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ASC Career Achievement in Television Honoree: Rodney Charters

By Christine Bunish

Rodney Charters is the latest recipient of the ASC Career Achievement in Television Award. Photo: Douglas Kirkland

Rodney Charters is the latest recipient of the ASC Career Achievement
in Television Award.
Photo: Douglas Kirkland

When Rodney Charters, ASC, was growing up in New Zealand “Hollywood was so far away it was unimaginable.” But Charters, the latest recipient of the ASC Career Achievement in Television Award, eventually made his way to the production capital of the world where he earned Emmy nominations for his cinematography for the innovative series, 24; brought his talents to The Pretender, Roswell, Shameless and now Dallas; and shot a roster of telefilms, including Sounder, A Ring of Endless Light and An American Girl on the Home Front.  

Although New Zealand has gained its own Hollywood-style reputation in recent years, when Charters was a boy there was no television in the country. But that doesn’t mean he was without film influences. His small coastal town (where Tom Cruise later shot The Last Samurai) was a community of film lovers, and Charters’ father, Roy, ran a local photography studio with Rowan Guthrie.

Young Rodney spent many hours in the darkroom with his dad learning “lessons from a master printer,” which he calls the perfect way to begin a future career as a cinematographer. Charters and Guthrie also were filmmakers who made a well-received 16mm documentary of the 1954 visit of young Queen Elizabeth II to New Zealand. “They processed that film themselves in a hand-wound tank, and there it was on screen three days after her departure,” he marvels. “It was exciting to go to the local cinema and see a film your dad made.”

Charters borrowed his father’s Bolex to shoot his own first short, Film Exercise, at the University of Auckland. It played to acclaim at the Sydney (Australia) Film Festival and netted Charters a place at the prestigious Royal College of Art in London where he joined fellow students Tony Scott and Stephen Goldblatt, ASC.

He worked briefly on commercials while living in London, then after a short stint in the United States, he spent the next 15 years traveling the world shooting documentaries for Canada’s CTV network out of Toronto. DP Mark Irwin, ASC, selected Charters to shoot second unit on the feature Youngblood, Charters’ first foray in the narrative genre. Then he began to work on American television shows shooting in Canada, including Friday the 13th: The Series, Profit, The Hat Squad and Nightmare Café; he made the move to the States for the first season of Nash Bridges in 1995.

Rodney Charters, ASC, right, with Jesse Metcalfe (Christopher Ewing) on the set of Dallas. Photo: Bill Matlock
Rodney Charters, ASC, right, with Jesse Metcalfe (Christopher Ewing) on the set of Dallas.
Photo: Bill Matlock

Early Adopter

When Charters first came to the United States in the 1970s shooting current affairs programming, he discovered that “Hollywood was very conservative technologically. It was not really where change came from.” He recalls adopting the Maysles Brothers Double System sound for documentaries both in the U.K. and Canada. But the system’s freedom from cables was still years away in Hollywood where news and current affairs shows were still doing mag stripe, he says.

Charters has been an early adopter of technology throughout his career. He did some experimentation with digital cinematography with Sony HDCamSR on the Fox series Roswell. Then 24 came along, and he was pressured to offer digital to that show, but season-one Director and Co-Executive Producer Stephen Hopkins made it clear that film was the only option: He and DP Peter Levy, ASC, had set the tone with the pilot on 35mm.

“I wasn’t disappointed to shoot 24 on film; it was a perfect marriage of high-speed, emulsion-forced processing and grain – that lovely friend to the thriller genre – but I knew when it ended it would be the last time that any of us would work on film, and that was true,” he recalls. “We tested the Canon 5D MkII on 24 and after that was the digital tsunami. RED came out and I adopted it for early shoots, then ARRI ALEXA became the number-one choice for TV and many features.”

Charters admits he’d “have a difficult time going back to film now. There are so many advantages with digital cameras. With great chip resolution and wide dynamic range you can make beautiful images. ALEXA has the widest dynamic range for the file management system you need for TV; you can record 2K on a compact Flash card. I can see exactly what I’m going to get on a high-resolution monitor, and play back is essential for gate check. And ALEXA is a very quiet camera both on and off.”

Setting the Tone for 24

Charters shot film for the innovative FOX series, 24.
Charters shot film for the innovative FOX series, 24.

Even though 24 shot on film, Charters used his expertise and existing technology to give the show its distinctive documentary-style look. Stephen Hopkins “wanted scenes to be shot in their entirety,” he says. “If there was a five-page scene, we shot five pages handheld with a lot of camera moves. It made for very hairy focus pulling. We specialized in tagging the phone, tagging the gun and then swinging the camera 180º to move off in that direction, usually following Kiefer [Sutherland]. The camera roved around looking for things.”

