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American Cinematographer Magazine
On The Clock    

Rodney Charters, CSC maps his strategy for the dramatic series 24, which follows a fearless federal agent and unfolds in real time.

Interview by Douglas Bankston

Unit photography by Peter Iovino, Ray Mickshaw, Rob Voets, Isabella Vosmikova and Michael Yarish.

Photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox and Rodney Charters, CSC. Frame grabs courtesy of Rodney Charters.

It’s the third season of 20th Century Fox’s hit series 24, and federal agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is having yet another rough day. The Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) has received word that a deadly virus will be unleashed upon Los Angeles unless a drug kingpin, Ramon Salazar (Joaquim de Ameida), is released from prison. Bending protocol, as usual, Bauer decides he must spring Salazar from “the big house,” shepherd him back to Mexico and somehow put an end to the biological threat. From there, this season’s plot only thickens with multiple storylines that occasionally unfold onscreen in multiple panels of simultaneous action.

As was the case on his previous assignments — foiling an assassination attempt on U.S. senator and future president David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), and then preventing a nuclear detonation in L.A. — time is not on Bauer’s side. He has 24 hours to resolve the crisis, and each episode of 24 depicts an hour of his struggle. However, director of photography Rodney Charters, CSC did recently find some time during his busy production schedule to drop by the AC offices and share details about his approach to shooting this unique series.

American Cinematographer: Every episode of 24 is tense and pressure-filled, thanks to its ever-present ticking clock. Does your production have a schedule to match?

Rodney Charters, CSC: It’s pretty tight for television. One of the first decisions that creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran made with Stephen Hopkins, the principal director for the first season, was to treat two episodes together as individual 90-minute movies. That gives us a movie-of-the-week quality. Even though we officially shoot the episodes in 15 days, it really takes us 16; we overlap in order to get that extra day we truly need, but the shows are shot back to back to flow continuously through the onscreen time frame. For example, 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. would be your slot as a director.

How much prep time do you have for each episode block?

Charters: Very little, but because of the show’s real-time premise, locations don’t shift radically that much for each block, unless they’re featured in parallel storylines. Once each of these stories is established, the initial prep at the beginning of the season sets the tone for big chunks of time, and we keep returning to locations. I have an excellent rigging team, both grip and electric, and I rely very heavily on them to establish the big guns. When the scene is very elaborate, the producers will upgrade my A-camera operator, Guy Skinner, for a day, and I’ll go on location, which allows me to be better connected to the production designer and the director in the field.

How much of the show do you film on location?

Charters: About 70 percent is shot on location, and the rest is on stage. The standing sets are the CTU headquarters and an additional CTU place where President Palmer is now residing. Our stage is in Woodland Hills. I believe it was formerly a data-processing plant, but Fox went in there and built our offices, cutting rooms and editorial suites.

An underlying anxiety runs throughout the show, even in quiet scenes. In what ways does your cinematography contribute to this?

Charters: I like to think we contribute hugely to that. In the first season, Stephen [Hopkins] set the tone that encouraged us not only to shoot handheld but also to utilize the zoom lens. Initially, the operators and I were a little reluctant, but we gradually adopted that as a style. We’ll take a given framing and then paint the story for you with energetic moves and a lot of very aggressive handoffs, which we call ‘tagging.’ For example, if a character is going for a cell phone, we’ll tag the pocket, follow the phone, whip back to the face, whip off to something else and then come back. It’s the kind of thing that can’t be done on a Steadicam very well because the moves are extremely aggressive. In the span of 10 seconds, there might be six different framings that will play as a continuous take with a snap zoom in the 3:1 range. Rapidly I realized we had to have the Panaflex Millennium XL. The first year we had one and a Gold II, and the second year we managed to get two XLs.

