Nets pushing to give programs distinct visual flair

Back in 1986, Magnum photographer Alex Webb published “Hot Lights, Half-Made Worlds,” a book filled with tropical Third World pictures.

Those images resonated with cinematographer Rohn Schmidt, who recently adapted the approach — vivid colors but high contrast, resulting in pitch-black shadows and washed-out whites — to filming on the streets of L.A.

“I liked the idea of portraying this part of Los Angeles as kind of a Third World,” Schmidt says. “It’s our signature look.”

None of this would seem out of the ordinary if Schmidt were d.p. on an indie film, but Schmidt is creating the visuals for hit FX cop series “The Shield.”

While it’s generally taken for granted that HBO series such as “The Wire” would have a distinctive look, “The Shield” shows how far basic cable has come from its 1990s “Silk Stalkings” days.

A time when, as Schmidt says, most shows had the “cheapie, quickie, too-bright” look that was at best a step up from soaps.

Although basic cable drama budgets are a far cry from their broadcast brethren, networks are pushing hard to give programs distinct visual flair. FX, for instance, features not only “Shield’s” gritty, grainy look but also the vibrant, lush South Beach of “Nip/Tuck.”

“We don’t make quote-unquote beautiful shows like ‘West Wing’ on this time schedule and budget, but we now get talented people who want to work on this material and we find a way to make it happen,” says “Shield” exec producer Shawn Ryan. “It’s an indie film mentality.”

Colleen McCormick, West Coast VP of production for Lifetime — home to such dramas as “The Division,” and “Strong Medicine” — sees competition and technology as the two key factors.

“The bar gets raised every year,” says McCormick, adding that she devotes a lot of energy to tone meetings with producers and looking at d.p. reels. “There are more original dramas for viewers to sample so you have to keep up with the competition.”

McCormick says improvement in film stock and in post-production possibilities such as color correction saves time and provides more shooting flexibility while enhancing the final picture.

She says basic cable’s relative freedom and innovative programming enables programs to tap into the same talent pool as the broadcast networks, even if the paychecks aren’t equal.

“We try to give the tools they need, but they have to be more judicious — we can’t have a Steadicam every day like on ‘West Wing’ or an 80-foot crane for every episode, but if it’s really important, they should ask for it.”

Ryan says cable cinematographers have to dispense with egos: “We can’t spend 45 minutes setting up a magic-hour moment.”

But Schmidt says the constraints inspire creativity. He can light a scene with a 100-watt bulb, but on a broadcast show, network execs want to see the money onscreen, so the show and stars usually look as glamorous as possible.

“Shield” pilot director Clark Johnson says working within the limitations is essential. While he established the show’s look — Schmidt credits Johnson with taking chances, constantly pushing him to try a Steadicam for a typical dolly shot and handheld shots when Steadicams might seem obvious — he only had 11 days to shoot the pilot.

David Hoberman, creator of USA’s “Monk,” uses his pilot when he interviews other directors and crew members. “You lose some of the impact of the pilot over time, but we tell people we still want to emulate what the pilot looked like,” he says.

Hoberman adds the look is about more than just stylish lighting. “It’s about camera movement, too,” he says. The old cable shows were often static, relying on traditional approaches like a master shot and over-the-shoulder shots of two characters talking.

“We were very cognizant about not just doing master, over (and) over. We avoided that every step of the way.”

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