The quirk that TV's best cineamatographers share is a love of rising to to the challenge of a scene that makes them scratch their heads. Ten DPs nominated for prime-time Emmy awrads this year discuss their nominated episodes.
On a Tight, Touching Moment
The "Goodbye" episode of 8 Simple Rules told the story of the unexpected death of the show’s patriarch, played by the late John Ritter. (Bruce Finn won the multi-camera cinematography Emmy for the episode.) His biggest challenge was getting into a tight space for a scene where the grandfather (James Garner) tries to explain life’s intricacies to his grandson Rory (Martin Spanjers).
"It was an intimate moment that seemed right played in a small space," says Finn. "Production designer Jay Pelissier delivered an amazingly lifelike bathroom set complete with a medicine cabinet mounted over the sink, which was directly parallel to the proscenium and camera aisle. An upstage hallway allowed for an interesting opening shot dollying slightly down the hall to reveal Martin propped against the wall listening to his grandfather."
Finn says he controlled the dramatic lighting with contained keys on the two characters using 4K Maxilights with 30-degree hard grids and muslin-loaded diffusion frames. He worked up a bit of base light by hanging two Topbox Lightweights from the greenbeds at 45-degree angles, which projected soft light evenly onto the set. A practical on the set helped create the illusion of a real place and two upstage lights were used to emulate the source. Texture and depth was enhanced by painting the walls with source light that looked and felt like the wallpaper and was blended subtly to match. He uses the Panavised Sony HD-900F camera system with Panavision digital Primo zoom lenses.
"The single-camera feel of this episode sprang from the emotion of the script and [director] James Widdoes’ interpretation of how to tell the story most effectively," Finn says.
Nick McLean, Sr., ASC
Shoots a Winter Wonderland
Nick McLean Sr., ASC, earned his third consecutive Emmy nomination for his work on the NBC hit comedy Friends. In "The One With Phoebe’s Wedding," Monica (Courteney Cox Arquette) drives flighty Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) to the brink when she assumes the reins as her friend’s wedding planner and makes everyone uptight until she’s fired.
"The wedding was probably the most challenging scene to shoot in this episode," says McLean. "We had to plan very carefully because it was supposed to be a night exterior with snow falling and plenty of it on the ground. There were also Christmas lights in the scene. So we had to be sure to use plenty of light on the snow."
McLean shot the show with five 35mm Panavision cameras, one Panavision XL and the rest Panavision Golds. The cameras were loaded with Kodak Vision 500 5279 film stock. The wing cameras were fitted with 10:1 zoom lenses and the master cameras shot with 6:1 zooms.
"The director of that episode was the show’s executive producer Kevin Bright, and he was able to use a good-sized studio crane and some other fun camera gear we don’t normally have," says McLean. "The film accurately reproduced the white of the snow. Our number-one concern is to keep the women looking great, so I generally keep the quality of the light soft and flattering."
Throws a Quincenera
Peter Smokler has been photographing George Lopez since 2002 using the Sony HDC-900. In "Bringing Home the Bacon," Lopez tries to put his foot down about his daughter’s expensive quincenera (15th birthday party). However, his wife has already begun making major party plans.
"The script described a large banquet quincenera with an underwater theme and a tropical dance presentation," says Smokler, who earned an Emmy in 2000 for his cinematography on Sports Night and two additional nominations for The Larry Sanders Show. "This just made such a great image in my mind. The stage picture created by set decorator Judi Giovanni had a fantastic shimmery undersea decor. I lit the banquet hall with very soft warm ambient keys. I hit as many wall areas as were available with Source Four Lekos with the Gam roller gobos. I used the fire gobo in a horizontal configuration, and put a blue-green gel on each.
"The huge scallop shell at center stage had the same gobo, but I put a hot pink on it to make it really special. The spotlight washed out the pink on the actors. The tropical dancers were lit with hot yellow, orange and green down lights with twin-spin spiral and spoke patterns. My favorite moment in this scene is when the beautiful young birthday girl is waiting in a shell backstage on the edge of all of the show lighting prior to being rotated into the huge tropical dance presentation. There is just a great sense of soft beauty and anticipation that plays out into a tropical extravaganza."
