Visions of light

Feature, TV nominees reveal trade secrets

Feature Films

Michael Ballhaus

“Gangs of New York”

Pedigree: First ASC nomination, two Oscar noms, three BAFTA noms, one BSC nom

Aesthetic: “There were lots of night scenes in this movie, and I wanted to stay away from the usual HMI bluish night hue for those. We intentionally did not use a lot of blue in this movie. Basically, it was blacks and browns and some gray. The whole movie, in fact, had very little color, and the main colors it did have came from flames, torches and things like that. The reason for this was this was a movie about the downtown poor people of Manhattan — opposite of the uptown story I shot for Marty (Scorsese) in ‘The Age of Innocence.'”

Pawel Edelman

“The Pianist”

Pedigree: First ASC nom, one BAFTA nom, one European Film Award

Aesthetic: “Given the subject matter (the Holocaust), we realized this film should be as simple as possible in terms of the look. We wanted to be somewhere between a (doc) and realism. Therefore, we avoided just about all the usual tricks. We used just two lenses for the entire film, and very simple light, with only a couple of crane shots. ‘Simple,’ in particular, meant not using too many light sources. The other key thing was our decision to desaturate the colors during the digital grading session.”

Conrad Hall

“Road to Perdition”

Pedigree: Fifth ASC nom, three wins; nine Oscar noms, two wins

Aesthetic: Hall, who passed away in January, discussed “Road to Perdition” in Intl. Cinematographers Guild Magazine. “(Director Sam Mendes) wanted dark greens, grays and blacks, and maybe dark brown. He didn’t want any reds, bright yellows or whites. We had costume tests where I played with hard light smashing down on fedora hats people wore, and I got wonderful slashes of light on faces in the shadows of brims. I also decided to work wide open because that created the somewhat softer palette I wanted to achieve without many points of focus.”

Edward Lachman

“Far From Heaven”

Pedigree: First ASC nom

Aesthetic: “The film is an homage to the Douglas Sirk films of the 1950s. We wanted to create the look of those melodramas, of Sirk’s visual world. In his day, they were shooting on studio backlots, so one of our challenges was to give an actual location — an Army barracks in New Jersey — the heightened sense of reality of a backlot, the sort of artifice that Sirk achieved on soundstages. Controlling the light was obviously key to this, by creating an overhead studio lighting situation. I also worked strongly with gels to create an abstract look, and bring out specific colors.”

Rodrigo Prieto


Pedigree: First ASC nom; four Mexican Silver Ariel noms, three wins

Aesthetic: “We didn’t have a big budget, and shot the whole thing in Mexico, but we had to differentiate scenes that take place in the U.S. and Europe. We decided to use visual cues to represent those different locations. In Mexico, we went with saturated colors that actually exist in Mexico, like the bright blue of Frida’s house. In the New York scenes, we used more desaturated, cooler colors. In Paris, we went for a more sepia maroon type color, similar to the old postcards from Paris from that era — postcards Frida actually sent home from Paris. As a result, we did extensive color changes during the digital color-correction process.”

Episodic Television

Michael Barrett

“CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (“Snuff”)

Pedigree: Third ASC nom (two this year)

Aesthetic: “We’ve been taking the show darker this year — particularly this episode, which deals with a snuff film. We shot some 16mm for the snuff film itself, then bleach-bypassed the

negative to increase the contrast and mute the colors. We also relied on a bit of smoke, often silhouetting the actors and playing scenes in a cold half-light.”

Frank Byers

“CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (“Fight Night”)

Pedigree: First ASC nom

Aesthetic: “We shot this episode at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. We only had 11 total hours in the auditorium to cover the boxing and four other scenes, so our location scout before the shoot was really important in figuring out how to light the auditorium. We came up with a plan to light the ring and stadium for 360 degrees, by placing appropriate instruments all around the stadium. That way, if we moved 180 degrees, we could change things around and light within 15 minutes or less. We also top-lit the ring with a big (20 foot-by-20 foot) grid over the top — a highlight cloth with 35 PAR lights shooting through it.”

