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Making TV: Shooting TV Scenes That Stand Up To The Movies

Can you believe the way that television drama has taken on – and in many cases whipped – feature films? 

By Michael Fickes

Top: A mouse creature from NBC’s Grimm.  Copyright NBC – Grimm 2012.
A mouse creature from NBC’s Grimm.
Copyright NBC – Grimm 2012.

Television cinematographers look to feature films for inspiration – not today’s feature films so much as yesterday’s. “Our basic style is modified 1940’s movies,” said Fred Murphy, ASC, cinematographer on the CBS hit The Good Wife. “The camera is not a character. The characters are the characters. My job is all about making the people look dramatic and beautiful and glamorous.”

Oliver Bokelberg, ASC, and the cinematographer on ABC’s Scandal, likes to dress Olivia Pope, the lead character, in completely white outfits. “Television usually doesn’t use the kind of harsh contrast that white creates,” he said. “But in one of my favorite movies, A Woman Is a Woman, a lot happens with white. It was directed by Jean-Luc Godard and was his first color movie. The design is beautiful. Ever since seeing it, I’ve stopped arguing against white.”

Peter Levy, ASC, ACS, on Showtime’s House of Lies, harks back to Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 film The Conformist for inspiration. “That movie left in the reflections and glares that came with the camera shots,” he said. “I think it looks more real that way. If a scene looks too clean, it seems fake to me.”

Cinematographers that shoot today’s television dramas freely acknowledge a debt to classic film cinematography – and then they use what they’ve learned to shoot riveting television dramas with stories that go on year after year.

With this column this year, Markee covered five of these long-lasting shows: The Good Wife, Scandal, House of Lies, and NBC’s Chicago Fire and Grimm.

The cinematographers on each of these shows have taken what they’ve learned from classic films and tailored shooting philosophies that bring their shows to life.

“A rule that we have is that the camera is always with the firefighters, so the audience always discovers the issues with the firefighters,” said Lisa Wiegand, the director of photography on Chicago Fire.

Kristen Bell and Don Cheadle in  House of Lies.  Photo: Randy Tepper/Showtime
Kristen Bell and Don Cheadle in House of Lies.
Photo: Randy Tepper/Showtime

Wiegand likes to keep it real, too. All the fires on that series are real. Wiegand and the special effects coordinator carefully plan the fires. Then the crew designs and installs a pipe network that juts out of the floor and ceiling. The crew pumps fuel into the pipes and lights them up.

Grimm is about a descendant of the Grimm family, which has for centuries hunted beings that look like people but shape-shift into fairy tale monsters.

Marshall Adams, ASC, the cinematographer on Grimm, wanted to develop a look for the show that could bring out its dark and horrific moments. “Many network shows compress the depth of field and only show the foreground in focus,” he said. “This show is different. We use very wide angles with a wider depth of field and everything in focus. And we don’t do a lot of close-ups. The show plays wider all around.”

Once considered a wasteland, television today is offering better stories and production equal to or better than feature films.

Don’t take my word for it. Media journalists and film and television reviewers are saying the same thing – have been for years now.

Here are two examples:

Back in 2010, long-time New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote: “The traditional relationship between film and television has reversed, as American movies have become conservative and cautious, while scripted series, on both broadcast networks and cable, are often more daring, topical and willing to risk giving offense.”

In October of this year, Stuart Heritage, who writes about film and television for The Guardian, blogged: “If I had to pick sides, I’d go with television every single time. Television, especially the television that’s being produced now, is wiping the floor with film. It’s kicking film’s arse.”

You can Google dozens more examples if you want. The point is, television seems to have entered a new Golden Age. In it’s first Golden Age in the 50’s and 60’s, television discovered itself. In today’s Golden Age, we’re discovering television.