Ryan Stewart: I want to thank you for taking some time to talk about your role on Heroes. You're the director of photography, correct?
Nate Goodman: I'm one of the directors of photography. We have two and we alternate.
Who is the other director of photography?
This year it's Charlie Lieberman.
Could you tell everyone what the difference is between a director of photography and a cinematographer?
Nothing. [laughs] They're basically the same thing. I mean, sometimes we'll call ourselves cinematographers, other times we'll call ourselves directors of photography. For example, I'll be listed as the director of photography for Heroes in the credits, but I might refer to myself as a cinematographer. Basically, there are other people who call themselves cinematographers who might be camera operators or assistants. But in general, cinematographers and directors of photography are interchangeable.
So as one of the directors of photography, can you tell me what you do for Heroes? What does your job entail?
From a practical production point of view in terms of the overall look of the show, and the creative aspect of the show in terms of getting it to the screen, there are certain people on the set who are consistent on the set from episode to episode--primarily the directors of photography and the production designer. The directors of each of the episodes come and go; they're basically hired on an episode-by-episode basis. Television is primarily a writers' medium, so that the main creative force of the show would be Tim Kring. The other writer-producers would also be major creative forces of the show. Then the director-producers (of which there are two: Allan Arkush and Greg Beeman) are all working together from the macro-creative side to make sure that the show has an overall consistency.
With regard to actually executing that, that's where the director of photography would come in, to make sure that on a practice, day-by-day basis, the directors are directing the episodes maintaining the basic creative conceptions of the show. So from a more practical point of view, I do things like the lighting and help the directors block the action and shoot the action. But it's all bearing mind what the style of the show is and what we are basically trying to go for and what we look for. So with regard to what the directors of photography do, they're basically the on-set interfaces between the creators and creative producers of the show, and the directors of the show. So from an episode-by-episode basis, the show maintains an overall look.
So when a new director comes on board, your are the main person who helps him make sure that his episode has a similar look and feel from episode to episode?
Yes, exactly. I mean, Heroes is a little different from other television shows in the sense that there's no overarching specific dogmatic style to the show. The show has to look good, and there are certain things we do consistently with the show--low angles, push-ins, moving the camera, all of these kind of things. But with regard to the lighting and the design of the show, we can sort of treat the design of the different scenes as a feature in that regard, and just be able to interpret the scenes and the different stories that we're telling on a case-by-case basis. Bear in mind that there are certain minor kinds of things we will do on the show consistently.
So what I'll do is I'll work in prep usually (hopefully!) with the directors to analyze the script and go through location scouting--which there are a lot of locations on the show, as you know--and figure out strategies by which to shoot so we can actually prepare which equipment we need on the day. Also, we troubleshoot things in the script that might be complicated or overly complicated for production, based on what we can do in the schedule we're shooting for television. What I'll also do is help the directors, if necessary, with interfacing between them and Stargate, which is the company which does the visual effects. A lot of the directors who come on don't necessarily have the same amount of experience doing visual effects as they're going from television series to television series. Some of them have quite a bit of experience; others have none. So with that regard, I'll help guide them through the process so they don't actually have to get hung up on that sort of thing.
Okay, so tell me a little bit about shooting for visual effects, especially since Heroes uses visual effects to a greater extent than most television shows. What kind of challenges does shooting for effects present to you?
Basically, what I hope is that all of the effects of the show don't stand out as effects. It's very important to Tim to make sure that the show is a human show, and not a show that's about the special effects. When the effects happen, hopefully they're well-integrated into the story, to the point where you're really only concerned with what's happening with the characters. You're not just concerned with what's happening with the effect. With regard to that, we try to design effects so that the characters come first, and the effects somewhat take a background or real narrative role. In a certain way, what we're trying to do is have the effects be somewhat seamless with regard to the action, and really further what the action is and further what the emotion content of the story is.
