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Making TV: Putting Flesh on the Bones

By Michael Fickes

For an episode set during a blizzard, the Bones crew covered their two-block set with snow.
For an episode set during a blizzard, the Bones crew covered their two-block set with snow.

Artists painstakingly create the human skeletons that lie at the heart of the mystery in each episode of Bones.

“If an eyeball falls out or a bug crawls out of a sinus cavity, it may be animated. Otherwise, the skeletons are practical,” says Gordon Lonsdale, ASC, director of photography, who has shot 112 episodes of the long-running Fox hit.

Bones is a murder mystery/comedy/drama starring Emily Deschanel as the brilliant and socially awkward Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan and David Boreanaz as the emotional Special Agent Seeley Booth of the FBI.

A forensic anthropologist, Bones helps Booth solve murders in which the human remains are so far gone that conventional autopsy procedures can’t help.

Lonsdale says the show has no set style. The story dictates the cinematography. “We’ll shoot one episode on dollies, another on Steadicam and another hand-held,” he says. “We’ll light one show brightly to support humor and another in a dark, foreboding way because a main character is in danger.”

From Film to HD

The show began on 35mm film in 2005. By season 5, Fox wanted to move to high definition, and Lonsdale picked the Sony F35. For seasons 6 and 7, Lonsdale used an ARRI ALEXA. “To me, choosing an HD camera is like choosing a film stock,” he says. “The ALEXA, for instance is close to Kodak 5218 – very sensitive. You have to retrain your eyes to see lower light levels and take care not to use too much fill lighting.”

Sony recently introduced its F65 model, which Lonsdale is testing for the upcoming season.

Lonsdale favors Leica prime lenses. “Leica makes a set of lenses that are all the same length and same diameter. So if we’re shooting Steadicam, we can change from 25mm to 50mm, and nothing shifts – even the focus marks from 5 to 15 feet stay the same.”

The Bones lens package also includes a set of ARRI Ultra Primes and 4 Angenieux Zooms.

Creative Lighting

Before a shoot, Lonsdale scouts locations and goes through the script with the director. “He tells me his ideas, and that tells me about the lights we’ll use,” Lonsdale says.

If a director wants a 360-degree view available in a room with a seven-foot tall ceiling, for instance, Lonsdale and the gaffers might hide Source Fours on baby plates around the room and tape China Balls of different sizes to the ceiling for soft light. “We often use Kino Flos to key Emily [Deschanel] and David [Boreanaz] and use a 129 [strong diffusion filter] to soften the light on their faces.”

Shooting Snow and Blowing Up Santa Claus

Bones is set in Washington, D.C., and shot in Los Angeles, which frequently requires set extensions, backgrounds created in CGI and carefully scrubbing California out of the backgrounds. “Last season, we did an episode where Brennan and Booth traveled to L.A.,” Lonsdale says, chuckling. “For once, we had no worries about palm trees.”

Then there was the show with the rare Washington, D.C., blizzard. “Our set covered two city blocks,” Lonsdale says. “We silked over the entire set to soften the sun and blew snow over the whole lot.”

The scene begins with a Steadicam shot through the front window of a moving snowplow. The plow arrives at a diner, and the Steadicam operator steps down to the sidewalk and goes inside where Booth and Bones are eating.

Sometimes, the big scenes are animated. The holiday show during the fifth season begins with Santa Claus robbing a bank. Terrified tellers give up their cash quickly when Santa reveals a bomb under his coat.

Outside, Booth draws his gun and orders Santa to the ground. Santa refuses, shows his bomb and promptly explodes in a huge firestorm that destroys everything around him and deposits Santa bone fragments – practicals made by artists – all over the street.

Using whatever technique it takes – practical or animated – the Bones crew and post-production start by stripping someone’s bones bare and end by fleshing them out again.

October 27, 2012