Magazine article American Cinematographer

Dangerous Beauties

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Dangerous Beauties

Article excerpt

In many ways, the risqué Cinemax series femme Fatales can be viewed as a prototype of how tightly budgeted television production can succeed in the era of digital tools and ridiculous turnarounds. Each half-hour episode is shot at a single practical location in the Los Angeles area with a single camera, a Red One (with the Mysterium-X chip). There are one day of prep and three days of actual production (and the occasional pickup shoot) per episode.

What makes the challenge more complex is the fact that Femme Fatales is an anthology series, so characters, locations and stories change with each episode. And it all has to be done in the context of a visual aesthetic inspired by the moody photography in such films as T-Men and The Big Combo (both shot by John Alton, ASC), Body Heat (Richard Kline, ASC), Bound (Bill Pope, ASC) and Basic instinct (Jan De Bont, ASC).

"Every three days we have a new script, new characters and new actors," says director of photography Roger Chingirian, who was in the midst of shooting the series' second season when he spoke to AC "And the producers want a different look for every episode to support the individual story. We have a set approach, but not a set look. That's difficult to do in three days, but we have a great team, and we've all become quite good at it. We do a tech scout on each episode and discuss tools, colors and how best to use the inherent qualities of our given location, but mostly its about changing style and color palette and developing effective camera moves."

During location scouts, the team makes key decisions about the look and shooting method for the episode at hand. They always carry a six-lens set of Arri/Zeiss Ultra Primes and an Angenieux Óptimo 12:1 (24-290mm) zoom lens. They usually record to Red Raid hard drives, and occasionally employ a Canon EOS 7D with a PL mount (modified by FGV Schmidle) for specialty shots.

Chingirian, who does his own operating on the show, says his main tool in maintaining high production value is his lens package. "During my interview, the one thing I really pushed the producers on was lenses," he recalls. "The lenses mattered more to me than the camera. It's all about the glass. Going in, we didn't know what kind of spaces we'd be shooting in, but I had a low-budget background, so I knew we had to have a zoom. And quite honestly, the Optimo often saves our schedule."

In fact, the Optimo has been dubbed "The Daymaker," according to 1st AC Kyle Klutz. "It's really the workhorse for us," he says. "We put it on a dolly track at the end of the day, and we can get wide shots and tight shots all with the same lens."

Layering a noir aesthetic over episodes that vary wildly in tone - hardboiled drama, comedy, horror - is probably the biggest challenge the filmmakers face. Some of this aesthetic is achieved as one might expect: with less light, lots of silhouettes and plenty of contrast and diffusion. "But we also want our actresses, the femmes fatale, to always look glamorous," notes Chingirian, "so sometimes it's hard to go as dark as we might want. In those situations, well have them come in and out of light for example, but really, a lot of the show's look is achieved with color contrasts."

For example, several episodes have been set in hospitals. "We aren't afraid to shoot on a location with institutional-green walls and really go with it, mixing up color temperatures along the way," continues the dnematographer. "We'll also add and take away light in shots. Our colorisi at Tunnel Post, Sebastian Perez-Burchard, and I will later take it further if necessary."

Gaffer Steve Lundgren says the look "is all about playing with shadows and highlights in deep backgrounds. We often position practicáis such as Christmas lights, sconces and floor lamps beyond the main action to create depth, so we don't get stuck without a solution at our [various locations]."

Chingirian uses camera placement and movement to not only highlight the blocking of each scene, but also to maximize the strength of each location. …

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