D.P. Romeo Tirone's Blood Work for a Morally Ambiguous Serial Killer

We caught up with cinematographer Romeo Tirone last week, as he was heading into the home stretch of his work on Showtime's Dexter, a new series about the exploits of a vigilante serial killer working on the inside of the Miami Police Department. Cable vet Michael C. Hall (HBO's Six Feet Under) gives the killer a human face, but it's Tirone's camerawork that sets the mood for the story. Working mainly in HD, but using film for high-speed cinematography that has to intercut with the HD footage, Tirone strives to give key sequences a look all their own, distinguishing the show's killing scenes, for instance, with a wash of color that varies from episode to episode.

Dexter is Tirone's first episodic work after years of working in music videos, commercials and features. His resume includes the features L.I.E. and Twelve and Holding, helmed by Dexter director Michael Cuesta; commercial work with Giraldi, Hungryman, Red Tree and Radical Media; and music videos for artists such as Public Enemy, Faith No More, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. We asked him about finding exactly the right look for a very tricky show.

FILM & VIDEO: Dexter is a program about a serial killer, but he may be killing people who “have it coming.”

ROMEO TIRONE: Yes, it has that whole “dark avenger,” vigilante theme.

And he’s kind of charming, too. How do you approach the show visually? It can’t be easy to hit exactly the right tone.

The best description of the whole series, which I base everything on, is that it’s a film noir graphic novel with a Kubrick/Cronenberg/Scorsese influence. So it has lots of Scorsese kind of moves, pushing in to people and introducing characters with voiceover. And then it has this Cronenberg kind of realism, in a sense, when you see people who are wounded. In the next episodes, it gets a little more graphic and it’s really in your face. And then that whole graphic-novel feeling is because it is a hero myth. When you look at the compositions, there are lots of ceilings. All my sets had ceilings, and we were always looking at low angles and wide-angle lenses to give it that sense as if it were drawn. There’s lots of thought about that. It’s not just arbitrary camera placement.

It’s interesting that you mention Cronenberg, because he just made a genre picture [A History of Violence], based on a graphic novel, that made you very aware you were watching that kind of movie. You were very engaged with how that movie made you feel. And Dexter is like that.

As a cinematographer, I always try to lay that underlying emotional track that makes people feel something without being overt. A lot of the work I’ve done in commercials and music videos is very overt. It’s all about the fancy camera move. In the narrative work I’ve done, I try to be more subdued and take the audience by surprise – from underneath, so to speak. The cinematography sets the mood. And it’s one of the ways of helping make Dexter more acceptable.

You’re working in Los Angeles, but are exteriors for the show actually shot in Miami?

We shot for two weeks down in Miami at the beginning of the season. We were there a good chunk of July and shot specific scenes for episodes 2, 3, 4, and 5, along with pick-up shots for the pilot and some second-unit stuff. But a lot of the exteriors from the later episodes are shot in Long Beach. I warm things up a little bit so it has that Miami feel. And everyone’s always a little sweatier. Usually you mop people up and powder them down, and we do the opposite. The exteriors are always a challenge because we shoot in HD. Sometimes I just let things blow out and let people focus on the characters. HD sees everything, and we embrace that. There’s no real cosmetic work done to avoid what HD actually does. It can be really frustrating at times, but I think we’ve got a good balance. We also shoot film whenever there’s a need for a lot of speed changes from Dexter’s point of view. We mix the two of them and it goes out and hopefully most people won’t recognize. We shoot anywhere from seven to 10 pages a day, depending on what’s going on, and it’s a frantic pace. It’s my job to make the days, but also keep the look and making it interesting.

Had you shot in HD before?

Yes, for a bunch of commercials. U2 is coming out with a 3D Imax movie in December, and last February I shot all the documentary stuff for that with the same camera I’m using here, the [Panavised Sony] F900.

You weren’t shooting with a stereo camera, were you?

No, I was shooting all the wraparound footage. I actually traveled with the band and shot the documentary footage that’s going to be incorporated into the stereo stuff. During the shows I would wander around the audience and shoot while they had the stereo cameras shooting.

How much time did you spend on it?

I spent two weeks in South America as part of their entourage. I would travel back and forth to the venues sitting next to Bono with a camera and go anywhere they went. I think that gave me run-and-gun experience with HD so I was able to figure out how to really push it and utilize it like I use film.

