Looking Good for Cheap: Directing Marvel’s Agent Carter

While Marvel is tearing up the big screen, DC – in form of the Arrowverse and an assorted hit-or-wide-miss offering every season or so – owns the small screen, with two major exceptions: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter. The former has several seasons and loosely connects to the films, and for my money the latter remains Marvel’s best episodic offering, cancelled far too soon.

Set in 1940s New York and Los Angeles, Agent Carter had to deliver a vintage and ‘comic book’ look on a network TV budget. While short-run seasons would’ve made some production easier, it’s clear to see the production team working with monetary and location constraints, especially when considering certain sets (such as Season 1’s diner with functional sandwich slots, above and below) probably cost more than multiple main sets for Modern Family.

So what’s a girl to do to get a lush look, without keeping your characters in the same three Cafe / Office / Lab sets, and without The Americans money (or need its slavish attention to period detail)?

Let’s study four techniques which make Agent Carter look [more] like a million bucks.
1. Lean Into the Look
2. Go Outside
3. Use Your Props. Then Use Them Again.
4. Combine Techniques (make a ‘story excuse’ when necessary)

1. Lean Into the Look

I know ‘comic book look’ and ‘superhero special effects’ can mean almost anything and are thus often unhelpful descriptors. For this post I’m going to use them to refer to extreme angles/image warping, and supernatural powers / effects.

Wild angles and super-saturated colours. Comics often draw quasi-surrealist angles and exaggerated architecture, some of which can exist in the ‘real world’ but isn’t practical, some of which is impossible. Often you can create similar looks with some or all of camera angles, lenses, lighting trickery, or CGI, but live-action network TV often wants things to look closer to ‘reality.’ Meanwhile, Agent Carter goes for some more unusual tilts and lensing:

They also use a lot of steep and tilted angles. Sometimes this is for style and to mimic a comic book panel where things like “load-bearing walls” don’t get in the way of getting any angle you damn well please. Sometimes it’s getting an extra 40s flair with the existing set, as in the below interrogation scene:

But we also assume some block out a modern backdrop which would be much more expensive to dress or paint out with CGI. We’ll talk more about angles under #4.

Supernatural powers / effects. Unlike The Americans, Agent Carter goes for a variety of depictions of supernatural events, and doesn’t mind them looking a bit more campy or ‘old school.’ Season 2 in particular embraces more ‘out there’ source material: in the premiere we saw some bodies shattering into black jewels, a Dry Ice Creeping effect (below), and in the cliffhanger final shot, a Big Oily Blob of Shiftiness.

Other Stylisation

Heavily silhouetted shots and neon highlights are used to various degrees in most hour-long shows which run long enough, particularly in more hard genre fare such as Battlestar Galactica and Boardwalk Empire, or those which delve into surrealism The X-Files or Twin Peaks. But most shows don’t go wild painting backgrounds purple and lab fluids bright pink, using Dutch tilts or fisheye lenses for otherwise expository shots, and recreating comic book cover art, all of which and more Agent Carter does in only 18 episodes. See the slideshow for Sousa’s stark silhouette; Doctor Wilkes and neon all over; meta references and cover recreations; and fun with flamingos!

Agent Carter may be more stylised than most courtroom dramas, procedurals, half-hour comedies, etc., but (setting aside cast, trickier locations, and the pricier wardrobe and props) cost of shooting the above stylisation wouldn’t necessarily be more expensive to produce. In fact, with the right DP and a savvy art department, some of these shots may save money, if not time. As a whole they give the show a unique feel, and as an added bonus mean some of the more workaround angles won’t jump out as ‘out of place.’

Faking It

There are also a few cheeky stylistic choices which fly under the radar, like the fake stairs [below left]. We see Peggy walk up the real ones once she enters Location 2 Secret Office [below right], but in Location 1 Actor’s Agency False Front [left] the hidden door slides to reveal a painted flat version of the steps.

The painted backdrops work partly because Agent Carter leans into a ‘comic book’ aesthetic, but also because in the 40s a lot of film sets were painted, and backgrounds cheated, so it fits with the vibe of old-school film production . . . also a conceit and plotline Season 2 toys with. Meta!

2. Go Outside

It may seem counterintuitive, because you have less control over anachronistic elements outdoors; what if a semi truck rolls by, or those streetlights are blatantly post-2000?

You can definitely find controlled interior vintage locations which work with just a little dressing and the wardrobe to distract from not-strictly-period furnishings, and Agent Carter does plenty of that.

