Cinematographer Peter Wunstorf
<reposted from the Edmonton Journal>
EDMONTON — There's a scene in the pilot of cult television drama The Killing where a Seattle homicide detective, jogging in the park, finds a body washed ashore.
As the detective approaches, the greying mass, covering in seaweed, lies in the foreground, just obscured from view.
Then the man behind the camera, Edmonton cinematographer Peter Wunstorf, does something funny.
He defies the prevailing logic of shock-per-second crime dramas like CSI and turns the viewer away from the grisly discovery to instead focus on the detective's face. There's
an unsettling look in her watery eyes as she approaches, somewhere between curiosity and fear. Viewers are left, for a moment at least, to imagine what unspeakable horror
she's come upon instead of outright confronting it.
Then she pulls the weeds off and it's a dead seal.
Thus begins a new crime series that is as much about what you don't see as what you do. Billed by Vanity Fair as the best show on television, The Killing is the first ongoing
television series shot by Wunstorf, a veteran director of photography.
Between work on films like Brokeback Mountain and Jennifer Lynch's Surveillance, Wunstorf has done nearly a dozen television pilots, most of them darker, character-driven
dramas like Dark Angel and Chris Carter's Millennium. But when these pilots were picked up, Wunstorf moved on, content to define the look of the show and leave others to
The Killing is the first series he has signed on to shoot beyond the pilot. He shot the entire first season, which is currently airing on AMC (8 p.m. MT Sundays).
"I said I would never do a series," Wunstorf admits. But The Killing isn't your average series. It's more like a long film.
The narrative, stretching over the entire season, focuses on the day-by-day investigation into the murder of a 17-year-old girl and the effect the crime has on her family and
Wunstorf's camerawork, full of intimate close-ups and delicate pans, defines the show's look — all shadows and gloom.
The cinematographer collaborates with each episode's director to best capture the emotion or tone of a scene based on the script.
"My job is to interpret the director's vision and I do that with shot choice, lens choice, choice of lighting," Wunstorf says.
"There's not one right way. There are a thousand different ways you could do it. The challenge is finding the way to do it that best supports the feeling and mood that you're
trying to convey."
Mostly scenes in The Killing are either suspenseful or devastatingly sad. Just the pilot's script brought Wunstorf to tears the first time he read it.
Wunstorf got his start in television news before making the jump to film and television. And though he spends a lot of time out of province, following film industry work to
places like Vancouver, Edmonton remains home. "I've always paid taxes here," he jokes.
The Killing, though set in Seattle, is largely shot in Vancouver in an old peanut factory converted into a sound stage.
The creators wanted the show to have a "sad elegance," a concept Wunstorf was mindful of when shooting everything from painful conversations between grief-stricken
parents to the fingerprinting of a corpse.
"We're trying to take mundane things and make them beautiful. A lot of it comes from the gut. It comes from who I am and how I choose to express myself. And sometimes it
comes from a happy accident."
One such happy accident happened during a particularly ominous reveal toward the end of the pilot. It just happened to drizzle, making a depressing scene that much heavier.
And when the opening scene with the seal was supposed to take place at dawn but scheduling forced the crew to shoot it at dusk, the sun came out from under a fog at the
moment they needed it, creating the perfect illusion of a sunrise.
"Sometimes we go in with a plan. Sometimes that plan gets thrown away," Wunstorf says. "It's those things that happen on set, that you're either forced into or you discover
there in the moment, that make a scene great."
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