The American Society of Cinematographers

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TV Series
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Robert F. Liu, ASC
Isidore Mankofsky, ASC
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The television series Dexter, Life on Mars, True Blood and The Unusuals present their cinematographers with varied creative challenges.

Dexter unit photography by Peter Iovino; Life on Mars unit photography by Eric Liebowitz and Patrick Harbron; True Blood unit photography by Jamie Trueblood, Prashant Gupta and John P. Johnson; The Unusuals photos by Patrick Harbron
In an effort to survey the prime-time scene, AC recently interviewed the directors of photography responsible for crafting the looks of Showtime’s Dexter, ABC’s Life on Mars, HBO’s True Blood and ABC’s The Unusuals. For Dexter, we spoke to recent Emmy nominee Romeo Tirone, who has shot the first three seasons of the series; for Life on Mars, we spoke to pilot cinematographer and recent ASC Award nominee Kramer Morgenthau, ASC, as well as series cinematographers and ASC members Frank Prinzi and Craig Di Bona; for True Blood, we spoke to Checco Varese and Matthew Jensen, who together set the look of the show’s first season; and for The Unusuals, we spoke to pilot cinematographer Peter Levy, ASC, ACS, and series cinematographer Roy H. Wagner, ASC.

by Jean Oppenheimer

Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) has one of the more unusual sidelines for a TV hero: he’s a serial killer. His job as a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami Metropolitan Police Dept. serves as a perfect cover for his nighttime activities: eliminating killers who have somehow slipped through the criminal-justice system. 

Romeo Tirone has been the director of photography on Showtime’s Dexter since the series made its debut, in 2006. He earned an Emmy nomination last year for his work on the show (for the episode “The British Invasion”), which is shot on high-definition video. Shortly after he completed the third season, he spoke to AC about his approach to the Los Angeles-based production. 

“On the first two seasons of Dexter, we shot with a Panavised Sony F900 and used an Arri 435 film camera for ramping and slow-motion work. For season three, we switched to a Sony CineAlta F23, and I was able to do speed changes in-camera, which allowed us to eliminate 35mm altogether. Thanks to its four preset hyper-gamma settings, the F23 is a vast improvement over the F900, especially in terms of being able to shoot outside and in high-contrast situations. We also started using a Sony EX1 last year; it’s one-third the size of the F23 — perfect for confined quarters — and has a 1/2-inch chip that cuts very well with the F23’s 2/3-inch chip. We could put an operator in a car with the EX1 and have Michael drive around the block and do a scene while we’re setting up another shot with the other cameras. The EX1 is also a great third camera whenever we do stunts because it’s easy to rig from the ceiling, something that would take far longer to do with the F23. Sony gave me the EX1 to try out, and we just never gave it back! 

“We’ve used the same Primo Digital Zooms all three seasons, a 6-27mm, an 8-72mm and a 25-112mm. Because of the speed at which we have to move, we pretty much live on the zooms, and except for some of the kill scenes, we usually shoot with two cameras. I have a 1/8 Tiffen Black Pro-Mist on the lens all the time to take the edge off the HD image. On the first two seasons, I shot day exteriors with a straw filter to get that warm Miami feel, but when we switched to the F23, I found I had more control over warming up the image with the on-set paintbox. I use the paintbox on the set to control the iris, color saturation, black levels and highlights, essentially doing my first pass at color-correction while the actors are rehearsing, and sometimes we ride these levels during the shot, which allows me to move the camera through different lighting situations quickly. Our digital-imaging technician, Daniel Applegate, is a real collaborator when it comes to the look and how far we can stretch these cameras.  

“I would describe Dexter’s look as a graphic-novel style with a Scorsese-Cronenberg-Kubrick influence. The main character operates in two worlds; by day, he’s kind of a nerdy lab tech, and by night, when he’s on the prowl or in the kill room, he’s a powerful, sinister figure. I use lighting to differentiate the two. When he’s in the everyday world, we use a lot more front light and see pretty much his entire face. When he’s on the prowl, we toplight him; Michael’s features play exceptionally well in that style of light. 

“Red is a signature color, although we try to use it sparingly, primarily when Dexter is in his ‘dark passenger’ mode. My blue is a kind of symbolic darkness; we can see what’s going on, but we feel like the characters are in the dark. I like to motivate the color with practicals, such as neon signs or a car’s taillights. 

“I try to give each kill scene a different feel by tinting them all differently. In the first season, one of Dexter’s first kills was a serial drunk driver who was running people over and then leaving town. Dexter caught up with him, and we gave the kill scene a really green tone, playing to the graphic-novel sensibility. 

“For kill scenes, the room is sealed with plastic sheeting, and Dexter’s victim lies naked on a table in the center of the room, bound with strips of plastic. Two Source Four Pars shine down from above on the plastic-wrapped victim, and that light bounces around the room. I’ll let the exposure blow out a little to obscure any nudity. There’s no separate light on Dexter; when he leans in close to the victim’s face, he’s lit by the light bouncing off the plastic encasing his prey. When he stands up, he’s in the toplight that gives him that sinister look. 

“We use two hardware-store clip lights as practicals in the room. One is on the display Dexter wants his victim to see — usually photos of the people that person has harmed — and the other is shining on Dexter’s tools. When he picks up a knife, he’s lit by the light reflecting off the blade. 

“Because HD really reads into the darkness, I can light large spaces like the kill room with small units. And because the plastic sheeting obscures whatever is behind it, I can scatter practical lights around, which enhances the depth of the set. We typically shoot kill scenes with one camera and go handheld, which, in conjunction with the overhead lighting, allows us to do 360-degree moves. 

“The police station is one of our permanent sets, and before they started building it, I was able to give the art department my specs for the floor. I wanted it to be smooth enough to dolly on without having to lay dolly tracks or put down a dance floor. Sometimes we’ll shoot three different scenes in one long, rolling master; depending on how far around we’re going, we’ll use either a Steadicam or a dolly. We might start on a wide shot, then move into the over of one scene, and then maybe a character will start walking away and we’ll push back and reveal the master of the next conversation. We’ll push into the over of that and then follow an extra walking in the background, then pan right and find someone else at his desk. Then we go back and pick up the other side of all the conversations. We have to get through seven to nine pages a day, and this strategy saves us a lot of time. 

“A 60-foot-wide day/night TransLite appears in most of the shots in the police station. For day scenes, the backing is lit from the front by Skypans and cyc strips, and for night scenes, it’s lit from behind with Skypans and Source Four Lekos that we gel with different colors to give the buildings more of a Miami flavor — whole buildings are hot pink or neon purple. To add to the realism, we poke small, single LED lights through the backdrop to suggest flashing lights on top of buildings and construction cranes. We’re always adding to the backdrop. We’ve even added rope lights programmed in a chase sequence to suggest traffic on a causeway off in the distance. 

“The house where Dexter’s girlfriend, Rita, lives, is also a permanent set. We put 10Ks through the windows and supplement with Source Four Pars on stands to intensify the feel of sunlight bouncing around the room. We also have 2K and 5K soft boxes above the set — using either Lee 129 or light grid cloth — and both of them give a really beautiful, soft light. Additionally, we’ll tape pieces of unbleached muslin to the floor and bounce lights off them.

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