The great debate over whether the hit Fox series Ally McBeal is drama or comedy only accelerated after the hour-long show received 10 Emmy nominations in comedic categories. The confusion over the generic status of the professional and personal adventures of a stylish young attorney in a Boston law firm cuts right to the heart of writer-producer David E. Kelley's unique concept. As Ally McBeal enters its second season, the discussion encompasses every aspect of the show.
"The look and style evolved, and it's still evolving today," says Billy Dickson, director of photography on every episode of Ally McBeal since its 1997 pilot. "I think at first, when everyone went into it, there was a preformed idea of making this a bright and light kind of comedy. And it just didn't work out that way. We had a lot of discussions about colors, which became very rich and saturated, and the lighting became more and more natural rather than overlit. Costuming and art direction and everything else worked off each other to form what it is now. I would callit a richly natural-looking show.
"It's funny," the DP continues, "because the Kelley organization was concerned that I couldn't do the comedy. They viewed my reel, which is a little on the dark side, with lots of moody stuff." Dickson's previous credits include pilot episodes for Babylon 5, The Big Easy, and Deadly Games, one of the Halloween movies, and more than 30 TV films, few of which are lighthearted. "I had nothing comedic on my tape," he says. "I love drama lighting--shadows and lights and darks and colors. In some respects, I think the way Ally McBeal is now is in my style. There are moments when we fall into comedic situations, and the lighting has to be a little broader than I care for. But I think we still maintain the limits of drama."
And sometimes epitomize them. "We've had a few very heavy episodes," says Dickson. "I made it grittier, went with a handheld camera. We still used longer lenses, but backed off a bit, and the lighting became a little harsher. You light rooms rather than scenes, and let the actors play wherever the light hits them--rather than lighting every position that they stand in, and trying to get the best look on their faces."
Generally, however, Ally McBeal is all about faces. Or, more to the point, says Dickson, "David Kelley's dialogue, which is so good. So, 80% of the show is about the actors' faces, and their closeups, to make them as nice-looking as possible." The faces he is referring to belong not just to the charming Calista Flockhart, who plays Ally, but also co-stars Courtney Thorne-Smith, Greg Germann, Lisa Nicole Carson, Jane Krakowski, Peter MacNicol, and Gil Bellows. The DP is in daily contact with the show's makeup artists, to make sure the actors' skin tones are always well matched. "But I think everyone works well together," he says. "I do light the men a little more in 3/4- or half-light than the women, and try to position them where they get the more dramatic lighting. To emphasize the actors, I throw the background out of focus a little bit. But I always keep it alive with color or light--to make the shot interesting, but not distracting."
As it did last year, Ally McBeal is filmed mostly in several key interiors, along with some swing sets and very few exteriors. There's the work environment, which includes both a two-level law complex with offices radiating off a central reception area, and the courtrooms where Ally and the other attorneys argue their cases. There's the play environment, centered on a fancifully upscale restaurant/bar where Ally and her coworkers unravel, socialize, and engage in various courtship rituals, all to the tunes of resident singer Vonda Shepard. And least significantly, there's home--last year, for Ally, a studio apartment best remembered as the site of the dancing Baby Cha-Cha's appearances.
There are some changes in these sets this season, most of which are the result of one big change: Ally McBeal, along with Kelley's other hit show, The Practice, has a new home, in a brand-new studio. The Manhattan Beach Studios, south of Hollywood, south of LAX, south of Culver City (and really far south of Valencia, where Dickson lives when he makes it home), found one of its first tenants last summer when Kelley Productions moved its operations from Renmar Studios in the more traditional northern regions. And, at least as far as space is concerned, this is a very good thing.
"Our biggest problem is always space," says chief lighting technician Myron Hyman, who has worked on Ally McBeal since he was called in for some reshoots on the pilot episode. Hyman, whose plentiful series credits have included Paradise, Reasonable Doubts, the final season of L.A. Law, and Weird Science, is conducting a tour of the new soundstage in mid-June, a month before the show had to be up and running for the fall season. Power issues are still being ironed out and green beds are still being placed, but most of the set walls are up, and the gaffer is clearly looking forward to the greater freedom more space will provide. "When we knew we were moving here, we hada meeting to decide what we could do to improve the look, speed, and efficiency of the show."