We’ve evolved to the point where we always shoot a whole scene in its entirety — it’s never broken into setups. We shoot two directions on every scene. We shoot one direction first, after it’s been blocked and staged by the cast privately, without even me present, which is a little uncommon in television. When we’re brought in, we have an understanding of what the scene is, but sometimes there are pleasant surprises. Stephen was a great one for saying, ‘Look at the scene and imagine where the camera would never be placed, and that’s where I want it.’ We’ll film and light in that direction for A-camera, and B-camera just strays off the axis. In fact, under pressure, we quite often shoot opposing angles and get away with it, as though we’re a multi-camera show. Lighting becomes a great challenge to get the best out of both shots.

In CTU, we use the 3:1 135-420mm [T2.8] Primo zoom extensively on B-camera with 20 to 40 feet of track. When you’re watching the dailies, you’re not aware that the camera is moving, but just to achieve blurred over-shoulders from 40 or 50 feet away, the camera may track 20 feet in the course of a very subtle moment. It’s a focus puller’s nightmare. David Dodson, our rep at Panavision, has been wonderful, and we’ve been testing one of their new digital target radars [Panatape Long Range] on B-camera. John Toll [ASC] had one on The Last Samurai [see AC Jan. ’04]. It’s enormously accurate but can easily be fooled as well. It comes with its own Transvideo and a small laser dot that you can drive on the screen to favor whatever area you want sharp. Of course, nobody is there to drive that physically while the shot is going on. It’s still evolving as to how it might work.

A-camera is handheld with the short zoom, 27-68mm T2.8 [Lightweight Zoom I]. Ninety percent of A-camera footage is shot with it. Dan Sasaki at Panavision has recently built us a new short zoom based on Nikon glass that’s a 24-70mm at slightly over T2.8. All the zooms need to work at the maximum aperture, and using Kodak Vision Expression 500T [5284] stock the whole time allows us to work at around 20 footcandles of key. Guy, who’s a brilliant, intuitive operator, is able to tell the story with physicality. Basically, on the first setup, we’ll lay him back a little so B-camera, operated by Jay Herron, can get comfortable and both can get a shot. Then we feed Guy right into the heart of the scene, usually on his self-propelled creeper, an elevated version of the dolly that mechanics use under cars, and B-camera has to fight to get anything. B-camera might tag other things, or sometimes Jay gets locked out. However, the B shots are frequently the most memorable in a scene.

Are these tags left to the operators’ discretion?

Charters: Absolutely. It happens too fast. They wear headsets, and they’re in tune with the dialogue. The actors have complete freedom, we know the characters well, and I don’t have to tell the operators anything. We ignore the [180-degree] line. Generally, A-camera will be over the left shoulder on a 27mm, and B-camera will be over the right on a 420mm — though sometimes they use a 1.4x [extender] in order to get a shot that may have only a two-degree field of view before Guy’s shoulder is in the shot. The operators are the ones who keep material in the foreground of the frame, providing you with that sense of peeping or stealing a look at something — that sets the tone we want the show to have. Focus becomes very critical, especially on the long lenses. Jon Sharpe, the A-camera first AC, is on a Preston [Microforce remote focus] for the handheld camera. He’s absolutely extraordinary — with a last name like his, he can only be so! [Bruce DeAragon is the B-camera first AC.] If both cameras worked on the same side, B will come through on the inside — the tight side — while Guy’s still getting a comparable handheld over-the-shoulder. Feeling [the approach of] Guy’s right shoulder, B goes right through on the inside and can nail a very tight single.

The dolly grips, Carlos Boiles on A and Zoli “Syd” Hajdu on B, are hugely important in the process as well; they work with their own big monitors and will make the frame for the dolly. If Guy starts to jam B-camera, the dolly grips can anticipate that and move the camera over to compensate, making a decision to float right through the [actor’s] head and pick up on the other axis. In normal cinematography, you just can’t do that, but it allows us to keep shooting. The editors can make that work by dividing the frame into quadrants, which we call ‘boxing,’ and it’s become our signature.

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.