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The shows Steadicam shots require a tremendous amount of actor and atmosphere choreography, as well as camera manipulation. Although the results appear to be as smooth as silk on the screen, Del Ruth acknowledges that creating such complex moves can be like pulling teeth. "It usually takes us between 10 and 15 shots to finesse the camera and all of the atmosphere into one harmonious unit," he says. What impresses him, he says, is the terrific orchestration of the atmosphere by the assistant directors and the manipulation of the actors by the director. Del Ruth has high praise for his own team, which in addition to gaffer Butters includes key grip Marlin Hall and camera assistant Rick Tschudin.
The longest and most complicated Steadicam shot so far on The West Wing was four minutes long and took place at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The operator was Dave Commides. Del Ruth recalls, "It started out on the dance floor, went into the lobby, through the top-floor kitchen area, down two flights of stairs into the bowels of the kitchen and through the cavernous kitchen, where food was being prepared for a banquet. We worked our way through that area, went down another flight of stairs to where the laundry facilities are, then proceeded into the catacombs, all the way through the base of the hotel and out into the parking lot, where we ended up in a motorcade. The shot involved more than 500 extras and nearly all of the major cast members, and it was all done in one seamless Steadicam shot.
"Each take required one magazine of film, and the actors had to pass off dialogue from one person to another. It required quite a bit of orchestration. It was about a five-page scene and took us half the night [to shoot]. Dave was walking backward at full speed for the entire shot; on take 13, he almost collapsed!"
The Technocrane is almost as ubiquitous on the set as the Steadicam, especially when the crew is shooting in the Oval Office. Its the crane of choice because it has a scope-able, hydraulically operated arm, which allows the base to stay fixed in one spot without having to make a chassis move. Furthermore, it is wonderfully compact. It folds into a relatively small package and can be driven through the sets numerous doorways, all of which are wide enough to accommodate it. Once in position, it can be set up pretty quickly.
The pilot for The West Wing was shot in 16mm a cost-saving measure in case the show didnt get picked up but Warner Bros. let Del Ruth use Kodak Vision 500T 7279. He loved the strong contrast. "I dont like a broad palette," he muses. "I like the highlights to be clipped and the shadows to go black. I dont often have the time to get that look in the lighting, so I have to rely on the stock to carry it."
When the series got picked up, it was to be shot in 35mm, but Warner Bros. insisted that Del Ruth use Kodak EXR 5298 stock instead of sticking with the 35mm equivalent of the Vision stock. It turned out to be an economic issue; all Warner Bros. television programs were shooting on 98. "I like 98, but it required me to use light to achieve a lot more of the contrast, rather than allowing the shot to just go," Del Ruth says. "I can move a lot faster with the Vision 500 because I dont have to manipulate the lighting to the same degree. Plus, it has a tighter grain structure and it transfers on a telecine quite beautifully."
About two-thirds of the way through the first season, Kodak experienced some problems with the 98 and Warner Bros. let all of its shows switch to the new Vision 500. Everybody was pleased with the look, and Warner Bros. decided to stick with it. When Del Ruth wants to keep the ASA down, he switches to EXR 5248 because he likes its slightly beefier quality and the way it accentuates colors. Most scenes in The West Wing showcase at least four to eight characters, and Del Ruth tries to work between a stop of T2.8 and T4 in order to get some depth of field.
The biggest change from last season to this one is that the two main sets have been moved onto one stage. Last year the cast and crew had to jump between two separate stages; actors would exit through a door that seemingly led to an adjacent room, but the adjacent room would actually be on a completely different stage. The scene would have to be picked up later in mid-shot, as it were. The new arrangement enables the production to shoot seamless "walking and talking" scenes.
Another nice byproduct of this is that the portico area outside the Oval Office has been both lengthened and widened. "Last year we had a minimal portico area and not much of a backdrop, so we only used it at night so you wouldnt see our lack of depth or set construction," recalls Del Ruth. "We were using lighting punctuations to give the portico some sort of a stylistic quality. I hung ECBs about every 10 feet, punching straight down to create very hot pools of light. ECBs are very strong, 150-watt lights, so when an actor walked underneath one, it had a tendency to illuminate him or her very brightly and then theyd fall off into blackness. The light pattern hitting the actors heads as they walked gave an accentuated sense of motion."
Another improvement over last season is the shows new set of TransLites. Last years frontlit backings succeeded to varying degrees, depending on how far away the camera was. Furthermore, there was no single TransLite behind the presidents desk that worked for both day and night. "We had a forest backdrop during the day, but at night it became an apartment building," Del Ruth recalls with a laugh. "It isnt really noticeable, but if you carefully watch the backgrounds on the first 12 or so episodes, youll find that a lot of them are mismatched."
This season, the production has a new series of photographed backings that are actual POVs from White House windows. The state-of-the-art backdrops are the result of a new, digital photographic process that is able to achieve a high resolution over a large image area. "The clarity is extraordinary in terms of how real it looks and its ability to handle detail," Del Ruth marvels.
The only thing the cinematographer says he would like to see changed is the format in which The West Wing is photographed. "The sets are designed not with height but with width," he notes. "It would add a lot to the element of composition if we could shoot 1.77:1 [instead of the normal 1.33:1 TV ratio] and release the program letterboxed. It would improve our storytelling methods, too.
"We tend to use a 29mm or a 35mm lens because were stuck with the 1.33:1 ratio," he continues. "[Switching to 1.77:1] would save us setup time and coverage. We could stack two or three actors in one shot without having to go to individual singles, which is what we have to do in 1.33:1. As it stands now, we only get one-and-a-half or maybe two people in a raking shot; once we get beyond two, the shots get so wide, perspective-wise, that the image of the [third] persons head gets too small, and we lose the strength thats needed to tell a story on TV."
Asked if he has ever visited the real White House, Del Ruth notes that hes only viewed it from the outside. With a shrug, he adds, "My wife did the tour, but Ive been told that our White House looks a lot nicer than the real one!"