But often building a period set, or building over parts of a house which aren’t the right period, or trying to remove updated appliances and replace them with non-working vintage models which are likely all the wrong size, is the bulk of your locations work and budget. (There’s a good reason you don’t see a lot of kitchens, and that’s because of all rooms they’re going to be the most full of large bulky wired-in objects which don’t look right).

Gullies and alley walls don’t change as often as wallpaper and light fixtures, so if you pick your angles right often you can get away with columns, fence, and other backdrops which are close enough. To cover things such as newer buildings, different skylines, and modern billboards, you can either shoot at an angle where you don’t see them, or set them enough in the background (and out of focus) that it’s a more simple CGI fix.

Exteriors can also be tricky, of course, but you can use wide or fake skylines [above] set a lot of covert missions in bushes [below]:

as well as in, around, and under abandoned warehouses / prisons / the like. Sure, two of those are interiors, but it’s a three-fer! Once you’ve established an outside of a warehouse, you’ve got an inside, easy to create on existing sets, with walls easy to dress:

And unlike most living rooms, you can dress exteriors with phone booths and other somewhat moveable structures:

Or, you can use something you already have on hand . . .


3. Use Your Props.
Then use them again.

Like Boardwalk Empire, The Americans, The Crown, Babylon Berlin, and any show trying to sell a recently bygone time, Agent Carter needs vintage vehicles. Cars and vans and motorbikes give the characters something to ride in, but also make the world *feel* real. Unlike the shows at the beginning of this paragraph, however, Agent Carter is working with a network budget, so those cars must do triple duty.

Several scenes which could as well take place in an office take place in a car instead, which mixes things up and gives a feel of forward momentum. Heck, sometimes the cars aren’t even moving, just parked ‘mobile offices’ or surveillance spots:

On a pragmatic level, cars and vans and busses are easy to move and can take up a lot of space, and so are used to fill backlot streets and sets which could otherwise feel a bit cheaper. Cars cover up newer architecture, and are used in exterior locations to hide bits of background or skyline so CGI doesn’t have to paint it out later.

Establishing shots get spiced up with cars driving through; see black car with a white CORONER placard slapped on as we arrive at the coroner’s office:

In a pinch or to make things easier to light in your exteriors, you can also use them as backdrops:

Don’t have time and money to move all your big vehicles, or covering most of your scene in medium shots? In the same way cars can be used to crowd spaces in wide shots or cover up things you don’t want seen, extras can distract, spruce up a flat image, and more. Dress em up, get em to bustle around, or congregate in a clump to cover that modern fire hydrant or immoveable modern art piece.

If cars and bodies don’t solve all your problems, then

4. Combine, Combine, Combine

Often one technique won’t solve all your looks *and* make the producer happy that you can do it on budget. In that case, add another and another, and excuse it however you need.

Notice the coroner’s office shot above is at a steep angle; establishing shots are often where you can show off unusual angles or depths of field, nothing feels weird about that. But what about when you need to cover up something in the middle of a scene?

Look at this shot: an outdoor scene, shot from a steep god’s eye angle, dressed almost exclusively with cars, with highly contrasted light and shadows, and an extra in period garb and a briefcase strolling by as the cherry on top:

If you set this shot at ground level, you’d need a period building (or a flat; a painted / built out ‘fake front’ set) to set Chief Sousa and his girl against. You’d still need the cars, probably, and background extras, but your shoot location (and what time you can shoot, and for how long, and and and . . .) is really limited by the backdrop.

Instead we get this shot, set up by Peggy looking out of a window on a higher floor. When we cut to this shot, it’s insinuating what she sees, giving a reason for this angle cutting out all other background.

All you need is any old exterior, two of your already-sourced vintage cars, an extra with a suitcase and a fedora, and a steep angle. Throw in a couple easily planted old-fashioned parking meters, and voila! Your shot looks classy and vintage within a very tight budget, and the POV framing means the audience won’t bump on it being a ‘cheat’ but can enjoy the ‘stylistic effect.’

Reheat and apply to as many scenes as necessary.

Stray Observations

– Sorry about some of the picture quality and the overall layout. The former is because a combination of internet trolling and screenshotting is not always ideal. The latter is because WordPress’s block edit function is doing my head in, and I finally gave up once it became ‘readable’ if not aesthetically appealing. Let’s be honest, the bar is pretty low this week.

– The pressure of delivering under budget must have been intense; in that long-ago age of 2016, networks didn’t seem particularly willing to shell out for lavish sets, special effects, or female heroics in general. Supergirl was shelved by CBS around the same time, though saved by the Arrowverse and CableLite.

– “Excuse your shot however you need” is technically a writer’s note, but directors need to be able to work *with* the writers. Filmmaking is a team sport, and never forget it.

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