elevator with the performers. “We didn’t pull any walls for that, only the ceilings were pulled for one overhead shot when Frank flips a guy over his shoulder,” explains Hlinomaz. “I did not want to pull any walls; when you do, it feels like the camera is on the outside, especially if it’s a small space like that elevator.”
A good portion of the show is filmed outdoors — approximately two-thirds of the series —which always poses an additional challenge due to constantly changing weather conditions, particularly in New York. “When shooting exteriors, you are in the elements. Night exteriors are better than day exteriors because you have more control, unless the day provides constant lighting — full sun or overcast, with no changes. Sometimes it’s impractical or prohibitive to use overhead cover to block out the sun; then you just have to be quick and make smart decisions on how to shoot a scene with backlight on one side and front fill that feels like sunlight on the other, and make it cut and look good together,” explains Hlinomaz.
As he noted earlier, Hlinomaz is a naturalist when it comes to lighting, meaning he uses existing source-driven lighting. “I like simplicity. I use practicals, sun and existing light to give and drive our light direction,” he further adds. “We use every possible light, from big HMIs all the way down to the smallest battery-driven LED lights. It all depends on a given shot, location, sources and where the natural or existing light is coming from. On the other hand, sometimes it is just a bounce card for a little fill or nothing extra to make the shot look great.”
All The Punisher sets, meanwhile, have hard ceilings. “That means with our use of lower camera angles and wide lenses, we are seeing everything, including the ceilings, and are not pulling bits of ceilings and hanging any lights up from the grid. All lighting is crafted from the floor, driven by sources, practicals, floor bounces, windows and so on,” says Hlinomaz. “My feeling is that this way, the finished product looks better and more natural.”
Most of Season 1’s crew returned for Season 2, so they were familiar with the dark and gritty style, which made things easier on Hlinomaz. The season begins with the Punisher somewhere in the Midwest before agent Madani brings Frank back to New York, although all the filming took place throughout New York.
One of the more challenging sequences this season, according to Hlinomaz, was an ambulance chase that was filmed in Albany, New York. For the shoot, they used a 30-foot Louma crane and Edge arm from Action Camera cars, and three to four Red cameras. For the actual ambulance drop, they placed four additional cameras. “We had to shoot many different passes with stunts as well as the actors, in addition to the Edge arm pass. It was quite a bit of work,” he says. Of course, it didn’t help that when they arrived in Albany to start filming, they encountered a rain delay, but “we used the time to set up the car and ambulance rigs and plan to the last detail how to approach our remaining days there.” For the ambulance interior, they shot on a greenscreen stage with two ambulances — one on a shaky drive simulation rig and the other mounted 20 feet or so high on a teeter rig that simulated the drop of the highway as it tilted forward until it was pointing straight to the ground.
“If I remember correctly, we spent six days total on that sequence,” says Hlinomaz.
The second season of The Punisher was hard work, but a fun and rewarding experience, Hlinomaz contends. “It was great to be surrounded from top to bottom with people working on this show who wanted to be there 100 percent, and that dedication and our hard work is evident, I believe, in the finished season,” he adds.
As Hlinomaz waited for word on Season 3 of The Punisher, he lent his talents to Jessica Jones, also set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and sadly also receiving the same ultimate fate — as Hlinomaz stepped in to help shoot Episode 305, with the new Red DSMC2 Gemini 5K S35 camera. “I had a great experience there and loved the new camera. I am looking forward to using it on my next project,” he adds.
Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran VFX and post writer.