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Making TV: Shooting The Dark Side

Scandal imagines a dark side of Washington, D.C. Here’s how Cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg, ASC, portrays it.

By Michael Fickes

Cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg and Director of Photography Michael Wojciechowski confer about setting up a scene to resemble the White House visitor’s gate. Photo: ABC/Richard Cartwright
Cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg and Director of Photography Michael Wojciechowski confer about setting up a scene to resemble the White House visitor’s gate.
Photo: ABC/Richard Cartwright

Many critics call Scandal ridiculous but then recommend it, saying that it is also great fun. Part of the fun is the way Cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg, ASC, shoots the fast-talking, fast-paced show about a Washington, D.C., firm of fixers that make scandals – the dark side of life in the nation’s capital – go away.

“Our shooting style is fast,” says Bokelberg. “Our term for it is ‘Scandal’ pace. This describes the speed of the dialogue delivery as well as the shooting style. The cameras are always moving.”

Shoots move fast, too. Bokelberg’s team shoots eight pages per day, averaging 50 to 60 set ups and sometimes more.

Cameras on the move

And cameras move in unusual directions.  For instance, a lateral camera move often includes a slight zoom that makes the camera appear to dolly diagonally. “We call that move the ‘Scandal Vortex,’” chuckles Bokelberg.

The crew carries three ARRI ALEXA cameras, a Canon 7D and several GoPros. Favorite lenses include the Angenieux 15-40, 28-76 and 24-290.

Using Glimmer Glass filters and a shallow depth of field, Bokelberg works the high-definition video toward the look of 35mm film.

Bokelberg says he aims for realism. What is it you would really see if you were there? Much of the realism comes from placing cameras in familiar positions. For instance, when you sit in a restaurant and look at someone across the room, you might look over a shoulder and see part of the person, perhaps in a moment of sadness. That can be a stronger image than seeing someone crying.

One show, for instance, follows a Navy Seal rescue operation. Bokelberg put Camera Operator Steve Fracol, SOC, into a Navy Seal uniform and attached a standard definition security camera to his helmet. “We didn’t use any lights,” he said. “We let the camera’s night vision take care of it. “These are the choices you can make when you are going for realism. We also embrace camera flairs and other ‘imperfections’ to aid the illusion.”

Voyeurism

The Chicago Sun Times reviewer said she “likes the voyeuristic way” the show is shot. “We look in on characters through windows and from behind bushes,” Bokelberg explains.

It is a shooting style that gets at the reality created by the show. “We don’t have good and bad characters,” he said. “Everyone is good and bad, with hidden agendas that cause plot twists. We try to shoot in a way that increases the uncertainty about who the characters really are.”

Unconventional style

Bokelberg usually deploys two ALEXAs and sometimes three. “We do a lot of cross coverage, often with cameras in opposing corners, at 90- to 180-degree angles apart,” he said. “If you work at it, you learn to position both cameras without sacrificing the lighting for one.

“We also keep the cameras below eye level. Shooting up allows the architecture – the upper walls and ceiling – to take on character.”

Dialog scenes are unconventional. Bokelberg foregoes typical back and forth shots between the speakers. Instead, the camera might peek overt the shoulder of the speaker – or the listener – giving the impression of eavesdropping.

The dark side

Generally, Scandal’s actors work in flattering soft light. “We might choose a big soft bounce,” Bokelberg says. “Sometimes we’ll use a white muslin curtain or book lights.”

Shadowed lighting helps to pay off Bokelberg’s concept of the show’s reality. He describes his approach to lighting as classic realism. “We try to play the scenes from the dark side, supporting a realistic look with a pleasing, sculpted contrast,” he said.

The dark side really is the dark side – the side in shadow. “We set up parallel to windows and sidelight scenes. Then, if possible, we’ll use a second camera and shoot the subject against the window with the dark side toward the camera,” Bokelberg said.