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Fresh Look from Top DPs

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By Bruce Shutan
With the competitive stakes rising each new television season, and with an ever more crowed lineup competing for network and cable viewers this fall, some of this season’s shows could live or die by the camera lens. Indeed, one key to the success of red-hot producer Jerry Bruckheimer is his philosophy that impatient channel surfers always will be first drawn to the look of a show.
“I think we need more people like him,” says Frank Byers, ASC, who recently began his third season behind the lens on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, for which he received an Emmy nomination.
The biggest challenge Byers and his fellow cinematographers face is keeping their shows looking fresh and distinctive, so that each episode qualifies as appointment TV. Thomas Del Ruth, ASC, who earned four Emmy nominations in his five years of groundbreaking cinematography on The West Wing, doesn’t believe his peers set out to duplicate another DP’s style nor is there a secret formula for success.
“Every technique known to man is deployed in every show,” he says, adding that there are only so many elements that can find their way into 30 daily setups with the restricted budget and time constraints typical of television programming. “Cinematography or photography is a very emotional involvement. You can’t just conjure it by putting together an equation in a computer and saying you need 2.4-foot cameras of light at a particular point. You’d wind up with a very mechanical image.”
For Byers, it helps that CSI is able to interest viewers with multiple location shoots and frequent use of one-time sets for added freshness. But he’s also committed to carefully staging the actors against bright backgrounds or taking down the exposure to convey nuance and, at all cost, avoiding the two-dimensional look of Dragnet episodes.
Ironically, Byers is surprised by the traction of spin-offs from CSI, Law & Order and other franchises among popular genres. He’d like to see more new shows making it to the small screen. “I just don’t see the need to rehash the same formula,” he says.
In the case of The West Wing, Del Ruth describes the show’s decidedly outside-the-beltway view as a romanticized version of the White House. Previous attempts have portrayed the first-family residence in practical or stark terms, often as a faithless entity.
While a DP on the first four seasons of Six Feet Under, Alan Caso, ASC, used lenses that were no tighter than 29 millimeters for the widest possible angle to capture multiple characters in a single shot (or selectively focus on any given individual) or no wider than 100 millimeters for more intimate contact with characters. The practice is in keeping with his organic shooting style whose aim is to be true to the material and generally shun TV conventions.
Composition and geography keep the edgy cosmetic surgery drama Nip/Tuck looking fresh, according to cinematographer Christopher Baffa. He says precise compositions that are intentionally symmetrical and often static help portray the show’s central theme involving the power and misconceptions of beauty and image.
“Our coverage is relatively classical in its approach, and significant weight is given to where an actor or object exists within a frame and how he or she is lit,” explains Baffa, who has worked on both seasons of Nip/Tuck. “Having set up this classical, geometric, slightly romanticized world, we can then utilize a deviation from this balance and symmetry within the frame to illustrate tension, the loss of harmony within a character, or a negative effect of an event upon an overall storyline.”
One constant challenge has been finding geographic manipulations to stage scenes beyond the normally used, or even conceived, locales to help establish a sense of realism and engage viewers. For example, dramatic moments may unfold in the hallway or laundry room.
Instinct has served cinematographer Jeff Jur well when covering and lighting scenes to create certain moods on Carnivale, HBO’s Depression-era drama now entering a second season in the shadow of an Emmy nomination. “For me, it’s about finding the iconic and spare images of that time period, including the still photography of Walker Evans,” he explains.
Noting that most cinematographers love darkness, Jur’s chief objective is how to guide the story without showing everything at once and learning to hold back so that when light is used it has a greater impact.

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