What’s the biggest difference in using HD [versus film] on set?

On the series, I have a DIT, and I sleep better at night because I don’t get the lab calls. However, on the set I gain back that anxiety I lose at night because, once I get it lensed and the shot constructed and designed and I light it, I’ve got to run back to the DIT monitor and basically do the color timing. It’s all compressed into the 15 or 20 minutes I get to light a scene or construct a scene. I can actually tweak something to make it look like I want and not worry about who’s going to deal with it later on. It seems like it has been working because most of the post work keys off of what we did on the set.

And you’re not always available to hang out in post.

No, I’m shooting five days a week for 12 to 16 hours, depending on what we’re doing. It doesn’t give me the luxury that I would have on a feature or even on a commercial to go in and sit with the colorist and time it. A lot of it I see just as dailies on DVDs. There are choices we make on the set based on character and emotional content and what’s going on in the scene. We’ll lean in certain ways ‘ cool it off or warm it up – and that’s done almost on the fly with the DIT. Plus, with two cameras rolling most of the time, keeping them matched is really a challenge.

Matched in terms of color?

I’m really trying to make it so when you flip back and forth between the two cameras they look alike. But there is no time to say, “Stop – we’re matching the cameras.” We gotta go. So a lot of the time we’re doing it on the fly, or during rehearsals. It’s such a frantic pace. I feel like a monkey throwing paint at a canvas – and a lot of the time it falls in a really good spot. It’s a different kind of instinct with the HD, because the image is right in front of you. You can take more chances with it. With film, if I wanted to do a certain coloration I’d use filters and write notes to the colorist so they wouldn’t just pull what I had done out. With the HD it’s right there, at least to the limitations of the paintboxes we have at the DIT station. It’s a coarse kind of coloration. We don’t go into deep matrix changes or anything like that. That would be dangerous for post. But I think we establish an interesting, eclectic look so it doesn’t become monotonous. Different flashbacks and different kill scenes come up in different colors. There’s always that surreal world when Dexter’s actually killing someone, which is a world very few people have actually been involved in.

What else does HD help you with?

A lot of the times we’re doing night exteriors and we need to work in low-light situations, and I find the HD really shines. You can look at a scene and think “Oh my god, that’s way too dark,” and then you tweak it and crank it up a little bit and it holds a beautiful image. I light a lot with very small lights. I try to create environments for the actors to move around in without cluttering them up with lots of equipment around, and the HD lets me get away with a lot of stuff in low-light situations.

What about day exteriors?

I have to be very delicate. I use a 20′ black china silk overhead on a Condor so we can block out the sun, or take the edge off it. If I can’t use that, I have to either design the shot around it or bite the bullet and let the background blow out. You’re always faced with those compromises. And at any moment we can be switching to film. I might have to pump the light up a little bit for film because we’re shooting high speed. But I light the HD and film together the same way I would light the film. However, when I look at film and HD side by side, I always favor the film. There’s something organic about a chemical reaction to light rather than an electronic one.

Is there any trick to shooting blood?

What I learned really quick is don’t put green light on blood. There’s a scene where a kid is killed in a shopping mall back-alley and we had lots of different colors in there. For my predominant light, I used green coming from a neon sign. And right before we actually started rolling I was looking at the blood and I realized, “Oh my god, the blood is black, not red.” The green had basically neutralized it. I just pulled the gels off the lights and tweaked it at the DIT station to get to another color that lent itself to a sodium-vapor amber look and the blood really popped out. Blood is weird. It takes a lot of time to get blood all over a set, and you get so used to it that you don’t even see it anymore. When you see it on a screen, you realize, “OK, that’s really powerful.” The HD gives a hyper-realistic look to it, and that makes it a little more disturbing. A couple of episodes toward the end of the season have scenes with lots and lots of blood in them, and it becomes very surreal.

You approach those violent scenes differently from the more “normal” aspects of the show, right?

We try to use [Dexter's girlfriend] Rita’s environment as a warmer, safer, happier place. There’s still a dark side to it, but there’s lots of sunlight coming through windows. We try to utilize contrast as much as we can, whether it’s contrasts in characters, locations or light. I like light coming through windows because it makes things very naturalistic. And when you have something bizarre in a very naturalistic environment, it takes it a little more toward the surreal. People might accept it more. It’s almost like we just happened to have a camera there.