Stargate is very interested in doing that as well. With regard to doing a particular effect, we'll all sit down and talk about what's required to do that effect, from both a production design aspect and from a photography aspect, in addition to what Stargate will talk about, which is what they can do for a certain budget and what they can't do for a certain budget, and how much time it will take. There are a lot of details that have to be gone into when talking about what the effects are going to be, since they they don't necessarily have to be gone into on a feature, for example, where they might have more time to actually do an effect. It'll go into picking the locations, it'll go into designing what the camera movements are going to be like, how many of them are there going to be, whether we're going to do it with a green screen or a blue screen to lay in backgrounds? Obviously for anybody who watches the show, they understand that oftentimes we'll have two characters in the same frame, coming and going, invisibility, the same characters in the same frame as another character, like with Hiro and Future Hiro. Basically, how we'll go about doing that will be determined by what we want it to look like, what we want to get out of it, how many of the shots do want want to have to actually sell the effect, and then what equipment is necessary in order to achieve it.
Were there any particular shots that were more challenging to you, or that you were perhaps more excited about?
Yeah. I think when we did the Hiro and Future Hiro in episode twenty last year, that was quite challenging. It was really the only time we used motion control. The effects world has become so sophisticated nowadays. Oftentimes we have shots that we used to have to do with motion control, which is a dolly and camera that is controlled by motors, and the computer can replicate exact movements. Oftentimes, or even ten years ago or longer, one had to do a lot of effects with motion control cameras so the movements would be repeated exactly. Different elements that you wanted to shoot at different times would be laid in, as if you were doing Photoshop, and you're just laying an image on top of an image. Now they can actually go through and replicate what the shots are with computer models, so it's not as necessary in order to do the motion control.
But for that particular shot what we had to do was set up a big motion control camera and we had to go through the pass four times, I think, in order to have the effect of Hiro crossing himself. That was ultimately going to be the thing that was going to sell the fact that they were in the same room together. It's not just that they're in the same frame, because we'll do that with split screens. That's basically locking the camera down and make sure it doesn't move, we'll shoot the shot with one character on one side, then do a wardrobe change, keep the lighting the same, and then have the camera be on the other side with a natural break in the center so they can basically just cut the shot in half and then marry the two sides together. As long as the camera doesn't move at all, it's very easy to do that. But if the camera's moving, in order to do that, it has to replicate exactly what the movement of the camera is so that when the shots are laid in on top of one another, you don't detect at all that there's any kind of spatial shift.
It was actually quite complicated because of all the strings because strings move. When Masi goes underneath the strings, even if he's not touching them, or touching any of the photographs, just the wind moves the strings. So what we did was we shot it with Masi as Future Hiro, and basically did the camera movement with him because most of the camera movement was following the Future Hiro character, and not the Present Hiro character. Once we got a take that we liked, we just repeated that movement. Every time we did a take, we just recorded with the computer what the movement of that camera was. So when we were happy with the take of Future Hiro that we were going to commit to--and it's something you have to commit to, different from other shots one would do where you would print three takes or four takes and just and decide in the editing room which parts you wanted to use. Then what we do is we have Masi go and change all of his wardrobe and everything like that. He had to watch himself with the recorded take so that he understood where he should cross and what he should do as Present Hiro and where he should look. Basically, we repeated the move with him in it and with him not in it so they actually had a clean plate, which you always shoot so that if there are any little sections that they have to clean up, they can always use it with a clean plate and there are no actors in there.
So that one shot of Future Hiro crossing Present Hiro going to the window, looking over the destroyed Manhattan, coming back into an over-the-shoulder shot--the shot was actually continued through the breaking in of Greg Grunberg and the Homeland Security guys, but that part was cut out of the show. It was one shot, which was designed, and Masi crossed himself three times during the shot. That took six hours just to do the one shot. The rest of the six hours that we had to shoot (because we shoot in twelve hours), then we could start doing it just with doubles. Then it was about three hours where we would pick up the little parts of the dialogue with the characters, use a double for Present Day Hiro, and use a double for Future Hiro, and shoot traditional over-the-shoulder shots. So more or less, when you put it all together, as long as you saw those three times of Masi crossing himself, the illusion that they were in the room together was already sold at that point. You don't have to keep doing it over and over again. At least, that was the idea.
