Two DPs on the payroll allow for extra prep time and visual expression
Steven Bochco’s resume reads like a virtual history of innovations in visual storytelling for television – classic series such as Columbo, Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, Brooklyn South and Murder One have earned him a reputation as one of the most creative minds in episodics. So his decision to put two cinematographers on the payroll of his new series, Blind Justice, may prove influential for other creatives with arresting images on their minds.
Jeff Jur, ASC, and Ric Bota shoot alternate episodes, a tactic pioneered on HBO’s award-winning Carnivale and The Sopranos. Blind Justice revolves around Jim Dunbar, a street-smart New York City detective who is shot and blinded. After recovering, Dunbar opts to go back to sleuthing. Cops in his new precinct are leery about working with a blind detective who can’t watch their backs, a subtext that’s woven into the fabric of each episode.
"The irony is that a story about a blind guy is in many ways the most visually imaginative show I’ve ever done," Bochco observes. "In our research, we realized that many blind people, particularly those who lost their sight later in life, have incredibly vivid visual memories. There are glimpses of scenes through his mind’s eye."
Director Gary Fleder ( Don’t Say a Word) brought cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau onto the project, and they created the basic visual language for the pilot. Bota and Jur are the guardians of the look. They are responsible for the week-to-week consistency of the show’s naturalistic approach.
"This is the first series I’ve done with two cinematographers," Bochco says. "I did it at the urging of Gary Fleder, who argued persuasively and correctly that cinematographers can be more artistic if they prep each episode with the director. They have eight days to scout locations and figure out how to translate the script into images."
Bota and Jur both follow the visual roadmap established by Fleder and Morgenthau, but they have license to explore new territory. They both take the rigging gaffer and rigging grip or best boy on tech scouts during pre-production. Bota notes that the attention to detail during pre-production pays creative dividends and also trims costs. Overtime for the cast and crew is a rarity on Blind Justice because of efficient planning.
The main setting is a police precinct in New York’s Chinatown. The location was established by filming exteriors at a police station in Brooklyn. Other New York locations include streets in Chinatown, the subway, and a neighborhood under the Manhattan Bridge where old warehouses have been converted into loft apartments, where Dunbar lives. The police precinct is a large set with a New York City skyline background. Other sets include the apartment, where Dunbar lives with his wife and seeing-eye dog. The pilot episode was filmed at practical locations in New York and on stages at 20th Century Fox and streets in Los Angeles.
"Paul Eads, our production designer, has been with Bochco for years," Bota says. "He has scouted most of Los Angeles and knows what is suitable if we need a bus stop, a brownstone building or a back alley that looks like New York. We check out the angles on tech scouts to avoid mountains, palm trees and beaches in backgrounds."
Production With Two DPs
Each episode is produced on an eight-day schedule, including two to three days at practical locations in and around Los Angeles and the rest on stages. Bota explains that he uses a digital still camera to document master shots and some close-ups. Each evening, he loads the images into his laptop and uses Photoshop to make adjustments, sometimes in composition but mostly in density and colors. The image files are emailed to dailies timer Rick Smith, including a set of color bars for adjusting his monitor, as visual references.
In general, camera movement isn’t frenetic, but directors have the freedom to match coverage to the stories they are orchestrating. Bota notes that one episode was produced almost entirely with the camera on a Steadicam, and another one just on a dolly. Some directors like to lock the camera down and let the actors work the frame.
Dunbar, played by Ron Eldard, is in most scenes, and his seeing-eye dog is invariably with him. Jur says there is usually a minute or two of rehearsal with the dog before each scene. The dog is usually sitting or standing in the background, which calls for wider composition in master shots.
Ron and the dog have a great relationship, and that comes across on film," Jur says. "I tend to use lower camera angles when they are together in two-shots because it emphasizes their relationship without diminishing the dog by looking down on it. Some directors have made more of the dog reacting and interacting than others."
- Rick Bota and Jeff Jur, ASC, give high marks to the Los Angeles -based camera crew they assembled for teamwork and flawless execution.
