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Friday, 10 April 2009 01:00

Behind the Scenes on Top TV Shows

Written by  Jennifer Marino
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Capturing a federal agent, lighting a serial killer and documenting a notorious Hollywood power-player are all daily work routines for some primetime professionals. Compacting several days of footage into a half-hour or hour show is a strenuous job that requires the ability to refrain from equipment-smashing if the broadcast doesn’t do your work much justice...

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            Capturing a federal agent, lighting a serial killer and documenting a notorious Hollywood power-player are all daily work routines for some primetime professionals. Compacting several days of footage into a half-hour or hour show is a strenuous job that requires the ability to refrain from equipment-smashing if the broadcast doesn’t do your work much justice.

            In the TV world, “it’s all about the prep,” says DP David Stockton, who won the ASC Award in 2009 for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Movies of the Week/Mini-Series/Pilots for his work on the TV series “Eleventh Hour.” “There’s no time to fix things on such a tight schedule, so [you need] a tight crew. In the television medium, you have to decide what is going to look good quick, and pull as a team.”

“24”

            Each season of the Emmy- and Golden Globe Award-winning “24” depicts a suspenseful 24-hour period of the events of the fictitious Counter Terrorist Unit headed by federal agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) as they fight national terrorist threats. During the seventh season, the series shifts its focus to the FBI. The addictive real-time action series also follows the conspirators and other characters involved in each episode.

            The director of photography on “24” and “24: Redemption,” Rodney Charters, ASC (“Nash Bridges” and “The Commish”), comes from a documentary background, which attributes to the look of the series. “I have a fondness for authentic camera involvement in the action as it unfolds,” says Charters. “I like to be close and personal while simultaneously lensing on really long telephoto lenses. I light minimally to achieve this freedom of movement and tend to augment existing industrial lighting … I try to be true to the scene and the performance and the environment where it plays out.”

            The production can employ as many as four to five cameras during stunts, and while filming “24: Redemption” in South Africa, the crew used three cameras for the entire shoot. “We shoot 35mm, three-perf Kodak 5229 stock, Panavision XLs and Primo zooms 11 to 1, (24 to 275mm), 3 to 1 (135 to 420mm) and the short HH zoom (27 to 68mm) with a few primes when we need them,” Charters reports. “The Panaflex system as a whole is the most efficient 35 camera for speed and support. The integrated follow-focus system attached to the XL body means all of our lenses focus from the same point on the camera body, and all of the accessories are integrated in a system hinging on that basis by a rental-only company whose soul existence is dependent on cinematographers, so they as a company bend over backwards to ensure the integrity and full integration of all the Panaflex tools into the workspace.”

               Charters uses 500 ISO stock for both interiors and exteriors, and day and night. “The XL has a gel slot before the lens, which enables me to place ND9 gels in the light path to control the exposure on day exteriors without restricting the amount of light going to the viewfinder,” says Charters. “For the operators, [this is] another great feature of the Panaflex system.”

A-Camera Operator Guy Skinner, whose credits include “Charmed” and Lethal Weapon 4, uses a pad on his shoulder and grabs the matte box to hold and manipulate the camera. “He sits on a small rolling-butt dolly called a Starglider to assist in making small and large leg-driven dolly moves, following the actor around the sets. B camera is always on either a [Chapman/Leonard] PeeWee or Hustler dolly,” Charters concludes. 

“Dexter”

            The ironic premise of a serial killer (who murders guilty suspects) employed by the Miami police as a blood-splatter expert is a twisted enough plot to boost ratings. But, the other components that make Showtime’s “Dexter” a hit go beyond the storyline. The crew has established an excellent rapport with each other, which is imperative for the show’s success.

            Earl C. Williman, the show’s chief lighting technician, has been in the biz for 46 years, working on major hits like “Knots Landing,”“Murder, She Wrote” and “Dallas.” He’s drawn to “Dexter” because of its “wonderful and talented crew. “Everyone is top notch in every department,” says Williman, who further explains that Kino Flos and HMI lighting equipment are present on set. “On stage everything is on a dimmer while night exteriors are more difficult. This involves practical locations where you don’t have much control and you can’t always hang a light. During our daily routine onstage, we work at a lower light level [with] less fill light and more cross light. Our style is soft-front, hard-back crosses. Dexter is a pretty shadowy character, so we make sure he isn’t fully lit all the time — we strive to make it as interesting-looking as possible. The lighting is important in the end result of the show.”

Sony and Panavision specifically designed a camera for the show, which is shot in HD 24p format. “We always use two cameras, the Sony Panavized F23s, which use Panavision accessories and lenses, and a Steadicam, [which is] on set at all times,” says cinematographer Romeo Tirone, who creates the surreal shots and various color contrasts on the series. “Sometimes we use a third camera, the EX1, for tight spaces. The [Sony] F23s are kind of like a paint-box system. We basically control the iris, the black-and-white levels and the color saturation — so I’m able to dial the look that I want on the set.”

            Michael C. Hall, who plays Dexter Morgan, features the versatile look necessary to portray both personas of the character’s double life. Tirone works in camera to set this contrast, giving Dexter a sinister, boyish look when called for. “Whenever Dexter is in a kill room, the world is more surreal,” Tirone explains. “We tweak the colors for more contrast, so that there’s a separation between his mild-mannered life and his life as the killer.”

