Tom Del Ruth, ASC lends an idealistic ambience to NBC’s critically acclaimed presidential drama THE WEST WING

If consistently high ratings and 18 Emmy nominations were any indication of political sentiment, Josiah Bartlet would easily walk off with next month’s presidential election. But don’t expect to see Bartlet’s name on any ballots; the fictional chief executive of NBC’s hit series The West Wing would have to be a write-in. That’s a pity, because as conceived by Aaron Sorkin and played by Martin Sheen, Bartlet possesses all the gumption and moral strength we’d like to see in our real elected officials.

Cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth, ASC, who recently won an Emmy after picking up one of the show’s 18 nominations this year, was among those who felt The West Wing had something important to say; he signed on first for the pilot and then for the series. For him, the show was less a fantasy take on government than simply a hopeful one a vision of what government could be. Thus, while the issues the program addresses are weighty and realistic, the drama’s visual style is romantic. "This would have been an easy show to [place] into a reality format visually, which I had done with the pilot for ER," Del Ruth reflects during a break in filming on the Warner Bros. lot. "But I always felt this show was a presentation of an optimistic White House, a Camelot for the masses. To help sell that idea, we wanted a softer, veiled image that had a golden quality, as well as strong backlighting and contrast."

Lengthy Steadicam shots are a hallmark of the show, as are the pools of light and shadow through which the characters are constantly walking and talking. The dialogue and the ideas behind it come fast and furious. "In this show you have to listen to hear everything," notes Thomas Schlamme, who directed six of last year’s episodes and serves as one of the show’s three executive producers. "You also have to look to see everything."

Perhaps more than any other cinematographer, Del Ruth pioneered the use of the Steadicam in series television. The pilot of ER changed the way people thought about staging and shooting a weekly program. The ASC recognized Del Ruth’s brilliant work on ER with two awards in 1995, one for the pilot and one for the episode "Day One." A year earlier he was nominated for the pilot of The X-Files; six years prior to that he picked up an ASC nomination for his work on the feature film Stand By Me. Del Ruth’s work on The West Wing brought him his fifth ASC nomination and his third Emmy nomination, following Emmy nods for 1980’s The Last Convertible and 1995’s My Brother’s Keeper. His feature credits include The Running Man, Look Who’s Talking and The Mighty Ducks.

Lighting a 2 1/2-minute Steadi-cam shot that travels through a dozen rooms, around desks, under porticos, in one door of the Oval Office and out another while weaving past dozens of tables, chairs, plants and aides hustling down the corridors can’t be easy. "Yes, the lighting is tricky," Del Ruth concedes, "but the most difficult thing was coming up with the original concept for how the White House should look, and then plotting out all of the instruments that would be needed. Gaffer Jeff Butters and I expended a tremendous amount of effort to come up with some sort of design for the lighting that would not only be efficient to work with, but also dramatically appropriate."

About 870 lights are pre-rigged, each one slaved to individual dimmers that can be brought up or down at any time. Many of the units are built right into the set, such as the Kino Flos wrapped in gels that are hidden in the columns of the Roosevelt Room. It’s rare that the crew has to hang extra lights.

Del Ruth also employs special lamps on The West Wing that he calls "bat lights." These units are 6" high, 9" deep and range from 2’ to 3’ wide. They are covered with two layers of diffusion half grid and full grid and baffles, which direct the light. Inside each unit are eight 250-watt MR-16s. "The light is narrow and long, produces a very strong sense of source and is easily disguised," the cameraman says. "I have them on just about every set. They are very effective for providing backlight and back-crosses while the actors are moving through the sets. They can also be very bright if we need them to be; like all the other lamps, they’re on a dimmer."

A walk through The West Wing’s expansive set reveals 10’ x 10’ squares of bleached muslin stretched loosely across sections of the ceiling in a half-dozen rooms. These are used to provide room tone. "My particular belief is that natural room light emanates from more than just the sources, such as a fixture or a window," Del Ruth explains. "There is a scattered light that hits the white ceilings and creates a sense of roundness in the light. We do that photographically by using muslin ceilings. They are not designed to be photographed; they are designed only as ambient light sources. Above them we put space lights or coops or coffins or nooks to bring soft light down from the top of the set. It helps round out the contrast of the image."

According to Schlamme, Del Ruth was instrumental in the show’s set design, deciding where to hang fluorescents, when to put in wall sconces, which windows should be kept open to facilitate lighting and whether to build lights into the set or hide them behind set decoration. Even though the entire building is connected, it was important that each room look visually different. "We use some deep blues in the fluorescents to characterize different parts of the White House working areas, to separate them from the white-lit areas we have just come from," Del Ruth notes. "It makes a nice complimentary palette when you’re using a Steadicam and going through 15 rooms at one time. Each room can have its own feel and look, and it can be done fairly quickly because all of the lights are on dimmers."

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