A side effect of this current colonial kick was the desire to watch The Patriot, a story where two Australians get jealous of America’s origin story and act out on said jealousy. Sadly, Netflix doesn’t have it but suggested similar shows, one of which was TURN: Washington’s Spies. The series is an AMC/Netflix collaboration and is about the Culper Spy Ring, a network of patriot spies operating around New York that provided George Washington with vital information. While it’s set in colonial New England, it’s a full on spy thriller, with aliases, disguises, and back alley murders. But in hose and powdered wigs.
I’m a sucker for political intrigue, and I’m a sucker for period drama so it took me all of the first 15 minutes of the first episode to become totally and completely hooked.
This makes the graphic designer in me very happy. Three colors used boldly and sums up the entire series. If Washington has spies, they’re obviously working against the British but they have to be inocuous. Leaving the coats red is also powerful because the majority of Americans know, I hope, that the Redcoats were the enemy. He’s the main character going against the redcoats. It’s a really modern design for a ye-olde show. Loves.
Of the many things I love about this show, the top two are casting and cinematography. Casting is perfect, if the accents aren’t. Ian Kahn is the best George Washington I’ve ever seen ever, on TV, at Mount Vernon, at Valley Forge, on a History Channel documentary. His entrance into the show [video, starts at 2:18], after five episodes of cant-catch-a-break, was the best character entrance onto a TV show since Jed Bartlett on the West Wing and might even surpass the more recent Commander in Chief’s first scene. I said might. I haven’t seen a lot of movies but I recognize at least half of the speaking roles in Turn. Either they cast Turn from a niche acting market or both I and the casting director have really good taste.
The second thing I love about this show is the cinematography, which is how the scenes are visually constructed. Angles are dramatic, camera movement can be a little predictable but maybe that’s because I know which angle will cause the next spoken line to have the most impact. I think this is cinematography. Someone broke down The Incredibles movie and it’s definitely worth a look for an idea of the science behind it.
(Fun fact: I almost went to animation school after college but didn’t for a number of reasons. I used to keep my finger on the animation world pulse until I found reenacting. A result of these dashed ambitions is that I’m all about costuming, concept art, and sometimes daydream about storyboarding. For example, I bought the Lord of the Rings extended versions solely for the making-of parts. I mean, the movies are great, but it’s the extra features I want.)
Without further ado, my stab at cinematographical anatomy: (is that a word?)
This was the scene that made me aware of the deliberate visuals. Our hero Ben has just gotten out of a meeting with a general he knows is a traitor, but GW won’t do anything about it and Ben is about to take matters into his own hands. The stark red of the flag in a neutral palette draws attention to his head and emphasizes both Ben’s idealism and patriotism, and the conflict these play with his personal loyalty to Washington.
GW stops the traitorous general right before the dressing down Ben has been waiting for all season. He is incredulous and exasperated, and arrived a day earlier than expected to stop all of this tomfoolery.
Everything highlights Washington’s face. The angle is shot to have GW be the center, while the hats of Lee and Bradford draw a horizontal line 2/3 the way up the screen. Ideal use of the Rule of Thirds.
Washington has known about Lee all along and was waiting for the right time to act. Ben was ready to act in a fit of impetuous youth. This caused them an estrangement of several months but the look GW is giving Ben is determination, an “I told you so”, pride in all of Ben’s work, right before they go kick the snot out of the British.
Everything is resolved in that one look. Ben’s hat points to GW, all three wings of GW’s hat point to his face, the splash of white ruffle points up to his eye. It is all about his eye in this scene. Also 2/3 up, excellent use of the Rule of Thirds.
Fueled on by Washington’s approval, Ben cuts a swath through the British. Here, he’s the only non-red figure charging through their ranks. His sword is covered with blood the same red as the jackets.
The first shot of Washington’s face in the entire series. He has just won the Battle of Trenton, a surprise attack at Christmas, based off of an anonymous tip, after a string of losses. He wants to know more about where the tip came from. Other soldiers merrymake in the background.
The mantelpiece, his hat, and the candles form a horizontal line that draw your eyes to his eyes. Vertically, the shadow is in line with his jacket lapels, highlighting that one eye. The shadow on his face blends with the hat to stand out against the light background, while the lit part of his face is framed by the other half of his hat. His presence brings hope and he, too, is hopeful.
Ben was woken at midnight and told to get his men in a boat and cross the Delaware River. Yes, that Crossing the Delaware. Here he is realizing the scope of the crossing, that it isn’t just a scouting party. (It will lead to the victory at Trenton.)
The triangular composition of the figures, plus the rudder and the lighting all highlight Ben’s face as he looks with astonishment at all the boats around him. The camera pans out so you can see the entire fleet of boats. My only problem with this scene is that the water doesn’t seem to be interacting with the ice properly. The boat is moving and should be leaving ripples in its wake, as should the oars. There should be some sort of ripples around the ice as well, and as the boat’s wake meets the ice’s, the water should move in a third way. I’ve never actually studied fluid dynamics so I could be mistaken. Perhaps they are crossing the river perpendicular to its current, which would change the water flow. Lastly, the circled boat to the right isn’t getting the same amount of light as Ben, yet they are presumably under the same moon. Dramatic lighting for heroic effect, or a strategically errant cloud?
The wider shot, with the light evened out better although the water interacting with the ice flows is still dissatisfactory. Happy Christmas, British.
Final note: If the Culper Ring sounds familiar, you have really good taste in entertainment. My other favorite TV show, White Collar, had an episode dedicated to the modern incarnation of the Culper Ring, where the current members were descendants of the original. Some conspiracy theorists think that the Ring still exists today, which is research for another time. If you’re more into the buddy-cop genre, I still recommend White Collar, about a bond forger convict’s relationship with his FBI handler as they solve white collar crime in New York. Gunfights, bad dad humor, and watching a master forger at work. I love it.
*I’m such a stitch counter. I love the costuming too, although I’m not sure what I’m looking at-as stated, I don’t know enough about this era to know correct from farby. The other main character, Abe, wears a knit cap, which I assume is period appropriate by its inclusion in the show, but I still give it the side eye, just in case. At least the clothes appear to have accurate construction, unlike in Ever After.
Source. They can try hiding it as much as they want, but that’s such a zipper. And the gap in the pleats only makes it more obvious. I love the dress but this drives me nuts every time I see it. Because as she moves, it’s obvious there is no other point of entry into the dress, which was made in one piece instead of in layers, so it would have to be a zipper.