When 100 Centre Street premiered in January on A&E, it was touted not only as the network's first dramatic series, but also the first on TV to be shot in the high-definition format. Yet the visual distinction between the show and your average hour-long courtroom drama may not be that obvious to viewers — which is just fine with director of photography Ron Fortunato. The New York-based series, which is created, executive produced, and sometimes directed by filmmaker Sidney Lumet, may occasionally blaze with the telltale highlights of video, but for the most part it appears closer to film. “My sister asked, ‘All these articles are mentioning HDTV, what am I supposed to be seeing?’” says Fortunato. “I said, ‘Nothing, they're making way too big a deal out of it.’”
One reason the process isn't so noticeable is that 100 Centre Street, which was recently renewed by A&E, is shot with 24p (for progressive scan) rather than 30i (for interlace) cameras; 24p approximates the frame rate of 24fps film cameras, while 30i has the higher-speed look of video. “Sidney picked high-definition because he likes the look of it,” says the DP. “I'm not as gung-ho about it as he is, though I think for this show, the hi-def is great. After I took the job, I saw the 30i, and it looked too clear and crisp; all the things Sidney said he liked about it, I thought worked against it. I had to figure out, how am I going to make him happy, and make myself happy?”
Sony's 24p cameras were new when Fortunato started testing them. “I shot some stuff during the day, I shot some stuff at dusk, and I shot some at night,” he says. “I saw that it handles color very well, and seemed to work very well in mixed light. It's much richer than video. I got a little optimistic. Shooting the first episode or two, I had good days and bad days. It was an odd job, because usually by the time you start shooting a film, you've got your look down — you don't want to be experimenting on time that's going to be up on screen. I had to come to grips with the fact that I was going to be learning a lot during the first couple of weeks. So, I think the difference in look between the first episode and the third episode is tremendous.”
There was another element to the show that made Fortunato wary, particularly from a lighting standpoint. “Sidney wanted to shoot it multi-camera, like a soap opera, but he didn't want it to look like one,” he says. “When he directed, we used three cameras quite often.” The reason, primarily, was budget: Shooting multi-camera meant shaving a day off 100 Centre Street's schedule, and keeping the working hours on the remaining seven days per episode to a more manageable number than usual. But multi-camera production also meant lighting for several angles at once, which is no DP's notion of an ideal situation.
“The biggest thing is not to overlight it, and to realize that you're going to have people in shadows,” says the cinematographer, whose other credits include the independent features Mac, Basquiat, and Nil by Mouth, and the short-lived TV series Wonderland. “Simpler is better: if you start lighting each particular angle as an individual shot, you're going to get screwed. I always thought about where would I light this from if I were doing a film? And is that going to work? Usually, it didn't. A lot of times it involved working a little higher, having lights hung instead of working off the floor. You had to get clever. If you wanted an eye light on someone, and you were shooting over someone else's shoulders, sometimes you'd let that eye light be an edge light on the other person.
“I would say the lighting package is similar to a low-budget film,” he continues. “The sensitivity to the cameras is about 320 ASA, so it's like working with relatively high-speed film. I used more Kino Flos than I've ever used, because we had a lot of fluorescent locations. It's the only job I've ever done where I didn't carry any 12ks. Jerry Blau, the gaffer, and I said, we have X amount of guys, and we have tons of stuff to get done; maybe we're better off without 12ks because they're so big. We had 6k HMI PARs, which was our biggest light.” Stage sets at Astoria Studios were lit with Mole- Richardson tungsten lights.
New to Fortunato was the crucial relationship with the video engineer. “We wired in each camera to a truck, where the engineer was,” he says. “I would tell him what stop I wanted to work at, and what filter, and he would balance. What was fantastic was, these episodes were 75% color-timed by the time they were cut. In fact, there was one episode where I didn't touch a thing.”
But the most important relationship, of course, was with Lumet. “Sidney has always been a huge hero of mine, and I've always wanted to work with him,” says the DP. “I decided, I don't care if it's shot on Scotch tape, if it's Sidney Lumet, I'm doing it.”