Spotlight on DP Todd McMullen

Director of Photography Todd McMullen (FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, ARMY WIVES) returns to television this season with the crime drama PRIME SUSPECT, starring Maria Bello as a New York City homicide detective. Stylistically, PRIME SUSPECT borrows many of the same techniques as FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, shooting handheld with naturalistic lighting styles in real locations. The fast-paced production demanded the crew move quickly, shooting with two ALEXA cameras simultaneously.

For McMullen, an interest in photography developed at an early age with stills. Years later, he was bitten by the motion picture bug. “I was so excited about learning how to load and thread a film camera that I signed up for one of the first ARRI camera courses through UCLA Extension. I drove down from Sacramento to Burbank every Friday for the three-hour course. It was a 12-hour commute, but I was so stoked to be able to work with 35mm motion picture cameras,” he says. Fast forward to the present and McMullen still has the same enthusiasm for capturing visuals to tell a story. Here, he talks to us about his lighting style and the particular challenges on PRIME SUSPECT.

AN: How would you describe the look that you established? Were there any references to art, movies or the original TV series?

The main reference was LAST TANGO IN PARIS, because it had the soft diffused light, muted colors and wonderful shadows and contrast. Because we are a handheld show and we give the actors and the camera operator’s freedom to roam, I try to illuminate the scene through practical sources such as windows, doors and yes, even a microwave oven light. The interesting thing was ALEXA was able to capture this style with depth and dimension.

AN: What was in your camera package?

We were rolling two ALEXA systems onto SxS cards, ProRes 4444 and Log C. Lenses were the Optimo 15-40 Zoom and the Optimo 28-76 Zoom. We also used a third ALEXA for quite a few scenes. It would wear Cooke S4 primes.

AN: What kind of tests did you do during prep?

It is not really a test until you take it into the real world. However, I did have to address a few things that I wanted to have an idea on before we started production. First was dynamic range. I heard about the 12-plus stops of latitude and this was one of the main factors that would be core to our style of shooting. We would be shooting in practical locations and lighting conditions that would be out of our control.

AN: Can you talk about lighting interior scenes?

Most of the daytime interior scenes were lit through windows with HMIs. The idea was to keep the look soft and motivated. The art department came up with wonderful window dressings and treatments that were used on a variety of windows, doors and transom windows. Night interiors were lit with practical lights and we would throw some exterior security or sodium vapor streetlights onto the windows from the outside.

AN: How did you deal with shooting exteriors?

I prefer the light of Mother Nature. That’s the great thing about the ALEXA; it can handle the extremes of a daytime exterior. I mean in real life, I don’t usually have a 12K through diffusion lighting me when I’m standing on a street corner or hanging on the beach. So I prefer natural light, and sometimes if needed, a soft natural light bounce. For car driving scenes, if we had to have a process trailer, I would throw a bit of ambiance from a 4K through the windshield. On PRIME SUSPECT we were extremely fortunate to have shot most of the exteriors on overcast days. The days that the sun would sneak out, we tried to block the scene to our benefit. We did try to get the grip crew into the dance with a small bounce card occasionally. That was a lot of fun to watch.

Our style of shooting is one of the main advantages of using the ALEXA. It is a camera that can embrace the element of surprise and roll with the punches.

I bounced a nice soft key light for the principals at around a T4 and then I set up some lighting that was all over the place -- a few windows in the background blown out to different stops and a vase of flowers in the foreground with absolutely no light on it. I think I threw in some candles and practical floor lamps as well. The idea was to set up a scene where I could view a blown-out window and an under-exposed area in the same frame. These tests were at 800 ASA. I must say, I was extremely pleased with the results of these controlled tests. The ALEXA dug into the shadows and was also able to handle the detail in the over-exposed areas. I also was impressed with how the ALEXA captured bare bulbs and candle flames.

The second factor that had to be addressed was the comfort factor of digital production. I wanted to make sure the director and producers knew what they were looking at on set. We were shooting Log C and I wanted to make sure that everyone knew this was not the final image they were viewing on the set monitors. I am not a fan of onset color and grading during production, so I had the opportunity to set up a general LUT at Mega Playground in New York for dailies.

The last test I was hoping to have success on was wireless video transmission. Because of the way we move the camera and the way we move in general, one of the single most important factors in a successful camera set up to me is freedom. We tested the Wevi wireless system and the Modulus System. Since we were treating this like a film shoot it was not important to have a HD signal. It was just important to have a solid image. The Modulus was the most stable system and that is what we used.

AN: There are some really moody scenes that seem very low lit, did you ever feel like you were “pushing it?”

TM: Our style of shooting is one of the main advantages of using the ALEXA. It is a camera that can embrace the element of surprise and roll with the punches. There is a scene where our character comes into the bedroom after a bad night at work and needs comfort from her boyfriend. The overall ambiance was a very soft, low level blue. I had set up her key to be lit by the light coming from outside the bedroom when she was kneeling by the bed. However, when she came into the bedroom, she shut the door. We let it ride and she ended up being lit by the glow of the sodium vapor that was glowing in the window from the alley. I was worried it was a bit down in exposure but when I saw it on the HD monitor at the lab, it was beautiful.

There was another scene in the bathroom that was at a very low level. Our character was looking at crime scene pictures with ambient light from the outside sodium vapor light. The idea was that she didn’t want to wake her boyfriend up while she was working in the bathroom. I was watching the scene next to the A camera and I thought ‘Man, this looks really down to my eye.’ I couldn’t even see my assistant next to me. I thought about that scene all weekend. But, when I talked to the lab and I saw it on the monitor, it looked perfect. We learned early on how to think like an ALEXA. That meant controlling the light and being prepared to see everything.

AN: Anyone on your crew you would like to mention?

TM: Everyone. The grip and electric department was fantastic. It was a very busy time in New York and they pulled together a very fast and fun crew. Our gaffer Tom Percarpio and key grip Tom “Popcorn” Lowry were totally open to the style and freedom of how we shoot. Also, our production designer Tim Galvin and his crew did a great job of interpreting and implementing some of my crazy ideas, as well as finding and building some great sets. The production department and the assistant directors led by Vebe Borge were absolutely able to go with the flow with minimal information. They were warriors and had an amazing sense of humor. Our great camera department was able to jump on board this unconventional style and become characters in the story with their camera work. George Bianchini and Brad Smith were tireless in their handheld camera operating and always found great shots. Our camera assistants were amazing in how they were able to keep focus on such an unscripted style. Sam Kretchmar, our fearless DIT, kept my confidence level high as I tried to chart a path to new low light levels. I know there are many others and they know who they are. They all did an amazing job.

AN: Overall, how was your experience with ALEXA?

TM: My basic requirements for digital production are about ease of use, a familiar workflow and a pleasing natural image. I am not concerned with how many K’s a camera has and how many attachments you can put on it. I am simply looking for a film camera with realistic digital capture technology. The ALEXA is the digital camera that is performing like a film camera. The images it captures and produces look less electronic and more natural and organic to my eye. The depth and dimension it produces without an extensive post workflow are the most “filmic” representations I have seen.