Making TV: Mathias Herndl — Why-Done-It
Motive transforms the traditional who-done-it into a why-done-it.
By Michael Fickes
Murder mystery writers typically explain means, motive and opportunity on the way to revealing the identity of the murderer. Years ago, Columbo rejiggered the traditional who-done-it into how-done-its focused on detecting the means. Viewers knew who committed the murder, as well as the how and the why. The mystery lay in how Columbo would figure it out.
Now Motive (in its second season on ABC) is doing something similar by revealing the murderer and victim at the beginning of the show.
Like Columbo, Motive has a formula. It reveals the murderer and victim in the first two scenes. Then it cuts to the police at the scene of the crime beginning an investigation. Next, we see the murderer in the aftermath of the crime cleaning up and working out an alibi. As the present-day police investigation proceeds, the show uses flashbacks to explain the motive.
The flashbacks show how the murderer and victim met and how the murder came to pass. Along the way, we learn the motive. The mystery for us — the viewers — is how the police will uncover the motive, which leads them to the murderer.
Shooting a show with such a complex formula is challenging, says Motive Director of Photography Mathias Herndl, a.a.c. (Austrian Association of Cinematographers). Signaling viewers that the next scene will travel backward or forward in time ranks as one of Herndl’s greatest challenges.
“We work out those transitions in prep,” he says. “We wanted to stay away from the traditional color transitions and decided to use matched cuts. We usually develop three or four ideas.”
For instance, in one episode, the wife of the victim must strip off her bloody blouse. As she pulls the blouse over the top of her head, it becomes a blanket that the wife is unfurling onto the bed in the bedroom — before the murder. In another episode, a detective is swiping through a series of photos of a man on his smartphone. We see the phone’s screen and the swiping fingers in close-up. The last swipe takes us to a bar where the man in the photos is sitting — in the past, before the murder.
“The first transition in an episode is the fanciest, but we’re careful to avoid taking viewers out of the story by being too gimmicky,” Herndl says. “As the story progresses, the transitions become cleaner and faster. By the sixth act, we use matched wipes.”
Herndl shoots the matched cuts — and the rest of Motive — with an ARRI Alexa camera and ARRI master primes — no zooms. The series features Vancouver’s Major Crimes Unit, and Herndl shoots on location in Vancouver.
In lighting, Herndl uses practical light sources and aims for a textured, moody, dark look with strong highlights. “We want the mood raw and connected to reality,” he says. “We don’t use a lot of high backlights.”
Herndl has thought deeply about lighting the main characters, including the two leads, Detective Angie Flynn (Kristin Lehman) and Detective Oscar Vega (Louis Ferreira). “Angie is a beautiful woman with a striking and extremely expressive face,” he says. “I work to maintain that striking beauty and expressiveness by not over-lighting her.”
“Louis Ferreira is a brilliant actor,” Herndl continues. “He plays Vega by projecting a sense of mystery and creating the sense that he doesn’t talk unless he has something worth saying. I light him generally the way I light the show — by trying to keep the lighting from getting in the camera’s way.”
Herndl shoots with 800 ASA in relatively low light using, for the most part, an F-Stop of 1.3. Part of the show’s look, he says, is a shallow depth of field that directs viewers’ eyes to the heart of each scene.
“I’m trying to provide a moody and textured feel with strong highlights,” he says, explaining his shooting motives. “I want it to look photographed rather than lighted. On location, set ups are often about taking light away instead of adding light.”
The show itself, of course, is about shining light onto the motive of a dark mystery.