The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents March 2009 Return to Table of Contents
TV Series
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Robert F. Liu, ASC
Isidore Mankofsky, ASC
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up

“Most of the sets have floating ceiling pieces that can come and go; Jason Hodges, my key grip, devised the system that has all the ceiling pieces hanging from the perms. Depending on what we’ll see in the shot, we’ll bring down half a ceiling or even something as small as a triangle-shaped piece for the corner. That gives us the ability to light from above and still shoot from low angles. 

“As with the kill scenes, we go for a surreal look for Dexter’s flashbacks. We want them to feel like fragments of memory — subjective, with tight close-ups against an indistinct background. You don’t see all the details of the environment. When Dexter recalls his mother’s murder, for example, we tighten the shutter angle from 45 degrees to 11.5 degrees, depending on the intensity of the memory. 

“Dexter was my first intensive experience with HD. To be honest, I came onto the show a bit of a film snob, and now I’m a champion of HD for what it is. You can create beautiful images with it, but you have to understand its limitations. The biggest limitation is probably the viewfinder, which is the worst place to see what’s going on in the frame — the operators can’t use the viewfinder to determine whether their shots are in focus. We’ve worked out a remote-focus system in which both of our 1st ACs, Steve Hurson and Brad Richard, are off set, watching a monitor. As the actors move, the 2nd ACs, Warren Feldman and Paul Tilden, whisper into a radio, giving the 1st ACs the marks. We have remote stations that can be wheeled around from set to set, and that really enhances our speed. Making the day is everything in TV. 

“I owe everything to my crew, which also includes [gaffer] Earl C. Williman, [A-camera operator] Martin J. Layton and [B-camera/Steadicam operator] Eric Fletcher. You may have the vision in your head, but you need a good crew to realize it.”


High-Definition Video
Sony F23, PMW-EX1
Panavision Primo lenses

Life on Mars
by Iain Stasukevich

ABC’s Life on Mars is the story of Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara), a modern-day police detective in New York City who is struck by a vehicle while on duty and wakes up in 1973 — it’s The Wizard of Oz as police procedural. Adapted from a BBC series that was a hit in the United Kingdom in 2006, the ABC series changes few details apart from the city and the actors. Harvey Keitel, Michael Imperioli and Jonathan Murphy portray the hard-boiled officers in the fictional 125th Precinct, and Gretchen Mol, the staff psychologist, plays Tyler’s closest confidant. 

The pilot, titled “Out Here in the Fields,” was directed by Gary Fleder and shot by Kramer Morgenthau, ASC, who notched an ASC Award nomination for the project. They studied Adam Suschitzky’s cinematography in the British series, which was directed by Bharat Nalluri. Morgenthau notes, “There isn’t a lot of coverage, which allows the actors to play in one frame. It’s a fairly graphic approach to telling the story.” Fleder adds, “I think the British series is fantastic — every shot has power. I wanted to exploit its graphic integrity, so I took something like a hundred frame grabs from the show as reference material.” 

For the present-day scenes in the pilot, Morgenthau used a new film stock, Kodak Vision3 500T 5219, with Panavision Primos and lit for a naturalistic feel. For the 1973 scenes, he used more dramatic lighting and asked Kodak for the oldest emulsion in its catalog, Vision 500T 5279. “5279 is not as perfect and sharp-looking [as Vision3],” he notes. (Kodak discontinued 5279 shortly thereafter, and the production has since shot the period scenes on Vision2 500T 5260.) 

Though Morgenthau considered using older lenses for the 1973 scenes, in the interest of speed and efficiency, he decided it would be better to stick with the Primos and degrade the image with Clear and Warm Tiffen Pro-Mist filters. He also enhanced grain by underexposing by 2/3 of a stop and force-processing the negative by 1 stop at Technicolor New York. 

Morgenthau stresses that he wasn’t trying to mimic a 1970s cinematographer shooting in the 1970s. “If we wanted to do that, we could’ve gotten away with snap zooms, fog filters and so on, but we didn’t do any of that. We only did zooms as very slight creep-ins on faces or to change the frame for coverage. The camerawork has more to do with what Sam is feeling, because he’s in a completely alien world. Our techniques weren’t so much vintage as story-related, character-related and emotion-related.” 

After ABC picked up Life on Mars, the production hired two directors of photography, ASC members Frank Prinzi and Craig Di Bona, to take turns shooting episodes. Both cinematographers say they approach the story as Morgenthau did, using Tyler’s displacement as a source of inspiration. They’re on the lookout for what the production calls “the Martian Way,” moments when Tyler gets past and present confused. For example, he might see a modern newscast on a 1973 TV set or receive a phone call from the future. “Is it Mars? Not really, but then again, it might as well be,” says Prinzi. That’s one reason the series has fairly loose visual parameters, he adds. “As long as we do it on time, make it cool and make it exciting, we can do pretty much anything we want visually.” He describes the approach as “jazz lighting” — always changing in time with the story. 

When Tyler and the other cops aren’t out on the street, they’re in the office, a set designed by production designer Stephen Hendrickson and rigged by gaffer Russ Engels and key grip Richard Guinness Jr. Hendrickson had the ceiling built with exposed trusses, girders and fluorescent practicals, and above that, recessed muslin panels hide a permanent grid of Par cans fitted with dichroic and tungsten bulbs. The muslin works as diffusion for the lights above it and also as a false ceiling when shots are lit from the floor; Prinzi and Di Bona both enjoy shooting from low angles. Grid lights are individually patched through a dimmer board, allowing the light-board operator to easily shift the interior ambience from cool to warm. Engels used a lot of Brass, Straw and 1/8 and 1/4 CTO gels on the lamps, and, depending on the action in a scene, extreme color temperatures are sometimes mixed within a single setup. 

During the day, keylight is usually motivated by one of the set’s many picture windows, “like in a Vermeer painting,” says Di Bona. For the pilot, Fleder wanted heavy shafts of sunlight raking across the space, and a smoke machine was used to give shape to the light. “The idea was to make ’73 very smoky, but the network mandated that we couldn’t have anyone smoke onscreen,” recalls Engels. After some cast members had an adverse reaction to the smoke, production decided to reserve the smoke machine for occasional use. Another touch carried over from the pilot is the hot splashes of light that accent the background of many interiors. Morgenthau’s crew created these with 10K Molebeams. “Those go 5 or 6 stops over,” says Prinzi. “Sometimes I’m shooting at a T2.8 and the background light is at a T32!” 

New York City is as much a character as a temporal point of reference. “It’s the greatest backdrop in the world — you can’t find that texture anywhere else,” says Di Bona. The production’s biggest challenge was finding a location that didn’t include modern devices, such as ATMs. Fleder recalls, “I didn’t think it was possible, but we drove down Orchard Street [on the Lower East Side], and sure enough, there was a 2 1/2-block stretch that could pass for 1973 — if you squinted.”

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