Television tests, pushes limits

Richard Rawlings Jr. is imaging a romantic beach stroll between lovers that’s to adjourn an episode of one of the world’s most-watched television shows, “L.A. Law.”

But the script, like the light, is much too clear: This scene’s set at “golden hour,” the remains of the day and — despite the precedent of John Wayne’s “Green Berets”– he can’t just reverse East and West and ignore the Pacific to make the shadows fall correctly.

“I’m shooting (Kodak) 5245, with an 85 filter. The scene is heavily backlit, and the director has said the long shot has to end in a close up so that we can see the expressions on their faces,” remembers Rawlings. “But the light is way too hot.”

It’s 10 a.m. Do you know where your sunset is? Time crunches, color timing and time-of-day constraints linger in the modern era of film photography for television. The march of technology is the problem — and the solution.

Making this take work, for instance, will require more than Rawlings’ strategically placed bounce cards. He’ll need a liaison, “L.A. Law’s” postproduction coordinator Cindy Kunze, to supervise the film-to-tape transfer by Michael Most at Encore Video in Hollywood.

At Encore, the Panavision, Super-35 negative — a hedge against the inflation of future in television systems that may use wider aspect ratios — will undergo thoroughly modern postproduction: Encore’s Video InterPositive (VIP) process.

The negative is transferred on a modified BTS FDL-90 telecine, the electronic signal split into digital records of the negative, allowing the edited master to be very finely color-corrected in a tape-to-tape process.

Art, engineering combine

An indisputable advance over past attempts at such processes, art and engineering conbine to accurately record the colorimetry and latitude of Rawlings’ original camera negative.

Viewing dailies (time added on to Rawlings’ typical 60 to 65 hour week) will be on cassette. He’ll never see the film projected. Select takes will be digitized and cut on an Avid personal computer-based editor, another step-speeder, this time by automated KeyCode logging.

The show is then mastered on the digital component tape of an Ampex DCT tape drive, converted to digital composite, and aired.

All of this would have seemed very strange to Rawlings’ father, the late Richard Rawlings Sr., ASC, who at the start of a long and distinguished career had worked under the legendary James Wong Howe.

Rawlings Jr. still hums some of the songs his father taught him: He lights through the camera, as if the film is black and white. “This old-fashioned technique builds three-dimensionality,” he says. “I was taught to not rely on the color in the film to add contrast.”

Years ago, Rawlings pere had come to watch his son shoot an episode of “Paradise,” and left shaking his head in dismay. “In his day, you’d walk onto a practical (interior) location, turn off every light, and start from scratch,” says Rawlings Jr. “Now the lighting style is more natural. You measure the existing light, modify it, and make it subtly better.”

Using less light and working quickly is facilitated by 500 ASA-rated film stocks and postproduction processes such as Encore’s, which he considers a light-saver.

“In the years I’ve done television, the post process kept changing for the worse, making film look more and more like tape,” recalls Rawlings, whose career has included seasons of “Ohara,””Matt Houston,””Stingray” and his Emmy-nominated work for “Reasonable Doubts.”

“Some of the one-light prints were horrible. I started lighting differently after seeing dailies, trying to trick the dailies timer into doing it right, and that was futile. With this process, finally, the colors are more precise and more vivid. What I see in the dailies tape and on TV very closely match what I shot, and I am very pleased with the show’s look.

“We need this interaction between the colorist and the director of photography,” adds Rawlings.

“There’s a melding together of the cameraman and the electronic industry, and it can be a good marriage. I think we are in a changing time, when in a sense we are saying goodbye to film,” says Rawlings’ Holland-born colleague Kees Van Oostrum, who’s most recent triumphs include “Return to Lonesome Dove” (for which he received his second ASC Award nomination in as many years), “Son of Morning Star” and the theatrically released “Gettysburg.”

“In television,” says Van Oostrum, “we shoot on film, and it is immediately transferred to tape. In theory, that’s wonderful. In reality, that’s not the case. The cinematographer is out of the process early. It’s very hard to keep control of a film’s look when you never really get to see it.”

‘Fortunate’ relationship

Van Oostrum now relies upon a “very fortunate” relationship with telecine colorist Julius Freed, with whom he’s now done six movies for television.

The trust he’s developed with Freed is critical, says Van Oostrum, because, unlike a cinematographer for featureswho can communicate his desires to a lab timer through standardized printer light numbers (and who typically sees screened dailies), in film-to-tape transfer and color correction a subjective aesthetic rules.

Cinematographer’s economics

The photographic process for television, maintains Van Oostrum, is governed by economics. “The cinematographer is on the low end of the power structure in television,” he says. “The turnaround time is incredibly demanding. (The six hours of ‘Lonesome Dove’ aired just two months after principal photography was completed.) This is why electronic post is popular, why television is a producer’s medium.”

For Gettysburg, which was originally intended for television but which translated nicely to the big screen, Van Oostrum’s methodology was to use hard mattes to protect a larger image area at the top of the frame than at the bottom , something he learned from fellow countryman Theo van de Sande, ASC.

Though he tries not to “get too Dutch” in his lighting approach, Van Oostrum tends to use Panavision Primo prime lenses, rather than zooms, applying very soft light, and, very significantly, he has returned to slower speed film stocks such as Kodak’s 5293 200 speed, a conservative method in the face of new film stocks so fast a cinematographer can almost light a scene to the eye.

Van Oostrum says the new high-speed films combined with high-tech telecines meant he’d “tend to get more back than I wanted to get back … With 5296, I’d be shooting at T2 and it becomes more of a hassle to get rid of the light; with 5293 I’m in the T4 range for the same image. 5293 forces me to make better choices.”

British cinematographer David Tattersall, an ASC Award nominee for his work on “Young Indiana Jones Chronicles,” has selected slower-speed films for another , equally legitimate reason: The noteworthy look of this series is imaged on 16 mm film, with an Arriflex camera, and 7245 50 ASA and 7248 100 ASA perform perfectly well, whereas speeds as high as 500 ASA are pushing it.

“I’ve found that the important aspect of getting good results from 16mm is to shoot a gray scale card at the head of each reel so that when it is sent to Rank laboratories in London for processing, the timer can work from that,” says Tattersall.

He says the dirt and sparkle problems associated with working with 16mm’s smaller image area are reduced by doing negative development only, transferring immediately to digital tape, and then again to disk for editing.

That means he sees only 3/4-inch tape dailies, usually on a four- to six-day turnaround, working all over the globe. Perhaps because of this unavoidable lack of oversight and authority over the post-produced image, Tattersall has also conscientiously returned to an older methodology of in-camera control, because he exercises less authority over the post-produced image.

“The exposures have to be more accurate,” he says. “In terms of color balance , we do that in camera, with light grade corals, 82 C filters for coolness, low contrast and diffusion filters.”

“I was nervous (about 16mm) at the beginning,” says Tattersall, who as an experienced commercial cinematographer had grown accustomed to 35mm and often lavish productions.

“People were talking about quality and production value and the detail in the script. But in retrospect, the application of 16mm is totally appropriate for this type of production because of the speed we are moving.

“It’s better in every respect but its resolution, and that’s only apparent in projection, which we never see in any case … the extra depth of field allows us to work faster. I’ve been pleased with what we were able to achieve photographically; in fact, I think everything about the series is interesting.”

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