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Making TV: Character Shows

In Blue Bloods, Tom Selleck’s new police drama on CBS, DP Dave Insley lenses a nuanced character portrait of a family of New York City cops.

By Michael Fickes

Dave Insley is DP on the new CBS police drama, Blue Bloods.

At first glance, Blue Bloods looks like a cop show. And it is. But it is at least as much about the characters as it is about cops: The new CBS drama tells the story of a New York City family in law enforcement.

In virtually every scene, the director — who varies from show to show — DP Dave Insley and New York City-based gaffer Gene Engels make choices about camera lenses, lighting and camera movement to communicate something about a character.

Frank Reagan (Tom Selleck) captured in a pensive moment
in Blue Bloods.
Photo by: Heather Wines © 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc.
All Rights Reserved.

The main characters: Chief of Police Frank Reagan (Tom Selleck) heads the Reagan family. Henry (Len Cariou), Frank’s retired father, is a former Chief of Police himself. Frank’s three adult children all work in law enforcement: daughter Erin Reagan Boyle (Bridget Moynahan) is an assistant district attorney, son Danny (Donnie Wahlberg) is a senior detective and younger son Jamie (Will Estes) is a street cop with a law degree, just beginning his career with the department.

New York City is part of the Blue Bloods family and influences every location exterior. “We make New York a character in the show, too,” says Insley. “We try to shoot with medium to wide focal length lenses so we can see the environment. The Optimo 17 – 80mm is my preferred lens for this. Long lenses squash the background out of focus, and you could be shooting in any city. The short lenses provide a clear view of the city background. You can see the brownstones, the fire escapes and the streetscape — the character of the city.”

Insley’s depiction of the Reagan family reveals character, too. He captures Frank, the paterfamilias of his clan and of the city, at eye level in just about every shot. “Frank is strong and straightforward and we compose him as such,” Insley says. “Any shot with [Frank] uses a tripod or dolly — at police headquarters or in the family home.”

By contrast, Insley usually shoots the show’s action hero, elder son and senior detective Danny, handheld. While Frank’s character arises from wisdom and gravitas, Danny comes alive when he is on the move.

Watch one show, and you won’t be able to imagine seeing Danny shot the same way as Frank — or vice versa: It would seem as if they had suddenly stepped out of character. In fact, Insley did shoot Frank at home with a handheld camera once in order to build tension and show that everything was out of kilter.

Danny Reagan (Donnie Wahlberg, right) tries to clear his brother Jamie’s name after he witnesses a crime in progress
Photo by: Craig Blankenhorn/CBS © 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Deploying RED One with Mysterium-X

Each of the show’s two camera crews works with a RED One camera outfitted with the Mysterium-X (MX) chip. “In theory, it mimics 800 ASA, compared to the original chip, which was rated at 320 ASA,” explains Insley. “The MX chip is like a faster film stock. It needs less light and therefore allows us to show more of New York City at night without the need for extra lighting.” The RED has a PL mount that accepts Angenieux Optimo film lenses.

Insley also keeps a Canon 7D DSLR camera handy. “We modified the 7D to handle the same lenses as the RED,” he notes. “That enables us to use the 7D as a stunt camera.” Also part of the camera package are a Flipcam HD video camcorder and a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 point-and-shoot camera.

The small cameras do special jobs. In one episode, a suspect flees through subway turnstiles with Danny following. Insley mounted the Lumix on one of the bars of the turnstile, so the audience spins right along with the turnstile during the chase. “It’s a cool shot,” he says.

Insley notes that while the Angenieux cine lenses “produce film-like video” there is also “more latitude to color correct RED One media than video from other HD cameras. That’s why we picked [it] as our primary production camera. We treat the production workflow as if it’s a film shoot. We don’t color correct on set but do so after the edit. Then, we have a RAW files colorist who color corrects as if it were film.”

Insley sends RED files to Deluxe in New York City, which creates dailies for the edit. Following the edit, the conformed files go back to Deluxe for final color correction, just like in the traditional film process.

Lighting is Never Off the Shelf
The DP defers to gaffer Gene Engels for lighting techniques. “I trust [him] about lighting. He has lighting tools I’ve never seen before,” Insley reports. “We have big HMIs and other standard lights, but nothing Gene uses for close ups and interior shots is off the shelf.”

Siblings Jamie Reagan (Will Estes) and Erin Reagan-Boyle
(Bridget Moynahan) outside police plaza in lower Manhattan.
Photo by: John Paul Filo © 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc.
All Rights Reserved.

For instance, Engels uses fresnels as key lights but never allows the light to strike an actor directly. He special orders a loosely woven muslin fabric in 10-foot by 25-foot sections. For an interior scene, he bunches up a 10-foot section of muslin beside the actor, maybe two feet away from a wall. Then he directs the fresnel along the back side of the fabric. “The muslin becomes the light, softening it and making it shadow-less,” Engels says. “You can dolly right up to an actor’s face and never see a shadow. You can pan left and right to create different looks and shoot the one you like.”

Another unique lighting technique enables viewers to feel as if they are in a car, riding along with one of the characters. In one show, Danny drives across a bridge into Manhattan at night, and he is singing to himself.

In the back seat, Insley wielded the RED camera by hand, using a Master Prime lens at T1.3 — wide open — and angling in on Danny’s right profile. Most of the lighting comes naturally from the headlights of passing cars, bridge lights and the skyline. Engels set a small bicolor LED on the car’s roof on the right side, shooting through the window, which might be open or closed. “[Danny] wasn’t lit up in the classic, properly-exposed sense,” Insley says. “But you could see his face, and you could see the background.”

For other car shots, Engels uses the same technique with two bicolor LEDs set on the driver and passenger sides of the car roof. When the passenger turns to speak to the driver, the LED from the driver side illuminates the passenger’s face. When the passenger turns away, you see a soft silhouette. “I can dial in color and intensity on each unit to fit the shot,” Engels says.

Watch Blue Bloods. You won’t see a scene that doesn’t use the camera, lenses, camera movement and lighting to communicate something very clear about the characters you’re watching.

December 6, 2012