Watching Timothy Olyphant, Shooting in Silhouette, and Handling the Sony SRW-9000PL

“I rarely talk to actors, because I don’t want to interfere with their performances,” says cinematographer Francis Kenny, ASC, explaining his approach on the set of Justified, the FX drama starring Timothy Olyphant as a U.S. Marshal that returns tonight for a second season. “I know them, I like them, and sometimes we joke around. But not during the actual shooting.”

It wasn’t always that way. Kenny remembers one actress on an old film shoot who carried a large mirror around with her and checked the lighting on her face before every shot, sometimes going so far as to tell him how he’d have to shoot a scene to keep her from needing to turn her head. “If she didn’t like the lighting, she’d start crying or turn red in the face,” he says with a chuckle. Working with Olyphant, Kenny just tries to get out of his way. “Sometimes when I watch Tim Olyphant in the timing session, I forget that I shot the show,” Kenny says. “I like watching Tim Olyphant act. He’s very charismatic, such a nice guy. He’s kind of quiet and he doesn’t say too much, but he’s got a lot of ideas for how to make the show better.”

Each episode of Justified is shot fairly quickly, in just seven 11- or 12-hour days, and this year Kenny is using the new Sony SRW-9000PL camcorder for the first time. (See this related story for details on the show’s new, groundbreaking post workflow.) Kenny says the F35 had its advantages, but the new camera is still an improvement. “The F35 was a very modular camera,” he recalls. “If you had to hand-hold it in a car, you could strip it down and have a big wire running out to a recorder, and that was nice. But this one is more traditional, with the recorder built in, so it’s lighter, and that makes Steadicam and hand-holding easier.” Kenny is also a RED owner and user, and he credits Jim Jannard’s work on that camera with inspiring innovation at other companies. “I always tell people that what Jannard did was pretty great, starting from scratch and building a camera that seems to be raising the bar,” he says.

Technology has transformed radically since Kenny got his start back in the 1980s – his feature credits include Heathers, Cold Heaven, and New Jack City – but he’s not especially nostalgic about the glory days of film. “It’s a fact of life that we are shooting digital now,” he says. “On one scene we did with [director] Jon Avnet, I went from an f/16 stop to f/2.8 on a three-minute Steadicam shot. I just floated the iris, because I could see the image while I was shooting it. With film, you were metering everything. But I don’t think I’ve used my light meter in four years. When I shoot with the RED, I use the histogram. With these [SRW-9000] cameras, I take a quick look at the waveform monitor to make sure I’m not too dark. Being able to see what you’re doing is a no-brainer. With film, if you were the DP, you were the only one on set that truly knew what it would look like.

“A lot of cinematographers were afraid that once that changed, you’d have 12 clients sitting behind a monitor, all of them making comments about whether your blue was too deep. On Heathers and New Jack City, I used a lot of colors, something that I learned from Ed Lachman. I don’t know – if I did that on a show now, some client might say, ‘I don’t like that color.’ There’s a bit of a scare about the loss of freedom, and the power of who is the author of the image.”

On Justified, Kenny says his relationship with the show’s producers gives him some freedom in his lighting set-ups, which allows him to use a more “realistic” look than some shows prefer. “I don’t have to light everyone like it’s Melrose Place,” he explains. “I can use top light and allow a little shadow in the eye. A lot of the time in TV, people think that if they’re not talking, they’re not acting, and if they’re not lit… Whereas on Justified, they’ve allowed me to play scenes in total silhouette. That’s pretty cool. Where else do you get to see that?” (Kenny probably wouldn’t get away with shooting his lead actresses, Natalie Zea and Joelle Carter, in moody shadows or silhouette, but he says he’s lucky that they look good under normal lighting conditions.)

A piece of gear that’s making Kenny’s life easier this season is Rosco LitePads. “I’m not a big fan of solid-state lighting because the color space on them is wacky, but these are literally an eighth of an inch thick and you can get them in any size you want, from a silver dollar on up to the size of a bus stop advertisement,” he says. “You can tuck them in anywhere. You might ask the B camera, ‘Can I put a light there?’ And they say, ‘By the time you do the light stand and build it out with barn doors, it’s sticking out three feet.’ But these things might stick out an inch. They dim, and they don’t shift in color.”

Kenny got his start in documentaries, and he says the experience helped make him a good camera operator as well as DP. That doesn’t mean he’s above having a laugh at his own expense. “To me, camera operating is the best job on the set, but I got stuck on a shot last night,” he tells Film & Video. “I was using a 300mm lens with [the camera on] a geared head and I ended up having to back-pan this dolly move. That’s the worst thing you can do with a long lens – back-pan following a close-up on a stationary actor. Jon Avnet comes out and says, ‘Francis, that was about the worst operating I’ve ever seen – besides my own.’

“But I love the challenges. When a director says to me, ‘Can we go 360?’ I just love it. I can float the shutter and float the iris – I’ve learned how to do all that. The real challenge is making your day and never compromising, never shooting it just so you can go home. That’s part of my personality. I’ll stay all night if I have to.”