The fourth instalment of HBO’s crime drama True Detective is set in a remote outpost of Alaska but the show was filmed almost entirely in Iceland, where cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister BSC used an innovative Infrared technique to capture the perma-dark snowbound landscape, reports Adrian Pennington.

“We were doing prep for the show in Iceland in August when the sun doesn’t set until midnight but planning to shoot in October for a story that is set in almost endless darkness,” he said.

Showrunner Writer Director EP Issa López

Behind the Scenes: Issa López, showrunner, writer, director, EP, and Florian Hoffmeister, cinematographer

Source:Michele K. Short / HBO

“Iceland is such amazing scenery which you are very excited by, but everyone had to remind themselves that we will not see it because it’s going to be dark.”

True Detective: Night Country stars Jodie Foster as Detective Danvers, who along with her partner Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis) sets out to solve the case of six men who vanish without trace from an arctic research centre.

Behind the Scenes: True Detective: Night Country – Tackling the Dark

Crucially for the story’s supernatural and horror element, it is set in a region so far north that it experiences polar night, when during December and January people will only see four to five hours of daylight on average.

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“Not only were our exteriors going to be dark but it would also be white which makes a substantial difference when it comes to lighting. When you light night exteriors for mystery and danger you tend to light the people and the light on their faces will naturally fall off into darkness. But if you have a white surface the landscape this will illuminate faster than you will ever see a face. I had to really recalibrate my lighting approach.”



True Detective: Night Country: Jodie Foster, Kali Reis

Conventionally you would light night exteriors with lights mounted on cranes but the potential for gusty to gale force winds in Iceland made this impractical.

“It can become windy very quickly and when it does you do have to evacuate the area. Even shooting 45-minutes drive from Reykjavík you are in effect extremely remote. And remember, it is dark. So when you are told to leave a place, you have to do so, it would be dangerous otherwise.”

In order to keep the production from stopping on windy nights Hoffmeister deployed different techniques. Some scenes were shot dramatically such as just using the light from an actor’s headlamp and showing them disappearing into complete darkness.

Other times they used the few hours of day light to shoot sequences such as shots of cars driving to see more landscape. Hoffmeister describes this light as “like an endless sunrise and endless sunset all at once because the sun never really comes up past the horizon.”

For Episode 1 a sequence where Rose (Fiona Shaw) is skinning a wolf outside of her house they wanted “to play with the magic of the sky and a landscape,” he said. “Everything else we shot right on the cusp of darkness.

“Then there is the feeling of isolation and the vastness of nature that we need to convey so I thought where we need to see the landscape. We can’t put the lights high in the air, but neither could we fill in from the front with conventional lights because then the actor’s faces would look terribly bright and washed out in the foreground. So what to do?”

He came up with an idea partially inspired by DP Hoyte van Hoytema’s work on Nope. Hoffmeister explained.

“For some scenes he had basically created two versions of the same frame by using two cameras at the same time. I decided to modify this and use a stereo 3D rig fitted with one colour camera and one infrared camera. Around the infrared camera we arrayed infrared lights in a semi-circle.”

Behind the Scenes: True Detective: Night Country – Camera Choice

The show was shot on ARRI Alexa 35 with Panavision Ultra and Super Speeds but for the stereo rig they opted to use Alexa Mini LF with Sigma glass. One of the Mini LF had its infrared filter removed. The colour camera would photograph people and their flashlights but would not register the IR lighting. Meanwhile the IR camera would capture the surrounding landscape. Feeds from both cameras were blended in post to create depth. The rig came from Stereotec, Munich under the supervision of Florian Maier and Hoffmeister’s gaffers across the show were John Dekker and Sigurdur Bahama’ Magnusson.


Issa López on set of True Detective: Night Country

Source: Lilja Jons / HBO

“The aspect I was interested in when choosing Alexa 35 is that ARRI has introduced a new feature called Textures allowing you to can burn in parts of the look. So we built a LUT [with ARRI’s head colourist Florian ‘Utsi’ Martin] and we took part of the LUT and built a texture which was then burnt into the image. I feel this is the closest in terms of workflow you can come digitally to photochemical image manipulation. Your decision stays within the files and not just added in post.”

For interiors the DP looked to the photographs of Estonian Alexander Gronsky who captures the impact of the environment.

“He had taken a series of stills in a Russian mining town in the Arctic circle and I noticed that the highlights were screaming super bright and the darkness is super dark. l felt that the dynamic range of the Alexa would keep colour rendition even in the highest highlights.

Naturally, if live in darkness you will light everything artificially. My idea for the public spaces in True Detective like the ice rink and the police station is that it is here that people create their day. When people return home they don’t choose moody lighting. They switch on all the lights.”

While Norway was considered as a proxy for Alaska, the production chose Iceland aside from its similar ice-capped wilderness because of its film infrastructure.

“It would have taken quite a big effort to move a ship the size of this show to Alaska whereas Iceland has small but articulate and active film community,” said Hoffmeister.

Interstellar, Captain America: Civil War and The Midnight Sky are just some of the features to have shot there. The crew could base themselves in Reykjavík and not have to travel far outside the capital to film scenes that required genuine remoteness. The country’s favourable film tax incentives played a part in the decision too.

Beginning in September 2022 they shot for two months on stages there and another 50 days of locations shoots, half of which were night exteriors.

“I spent a lot of time trying to build a LUT and for that I needed to shoot a test in darkness with snow. We did this in September when the only ice or snow was to go up on a glacier at 11pm at night. We took all the gear and waited for darkness and by 12am we had to evacuate because a glacier is too dangerous to be at night.”

There actually is an Innns in Iceland (population 65) but the fictional town of Ennis, Alaska is composed of locations from all over the country including at a former school building part of an old American airforce base and at Dalvík, a village in the North. Ennis high street is on the road to Reykjavík airport.

Robert Hunter Baker led a second unit to shoot some plates in Alaska including aerials of cars on snowbound highways.

Behind the Scenes: True Detective: Night Country – Reality and Imagination

Hoffmeister, who shot all six episodes, was attracted to the project primarily because of writer director and showrunner Issa López.


Behind the Scenes: True Detective: Night Country

Source: Lilja Jons / HBO; 

“The brand and the legacy of True Detective was equal parts attractive and intimidating but what I found interesting was the personal creative arc you can make by working with one writer-director on this project. It is unusual for streaming TV.”

The series is shot through with supernatural elements and the finale in particular, set mostly in the research arctic station, recalls the science-fiction of a film like Solaris in its blend of reality and imagination.

“The supernatural was always a strong presence from the start. The investigation and mystery is the narrative drum but we move beyond genre with the spiritual aspect and the belief that somebody dead can be alive. I personally felt we shouldn’t differentiate visually between them and that the dead should be seen as real, just as the characters see them.

He continues, “You can read the supernatural element as the disconnection between humans and nature and the disconnect between people in terms of their relationships. I’m not sure if this would have been carried over so well if there were not the presence of Issa as showrunner and director.”

Hoffmeister was excited to work with the iconic Foster, whom he admits partly inspired his love of cinema in films like Taxi Driver and Silence of the Lambs.

“I was very excited to work with her. When anybody someone asks me how she was I say she is exactly how we all want her to be. Super professional and very welcoming. Her performance is amazing but there is a spirit of ensemble that she helped to lift throughout the whole show.”

True Detective: Night Country released on Sky on 15 January 2024.

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