That was probably the most complicated thing that we had to do. I mean, there was other complicated things that we've done, but just from a sheer [perspective of] taking the amount of time that was necessary to do it, that was the most complicated thing I did. John Aronson shot about two-thirds of the episodes last year, and he might have something else to say about what his most complicated shot was. And then Charlie Lieberman this year might have a different thing to say about what was his most complicated shot was. But from a special effects/visual effects point of view, that was probably the most complicated shot that we had. There are other shots that are complicated for other reasons, which are lighting reasons or that kind of thing.
For example, in episode three last year: Greg Beeman likes to do very, very complicated shots, and they're great. So he'll design shots which are basically very difficult to light because they might start out moving through a house...This was actually starting out moving through Niki's house, and it ended up going through three or four different rooms, and ending up in a closeup of Ali, who we light in a certain way, because obviously she's the principal female star of the show, and you want her to look really beautiful. [laughs] It's not hard to do, but every single person has kinds of idiosyncrasies, and when you're lighting closeups of people, you take into account certain things. There are very few people that can just be lit in any way. Sometimes the light has to come from below, sometimes the light has to come from the sides, sometimes the light has to come from the top, depending on who's in the frame. But in general, when you're doing some kind of beauty lighting, it doesn't actually happen at the end of long hand-held shots. [laughs] You're usually doing a master shot, and then you're going and lighting a closeup with matches the master shot. Then you can take a little bit more time or have a little bit more care with how you're doing it. But Greg likes to put everybody up for a challenge! [laughs] Basically, it's just figuring out how to go through four different rooms then end up in a closeup of Ali, for example.
Another one was, for example, for the first seven or eight episodes, before you actually reveal Zach Quinto as Sylar, every time we showed Sylar up until episode nine (which was when he killed the cheerleader and started chasing Claire, and at the end of the episode he climbs the hill after he falls off the roof with Peter, then he escapes and that's when Eden and the Haitian catch him), whenever we shot him, like in episode seven, you always had to keep him in the shadow. If he's sitting there in the Burnt Toast Diner and it's daytime, he is sitting in shadow! [laughs] When he's going through the locker room, he's gotta be in shadow. At one point, Greg actually wanted to see his eye. Well, Zach has very prominent eyebrows! I was like, "Are you sure you really want to do this?" [laughs] When you're looking at somebody's eye, it's usually pretty specific. That's one of the things that you notice about anybody--their eyes.
How do you have an actor turn into a hall of light? The most challenging thing about that particular episode was at the end. You have Sylar climbing this hillside. The Haitian comes out from the corner. Eden is there. So when they catch Sylar, you're not supposed to reveal Sylar until he's actually lying on the ground. That's the first time that we see him. So when the Haitian puts his arm around him, there's a white guy that you're not supposed to see, there's a really dark Haitian guy that you are supposed to see, and there's an extremely, extremely pale girl that you're supposed to see. And, they're up in the woods, so there's actually no light up there! I mean, we bring in lights, but you're trying to show that there's just ambient light coming from the stadium, for example. That's supposed to light Jimmy Jean-Louis. It's not supposed to light Zach Quinto. It is supposed to light Nora Zehetner. And you're not supposed to give away Zach Quinto until he falls to the ground. That was pretty funny... And that would keep coming up, even this season. Sometimes you'd read in the scripts when you're prepping and it says, "encased in shadow." And you're like, "No! Not again!"
Yep! It's all of those things which are interesting. Sometimes we actually have to augment some of that stuff in post production if it gives away too much. Sometimes ideas work a little bit better in the concept than they actually do in the execution. Everything is pretty fluid. But those kinds of things are very challenging. Sometimes somebody will design a shot on a TV show, and you might have to say to them, "Okay, this is going to take two hours. Do we have the two hours?" Then we'll make a decision on the set. On Heroes, because we alternate d.p.'s and the episodes are shot over a little longer period of time, thankfully we have the luxury to really do some of those kinds of shots that on a regular television schedule you really wouldn't even try to attempt. You would never be able to make the day!
When I think of Heroes, visual images are often conjured in my mind: the garish lights of Las Vegas, the very painterly lights of Feudal Japan, that one beautifully lit scene by the beach in Cautionary Tales, a very dark New York City. With all these different lighting palettes, how do you go about designing and using your light to enhance the show?