            Color contrasts are also in effect during Dexter’s flashbacks of his late father. Tirone adjusts the colors of the flashback scenes in order to compose a different look each time. “When the third season came around, and Dexter’s father was in his head, we put black stockings behind the lens, which gave it a diffused look and we used a heavy backlight, so [we achieved] a diffused, hard-edge look,” he says.

            The series displays a graphic novel look inspired by prolific filmmakers, such as Stanley Kubrick. This style is achieved with wide-angle lenses and deep focus. The production abstains from a cosmetic look by incorporating the more natural look of HD. “We don’t try to hide the HD,” says Tirone. “HD is unforgiving; you see every pore; so you have to adjust to it. Because I can control the color, I don’t use any filters on the camera, and I play with the shutter –– 1/8th Black Pro-Mist –– to take the edge off the HD. I just try to make it look the best I can and I cringe when the light gets cranked up too much and that’s something you have to adjust for.”

            Since HD doesn’t hold detail well, Tirone must also adjust for highlights by using the natural daylight that seeps through the windows whenever possible. “When we shoot on set, I use a 10K light for HD … so you don’t need as much light for contrast,” he reflects. “When Dexter is blending into the real world and he is going unnoticed, we light him more front-lit. As the killer, [he’s] boyish and sinister-looking, so the lighting is minimal, which helps with the HD since HD works well in low-light situations. A couple Parlights bounced off the victims’ bodies can [also] light the scene.”

“Entourage”

HBO’s hit series “Entourage” documents the life of rising star Vince Chase (Adrian Grenier), his sharp-tongued agent (Jeremy Piven) and childhood friends as they roll with (or sometimes throw) the punches in Hollywood. While many of us haven’t strived for fame, the realism of the series makes us feel as though we are cruising the Sunset Strip with the characters.

            The first three seasons of “Entourage” were shot with two ARRI LTs that were 90-percent handheld. “Some of the best shots we did in the first year were with a Steadicam,” says Steven Fierberg, ASC, who shot the show’sfirst 25 episodes. “The original idea of ‘Entourage’ is that the show is supposed to be a documentary. Julian Farino, the director of the first three episodes, came from a documentary background. So we both felt that the show needed that feel to it. The first year is the most pure in terms of documentary. But, as the show became more textured in terms of writing, more detailed shooting was required and the style evolved.”

            The many L.A. locations featured in “Entourage,” such as Point Dume Beach, The Edison, Winston’s and Book Soup, add to the realism of the series. “We would go to the actual locations, such as the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Robertson, and people on the crew would relate that they’ve had the same exact conversation in that coffee shop,” says Fierberg. “We have a very strong commitment to the actual places. We shot at Urth Caffé and the environment was ugly, but Larry Charles said that you gain something by authenticity, even if it doesn’t look good, and creator Doug Ellin said he only wanted the series to look real, even if the surroundings weren’t pretty.”

            Fierberg says that one signature shot in “Entourage” is to follow a character from the inside of an establishment right out into the sunlit street, pulling F-stops from one end of the lens to the other. “The feel of the show, in my opinion, is not glamorous,” he explains. “It should never look lit on purpose, even though it is on purpose. We achieve a documentary look by refraining from close eye-lines, shooting 40 to 75mm, and we don’t fix up the background or use backlights. I didn’t glamorize the actors because I thought it would feel dishonest and manipulated.”

            The crew would light a set from the outside whenever possible in order to free up the director to change angles faster and easier. “For dollies, we use PeeWees and Hustlers, and our gear comes out of Otto Nemenz,” says Fierberg. “We usually go with the Cooke primes and the 24-280 Optimo zoom — I think that’s the best zoom ever made; it’s the sharpest, prettiest and it has no flare. We shoot on an 81EF filter. Instead of full daylight correction, it’s half daylight, which de-saturates the look.”

            Tim Marks, the producer of the show’s first season, noticed the predominantly male cast and crew, and wanted to balance out the testosterone, so he ingeniously used female stand-ins for all the actors. “At first I was skeptical, but I placed first the actors, then the stand-in candidates underneath an overhead florescent light and photographed them to see the underlying facial structure,” says Fierberg. “Surprisingly enough, I found great matches, and we have never looked back ever since.

“The show was supremely orchestrated and the crew was phenomenal,” Fierberg concludes. “The director and I had a lot of creative freedom; I would do whatever shot the director wanted without hesitation. This is possible because of careful lighting design and a quick, smart and nimble crew. We would never be able to do some of things we did at the time without extremely skilled first assistants, Scot Petitclerc, Jeff Graham and Joel Perkal. After reading several feature comedy scripts, I think the writing on ‘Entourage’ is even more astonishing. The show is better than almost any movie.”

ARRI
www.arri.com

Chapman/Leonard
www.chapman-leonard.com

Kino Flo, Inc.
www.kinoflo.com

Kodak
www.kodak.com

Otto Nemenz
www.ottonemenz.com

Panavision
www.panavision.com

Sony
www.sony.com/professional

Steadicam
www.tiffen.com

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