Billy Dickson

“Ally McBeal” (“Reality Bites”)

Pedigree: Fourth ASC nom, Two Emmy noms

Aesthetic: “We got away from the normal ‘Ally’ environment — most of it takes place during an audition for a musical play. We shot it at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, and the big challenge was the big stage number, because it had a lot of lighting issues.

“I wanted it to look like a live audition, so I lit 360 degrees in order to Steadicam completely around the subject on stage. This was a more theatrical lighting technique. We also took advantage of spotlights and stage lighting in the theater.”

Michael Bonvillain

“Alias” (“Page 47”)

Pedigree: Second ASC nom; one Emmy award.

Aesthetic: “A big reason I submitted this episode to the ASC was the location — we filmed at Dorothy Chandler’s old house in Los Angeles. A key scene has a big, convex mirror and it reflects the entire room. So, rather than using a wide-angle lens to show the whole room, I used a relatively normal lens and panned the room. When we got to the mirror, it reflected the whole room in a stylized way.”

Tom Del Ruth

“The West Wing” (“Holy Night”)

Pedigree: Sixth ASC nom, three ASC awards; four Emmy noms, three Emmys

Aesthetic: “The opening sequence is a flashback to a Christmas Eve during the World War II era when a character’s father was a young man. We manipulated color and texture, making the scene appear almost colorless, except for red. I asked the art department to remove all colors from the set and costumes, to make them as neutral as possible. The only color was red, and a touch of yellow on a taxi, which I tried to remove with desaturation. The idea was to stroke the car and some buildings with red, which symbolizes blood about to be spilled.”

Robert Primes

“MDs” (“Wing and a Prayer”)

Pedigree: Three ASC noms; three Emmy noms, two Emmys

Aesthetic: “This episode (shot in 24p high definition) features 9singer) Macy Gray in a blues club, which was meant to be far different than the main hospital set. We went with a real blue aesthetic — blue walls with light and smoke, open fluorescent lights lining the bar, and so on. It was an attempt to make the club a study in blue, with red and white accents.”

Bill Roe

“The X-Files” (“Release”)

Pedigree: Fifth ASC nom, two ASC awards; two Emmy noms

Aesthetic: “We didn’t do any razzle-dazzle — it was a very serious episode about a strange guy who might be able to help one of the characters find his son’s killer. Therefore, lighting was extremely moody, even by this show’s standards. We had one scene with a lime-green color that helped give it an eerie feeling. My whole thing was to make sure there was some kind of dark or blackness somewhere in the frame.”

Cable or Pay

Network movie/pilot/miniseries

Jonathan Freeman

“Taken” (“John”) (Sci-Fi Channel)

Pedigree: Third ASC nom; one CSC nom

Aesthetic: “Part of this episode goes inside an alien spaceship. We wanted a mysterious sense to the interior, so we shot with a lot of angle reflections of the surfaces of sets — highlights off the walls and floors. We did the lighting so that it pulsates, never staying consistent. In post, we also digitally color-timed the sequence in order to enhance this unreal quality. We saturated it, creating an extreme high-contrast, rushed look, which makes the interior more menacing.”

Jeffrey Jur

“Last Call” (Showtime)

Pedigree: First ASC nom

Aesthetic: “The piece is almost a two-character play, about F. Scott Fitzgerald and his secretary. Fitzgerald is near the end of his career, while the secretary is young, just starting hers. I felt we could make that contrast with the lighting, even when they were in the same space. I avoided having much light in Fitzgerald’s space — we had him avoiding sunlight, positioned in the shadows a lot, avoiding direct light near his face. His secretary, on the other hand, has a glow about her. She carries light into the room.”