The meeting included Dickson, Hyman, key grip David Ahuna, production designer Peter Politanoff, and an assistant director, along with Kelley and the other producers. "We went through the blueprints set by set," Dickson recalls. "We said, 'This would help if you did this, this would help if you did that, if you put a window here, made this hall a little longer, or took this header out for good.' They implemented more than 50% of them right away; the rest are yet to come. It was good planning on everybody's part to have a head start on things, and it gave Myron the idea to come in a month early and work with the electrical people, hang electrical trusses and Kino Flos for the backings to save space, and get the power he needed."
But most importantly, the DP continues, "The move has helped us immensely as far as the room to work in. It's given us more room out windows to send lights through. I do use a lot of long lenses, so I have room to back the camera up more. They've given Ally a new apartment, with a huge window, which is a great source to light it. Most of the scenes in the other one played in the doorway or a very narrow living room; it was like lighting an actual studio apartment without a ceiling. They've also added quite a bit more set material to our major set, the complex: longer hallways, and a 90-degree window to the major offices." The latter has been particularly useful. "Instead of having just one window that their back is to, I've now got a side window to light from, which helps a lot in terms of the mood of the room, of hiding lights, of the ease of everything." From a mid-August vantage point, four weeks into production, he says, "It's made our job much quicker, so far."
The main, skylit bullpen area of the complex is two stories, with a balcony circling the perimeter. The skylight was represented last year by 10ks shooting straight down, but Hyman says those were so hot that they kept losing their reflectors. This season, the look is being achieved by grouping four PAR cans together for hot spots. "And then," says Dickson, "if there's a scene being played in the bullpen, maybe I'll take a 10k and smash it into the backs of their heads from the balcony, as if they're standing right under one of the skylights." Ambient lighting is provided by softboxes in each upper corner, six spot Molepars ganged together in one 6x6x6 double muslin box with full grid. "I play the practicals in the background, but I'll turn them off near the actors, because I just don't find them very flattering," the DP says.
The individual offices now have the advantage of windows on two walls, at 90-degree angles to each other. "In the offices, for the day stuff I use all window light," says Dickson. "I'll take two 12x12 muslins and shoot 20ks through them, and that will be my key light. I like the double muslin because it's a nice, warm look, and it really helps with the richer colors of the wardrobe. It doesn't give me reflections off the wood walls like white grid cloth. The muslin turns a little orange, and blends in a little better with the wood. And it's nice on their faces, it doesn't reflect hard kicks.
"And then, from another direction, I'll use a hot 20k as a hard slash across their bodies," Dickson continues. Last season, the offices not only had just one window, they were smaller. "When you were shooting towards the window, you really had no place to light off the floor," says the DP. "So we would take the window wall, disconnect it from the room, and push it out about 5-8'. Then we'd fly the left or right wall away, and have a source outside that wall. Otherwise, you'd see everything reflected, because the windows don't gimbal. Now I've got a window there that I can punch through, and you won't see it reflected."
For night scenes, Dickson uses the practicals more, and relies to a great extent on Chimeras with eggcrates or honeycomb grids, or Chimera china balls sourced with 500W or 1k globes and wrapped in muslin. Translights are installed outside all windows. In the tight spaces around Ally's apartment window and several offices, they are lit by 48 4x5 Kino Flo 12-tube fixtures on ELS-hung truss and speed rail. This technique was devised on the small Renmar stages, because the relatively cool fluorescents can be placed as close as 3' from the translights. Elsewhere, the backings are treated with Strand four cycs, full up for day and dimmed for night, with grain-of-wheat bulbs "for a little sparkle," says the DP. "Some of the translights are a little colder than I like them, so I warm them up by putting full- or half-CTO on the lights. All of my night stuff, I use quarter- or half-CTO on most of my lights. I don't use blue much on the show; everything's on the warm side. If I use a little blue moonlight, it's very subtle. We'll put our HMIs outdoors, and put 3/4 Rosco 85 on it."
