The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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TV Series
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Robert F. Liu, ASC
Isidore Mankofsky, ASC
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up

When Noah Hawley, The Unusuals’ executive producer and writer, pitched the show to ABC, he stressed it was “a cop show, not a procedural,” he says. “That means it’s about character. The crimes exist to solve the character, not the other way around. The other thing I said was, ‘This show is M*A*S*H. This is what happens when you put relatively sane people into a crazy world that’s trying to kill them; the only sane response is to be a little crazy.’” He also added a dose of New York attitude. “That’s funny to me, and it was missing on TV. There’s a humorlessness to a lot of law enforcement on TV.” 

The pilot, which will air April 8, was directed by Stephen Hopkins and shot by his longtime collaborator, Peter Levy, ASC, ACS. Their previous pilots include 24 and Californication. “When I asked Stephen what we were going for, he pointed to M*A*S*H, a lighthearted treatment of a serious subject, and he also said he wanted to avoid the clichéd gritty New York look — he wanted colors,” says Levy. “The script was pretty flip, so we didn’t want to impose an overly serious style.” 

Levy shot the pilot in 3-perf 1.78:1 with cameras supplied by Panavision New York. He worked with a Panaflex Platinum and a Millennium XL2 and used Primo primes and an Angenieux Light-weight Optimo (15-40mm) zoom. “Because of the show’s lighthearted nature, we tended to shoot a bit wider, putting more air around the actors, so the audience would have time to read the body language. We were giving the actors a kind of tableau to work with; human comedy plays best in one shot.” 

When ABC ordered 12 episodes of the show, production decided to switch to high-definition video, and Roy H. Wagner, ASC took over as director of photography, reuniting with producer Peter O’Fallon. Their previous collaborations include Party of Five and Pasadena. Wagner arrived in New York in December and had no prep time; he came straight from Chicago, where he was shooting The Beast, a noirish Showtime series — the polar opposite of The Unusuals. “I’m the last choice you’d make for a comedy,” jokes Wagner. “I generally do dark shows, like CSI [AC May ’01]. I think I’ve done only two or three comedies my whole career, but I like doing different kinds of things.” 

With eight days per episode, The Unusuals started out shooting five days on location and three in Steiner Studios. The practical locations are typical of New York: five-floor walkups, narrow storefronts and even narrower railroad apartments. A small, lightweight camera was needed to navigate such spaces. “Where’s the EX3?” asks Wagner, striding through a Brooklyn storefront on a snowy afternoon. He was hoping to show AC one of the two EX3s that are on set at all times. “They’re so small, you can’t even find them!” he notes. Finally, in an aisle marked “Body Disposal,” he spots one. “I can get them into places where you can’t even get a Super 16 camera,” says the cinematographer. “That helps us give the show a sense of reality. 

“On the first day, we did 65 setups,” he continues. “We were using EX3s to run with the characters, jump fences, all kinds of things we’d never do with big cameras. The stuntmen were actually jumping down and hitting the camera, which made it much more visceral.” 

The camera’s remote-control capability allows Wagner to operate it from the video cart, which is handy when the camera is in a hard-to-reach place. “We literally stick one to the ceiling about once a day,” says grip Brendan Quinlan. “Roy puts them everywhere.” 

“It’s not 4:4:4 color space,” notes Wagner. “We record 4:4:4 RGB with the [Sony CineAlta] F23; that provides the maximum amount of information for post. The EX3 uses 4:2:0 color sampling, which effectively means it’s recording color information at half the horizontal resolution and one-quarter the vertical resolution of the luminance. But the EX3s have a substantial processing capability that allows them to be side-by-side with the F23.” 

The EX3 captures images with three 1/2" Exmor CMOS sensors. Seen next to the F23’s output on the video cart, the difference is barely discernible. “There might be engineers who could spot the difference, but the audience won’t,” says Wagner. 

“We’re not using a digital-imaging technician, but the EX3 can be managed and manipulated with the same paintbox technology the F23 uses,” he continues. “However, we’re not painting on the set at all; all image manipulation is done in front of the sensor. This is not unlike old-school film cinematography. Manipulation is created through exposure, lighting and filtration.” 

Wagner prefers to use multiple cameras, and he runs two to four at all times on The Unusuals. Two are F23s with Fujinon HA zooms (4.5-59mm cine-style, 7.3-110mm cine-style and 13.5-570mm optically stabilized), and two are EX3s with Fujinon 14x zooms. The show is framed at 16x9, and all cameras record at 24 fps. (The F23 records to HDCam-SR tape, and the EX3 records to Sony SxS flash memory cards.) 

Working with multiple cameras offers several advantages. “For one, I like how performances match,” says Wagner. “Actors with comedic skills are constantly refining the material and trying different approaches to it, and if you use just one camera, nothing’s ever going to match. Multiple cameras make it easier for actors and the editor, and the lighting strategy it imposes on the cinematographer is not that difficult to do.” Another advantage is speed. “I don’t know how Roy does it, but he works faster than anyone I’ve ever worked with,” remarks Denis Doyle, the show’s first assistant director. 

“I’m always trying to find ways to give the actors and director more time, because the more options we have in the editing room, the better our chances of making a great show,” says Wagner. Recently, that has led to a greater reliance on zoom lenses. “On the last several shows, I’ve used Fujinon zooms because they’re incredibly good, incredibly sharp and match very well. Working at the speed I like to maintain, it’s good not to have to change lenses all the time.” Like Levy, Wagner tends toward wider focal lengths on The Unusuals to facilitate the comedy. “For example, we’d use a 21mm instead of a 35mm, or a 17 instead of a 21mm or 24mm,” says Wagner. 

Shooting quickly also means lighting for 360 degrees. On the precinct set, there are fixed walls and ceilings and no lighting grids. Wagner keeps the amount of equipment low and lights scenes rather than shots. “If you walked onto that set, you’d say it looks like a real place, not a set — there are no movie lights,” he says. “I light through windows and I use a lot of practicals. I control every light that goes on set and am very involved in where they’re placed. I push light through our 135-foot backing, and I also have 5Ks outside the windows. A lot of bounced light comes off the floors from that light.” 

“It’s all precision lighting, but with a lot less amperage,” observes gaffer Timothy McAuliffe. For night exteriors on a film shoot, continues the gaffer, “I’d usually put a Condor down the block with a 10K or Maxi-Brute on it, but [with HD], I’m at street level with a Par can.” Wagner notes, “I don’t use Condors to light nights — when I see big crosslights, I think it looks like a TV show. It just doesn’t look right.” Instead, he carries sodium- and mercury-vapor lights mounted on plates; these are often placed in frame to mimic streetlights. “Film is not really good at low light levels,” says Wagner, “but HD allows you to see night as you actually see it by eye. Collateral [AC Aug. ’04] is a prime example. Often, people will walk by our monitors at night and say, ‘Wow!’ because it shows exactly what they’re seeing.

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