Magazine article American Cinematographer

Diagnosing ER's Practical Approach

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Diagnosing ER's Practical Approach

Article excerpt

The much-lauded medical drama takes lighting cues from real life while injecting cinematic energy into television's visual language.

THE EMERGENCY-ROOM DOORS BURST open and a gurney comes hurtling down the corridor. Doctors and nurses descend upon it with well-practiced precision, shouting out orders as they maneuver the bed though a maze of people and into the trauma area. Backpedaling down the hallway in front of the action, anticipating every twist and smoothly capturing every turn, is Steadicam operator Guy Bee.

Bee is one of the magicians behind ER, NBC's hit medical series, now in its second season. One of the few truly innovative shows to hit the airwaves, the hour-long drama is known as much for its action-packed pace and non-traditional shooting and lighting style as for its well-written storylines and attractive cast of wholly believable characters.

Director of photography Richard Thorpe, who has been with the series since its third episode, says the show's ground-breaking visual style was actually the brainchild of director Rod Holcomb and cinematographer Tom Del Ruth, ASC, who worked together on the pilot. Del Ruth, who won two ASC awards for his work on ER, says he aimed for a documentary look and feel, with free-flowing staging and commensurately free-flowing lighting.

"Michael Crichton's original script was set in a Boston hospital on St. Patrick's Day," notes Del Ruth. The setting was modeled after Massachusetts General Hospital where Crichton, the show's creator and author, served his own medical apprenticeship in the early Seventies. "It was an eye-opening look at what physicians at a lower-middle-class hospital were encountering over a 24-hour holiday period. An event-driven drama which barely scratched the surface of who the characters were, the script suggested an extraordinarily hyper-real environment in which doctors and hospital staffers found themselves in one medical emergency after another. To Rod and me, that meant taking an almost documentary approach."

"Our lighting made no attempt to flatter the actors," continues Del Ruth. "We wanted a strong, piercing hot light and a strong contrast, where characters were either in the light or out of it. If they were dark, that was fine, and if they were brilliantly lit because of the overhead illumination - well, the harshness of it added to the drama."

The two-hour pilot was shot inside an abandoned hospital, the Linda Vista in East Los Angeles. Del Ruth couldn't ask for a better setting. He utilized the hospital's own lighting system, overhead fluorescents which threw out the harsh light he was seeking, and employed a Steadicam to snake through the labyrinth of hospital corridors.

When the series moved to Warner Bros.' stage 11, construction workers built an almost exact replica of Linda Vista, enlarging it a bit and adding windows to some of the rooms. A drop ceiling, clearly visible in many shots, completes the set, making it as close to a practical location as can be imagined on a soundstage. Even the AC outlets work. "It's convenient," explains Thorpe. "You can plug lights and monitors into the outlets, which saves running cables all over the floor, an added consideration with a Steadicam."

Lighting panels, consisting of 40-watt fluorescent bulbs, are built into the ceilings, exactly as they were at Linda Vista. According to Del Ruth, the art department went a little overboard, doubling the number of lights and giving the set a much brighter look than he wanted. He ended up using only half of them.

Del Ruth also installed can lights in the ceilings, putting them on dimmers. "We had 500-watt lights in them, which were very raw, and we brought them full up on the dimmers so that when somebody walked under one of them they turned to vapor - i.e., they became overexposed, which added a lot of punctuation to the set."

Thorpe stuck closely to his predecessor's lighting plan, with a few slight modifications. …

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