- Their shared crew includes: operators Buddy Fries and Chameides; assistants Trey Clinesmith, Niranjan Martin, Chris Mack and Ray Dier; and film loader John Vetter.
- With the exception of camera operator Chris Hayes, Morgenthau had different crews in New York and Los Angeles, although they were all frequent collaborators on other projects, including Steadicam/camera operator David Chameides, and assistants Matthew Haskins and Kathina Szeto.
Visual nuances like how Dunbar and his dog are framed in a shot are transparent, but they help establish and maintain the dramatic flow of the stories.
Getting the Look
"Gary and Steven wanted a more classical approach to filmmaking than the shaky, handheld, cinema verità© look made popular on NYPD Blue," says Morgenthau, who has compiled an array of independent feature credits during the past decade including Joe and Joe, Dogtown, The Man From Elysian Fields, Godsend, and occasional telefilms including The Five People You Meet in Heaven. "We shot tests, looked at movies for inspiration, and designed a visual language. A primary influence was the camerawork by Conrad L. Hall, ASC, in 1992’s Jennifer Eight.
"Inspired by Jennifer Eight, I felt that we should make source light very bright and shadows very dark," Morgenthau explains. "It’s sort of a metaphorical leap from what a blind person doesn’t see. We grappled with how he sees the world in his mind. For the pilot, we shot a bunch of plates and elements of things that he sees against green screens, and also environments that were composited and enhanced in postproduction."
Morgenthau covered a vast majority of scenes with two cameras, a Panavision Millennium XL, which was usually on a Steadicam, and a Platinum that frequently tracked on a dolly. He used Zeiss Superspeed Ultra Prime lenses to render a slightly edgier look than Primos, and Primo 4:1 and 11:1 lenses for undetectable zooms, sometimes off of a crane. His basic film palette consisted of Kodak Vision2 500T 5218 for interiors and night sequences, and Kodak Vision2 5212, a 100-speed film, for daylight scenes.
Fleder and Morgenthau had broad latitude to visually punctuate scenes. They covered the bank robbery where Dunbar is blinded with three cameras, including many handheld shots, and used variable shutter speeds to create staccato imagery. Foto-Kem Labs did a bleach bypass on the negative to create contrast that suggests a sense of chaos.
"We shot a dramatic scene with Dunbar and his wife in a park at night in artificial rain where I lit up the entire Queensboro Bridge in the background," Morgenthau recalls. "I had Maxi-Brutes on Condors in Manhattan, Roosevelt Island and Queens all hitting the bridge in the background. It affects the emotional tone of the scene and story."
Enhancing Dunbar’s "Sight"
During the preproduction testing, Morgenthau worked closely with Randy Beverage, a colorist at West Wind Media who has worked on many Bochco projects. They experimented with how Dunbar "sees" things that he hears in his mind. In one shot, he hears a train on an elevated track. He sees a fleeting image of an elevated train in a deeply saturated red tone minus the background, with the rumbling noise overly loud.
Jur / Bota Credits:
- Jeff Jur, ASC, is compiling an eclectic body of work, including the features Soul Man, Dirty Dancing, How Stella Got Her Groove Back and My Big, Fat Greek Wedding, along with such telefilms and episodic series as The O.J. Simpson Story and Carnivale.
- Rick BotaÃ¢Â€Â˜s feature credits include The Glimmer Man and Demon Knight. He has also lensed many episodes of the TV series Tales From the Crypt and L.A. Doctor and the telefilms Desperate Rescue: The Cathy Mahon Story and Jack Reed: Badge of Honor.
After each episode is edited offline, Beverage generally spends a day timing the film for continuity consistent with the look established during dailies. The cinematographer who shot the episode spends another day with Beverage in interactive timing sessions where they put final touches on the look.
Bota and Jur agree that shooting alternate episodes gave them the time and freedom to get inside the minds of the directors, scout locations and treat each program like a mini-movie. They also valued the time they had with Beverage putting the finishing touches on the look of each show. The bottom line is the efficiencies resulting from preproduction planning offset the costs of having two cameramen on the payroll.