It's like I said before, one of the really good things about this show is that it doesn't have a signature look in the sense that everything's done with handheld cameras, or everything has a dusty orange patina, or everything has a blue patina, or everything has a this, or everything has a that. Or, if you're going to another kind of show, another show that a former writer-producer of Heroes, Bryan Fuller, is doing is Pushing Daisies. That show has a very specific, designed look to it. It's part of the production design. It's part of everything. Heroes really wants to work against all of that. The writers and Tim want the show to look stylish. They want the show to look cinematic. They want the show to look as if you were going into a movie theater and actually watching the show.
Hopefully, the show is designed with an audience in mind who is used to watching DVDs on TV. They're used to watching things in letterbox. They're used to watching things with widescreen. They're used to watching movies that have longer master shots and wider shots, where you're actually playing the graphic quality of the frame and not just immediately cutting to closeups. We first approach the show as if we were doing it like a movie that's going to be on a screen that sixty feet by one hundred feet. We don't really make decisions from a shot design point of view that are small in any way. From a lighting point of view, last year it was important for them to make sure that the audience was understanding that we were going all over the world, and that when they tuned in, they could kind of tell from the color palette where we were. It was a little bit more dogmatic last year in the sense that New York was blue, Texas was warm, Las Vegas was sort of neutral but kind of really high contrast, and LA was basically just neutral.
Right. There are so many characters on the show and there are so many different places all over the world. I think what they were worried about was that maybe people would miss the chyron, or they would miss where the scene was taking place. At the same time, Heroes is the kind of show where you really want to watch the episode from beginning to end. It's not the kind of show that you want to leave, go get a sandwich, and come back. You've missed five minutes and you don't know where you are! [laughs] I think people not knowing where they were in the show was much less of an issue as the season went on than they thought it might be.
At the same time, what I always found last year, as Greg was saying, was that the dogmatic nature of anything on the show is somewhat antithetical to the way we do the show. In other words, there were times last year, for example, where we would want to play a scene up on the rooftop at the Deveaux Building, and we wanted it to be sunset. But it was New York, and New York is blue. So there are certain things that are visual markers for people to know what time of day it is. We actually had to work against ourselves last year. So what they decided to do this year--everybody by the end of last year, really, determined that this is what we wanted to do--was just to do it the way we design anything on the show, which is really on a scene-by-scene basis. So we could play the interiors in New York a little bluer than we would, perhaps, in some other place. Or you could play the outside of New York blue. But if sun is coming in and it's sunset, you could play that a little warmer, and still have the blue outside to kind of give you the impression that you're back east or in the northeast.
At the same time, I think there are times when the monochromatic colors really work. Sometimes on a scene-by-scene basis, we might decide just to make it all blue or to make it all warm, but it's not dogmatic as to where we are anymore. For example, one might think, "Here we are in India. India immediately should just be warm" because that's the way you've always seen India. But maybe India shouldn't be warm. Maybe that particular shot of India should be cool, or it should be neutral, or it should be brown, or it could be anything! [laughs] It's whatever's right for the show.
Japanese movies are shot on Fuji, and Fuji has a different color palette. The greens and the reds actually really pop. So what we decided to do in Feudal Japan was bring out the trees and the grass, etc. in the post to give it more of that kind of color palette. Kodak is generally more sensitive to warm light and blue; Fuji is somewhat more neutral, except the greens and reds tend to be more vibrant.Back on episode fourteen, it was really the first time that Hiro and his dad, played by George Takei, interacted with one another (even though he was introduced in episode thirteen). That was one of the more fun episodes that we were able to do because there were four very distinct storylines, and the characters didn't really interact with one another. There were no real overlapping stories. It allowed us to break the episode up into four different styles. Jeannot Szwarc and I were talking about how to do that section, we decided it would be really neat to do the whole Japanese substory with Hiro and his dad and shoot it like Kurosawa's High and Low. High and Low is about a wealthy Japanese industrialist. George was basically channeling Toshirō Mifune anyway with the way his voice was and everything (though George is nothing like that character). He took on this gravitas. So we decided to shoot it with very formal compositions and long takes in which people are coming into the foreground and into closeups, and then receding into the background. Whenever we cut, we just had this very formal aspect. The camera was sort of always perpendicular to everything--very square. It's very unusual in terms of how we shoot the show because we don't do any of that. So that was very fun.