There are other nooks and crannies to the law complex, and one somewhat important, if unorthodox set--the firm's unisex bathroom, where a fair number of scenes unspool. Dickson wanted to do something distinctive here--"I wanted to add something to it photographically because I knew we were going to be shooting a lot of scenes in there. Originally, it was just gray stalls, gray walls, and a window. I just couldn't stand looking at the gray walls behind the actors scene after scene. So I had my grip, David Ahuna, make up these 4x4 boards with cracked mirror all over them. I hung them from a truss, and took a 1,200W HMI PAR and bounced into that so it scattered the light all over the wall. I either get speckled blue light, or I put a double-CTO on it for nights or whenever I feel like it for a speckled warm light. There are no fluorescents in the bathroom, we just light it as we feel each time we go in there for a nice soft look. Sometimes we key from the window, and if we're able to pull the walls out we use the big sources, like a bounced 12x12 through grid cloth or muslin. We just try to keep the lights off the walls and on the actors as much as we can."
The same cracked-mirror approach is sometimes used in the courtroom corridor set, which is lit by bounced Image 80s or from new window lights. As for the courtroom, it is actually one set representing at least two spaces in different configurations. "One is where we have the judge against the wall adjacent to the windows, and then there's one with the judge against the windows," Dickson explains. Three or four 20ks are placed outside the courtroom windows, on adjustable truss or Avenger stands; where the judge's bench is in relation to these windows can determine the look of the scene. A standby is the 6x6x6 double muslin boxes with Molepars in each corner, providing soft light. In addition, the DP says, "I put 20ks in the corner of the room itself, and either bounce them into the walls or 12x12 muslins, and use those as my source down from the floor. I like lighting from the floor more than the perms or grids--the courtroom has steep walls and is not that large, so the top light is too steep, too toppy."
What determines the configuration of the courtroom? "It depends on the scene, who's in it, my mood," says Dickson. "It's separate looks, a totally different lighting system, and it's fun to have that break-up a little bit." As is customary, the DP often has more to do with such matters than the dozen or so directors that circulate through the series. (Dickson, in fact, has been signed to make his directorial debut on the show next season.) His mood even influences the Boston climate on the show: whether the sunlight is hard or soft, whether it's snowing. "There are my mood days when I want to make the backing hotter, because that makes the feeling of the scene, too. You have a normally exposed backing, but if I want to make it brighter outside, give it more of a midday feel, I'll overexpose it two stops."
The bar setting, a seemingly self-enclosed world, allows Dickson the opportunity to exercise his moods to his heart's content. The stage area, where Vonda Shepard and others perform, is backlit with a 2k Xenotech Britelight, and a followspot may or may not be used. "There are no rules as to how we treat performance," says the DP. "Myron and I discuss what kind of backlight we want to use on the band each day; I'll pick a color, he'll make a suggestion, and then we'll run with it if it looks good in dailies. After a couple weeks, we'll make another change." Rosco shades of lavender and blue are often chosen for the performer, the band, and the dance floor, but on last season's Christmas show, which earned Dickson an ASC Award nomination, green and red and yellow backgrounds were liberally used, "along with an icy blue on the flowers."
Yet apart from the performance area, the bar contains the series' most pre-existing lighting plan. The Chimeras with muslin used throughout the show for soft textures "work particulary well in the bar at night," says Hyman. Dialogue scenes at the bar are customarily lit through double muslins, and if the looks on actors get too gritty with top light, Dickson will just add more soft sources. Outside, pieces of black Fomecor with tiny twinkle lights give a "neat smeared effect" through the tiny bevelled windows.
Most notably, the tables, bar countertop, and practically every other surface in the setting are lit with dozens of ellipsoidal spots, ETC and Altman instruments that don't often find their way to a show like Ally McBeal. "They give a nice hot pool of light with a funky crisscross pattern for people to walk under," Dickson says approvingly. Altman 20-degree Shakespeares are used, alongside ETC 19-degree Source Fours and 50-degree Source Fours.
