Dissecting the visuals of DEXTER

Cinematographer Jeffrey Jur, ASC admits he had some concerns before he signed on to shoot the current season of the turbulent Showtime series DEXTER. His concern wasn't about the cinematography, it was about the subject matter. The show's lead character, Dexter (Michael C. Hall) has a number of issues that make him different from the average person--not the least of which is the fact that he's a serial killer. "One of the producers said early on, 'We shoot DEXTER on location -- in Dexter's mind,'" Jur recalls with some trepidation. "Was I really going to immerse myself in this world that's a little disturbed?"

But he quickly found the show works on multiple levels. "There's always some humor to the show," says Jur, whose previous work on shows including HBO's CARNIVÀLE, also combined an undercurrent of dark humor to what is otherwise a very serious world. "Michael can do a threatening personality but be aware of what he's doing in a funny way. That made all the difference to me. You would think it would be unsettling to work on a show like this but it's actually quite fun."

Soon after Jur signed on to do the show, he helped convince the producers to start shooting on the ARRI ALEXA, which he'd used previously on a couple of pilots. "As soon as I'd spent two or three hours in a rental house with the ALEXA," he says, "I knew it was perfectly designed for a cinematographer. I find some digital cameras to be less user-friendly -- all the menus and everything -- but with the ALEXA, I just felt I already knew this camera very well."

Jur was very pleased with the sensor's dynamic range and the way it handles extremes of light and dark. "I often like to have something in the background that's just a bit over-exposed so it doesn't have much detail but there's still some depth to highlights. I'm really able to do that with the ALEXA without getting the clipping that can happen with some other digital cameras."

The cinematographer is even more impressed with its low-light capabilities. Generally keeping the EI setting at the native 800 (dropping to 400 for day exteriors), Jur says he's frequently been pleasantly surprised by the low levels of light he's been able to work with. "I'm not the kind of cinematographer who likes to shoot wide open," he notes, "but even so I'm working at surprisingly low light levels."

Besides changing out all the 10Ks on the standing sets for 5Ks, Jur has been able to take advantage of the existing lighting in dim restaurants and bars with only some simple augmentation. "I've shot scenes in parking lots at night with just the lights that were there. We shot a scene recently in a very dark bar that has a lot of red in it. That would have been difficult to do as film shoot. First, I was usually working at ISO 500 and second, red has always been a difficult color to record on film. But I took still photographs of the location and the red looked spectacular. And when we shot there with the ALEXA, the place looked great. The sensor really saw deep into the shadows and I was able to photograph what I initially saw."

When Jur wants to push his low light work even further he prefers to let more light in by widening the shutter angle to 270 or even 360 degrees. "Of course we'll get a bit more motion blur," he explains, "but nothing that's a problem. It's really a nice look and it's just amazing to have an extra full stop available when you need it."

The show also utilizes the Nikon D800 DSLR outfitted with the ARRI camera cage, often for car interiors and surveillance style shots. To work with the smaller camera, operator Eric Fletcher needed solid accessories that could hold up to the strain of day-to-day production. “I wanted something that my assistants would be not only familiar with but most importantly, comfortable using. I wanted them using real matte boxes with real filter trays and real follow focuses. In the end, Philip Vischer (ARRI PCA product manager) and the ARRI group figured out how to make a DSLR work seamlessly with an ALEXA and make a fantastic shooting combination. ”

Each episode of DEXTER shoots for eight days -- five on the Sunset Gower stages in Hollywood and three on various locations, primarily around the Long Beach area just south of Los Angeles to stand in for Miami. "The guideline the producers gave me was that they wanted to return more to the look the show had in its first seasons," Jur says. "They wanted a lot of bright, saturated color. I spent a couple of days in Miami before we started just so I could get immersed in the look and feel of the place. That really helped inform what I do.

"The color palette in South Florida really is extreme," he adds, "and so I look for any opportunity to bring that kind of color to the show. Long Beach already has some of that kind of look to it. It really works well with the water on the horizon in so many places and boats in the background. Then I've been introducing a new color into some of the night work--there's a little green in it and it's a little eerie. I think it's a nice change from the standard blue 'moonlight' we've all used at some point."

Jur also notes that the ALEXA's "over cranking" function is particularly useful for his work on DEXTER. "When we shoot from Dexter's POV," he elaborates, "we are usually slowing things down a bit. Dexter is observing the world, which is really a very strange place for him. He wants to be normal but he doesn't really know how so he's always observing and studying other people's behavior. So we always carry one body that goes to 120 fps and one that can go up to 60. For a film guy like me who's used to only being able to shoot 40, that's great!"

It turns out that Jur doesn't mind spending time in Dexter's mind at all. Quite the opposite. "You have a license with this show to be very creative and to take chances," he says. "And that's really what I hope for on any project."