Then later on, when Peter and Claude are in New York, Jeannot and I decided that we would shoot that more like a '70s New York Film, like The French Connection or Serpico or one of these movies that was shot in the early- to mid-'70s. So that was a really fun episode. We got to kind of design it a little more specific to the individual storylines than we normally do. I think it's among the best stuff that we did last year, that I was happiest with. I think if you watch Kurosawa's High and Low, it's just a fantastic movie! If what we did could even remind anybody of High and Low, that would be good. [laughs] I'm not saying it was as good as High and Low or anything like that, but it certainly allowed us to use that as an influence, and we were able to take other influences as well, which we do.
I've always been taught that in filmmaking, it doesn't matter so much what your vision and concept is, so much as it matters that you have a consistent and pervasive concept.
Yes. Right. What ended up happening, actually, was that we started using that kind of Japanese aesthetic as a model for the Japanese story from thereon out and through Feudal Japan. So that was good. I think the creators of the show actually responded to the fact that that worked specifically well for that specific type of story. And then, for example, in episode twenty, we decided that since it took place five year in the future, it allowed us to have somewhat of a stylistic departure from the show. We decided to go sort of a higher grain, sort of grittier. Yet at the same time, really expand the highs and crush the blacks. But even though it was gritty, there was a certain kind of slickness to the lighting that we don't generally do on the show either.
Nobody wants it to be show where you're looking at it and going, "Wow! That was great photography!" Maybe you might admire the photography, or you admire the production design, or you admire the costumes. But nobody on this particular show wants you to go out and say, "That was a cool shot!" because the minute you do that, you're not paying attention to what's going on in the show. [laughs] If somebody comes out of watching the show and there's a general idea that Heroes is the best-looking show on TV, that's fine. We're allowed to make it look really good. [laughs] That's the good thing about it. We're allowed to actually have toys, and we're allowed to pick the locations. That's generally the thing that actually separates something that looks really good from something that looks okay. A closeup is a closeup is a closeup...or a two-shot. The thing that's really going to let things stand out is if the production designer, Ruth Ammon, can design a huge set--which she does all the time on a weekly basis--then we get to go and shoot it! And you get to have a really big, wide shot in which the people in the frame look like ants. Then all of a sudden, there's a big scope to what you're doing. We're lucky that we get to do that.
It seems to me that Heroes would be a real dream project for any department, be it production design, direction, effects. It seems you are given a lot of freedom for creative expression.
Yeah. You can do whatever you want, but we have to be mindful of the fact that it's a TV show. When I say that, it's relative to other television shows. But it's also the fact that everybody's on board with that kind of look. It's one of the things that makes the show a little bit more expensive than other shows. But at the same time, the filmmakers themselves--the creators of the show--are interested in making it look like a movie. So in order to make it look like a movie, you have to have the ability to shoot it like a movie. You have to have the ability to design it somewhat like a movie, and maybe make it less provincial. Television is oftentimes very intimate and it's very provincial. One of the things we don't have is we don't have a lot of standing sets that we're returning to over and over and over again. We have some standing sets (Claire's house or Isaac's loft, Suresh's apartment, etc.), but it's not like seventy-five percent of the episode takes place in the police bullpen.
It's definitely not a sitcom set in Jerry's apartment.
No. Or even West Wing, or ER. Most television shows, for example, will shoot for eight days. They'll be in the studio for six days and out on location for two days. Or they'll be in the studio for seven days and out on location for one day. Basically, we're out of the studio for at least fifty percent of the episode, if not more. Going and shooting on location is actually what helps give the show more of a sense of scope and scale and less provincialism and more breathing space, basically.
As you can tell, I feel fortunate to work on the show, but I'm also a fan of the show. And I have been a fan of the show ever since the beginning of it.
At what point did you get involved in the show?
