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How Cinematographers Are Embracing Small-Screen Advances

Donald A Morgan The Ranch 4k
Courtesy of Greg Gayne/Netflix

Lisa Wiegand grew up obsessed with television. “It’s how I learned to tell time,” she laughs. “If my mom was going out for three hours, I’d ask, ‘How many “Gilligan’s Islands” is that?”

Now, as a director of photography on series like “Mayans M.C.” and “Chicago Fire” and a member of ASC, she has a front-row seat to a medium that has seen drastic changes since the days when Karl Freund transitioned from shooting features like “Dracula” and “Key Largo” to the landmark sitcom “I Love Lucy.” That show established a “flat lighting” style that has almost completely disappeared in the new golden age of expanded artistic ambition and revolutionary digital technology — technology that has irrevocably altered not only how cinematographers’ work is produced, but also how it is consumed and appreciated.

“The new cameras are making leaps and bounds almost daily,” says Donald A. Morgan, a half-hour comedy veteran whose cinematography credits include “Home Improvement,” “The Ranch” and “Last Man Standing.” The ASC member calls newer post-production software “a great asset to the DP” and is enthused by the increased resolution of 4K, though he notes that there’s still resistance to that format in network television.

“The networks want better quality but they seem to be hesitant about allowing us to follow through in the 4K environment,” he says. “I’m currently shooting shows in both mediums: Fox’s ‘Last Man Standing’ is shot Hi-Def 1920×1080 and airs at a lower resolution, 1280×720; Netflix’s ‘The Ranch’ is shot in 4K and aired in 4K, and you can really see the difference.”

Robert McLachlan (“Game of Thrones,” “Ray Donovan”) believes that cinematographers are being accorded more respect because of the digital improvements. “Very, very good UHD TVs are now becoming ubiquitous and they make the difference between great cinematography and bad or indifferent cinematography really obvious,” the ASC member argues, adding that the newer televisions give him confidence that his work will be viewed as he intended.

Director of photography Colin Watkinson (“The Handmaid’s Tale”), who joined the ASC in November 2018, has also fully embraced the advantages of digital technology.

“It leads to stronger decisions on the set,” he says. “We’re able to take exposure to levels we probably wouldn’t have with film because we don’t have to guess. What you see is what you get.” Watkinson adds that shooting digitally means cinematography isn’t such a “dark art” anymore. “I can discuss with the director or production designer or anyone else who wants to be involved what we want to do on the day, and that makes the story better.”

Wiegand adds: “One of my favorite things about shooting television now is that you can say, ‘I understand this is how we usually do it. What if we don’t?’”