Steven V. Silver
Going for the Beauty Shot
In "Camel Filters and Pheremones," the nominated episode of the CBS comedy Two and a Half Men, the three main characters are put off balance when circumstances throw them together for a day with the maid’s granddaughter, a Lolita-like teen. "The producers said the young actress had to look as gorgeous as a supermodel or the story was a flop," says Silver. "The episode had to be lit, composed and shot to highlight her beauty and dynamic energy. For a sequence of shots of her sunbathing, I pushed the envelope by extremely overexposing the highlights in order to create the illusion of a warm, sunny day so that the actress would look natural. I felt that the light had to be as intense as possible to make the set look like a believable location."
Silver generally covers scenes with four Panavision Gold cameras on dollies. Sometimes cameras are handheld or mounted on cranes. Two and a Half Men is produced in three-perf 35mm, which trims significant costs without compromising image quality. The entire series is recorded on the 500-speed Kodak Vision2 5218 negative. Silver says that the combination of low grain and sensitivity to light provides both creative and cost benefits. "When I shoot with very hot light, I know the film won’t lose detail in the fine highlights," he says. "You can take it right up to the edge, and it locks in the look."
Tony Askins, ASC
Lights What Isn’t Yet There
Tony Askins, ASC, has earned three consecutive Emmys for his work on Will & Grace. He has been photographing the hit comedy since the pilot aired in 1998. Askins earned his fifth straight nomination for the episode " Ice Cream Balls," in which Will’s (Eric McCormack) slightly eccentric new client (guest star Dave Foley) falls for Jack (Sean Hayes). Jack refuses to accept the romantic offer, and Will sinks to bribing him in the hopes of advancing his career. Meanwhile, Grace (Debra Messing) and Karen (Megan Mullally) take a trip to Leo’s cabin in Vermont and uncover a secret pile of cash.
Askins describes shooting a scene from this episode where the characters are traveling in the mountains. "A specific challenge for this episode was the green-screen effect lighting in the Jeep. We had to create it without knowing what the background was going to be, because all we were told was that it would be photographed driving through the woods.
"Then for the scene in the cabin, it was lit to indicate that the source light was coming through the windows," says Askins. "It was sketchy and colorful."
Askins says he generally keys at 40 to 50 footcandles on the crosses, with fill at about 20 footcandles. The stop is usually T-3.8. He normally works with four cameras, each outfitted with a Panavision 11:1 Primo zoom lens.
"They are top-notch glass," he says. "The reproduction of image is really immaculate, partly because of those lenses. They are 23:460mm zooms that are perfectly color-balanced and matched. That saves the colorist time, and the speed digs deep into the negative [Kodak Vision 500T 5279 film] and records a beautiful warm look with a bit of a soft edge. The combination of lens, film and lighting gave us the look."
Don Thorin Jr.
Photographs Multiple Viewpoints
For the "Conscious" episode of Alias, Don Thorin Jr. had to execute a shot that showed lead character Sydney Bristow’s (Jennifer Garner) viewpoint as she reacts to an experimental procedure to regain lost memories. She sees three versions of herself. The first version runs through a set of doors and down a staircase. She looks down and sees the second version entering on a lower level. Meanwhile, on a third level, she sees her body being wheeled away on a gurney.
"We did the shot all in the camera," says Thorin. "In the background, fireworks are going off, which we rear-projected on a glass window. As she’s running, the camera begins changing speed. The dollying of the camera and lighting required a lot of coordination. We did it without a lot of preparation, which was both a challenge and fun.
"We do a lot of our effects in the camera because it looks terrific, and it’s the right way to do a shot like that," says Thorin, who uses Panavision Millen-niums and a Panavision Millennium XL. "For that episode we were using [Kodak Vision 800T] 5289 rated at 640 ASA. I’m fortunate to have a great, collaborative crew. I’m confident that we can almost go into any situation and come up with something good. It hasn’t failed us yet."
Jeff Jur, ASC
Matches Mood to the Time of Day
Jeff Jur, ASC, won the single-camera Emmy this year for the "Pick a Number " episode of HBO’s Carnivale. He describes the look as "desperate, dark lighting, evocative camera movement, blown highlights, smeared, muted colors, deep contrast, dust effects and wind."
The episode deals with the aftermath of a death at the carnival. "The last few scenes take place over an extended end-of-day time period," he says. "It was important to feel the passage of time of late day through to dusk, both exterior and interior. With some clever scheduling, always tough on an episodic show, I was able to shoot exteriors at the appropriate times. Multiple cameras helped get all the pieces, much like a stunt where you really only have one chance at getting it right. We used Panavision Gold II and Panavision Platinum cameras. The cinematographer often takes the heat here, making everyone wait for the perfect time of day, and this was no exception. I then had to match the interiors to the mood of that time of day.