Serge Ladouceur

“The Case of the White Chapel Vampire” (Hallmark Channel)

Pedigree: First ASC nom; three CSC noms; one CSC award

Aesthetic: “The visual concept was black-and-white in color. We went subdued with lots of gray, black and dark brown tones. The only real colors we emphasized were flesh tones and red for blood. The big challenge came in lighting a big Anglican church in Montreal. Due to city ordinances, we had to shoot during the day, which meant blacking out 50 small windows, about 40-feet up.”

Anthony Nakonechnyj

“Point of Origin” (HBO)

Pedigree: First ASC nom

Aesthetic: “This film was based on a true story about an arson investigator, but the director wanted a theatrical look to the colors. The challenge was to conceive how to do color separation between characters and backgrounds so that we could maximize computer enhancement during the digital intermediate process. We constructed it so that the hero’s world had warm tones, with lots of color in the foregrounds, and the backgrounds closer to black-and-white. The bad guy’s world was hyper-saturated, with bright reds, yellows, greens, achieved using a combination of gels and colored lights.”

William Wages

“Miss Lettie and Me” (TNT)

Pedigree: Eighth ASC nom, two ASC awards; one Emmy nom

Aesthetic: “A big difficulty was the fact that we shot in an old, vintage house from 1870. As a result, we could not touch the walls or anything inside. That made it like shooting in a museum. I used a lot of balloons for flags, rather than traditional flagging equipment, and I avoided rigging too much light inside. We primarily did the interior lighting off the floor, on stands, with additional light coming in through windows.”

Broadcast Movie/Pilot/Miniseries

Michael Barrett

“CSI: Miami” (pilot)

Pedigree: Third ASC nom (two this year)

Aesthetic: “The Miami locations required a different approach than Las Vegas. We went for a warmer exterior look by using chocolate and tobacco filters. On the Miami nights, we used hot edges or backlight in combination with filters to take the flare even further. For interiors, we found ourselves with either white walls and silhouettes or extreme colors.”

Victor Goss


Pedigree: Second ASC nom

Aesthetic: “We wanted a film noir look with lighting and tone, but we also had the opportunity to play around more with color and gamma control, since we shot the film with a digital camera — the Panasonic AJ-HDC27 VariCam. We shot hand-held the whole way. That was designed to give it a documentary style and atmosphere, more like reality TV. We also used tight lenses, but to avoid an overly claustrophobic feeling, I made sure to establish a brief sense of place with wide shots for each scene before going tight.”

Clark Mathis

“Birds of Prey” (pilot)

Pedigree: First ASC nom

Aesthetic: “This show was based on a comic book, and I’d always been a big fan of comic book art because it offers almost impossible perspectives, depths of field, and compositions. When I got this project, I decided to base the whole approach around emulating certain aspects of that art. On the depth-of-field side, I took Kodak high-speed stock (Kodak 5289/800ASA), and push-processed it one or two stops. That let me create an odd depth of field using just ordinary light.”

Brian Reynolds

“American Dreams” (pilot)

Pedigree: Eighth ASC nom; two Emmy noms

Aesthetic: “This pilot takes place in the early 1960’s, with key scenes on the set of ‘American Bandstand.’ We had a big challenge in re-creating an old TV studio from that era, and matching our shots to archival footage from the show that you see on monitors during the film. To match lighting from the archival footage, since we had to film the old studio anyway, we decided to use old-fashioned, period lighting instruments, both as set pieces and to actually light the set.”

Peter Wunstorf

“Haunted” (pilot)

Pedigree: Third ASC nom; one CSC nom

Aesthetic: “This was a ghost story, and the director decided to go with a fairly natural look, but desaturated and bleak looking. ‘Sixth Sense’ was a reference, and so was ‘The Shining,’ in the sense of portraying the ghosts in a realistic manner, not with flashy lights or CG. In the initial film-to-tape transfer, we desaturated the colors about 10% to 20%, crushing the blacks a bit, giving us a fairly contrasted, muted image.”

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 0

Leave a Reply

No Comments

Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

More Film News from Variety