Photographers help establish visual identity
In the fast-paced world of episodic television production, directors sometimes come and go but directors of photography tend to stick around. So d.p.s become crucial collaborators in establishing a series’ signature look.
“The cinematographer is the pivot point for the look of the show, and you’re really there looking at everything to find the best way to shoot what the writers and directors and everyone is adding to the show,” says director of photography Michael Slovis, cinematography Emmy nominee for “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Slovis has helmed two episodes of the show as well.
Thomas Del Ruth, Emmy-nommed d.p. of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” believes d.p.s must offer input — and good showrunners must stay open to that input. “Of course, it’s ultimately the call of the showrunner which way we decide to go with something,” Del Ruth says. “But you can’t just be a yes man. You’re there because you have something to add.”
“The Sopranos” is a case in point. D.p. Phil Abraham says the show’s look evolved over the first two seasons. Only a small group of d.p.s and directors worked on those episodes, Abraham says. “The directors, d.p.s and (creator-showrunner) David Chase all got on the same page together because we were all responding to the material in the same way.”
On “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” a small, tight-knit group was involved in the majority of episodes as well. “In all of our meetings during prep, the d.p. is included,” says “CSI” co-showrunner Carol Mendelsohn, who alternates running every other episode with Naren Shankar. “We have even had our d.p.s sit in on story pitches when the show requires us to go in a new direction with the visuals, so we’re telling the d.p.s and the directors from the start about the direction of the story so all of us can start to think creatively about how we want to do something.”
Nominated for his work on “Rome,” d.p. Alik Sakharov is quick to point out that the pace of a series means there’s an advantage to having a small group switching off working on the episodes. “It would be very hard for someone who isn’t really familiar with the show to jump in and do it as well as someone who has been there,” says Sakharov, who has directed an episode of the period series and has been a d.p. on “The Sopranos.”
“As a returning d.p., you get into a rhythm with everyone, including the actors, that makes it possible for you to take advantage of the great surprises that come up on set,” Abraham says. “I always knew where James Gandolfini was going to move in a scene.”