"For me it’s about simplicity, finding the one source that perfectly illuminates the scene at hand, and also the arrangement of elements in the frame, something I try to be careful even with multiple camera set-ups," he says. "I take inspiration from Edward Hopper in his use of light, but also his juxtaposition of bright, false colors set against a surrounding darkness, a perfect visual meta-phor for the car-nival itself."
Jur composes the show in Super 35, protecting for the 16:9 HD frame. Most exteriors are shot on Eastman EXR 100T 5248 film with occasional use of the 250-speed Kodak Vision 5246 daylight film. He shoots 320-speed Kodak Vision 5277 tungsten for most interior scenes. "We tested the 320 stock and pushed the contrast," he says. "We wanted the highlights to blow out, to go to a beautiful warm white tone. It has a grainier, more photographic structure that works for this story. There’s so much detail that can come through in telecine. I usually end up just lighting by eye, making sure the balance is right."
Frank Byers, ASC
Takes Advantage of Silhouettes
"On CSI we do reenactments and flashbacks, and on this episode, I especially liked how they turned out," says Frank Byers, ASC who earns his first Emmy nomination for the series’ "XX" episode. "I pushed the [Kodak Vision 800T] 5289 stock two stops, at 12 frames per second, and we also transferred at 12 frames per second. I ran the shutter of the Panavision XL out of sync, at plus 70, and used a Tiffen yellow #15 and fog filters to push highlights."
The episode follows clues for the body of a female inmate that is found dismembered and tied to the undercarriage of a prison bus. Byers worked with production designer Richard Berg on the specially-constructed jail house set about the placement of the windows, height of the ceiling, and other details.
"For this scene I used [Kodak Vision2 Expression 500T] 5229 film with our regular camera package [Panavision Platinums with Primo prime lenses]. There was a bank of windows in the jailhouse set, so I took advantage of the actors looking out and silhouetted and semi-silhouetted as much as I could. There were shafts of light from Xenon projectors outside the set and on towers. We smoked the set as well. The director, Deran Sarafian, was very open to trying different things. We talked extensively about how to come up with a unique approach."
Creates a Turbulent Environment
Phil Abraham was nominated for "Irregular Around the Margins," The Sopranos episode where Tony (James Gandolfini) and company drag Christopher (Michael Imperioli) to a desolate stretch of road.
"[Director] David Chase really wanted this scene to be very atmospheric, and the location was to have a real sense of place," he says. "We were essentially surrounded by tall grass and marshland. David insisted that we have fans on the set to blow the grass around and create a really turbulent environment. I was able to use a very simple lighting plan that required two large lifts to support backlight."
The A camera was a Panavision Platinum and the B camera was a Pana-vision Gold II. Both cameras are set up for Super 35 and outfitted with Primo lenses.
"On the night of the shoot we had a major rainstorm, which we waited out, and then the fog rolled in. I never even sent one of the lifts up because the amount of light that was being reflected off the fog was tremendous. It was a delicate situation of trying to create a convincingly dark, moody scene and yet have enough light to actually shoot.
"I’m quite happy with the scene. I think the fog gave it an added quality with the blowing reeds that would have been hard to manufacture. Headlights on the car provided great sidelight for Christopher and Tony to have their intense exchange. We used two handheld cameras and rolled with the punches. We had planned blocking, but sometimes in these ensemble scenes, you can’t be locked in because the drama takes on a life of its own, and quite honestly I always feel we do our best work when the drama of the moment is bigger than anything else."
Tom Del Ruth, ASC
Highlights Emotion Through Contrast
The West Wing marked the first experience on an episodic series for Tom Del Ruth, ASC, who has earned two Emmys on the series since his debut. This year, Del Ruth was nominated for the season’s opening episode, "7A WF 83429." "It was a cliffhanger," says Del Ruth. "President Bartlet’s daughter has been abducted, and he temporarily steps down, handing power to a political rival who heads the senate." Things get tense as a preemptive strike against the terrorists is considered.
During a key scene where the family gathers, "the president’s wife [Stockard Channing] is brightly lit, and the other characters are masked in shadows," Del Ruth says. "Her emotions are written on her face as they discuss the situation. The contrast and shadows are subtext for Bartlet’s lack of candor with his wife.
"We used [320-speed Kodak Vision] 5277 film and a Primo 24-50mm zoom lens [mounted on a Panaflex camera]. The film is amazing. You can get a broad range of contrast with solid blacks and subtle colors without milky or blown-out highlights."