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Making TV: Leverage

Camerabatics

By Michael Fickes

DP David Connell (right) with camera operator Gary Camp on location for Leverage. Photo courtesy David Connell
DP David Connell (right) with camera operator Gary Camp on location for Leverage.
Photo courtesy David Connell

In Leverage, the hour-long TNT comedy/drama that began its third season January 13 at 10 p.m., a gang of con artists led by Nate Ford, a former insurance investigator played by Timothy Hutton, seeks justice for their wronged clients.

The show features rapid-fire dialogue and unexpected cuts that give a sense of events speeding out of control captured by an acrobatic camera that can race off in unexpected directions, just like Ford’s nimble band whom executive producer Dean Devlin has likened to modern-day Robin Hoods.

Dean Devlin (left) with DP David Connell on the set of Leverage. Photo: Richard Foreman, Jr.
Dean Devlin (left) with DP David Connell on the set of
Leverage. Photo: Richard Foreman, Jr.
TM & © Turner Network Television.
A Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

Devlin and Leverage creators John Rogers and Chris Downey envisioned a show in which three RED One Digital Cinema cameras co-star. David Connell, the DP on Leverage, likes RED for its ability to use film lenses and thereby mimic the look of film. “You don’t have to look up equivalent lenses, either,” he says. He chooses 18 to 80mm and 24 to 290mm Optimos for the show.

Connell also keeps a complement of three Sony PMW-EX1 XDCAM solid-state HD memory camcorders handy for action sequences. “You can put them in risky situations,” he points out. “They are $5,000 cameras, and if there’s a scene that might trash a camera, you use them. We haven’t lost one yet, but sooner or later…”

He says that “another good thing about High-Def is that you can put these small cameras virtually anywhere. It’s easy to stick one wherever you want it and not worry about anything happening to it. It’s becoming very much of a way to go.”

An episode called “The Two Live Crew Job” illustrates signature camera shots that recur throughout Leverage.

The episode opens with Ford’s do-good team agreeing to recover a Gustav Klimt painting for its rightful owner. Stolen by the Nazis during World War II, the painting has fallen into the hands of a shady software tycoon. The job goes awry when the team discovers that another crew of do-bad con artists has beaten the good guys to the painting.

Christian Kane, Timothy Hutton, Gina Bellman and Beth Riesgraf in ?The Two Live Crew Job.? Photo: Erik Heinila TM & ? Turner Network Television.  A Time Warner Company.  All rights reserved.
Christian Kane, Timothy Hutton, Gina Bellman and Beth Riesgraf in “The Two Live Crew Job.” Photo: Erik Heinila
TM & © Turner Network Television. A Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

Now the Leverage team must con the bad guys to get the Klimt back. At a cocktail party in an art auction house, they realize that they are up against a group that might just be their equal.

In the scene, the camera begins by panning in a 360-degree circle around the perimeter of the large room, locating members of the Ford team who are all enacting different roles.

The goal is to show the team’s shock at realizing how good their opponents are. A Steadicam shot finds Ford in a long shot across the room and zooms to a tight close-up; the Steadicam operator pans around the room, a move transformed into a high-speed blur in post. The move stops suddenly on the face of Parker, a gifted second-story woman (Beth Riesgraf). The camera freezes the frame again, and takes off on another blurred, high-speed pan that stops with a close-up of Eliot Spencer, the team’s martial arts expert (Christian Kane). In post, the close-up frames are frozen and the round-the-room pans are further sped up and blurred.

“We call those bullet-time shots,” says Connell. “A series of bullet-time shots, usually achieved with Steadicam, is one of our signatures.”

The cocktail party takes place in the late afternoon as daylight starts to fade. Connell often relies on light occurring naturally within the scene and frames “a lot of practical” lighting with natural lighting.

The production truck carries large daylight HMI and tungsten packages. Shot in seven days, an episode can demand as many as 40 set-ups per day on sets (three days) and at Portland, Oregon-area locations (four days) that Connell may not have had time to preview. Sometimes unexpected challenges arise, and prospective lighting needs have to be accounted for.

DP David Connell (black shirt) on the set of Leverage. Photo: Karen Neal TM & ? Turner Network Television. A Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.
DP David Connell (black shirt) on the set of Leverage. Photo: Karen Neal
TM & © Turner Network Television. A Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

Back to the cocktail party. Connell calls for a shot dubbed the Ninja Zoom by the crew. It begins outside the building in the back of a surveillance van with two Ford team members. Resident tech genius, Alec Hardison (Aldis Hodge) has just discovered that the bag guys also have a tech genius who is nearby running another surveillance truck.

At Connell’s signal, the camera pulls back right through the rear of the van. More than a pull back, the camera takes off suddenly at high speed blurring the image. Continuing at top speed, the camera sees a line of parked vehicles, pans to the right and pushes into the back of another van, where the rival tech genius is working. The move is carried out with a fixed camera and sped up to a blur in postproduction.

Another signature shot occurs whenever a member of the cast is in jeopardy. In a scene from “The Two Live Crew Job,” grifter Sophie Devereaux (Gina Bellman) ends up in her living room holding a vase that contains a motion-sensitive bomb. She can’t move, so she waits until the team notices her absence and comes to her rescue.

In the apartment, Connell directs the camera operator to switch from Steadicam, the series’ most common shooting mode, to handheld with a bit of shake to it.

“We always use handheld shots to increase the sense that the cast is in danger,” Connell notes. “In addition, we shoot fight scenes with a 90-degree shutter to give a frenetic look to the video.”

Even straight shots are dynamic, though. “The cameras are always mounted on sliders, and we keep them moving,” he says. Say a couple of Ford’s team are sitting around a table devising a plan. Not much else happens — except with the camera that makes a subtle slide to the left or right every now and then, just to let viewers know that, much like this unlikely band of do-gooders, it will soon get up and go.


December 17, 2012