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Making TV: Creating A Sitcom Look — Donald Morgan, ASC - Part 2

Donald Morgan, ASC, talks camera and lens selection, developing signature camera moves and creative lighting.

By Michael Fickes 

Successful television shows find compelling cinematic looks. A pilot introduces the idea for the series and sets the tone. If the program is picked up, the DP refines the look with signature camera moves and distinctive lighting over the course of the first season.

It ain’t Paris, but the gals of Hot In Cleveland enjoy a night out on their new town.

Successful television shows find compelling cinematic looks. A pilot introduces the idea for the series and sets the tone. If the program is picked up, the DP refines the look with signature camera moves and distinctive lighting over the course of the first season.

Shaping New Hits for TVLand

As reported in the last issue, over the past 20 years Emmy Award-winner Donald A. Morgan, ASC has shot more than 100 sitcom pilots. When pilots are picked up, Morgan often continues to hone the look, shooting another half dozen or so shows before turning the camera over to another DP and moving on to his next pilot. In some cases, he has stayed with a show throughout its run.

Morgan handled the pilots for two new series on cablenet TVLand: Hot In Cleveland and Retired At 35. He shot a handful of Hot In Cleveland shows and then turned over the camera to DP Gary Howard Baum. He took Retired At 35 from the pilot through the first season and plans to continue on the planned eight-episode season two.

Morgan chose four Sony F900 cameras with Panavision lenses for Hot In Cleveland. The lens package includes two 11:1 and two 8:1 zooms. For Retired At 35, he selected four Sony HDC-1500 cameras with Canon 20:1 zoom lenses.

“Each camera and lens package is like a different film stock,” Morgan says. “I used the Sony 1500 and Canon lenses – with a quarter [Schneider] Classic Soft effects filter – on Retired At 35 to just take a little edge off of the sharp look.

“For Hot In Cleveland, I wanted a softer look. High Definition shows every tiny pore, and I wanted to bring that back. The ‘Panavised’ Sony F900 cameras plus one-half black Pro-Mist filters softened the look. I also raised the mid-range to expose the shadow areas more without flattening the picture.”

Morgan’s DIY Formula for Home Improvement

Morgan shot more than 200 episodes of Home Improvement over nine seasons. The series was really two shows in one: Tool Time, a cable home improvement show starring Tim Taylor (played by Tim Allen) and a show about Tim, his family and Wilson, the neighbor, whose face was never seen.

Morgan selected five Ikegami digital cameras with Canon lenses for the series. Four of the cameras rode on four Vinten pedestals. Generally, two cameras shot the main action and two looked at reactions. The fifth camera shot from a jib.

While Wilson’s face was hidden by all kinds of devices over the course of the show, the backyard fence masked his face most of the time. “We needed a quick way to move a camera over the fence to look back at Tim or whoever was talking to Wilson,” Morgan says. “That’s why we needed the jib.”

To achieve a different feel for scenes shot at home and scenes shot in the Tool Time studio he used the Ikegamis’ electronic settings to sharpen the video look of the Tool Time scenes. For the domestic scenes, both interiors and exteriors, he softened the look.

He lit Tool Time with relatively harsh studio lighting. For the scenes at home, however, he asked the production designer for plenty of windows and imagined how the house might look in different day parts and seasons.

“I also varied the camera movements,” he says. “At home, the camera moves were smoother and more intimate than the shots at work.”
Morgan also developed a signature camera move that helped artists select a key element from a locked-off shot and create animated transitions to the next scene.

Over the show’s nine-year run, Morgan won seven Emmys for his lighting and camera work on Home Improvement.

ABC just picked up the pilot he shot, The Last Man Standing, a family sitcom starring none other than Tim Allen.