Dickson credits Hyman with introducing him to the Source Fours and Shakespeares, and with a lot else, too. "I told him I wanted pools of light on the table, and he brought those into the mix," says the DP. "I always encourage him to bring anything he knows to the game. I have the best relationship with him that I've ever had with a gaffer. He's never said no to me, but if he's got a better idea he voices it. He's always prepared, and he's got a great crew of professionals. They're always standing by if he's not there." Hyman, in turn, gives a lot of credit to key grip Ahuna. "David is right there with me while I'm lighting, cutting the light," he says. "Billy doesn't like the light going over the walls."
Since this is Dickson's first job that takes place routinely onstage rather than on location, he's learning to get comfortable with things like the show's Strand dimmer racks, which cue every single lighting position. "In the bathroom, for instance, when the camera moves from one position to another, I can dim one light out and bring up another, so the actor's always in the best light," he says with the voice of a convert. "We do that a lot with our night work; they walk from one position to another, and I dim the lights. I used to be nervous about doing stuff like that, but now I'm letting go, seeing what happens. That's one fun thing about episodic television--you can always experiment."
He has also gotten many opportunities to work with 3D computer graphics, one of his favorite pastimes since getting an Amiga system several years ago. He built a 3D model of the law complex on the computer, and has worked closely with the effects supervisors on shots ranging from animated tongues to a green screen sequence in this season's opener which places Ally McBeal at the plate in Fenway Park, though Flockhart never left southern California.
These perks help keep Dickson interested in weekly series work, even though many weeknights he spends camped in a motor home on the Manhattan Beach Studios lot. And it also helps that Ally McBeal itself is so open to discovery, and can easily accommodate the cinematographer's itch to try something new. "Myron knows that I'm a guy who doesn't do the same thing twice all the time," says the DP. "It can drive people crazy. I can be predictable some days, but then I'll look at dailies and say, 'I'd really like to do something else.' "
Partial equipment list (12) Strand four cycs (1) Strand Coda 500/1 MK11 (22) ETC Source Fours 50-degree (56) ETC Source Fours 19-degree (26) Altman Shakespeares 20-degree (1) flicker-free 18k HMI fresnel (24) 5k HMI PARs (1) LTM 200W HMI Sun Gun (2) Mole-Richardson128 2k Nooklites (2) Mole-Richardson 2k Molettes (6) Strand 2k Blondes (4) Mole-Richardson 1k Nooklites (6) Mole-Richardson 1k Molettes (2) Strand 1k Redheads (8) Mole-Richardson Maxi-Brute 9-lights (4) Mole-Richardson 9-lights (56) Mole-Richardson Molepars (26) PAR cans (19) Mole-Richardson Baby 4k Softlights with eggcrate and gel frames (10) Mole-Richardson Baby 2k Ziplights with eggcrate and gel frames (6) 20k fresnels (12) Mole-Richardson Baby 10ks (10) Mole-Richardson Baby 5ks (12) Mole-Richardson Baby 2ks (12) Mole-Richardson Baby 1ks (12) Mole-Richardson 650W Tweenie 2s (12) Mole-Richardson 200W Mini Moles (1) Chimera 20k w/ring (1) Chimera 10k w/ring (2) Chimera small quartz instruments with honeycomb and ring (6) Chimera 30" china balls (4) Chimera 20" china balls (1) Xenotech 2k Britelight (108) Kino Flo Translite Panel LPLs (6) Kino Flo Image 80s (24) Kino Flo 4-tube fixtures (4) Strand 48x2.4k dimmer racks (1) Strand 24x2.4k dimmer rack (3) Strand 24x12k dimmer racks (2) Rosco IPS-S12-DX 12k dimmers (2) Rosco IPS-DS-2403 2k dimmer strips (1) Strand 12x12k dimmer rack (1) ETC Express 250 board (1) Strand 520 console various flicker-free 6k, 4k, 2,500W, 1,200W, and 575W HMI PARs