Working with ALEXA: ELEMENTARY

Recently renewed for a third season, ELEMENTARY is a U.S. crime drama series that puts a contemporary spin on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes characters, with Lucy Liu playing a female Dr Watson to Jonny Lee Miller's New York-based Holmes. Cinematographer Ron Fortunato, ASC, has shot the majority of episodes through the first two seasons, utilizing an ALEXA camera package supplied by ARRI CSC and recording ProRes 4444 Log C.

With ALEXA the exposure in the high end is a big improvement.

What do you enjoy about working in television?

 

It's a bit of a cliché but people are saying that we're in the second golden age of television. It used to be seen as less challenging than feature films, but the writing and the character of the shows has changed, and today's big-screen TVs are another factor. You have more cinematic possibilities now and you don't have to shoot everything in close-ups; it's attracting not only crew people that wouldn't have done television years ago, but actors as well. Personally I love storytelling and the human aspect of filmmaking, and these days there's more of that in television than in movies.

 

Nelson Cragg shot the pilot on ALEXA; was there any discussion of switching to a different camera?

 

No, I was very happy to have the ALEXA; I first used it on PAN AM and fell in love with it. It's not very often that a piece of equipment comes along that really is a game-changer, but ALEXA certainly was -- just the quality of it, and the speed; I can shoot by candlelight now. It's a whole different story to when I first shot with digital at the request of Sidney Lumet, for a film I did with him 14 years ago. I idolized Sidney and would have shot with anything he wanted, but when you compare what was possible then with the ALEXA, it's like night and day.

 

How do you use the Zeiss Standard Speeds and Angenieux zooms you have on the show?

 

You need zooms on TV, so we're on those most of the time, although I use the Zeiss primes a lot for flashbacks. I would like to use the primes more because I love the quality they have on HD and there is a trend right now to use older glass. Everything has gotten so sharp, but sometimes a little softness and a little imperfection can be great.

Have you encountered any pressure to shoot 4K?

Not yet. It's probably coming and I don't think it's necessarily a good idea. Of course we'll have to embrace it, but I think it's going to be used for the wrong reasons. I'm concerned that the resolution could be used in postproduction to recompose shots. But I've learned since this digital revolution started to make the best of things as they come along; you've just got to use them to your advantage. 

Is it a challenging show to light?

I'm definitely working at a substantially lower light level than I have in the past. Previous digital cameras were about 320 ASA, but the ALEXA is 800 and when you push to 1,600 there is no discernable difference. It has much better latitude, so not only are you using less light -- you're also a little bit less worried. One of my biggest complaints with HD used to be that highlights disappeared, but with ALEXA the exposure in the high end is a big improvement.

We're allowed to light TV shows like movies now, in fact it's expected. They want a moody, cinematic look for almost every series, so as cinematographers we're in a very good place. The challenge comes when you have to do it in a third of the time, which can be difficult sometimes, but it's great. It makes you stronger as a DP.