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Making TV: Shooting ‘MacGyver Medicine’

Royal Pains may have the brightest colors on television and the most resourceful main character since MacGyver.

By Michael Fickes

Royal Pains chronicles the exploits of Dr. Hank Lawson, a concierge doctor for the rich and poor in the Hamptons. Patients don’t visit concierge doctors; concierge doctors visit patients.

A former emergency room doctor, Hank now handles emergencies without ER resources. In one show, for instance, he attends a “bark” mitzvah where everyone comes down with a mysterious lung infection that forces quarantine. Hank deduces that the “bark” mitzvah pooch has contracted an infection, infected one of the guests, who infected another guest and so on.

Hank drains fluid from the dog’s infected lung and fabricates a microscope to examine the fluid. He uses the lens from theater binoculars, the cardboard core from a roll of paper towels and pieces of glass for a slide. The problem is an antibiotic resistant bacterium. Hank prescribes an effective antibiotic and cures everyone.

“We call it MacGyver medicine,” chuckles Joe Collins, director of photography for Royal Pains.

Collins and the crew shoot in the Hamptons in the spring and the fall, working for a week before Memorial Day, a week after Labor Day and for a couple of overnights during the summer. The Hamptons video mostly serves as establishing shots.

“We cut from the establishing shots in the Hamptons to gorgeous homes located in and around Oyster Bay on the north shore of Long Island,” Collins said. “That’s where most of the show is shot.”

DP Joe Collins (in the orange cap) on the set of Royal Pains with the star of the show, Mark Feuerstein.

Collins shoots with an ARRI ALEXA and uses Panavision lenses: Primo 11:1 zooms and Primo 4:1 zooms. The primes include a 14.5mm Primo and a 100mm Primo. Steadicam shots employ a range of Angenieux Optimo lenses, including a 15 to 40mm zoom and a 28 to 76mm zoom.

Collins works with two full camera crews plus 10 to 12 grips instead of the usual six. “We so much of an exterior daylight show that we need more grips with more lights to maintain daylight even when we’re losing daylight,” he said.

The importance of daylight to Royal Pains scenes drives some of the show’s visual effects work, too. “If we run out of light and need a shot looking at the ocean out of a window, we will shoot on green screen and use a plate,” Collins said.

To help with those shots, the production calls upon The Molecule, a visual effects and motion graphics company with offices in New York and Los Angeles. “They’ll help us put together the green screen and plate,” Collins said.

The Molecule also helps with complex visual effects. One episode, for instance, concludes with a fireworks display that causes a large explosion. “The lighting crew created the fireworks by making long chains of Maxi Brutes gelled to match the color of fireworks explosions,” Collins explained.

The chains were hung vertically high in the air from lifts, connected to a dimmer board and programmed to flicker and pulse like fireworks. The fireball explosion occurred in an exhibition tent located in the bottom right of the frame. A fiery piece of fireworks flies off course and into the tent. Suddenly, the tent explodes and catches fire. At least that’s what it looks like. “We couldn’t use big lights,” said Chris Healer, CEO and chief technical officer of The Molecule. “It might take 10 seconds for the huge heating elements to produce light.”

“So we connected eight nine-light fays to a dimmer board and programmed the lights to ‘explode’ on cue,” explained Collins.

At 5:30 a.m., not long before the sun would come up and wreck the explosion of light designed to imitate a real explosion and fire, a camera mounted on a giant scissor-lift high above the scene got the shot of the explosion, which Healer then turned into large orange flames in The Molecule’s studio.

You might say that resourceful MacGyver medicine is brought to you by resourceful MacGyver production techniques.

January 17, 2013