Magazine article American Cinematographer

Complex Procedures

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Complex Procedures

Article excerpt

"Critical was always conceived of as a show that would not hold back on anything at all," says cinematographer Tim Palmer, BSC. He speaks of a series that is widely described as a medical drama, although the production exhibits an almost documentarían interest in its depiction of medical procedures. Furthermore, the production schedule for the 13-episode first season was far from conventional. When the cameras began to roll in February 2014, Palmer says, "nobody quite knew how long it was going to take. The producers knew they had to finish filming 13 episodes by the middle of October, and that we'd fill in the time accordingly."

Palmer's background includes work on a wide variety of popular British series, including episodes of Doctor Who, Silent Witness, Life on Mars, Hustle and Wire in the Blood. Prior to his motionpicture work, he recalls, "I started out as a stills photographer in the late Eighties." His move toward cinematography took him through the National Film and Television School at Beaconsfield Studios and a series of jobs as a camera trainee, including Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream That One Calls Human Life, which was photographed by Nie Knowland, BSC.

"I owe so much to Nie," says Palmer. "He gave me my first break as a clapper loader. He was shooting a bigbudget TV drama in Africa called The Dying of the Light and had to use a lot of local crew. It was not working out, and one evening I received a call asking if I could get on a plane to Ghana, and that was that."

Palmer's involvement with Critical began early. "Graciously, the producers brought me on board at a very early date - I was involved from mid-November [2013]. Long before the sets went up, we were having discussions with the production and set designers about the extensive use of built-in LED lighting and how it would be incorporated into the set. It was a groundbreaking show in terms of its reliance on LEDs to light such a large portion of the set."

U.K. vendor LED Flex supplied RGB color-mixing light strips, which worked in conjunction with color-mixing Fresnels. "The set was color-coded," explains Palmer, who worked with gaffer Chris Bird. "The resuscitation department was blue, the O.R. was green and the CT room was red." While Palmer used Arri's VersaTile LED panels - in their cooler 5,000K incarnation - much of the practical lighting built into the set was more prosaic. "All the ceiling panels were dimmable LEDs," the cinematographer notes. "They were not LED panels designed for film, specifically; they were just commercial industrial units from a supplier that kits out office buildings, but that particular supplier happened to have the best CRI in the industry.

"Up in the grid there were about 50 Arri L7-C [Fresnels]," Palmer continues. "For complex tracking shots when the camera had to revolve around the characters, the L7s could be programmed so that a block or run of lamps could fade off and their opposites could come up on multiple cues, so that the actors remained backlit at all times. It was very liberating to have such quick control over lamp color and exposure. This, in turn, enabled us to be even more creative with lighting."

Weather and the time of day were written into the script, allowing each of the one-hour episodes variability in the depiction of exterior light. "We shot episode two first," Palmer recalls. "It looks good, but from my point of view it's the flattest. The learning curve was steep, and I realized that letting the practical lighting drive the look, though making the sets very easy to shoot, resulted in not enough overall contrast. What started to work better was to introduce stronger sources through the windows and correspondingly reduce the ambient levels inside. If memory serves me correctly, we began the shoot with the interior LED levels set at 80 to 100 percent, but by episode three they were down to 25 to 35 percent."

The first episode - and the second to be shot - was scripted to occur at sunrise, and represents the results of Palmer's realization. …

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