Basically, I knew Tim and Dennis and all those guys. I was on-again, off-again working on Crossing Jordan, which we all did. I was kind of coming in and operating a second camera and shooting second unit for them. Inserts, etc. It was actually a pretty good gig for awhile because I'd kind of come and go. If I got a feature or if I got a television series or something like that, I'd go and operate that. (That was when I was a camera operator.) Then, when Tim had written the script for Heroes, I read the script for the pilot, and I thought, "God, this is so up my alley! I really want to do this, I really want to work on Heroes!" Then it turned out that one of the directors of photography that I worked for, and probably would have left Crossing Jordan if he were hired to do a different pilot from Heroes, I would have left with him. We had done a couple of series together. His name was Adam Kane, and he ended up directing some episodes of Heroes. He is actually one of the exec producers of Pushing Daisies now. But he called me up and said, "Hey, I'm going in and meeting Tim and Dennis." So I got on my bike immediately and ran down to the office and basically said, "Oh, God, you have to hire this guy!" But that was partly because I knew I would get to work on the pilot.
So they hired Adam, and I got to move over to operate the pilot. Then Adam didn't want to do the series, and they were asking who could do the series, and the two of us both recommended John Aronson. They hired John. When they hired John, it was sort of understood that because of the scope of the show, there was going to be an extensive second unit, and I was going to end up shooting the second unit. What ended up happening right from the very beginning of the series--really from the first episode, meaning the second episode in the show because the pilot had already been shot--the show was being shot over a period of about twelve days. We were shooting eight days, and then there was four days of another unit that was going and shooting the remainder of that episode while the main unit was starting the next episode.
So basically, right from the very beginning, I was shooting about a third of every episode. It got crazy because of scheduling issues. I really shot more than sixty percent of episodes three, and six, and nine, and eleven. They finally acknowledged that and gave me d.p. credit for episode nine. Then, when they finally decided to go to two d.p.'s--which is really what they should have done right from the beginning, but I don't think NBC was really used to having shows that were this big and really needed two directors of photography--I was fortunate they acknowledged what my contribution was previously! [laughs] They ended up making me officially a director of photography. Therefore, I could shoot the episodes that I was shooting and actually get credit for them! [laughs] That started with episode fourteen. So I'm credited with having shot episodes nine, fourteen, sixteen, eighteen, twenty, and twenty-two last year, but I also shot a majority of three, six, and eleven.
It became kind of weird because what ended up happening was almost every episode, John and I were shooting some of the episode. You can't tell from looking at the episode because John and I have a very similar style and we worked together for a long time before Heroes. I also operated and established somewhat of the way the show was shot, from a camera point of view. So that just kind of continued. We could light it based on what seemed right based on the story. There weren't any scenes, for example, where we both shot part of the scene. Whenever that was the case, we would just match whatever the lighting was that existed prior. But if we were just shooting the scenes in their entirety, we would try to keep in mind what was coming before and what was coming after, whether we were establishing a look that was going to be maintained later with regard to what people's taste were.
In general, it became a little weird because there were episodes where I shot fifty percent of it and John shot fifty percent of it. And then there were episodes where he shot ninety percent of an episode, and I shot seventy-five percent of another one. So in terms of giving credit, it was a little difficult about how to do that. They ended up solving that problem by just making two official d.p.'s who would just alternate episodes. That way, we could really prepare with the directors coming in because the show is somewhat of a more complicated show than other television shows. It actually does require a little bit of preparation and it does help to be able to go on the location scouts, etc.
CSI has two d.p.'s--I think all of the CSIs have two d.p.'s. I don't know if they actually require two d.p.'s in the same way that Heroes does. There are some others that have alternating d.p.'s. It just depends. There aren't that many that have two.
I wonder how many shows on television actually have two directors of photography.
Heroes works a lot better now that there are two people, especially towards the end of this season. Basically, we're supposed to be able to prep with the new directors for three or four days. This season, I got to prep with one director because I was shooting all the time. I mean, we would shoot, and then we would reshoot something, or there would be an additional scene, there would be a location that fell through, or something would happen. By the end, we were just always shooting--both of us. They would manipulate the schedule so that I could basically have a day off of shooting so that I could go and prep with the director. That basically meant going on a location scout and maybe having a couple of hours to talk to the director about what they were planning to do, as opposed to really being involved in a prep over a period of four or five days.
Wow, what a challenge!
Well Nate, thank you very much for your time and for answering some questions. You've really enlightened us on your role as a director of photography on Heroes. Thank you.
Oh, thank you. It's my pleasure.
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