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Visual gatekeepers: Lensers nurture the dramatic look

Show's look is a constant work-in-progress

HOLLYWOOD — Episodic TV cinematographers work under much different circumstances than their feature film counterparts, often grappling with ridiculous deadlines and rotating directors.

To find out how d.p.s design and execute compelling visuals to entertain viewers and get onto Emmy’s radar screen, Variety recently asked lensers on five of this year’s nominated shows (“The West Wing,” “Six Feet Under,” “Ally McBeal,” “Alias” and “American Family”) to discuss key issues and explain their show’s creative approach.

Visual template

Most d.p.s consider themselves gatekeepers of the look or texture of their shows. Approaches vary, but in most cases, there is one constant — they have to develop their palette quickly and efficiently. Then, if the show’s a hit, they get years to tweak it.

Alan Caso, who has shot most of HBO’s “Six Feet Under” since it began two years ago, initially signed on only for the pilot. He had approximately three weeks of prep and 13 days to design a visual approach and shoot that episode. The results prompted producers to hire him to stay.

“We wanted to get away from a typical TV look, but we also knew we had to stick with parameters of a television schedule,” says Caso. “So we tend toward cinematic and painterly styles, but we simplify coverage. We get in the character’s personal space a lot, almost always using wide lenses. We combine those aggressive lens choices with a natural lighting scheme, forcing frames in composition. This style forces kinetic or dynamic relationships for a show about a family living together. I’d say we got about 90% of this approach right for the pilot, and the final 10% (is) continually evolving.”

Work-in-progress

Indeed, lensers say the look of a series is a constant work-in- progress.

“Shows like ‘Alias,’ the look subtly changes over time, at least in certain respects,” says Michael Bonvillain, a first-time nominee for his work on the spy skein. “You get different directors coming and going, and they all bring ideas to the table, the story evolves and changes, and the mood of certain scenes and locations change with it.

According to Thomas Del Ruth, who won last year’s single-camera series’ Emmy for his work on “West Wing” and is competing for another award this year, all decisions about cameras, lenses, film stock, lighting and so on revolve exclusively around a commitment to maintaining the show’s visual statement at all costs.

“For ‘West Wing,’ the design for the White House is a warm, cocoonish feel — a sense of comfort that we are trying to convey that the people running the government are fairly efficient. Our Oval Office, for instance, has lots of strong contrasts and a golden tone — an optimistic feel. Our guiding rule is that we’ll do whatever we need to do to maintain our visual principles. We always want a visual theme, so everything we do has to be geared toward that.”

Camera style

Many hour dramas in the so-called single-camera category periodically incorporate some combination of multiple cameras. (Emmy consideration permits this, as long as multiple-camera use makes up no more than 25% of a nominated episode.) The reason for adding a camera to the mix or not is usually a d.p.’s creative choice.

“Budgetwise, we could afford two cameras, if a scene required it,” says Billy Dickson, who served as d.p. for “Ally McBeal” during its entire five-year run. “But our visual style was to go with long lenses, and that means it’s harder to get a second camera in without it being picked up by the other camera. Second cameras can speed things up and maximize coverage, but creatively, it doesn’t always work if you are using long lenses.”

New technology has become another factor that is changing both the single-camera paradigm and popular industry perceptions about how episodic dramas should look.

Take high-definition video, for instance. Only a small group of episodic hour dramas have dived into 24p high-definition video waters thus far, although several new sitcom pilots were shot in HD in recent months, and a handful of shows are in the process of switching over from film to HD, as Fox’s now-canceled sitcom “Titus” did two years ago.

While the migration to HD has caused artistic and financial debates within the industry, it has given low-budget hour dramas more flexibility to get the job done, according to d.p. Brian Reynolds, who shoots PBS’ “American Family” using three Sony 24p cameras.

“I’m always using three cameras on ‘American Family,'” says Reynolds. “That’s unusual for an hour drama. Creatively, it helps because I can pick up spontaneous moments and coverage that is often missed, and timewise, we can get more coverage in a shorter space of time. We would never have been able to shoot three cameras if this were a film show, since this budget is pretty strict.”

Multiple directors

D.p.s say the biggest wild card they deal with is the episodic medium’s use of different directors for each episode. Del Ruth says this reality makes working as a cinematographer for episodic television a quantum leap from shooting a feature film, where lensers are more or less primed to execute a director’s specific vision.

“With a feature film, you have months of pre-production alongside the director, and visually, you eventually become one,” says Del Ruth. “In episodic TV, you don’t have that luxury. What happens with a new director each week is that they all bring in their own point of view to the episode, and most have good ideas. But they rarely have a particular lighting point of view. Very few of them have a good handle on the textural aspects of the show. They know composition, staging and story. But texture is always left to me.”

Michael Goldman is senior editor of Millimeter magazine.

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