The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents December 2015 Return to Table of Contents
Martin Ahlgren
Pierre Gill
James Hawkinson
Jeffrey Jur
Romain Lacourbas
ASC Close-Up

Blindspot (Pilot)

Cinematographer: Martin Ahlgren

“I think the way you approach shooting a pilot — starting from scratch — is a lot like the way you approach shooting a film, even though a pilot is a show that will potentially go on,” says cinematographer Martin Ahlgren, who received his first ASC nomination this year for his work on the NBC pilot Blindspot.

The show follows Jane Doe (Jaimie Alexander), a mysterious woman who emerges from a bag in the middle of Times Square covered head-to-toe in tattoos, with no memory of who she is or how she got there. As the FBI begins to investigate, they discover clues hidden in Jane’s tattoos that lead them to solve cases.

“This is an edge-of-your-seat, popcorn-thriller type of show,” Ahlgren says. “Mark Pellington, the director, and Martin Gero, the show’s creator, wanted the camerawork to have adrenaline. We wanted to create a fast-moving feel to support a fast-moving story. With that in mind, in each location I tried to find a way to create an environment where we could shoot 360 degrees with multiple cameras. At the same time, I wanted to create a moody and atmospheric look to maintain the story’s sense of mystery and create visual tension. The pilot became a balance between these two ideas.”

Ahlgren spent a great deal of prep time working with production designer Andrew Jackness to create practical-lighting schemes in the sets and locations. The cinematographer recalls, “I wanted to be able to shoot with as little ‘movie lighting’ as possible, especially because each set would be covered with three or four cameras. Actually, I like to use that approach even with single-camera productions. It takes more time in prep to figure it out and create an interesting environment that is suitable for shooting and appropriate for the story, but then the production designer can build the lighting in ways that will work for me.”

The pilot opens in Times Square, where a police officer discovers a large, mysterious bag with a note on it that reads, “Call the FBI.” In the next moment, the police have evacuated the area, and the bomb squad is going in to investigate. “We shot this in two very different ways,” explains Ahlgren. “For the first part of the sequence, we shot with hidden cameras amid a real, bustling crowd with about 100 extras mixed in. Times Square is very bright, even at night. There’s so much light it’s almost like shooting a day exterior. When we cleared it out to shoot the rest of the sequence, it was around 2 or 3 a.m., and I wanted a more mysterious look.” Ahlgren had his crew bring in three 7K Xenon fixtures and position them to look like police lighting; this provided strong backlight on the bomb-squad officer and also allowed Ahlgren to ND down the cameras and darken the existing practical lighting.

Ahlgren used the Arri Alexa Plus (shooting ProRes 4:4:4), Cooke S5 primes and a contingent of Angenieux Optimo lightweight zooms, including 15-40mm, 28-76mm, 45-120mm and, for longer work, the 24-290mm with a doubler. In addition, he carried a couple of Sony A7s HDSLR cameras, one with a PL mount to take the Cooke and Angenieux lenses, and one with an EF adapter to take smaller Canon lenses. (TCS in New York provided the package.)

“When we were shooting on the subway, we needed a more compact camera package for some shots, and the A7s was perfect for that. I did a series of tests in prep and found that the A7s [matched] well with the Alexa in terms of latitude and contrast. The color range wasn’t quite as wide as the Alexa’s, and in a couple of instances it took a little more work in the final grade, but overall it matched seamlessly.”

To maintain a 360-degree approach, Ahlgren’s crew lined one side of the New York subway tunnels with sodium-vapor fixtures to get a base exposure, and then placed Maxi-Brutes through diffusion deep in the tunnels, mostly to get specular highlights off the walls.

The set for the FBI offices was built in a commercial warehouse in Brooklyn. “Andrew [Jackness] had a photo of an office in Hong Kong or Shanghai where the walls were glass and all the pipes and wires in the walls were visible, and we used that as an inspiration for the FBI set,” says Ahlgren. “We built in lighting so that we had to do very little from the floor. Mostly we created these large, soft panels in the ceiling. I wanted them thin and high-tech, but LED fixtures were too expensive for our budget, so my gaffer, Bill O’Leary, created 9-by-10-foot boxes filled with 40-watt tungsten candela-base ‘makeup’ bulbs, which were about the size of a golf ball. We used rear-screen projection screen as our diffusion, which was opaque enough close to the bulbs to hide the individual lamps.”

Here is the 4-minute clip reel Ahlgren submitted with the pilot:


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