Charters says “we pushed the notion of the [handheld A] camera floating with the character, being very close to what they were doing then whipping off to [record] something else.” Sometimes the A camera with “the Panavision Short Zoom at 27mm was about four feet out from Kiefer with [camera operator] Guy Skinner on a butt dolly, while Jay Herron was on B camera with a 420mm lens on 40 feet of track 60 feet away. The whip pans and snap zooms, lots of tagging and searching made for a more aggressive, dangerous kinetic style. Kiefer, of course, never missed a beat nor did Guy who became glued to him so much so that if Guy missed a tag it would throw Kiefer off!”

In terms of lighting, Charters embraced the locations’ “sodium and mercury vapor lighting and pushed the film to work wide open so you were able to see the dark and moody parts of LA.” With no budget to attempt to light a 10-block area for a helicopter chase, he opted for “a little gilding here and there with small LEDs in the helicopter and the car – the rest was for real.

“My approach to [lighting] drama as a documentarian was to observe the rehearsal, utilize existing ambiance and augment with light as needed. We began using Litepanel LEDs very early on and Chimeras with honeycomb grids for soft light sculpting. It was all about making selected patches of interest.”

Charters remembers saving “an enormous amount of time and money” by shooting “poor man’s coverage” for vehicles and aircraft on 24. Spinning cars and copters on stage against the output of a high-lumen, rear-screen projector he was able to “see what I was going to get in-camera. It worked well with our long lens style.” Stargate Studios’ skill at compositing plates without tracking marks added to the show’s ability “to cheat driving material and locations,” Charters notes.  “For the last season, people were convinced we shot in New York, but we never did.”

The innovative work Charters and his camera crew did during season one of 24 “set the tone for the series thereafter,” he says. “Kiefer’s speed of dialogue delivery and the palpable visual quality of the camera were part of the show’s success. We made high-quality images on a shoestring with careful lighting and the best camera operators and focus pullers in the world.”

Shameless, Dallas and More

For the last few years, Charters has been busy shooting pilots for Charlie’s Angels, Alphas and Nashville. He did both the pilot and first season of the revamped Dallas on TNT, splitting his time with two-and-a-half seasons of Showtime’s Shameless. He has since bowed out of the latter to concentrate on Dallas, where he’s now on location. A DGA member, Charters directed one of the last episodes to feature J.R. Ewing. When reached by Markee, he was shooting J.R.’s memorial service at the Dallas Petroleum Club in Chase Tower.
Charters is using ALEXA for Dallas. Stylistically, “we pay more attention to the women, but we’re also trying to give [the show] an aggressive edge as the storyline gets darker,” he says.

The episode he directed tapped 27 cameras on the last shoot day at Texas Motor Speedway. “We had a lot of Go Pros inside the NASCARs,” he reports. “It’s exciting to take advantage of all the smaller cameras to get interior views we could never see unless we cut a car in half. It’s reinvigorating to explore the different viewpoints of multiple camera technologies to bring new and varied looks to drama.”
Charters also is a big proponent of social media and “its power to disseminate knowledge and share the process of cinematography.” He began tweeting on 24 and has continued to send Twitter feeds. In fact, he recently found four volunteers in Germany, Holland and Austria via Twitter who helped him shoot the documentary Mosaic of Life about a Holocaust survivor revisiting Dachau where he was imprisoned.

DP Rodney Charters, right, shooting Dallas with Director Michael M. Robin. Photo: Skip Bolen
DP Rodney Charters, right, shooting Dallas with Director Michael M. Robin.
Photo: Skip Bolen

Charters was “wildly surprised” when he got the phone call informing him of his ASC Career Achievement in Television honors. “My first thought was ‘Oh my god, is [my career] over? No way! I’m just beginning – it’s so much fun! I started on film cutting with a razor blade and punching out sprocket holes with a needle, and now I’m using cutting-edge digital cameras, which seem to get smaller all the time – and new ones come out every six months.”

Charters’ enthusiasm for filmmaking and the arts has found its way to his family’s next generation. He and his wife Gillian have three children, all of whom are involved in the arts. The youngest, Jasmin, is the assistant to the director of the ACE Gallery in Los Angeles; May directed, wrote and starred in the film Lovers in a Dangerous Time, now playing on Netflix; and son Robin is a 3D camera technician with Cameron/Pace whose credits include Life of Pi.

At press time, Robin was using his skills back on his father’s home turf. “He’s shooting pick ups for Walking with Dinosaurs in New Zealand,” a FOX feature based on the celebrated BBC series, says Charters.

March 20, 2013