Share & Connect
‘The Raven’, the news movie from the director of ‘V for Vendetta’, is set entirely in Baltimore, Maryland, a city built around one of the earliest ports in what would become the United States.
A prosperous place both before and after the American Civil War, the city was devastated in 1904 when the Great Baltimore fire burned 70 blocks of the downtown area to the ground. Although the city was rebuilt, it was impossible for the filmmakers to replicate mid-19th-century Baltimore there. Ironically, they would have to go to Eastern Europe for the backdrops they needed.
“When I think Baltimore 1849, I don’t automatically think, let’s go to Serbia and Hungary,” says producer Aaron Ryder. “My initial plan was to shoot the movie in a city in North America that had an old-town section we could take advantage of, like New Orleans or Montreal. We quickly learned it would be cost-prohibitive. In addition, those sections of towns are relatively small. American cities have been so gentrified that it would be a real challenge to be able to find all of the exteriors we needed.”
Budapest and Belgrade provided the filmmakers with plenty of vintage buildings, cobblestone streets and vistas free of cell-phone towers. “It’s a part of the world that has been preserved from gentrification to some degree,” says Ryder. “When James [McTeigue, director] and I came to scout locations, we toured all over. It became clear pretty quickly what the plan would be.”
Production designer Roger Ford and cinematographer Danny Ruhlmann collaborated with McTeigue to create a visual style for the film that is both of the period and completely contemporary. “I was going for a very specific look and they got me exactly what I wanted on the screen,” says McTeigue.
“We took a bit of artistic license, but it’s not meant to be a slavish period piece. We tried to stay authentic, without letting that override the narrative or the characterizations. I wanted it to be dark, but not oppressively dark. It’s more like a graphic novel, where there’s lots of negative space in the image. You can read detail in the blacks.”
Director McTeigue provided a specific reference point for his director of photography, Danny Ruhlmann. “The whole idea was to create a dark-looking film with a lot of soul,” says Ruhlmann. “James often referred to a Van Gogh painting called The Potato Eaters. It was these very old, craggy, poor people seen in soft, but cool and slightly depressing light. I stayed away from bright sunlight and tried to find cool shadowy light, keeping it soft and diffuse.
It was important at the same time not to have the eyes lost in that darker light. The audience needs to be able to see the character’s eyes to learn where he’s coming from and where he’s going. I also wanted to keep the characters looking quite beautiful even though it was dark. That was another reason for focusing on the eyes.”
Ruhlmann and McTeigue agreed that they wanted to make an old-fashioned film in a contemporary way. “We moved the camera in a very sophisticated way to create contemporary images within a period story,” says Ruhlmann. “We liked the idea of mixing a period film with modern filmmaking techniques and modern lighting equipment.
As the pressure on Poe grows throughout the film, the lighting and the camera style grow a bit as well. We created a bit more contrast by going a bit hotter with the light and adding more camera movement just to create a slight sense of chaos.”
For production designer Roger Ford, the jumping-off point was a book of images presented to him by McTeigue at their first meeting. “He had stills from other films, as well as illustrations from references on Baltimore and Poe, down to the kind of lighting and the frames and the composition. He went back to Nosferatu, the famous early vampire film made in 1922.”
Image Courtesy of The Raven