'House of Cards' Cinematographer Martin Ahlgren: Painting With Light
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
If you like how your favorite show looks, thank a cinematographer.
By Libby Coleman
Most 15-year-olds don’t kill off their friends, much less turn the ordeal into a 90-minute feature set in the northern European woods. But cinematographer Martin Ahlgren did just that. Yes, the murders were on celluloid. And yes, the grown-up artist still trades in a kind of dark intensity.
Sure, you may have never heard of Ahlgren; you might not even know what a cinematographer does. But you’ve probably seen his work. He’s the one who turned scripts for the third season of House of Cards into austere, brooding scenes that landed him an Emmy nomination last week. Lately, the Swedish-born 40-year-old has won industry props and become a go-to guy for A-list showrunners, deep-pocketed brands, even Kanye West. All of which is to say: If there’s such a thing as an “it” cinematographer, Ahlgren’s surely in contention. Indeed, his own work has helped raise the profile of the often-overlooked form.
When I caught up with Ahlgren recently by Skype, he was dressed casually in a gray T-shirt, his longish blond hair pulled back and his black thick-rimmed glasses constantly threatening to slide off the bridge of his nose. He is polite and easygoing, and speaks with a calm thoughtfulness and the hint of a Swedish accent. Behind him, a bicycle leaned against a wall in a room filled with clutter — the remnants of his not-yet-fully-unpacked move to New York.
That’s where Ahlgren will be shooting the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil, the Marvel series that debuted in April and became a surprise hit among critics and fans. Not that long ago, Ahlgren was churning along filming commercials and music videos, most notably Kanye West’s “Power,” which has more than 50 million YouTube views. After a short stint on a Starz show (confusingly, also titled Power), Ahlgren was snapped up by House of Cards, where he managed principal photography for 11 of the season’s 13 episodes.
Ahlgren’s rise isn’t a typical Hollywood success story — it’s a sign of the growing importance of cinematographers in what’s widely seen as a golden age of TV drama. We’re conditioned to view the director as king (or, rarely, the queen) of the set. That’s still true in movies, but it’s a different story in TV, where the showrunner, usually a writer/producer, is the real power. (Think Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.) On television, directors come and go like hired hands, which can make cinematographers like Ahlgren both keepers of a show’s distinctive visual style and clutch problem solvers when the script calls for complicated scenes. That frequently means handling a thousand little details of lighting and camera placement, as when Ahlgren had to shoot two characters in a cramped jail cell for one House of Cards scene.
Growing up, Ahlgren binged on movies, even falling in love with the campy effects in Highlander. Sure, they were “hokey,” he says — but they also wowed him with the possibilities of the camera: That’s when he made that horror flick in the woods, killing off each of his friends in an different way. After high school, Ahlgren almost got sidetracked into a technical career; in 1996, he was set to attend the Royal Institute of Technology at Stockholm, just like his father and grandfather. But when a spot opened up at a film program, Ahlgren jumped. Later, when he moved to the School of Visual Arts in New York, he gravitated toward camera work, where he had a natural eye. After graduation, he even wrangled an unusual opportunity to shoot films without first serving as another cinematographer’s assistant. “There’s something to be said for having to learn it from scratch yourself,” Ahlgren says. “You’re always going to encounter certain things you haven’t seen before.”
No kidding. For a 2012 Kanye West project called Cruel Summer, Ahlgren traveled to Qatar to make a half-hour film about a car thief and an Arabian princess designed to be shown on seven screens at once: three in front, one on the floor, another on the ceiling, and one each to the audience’s left and right. After building a seven-camera rig that pointed in all the requisite directions, Ahlgren and a local crew shot for 20 hours a day, five days straight. The result was shown on the outskirts of Cannes, though not as part of the festival, in a custom-built theater.
Even though Ahlgren’s been on a roll, success as a cinematographer can be short-lived. “The life is very much feast or famine,” says Richard Crudo, president of the American Society of Cinematographers. And it’s easier than ever for amateurs to crash the gates, thanks to the lower cost of digital cameras and the sleek look they produce. Meanwhile, opportunities in film — long the ultimate goal for most of Hollywood’s visual-arts community — are more limited than ever, particularly in middle-tier movies with budgets in the $30 million range.
On the other hand, in place of those midrange films, now there’s narrative television, where Ahlgren is able to do his thing with very little interference from the suits at cable channels and Netflix. “They stay fairly hands off,” Ahlgren says. “That’s a tremendous creative freedom.”