Behind the Lens: White Collar with DP Russell Lee Fine
COW Library : Cinematography : Debra Kaufman : Behind the Lens: White Collar with DP Russell Lee Fine
Russell Lee Fine is the cinematographer of USA Network's smash series White Collar, which began its third season on June 7, 2011. As one of television's hottest dramas, White Collar focuses on an unlikely crime-solving partnership between an FBI agent (Tim DeKay) and a criminal mastermind (Matt Bomer), and debuts Season 3 with intriguing new episodes. The show airs weekly on Tuesdays 9/8c on USA Network.
Debra Kaufman: Take us inside some of the demands of shooting USA Networks' White Collar.
Russell Lee Fine: The challenge with shooting White Collar is to tell the story and give it a consistent visual weight without over-burdening it. The show shoots in New York City, and part of our production value comes from using the city as visual language. The art is telling the story while placing the characters within the city. That's where our style comes from. So, in almost every exterior scene, you'll see big dynamic wide shots with as much beautiful NYC architecture as possible. If we have some gorgeous classic NYC architecture at dusk, we'll shoot a master shot with that. If we're shooting in a skyscraper and there's a view out of the window we want you to see, we'll shoot two characters and show that, as opposed to opening up the stops and blowing out the background.
Matt Bomer stars as Neal Caffrey and Tim DeKay as Peter Burke, in USA Network's original series 'White Collar.'
This is also an example of Fine's preference to use natural light when shooting outdoors.
Photos courtesy of USA Network
Has White Collar gone through many technological changes since it started shooting? What camera did you shoot with at the beginning? What are you using now?
We started off using the Sony F23s, which were fine. Then the second and now this third season, we moved to Sony F35s. We're atypical from most shows in that we don't hide away in a tent offset. The heart of our set is our DIT station, our high-end video village where hair and make-up are and everyone looks and evaluates the image. We have two Sony Trimaster evaluation monitors that are phenomenally good. I have all of my operators and camera assistants and dolly grips on my own communication system, and we control color settings and the aperture all remotely, from the DIT station.
Mike Latino, "B" Camera Operator, left, and Russell Lee Fine, right, directing episode 301 of White Collar, "On Guard," which first aired on June 7, 2011. Photo by: Myles Aronowitz/USA Network
The way I've built White Collar is to be super fast. That way, I can set up two cameras and adjust on the fly. Someone walks into full sun and then into shadow, I can track him with the remote aperture unit without having to set nets and flags, which takes a lot of time. We don't do a lot of extreme color looks. If it's shot as a silhouette, it ends up as a silhouette. What they get in post is very close to a finished product. We match our A and B cameras on set. I know I can set the cameras here and there, and rehearse it once, and know I can correct on the fly. Sometimes we don't rehearse it at all.
This shot from the episode "Bottlenecked" shows Fine's tendency to stop down in order to see classic New York architecture through windows, rather than opening up to favor brighter interiors that would blow out anything outside. Photos courtesy of USA Network
I take it that means you don't do a lot of lighting.
Yes. We do absolutely no lighting on the exterior streets. I almost never put up lighting in the daytime. About one out of every 30 days, I'll put up a light in exterior daytime. We pick practical locations for being able to light them with natural light. Two weeks ago, it rained the whole week, which was atypical, but I lit it from outside on a ground floor location.
With the Sony F35s, which has new software, I'm using super fast lenses. I use ARRI master primes so I can shoot a 1:3 and plus 3 dB or 6 dB very cleanly; I'm effectively shooting it wide open. We shoot the equivalent of 1200 ASA. When I'm doing lower light, I get off the zooms and go to master primes at T1.3 for that shallow focus look. Anything medium or long lens, the background becomes blurry and creamy. It's a still photography look where the faces are in focus and everything else falls off. We use foreground elements to add production value to those shots.
Matt Bomer, Willie Garson and Tim DeKay, in another example of Fine's preference to shoot exteriors with natural light. Photo courtesy USA Network
We have a very classic look. We have no handheld, no Steadicam. We're on dollies the entire time and my crew is so skilled and fast, we'll set up 100 feet of dolly track before rehearsal is over.
So, if speed is the goal, how many set-ups do you do a day?
We're not a show that goes 18 hours a day. Most days we work 12 hours, occasionally 14 hours. On the episode I directed, I had the whole show shot-listed and semi-storyboarded with my still cameras and we averaged 48 set-ups a day. I had two cameras going the entire time. My approach is that I never line up two cameras in the same place; I always have them close to 90 degrees from each other so one might be getting a traditional head-on shot, the second one can get a wider silhouette against windows. That approach to me is like a still photography approach.
WHITE COLLAR -- "On Guard" Episode 301 -- Photo by: Myles Aronowitz/USA Network
WHITE COLLAR -- "On Guard" Episode 301 -- Pictured: Russell Fine (also Matt Bomer, Willie Garson) -- Photo by: Myles Aronowitz/USA Network
What can we expect with the new season of White Collar?
I directed the season premiere and I'm directing the finale. I wanted to do the big shows because I figure if I'm going to direct, I want the biggest challenges where I can use all my DP skills on shows that get the most scrutiny. It's the first episode of the season, so all the kinks haven't been worked out, and it's often the show that everybody looks at.
I felt I had to do better than the guest directors. I had no excuse not to turn in a better episode and not go over budget and have a story that I brought something to as a director. I don't have as much experience directing actors as I do with photography, and I was very happy performance-wise. Making the show good photographically was an easier task. Not only do I have to have a show that looks good and looks like White Collar but one that can stand as the beginning of the season. I had a lot of scrutiny to stand up to. I like the challenge of directing. I still like being the DP but now that I'm directing, it'll make me be more selective of the projects I take away from White Collar.
I understand you directed an episode last season.
I've been the cinematographer on White Collar since the pilot and when you've been involved this long, you automatically become more than the DP. I was on set answering creative questions and, at some point, it was a small step to directing one of the shows. Last season, I was lucky enough to get a great script, "Payback," that had some challenging back-and-forth action with actor Ross McCall who played a good strong villain. Ross' character bests our lead Neal Caffrey and then disappears, so the FBI doesn't get their man at the end of the episode. It made it, for me, more interesting. As a director, to have that was kind of a gift.
WHITE COLLAR: a scene from "Payback". Pictured: (l-r) Matt Bomer as Neal Caffrey, Tim Dekay as Peter Burke. Photo by: Myles Aronowitz/USA Network
What did you bring to directing that you gained from your years as DP for the series?
I've been a cinematographer for 20 years; I'm accustomed to being in charge and I like the challenge of it. One thing I brought to it was my knowledge of how to be prepared. When you have seven days to shoot a TV hour, you have to be prepared. I knew that I wanted to get locations that were great and visually interesting and shot quickly and easily and were appropriate to the script--and find them fast. For that first episode, I had all my locations selected on my first day of prep. I rode my bike to the locations every day, shot photos, made contingencies in case it rained. That made it one less decision I had to make during the shoot.
From my years as cinematographer, I can look at a location and size up blocking and coverage and the ease of moving from one scene to another. For instance, just last week we were on Park Ave. and the background just wasn't that interesting. We were rehearsing the scene and I walked around the corner and there was a beautiful row of late 1800s limestone townhouses. I called the director and AD over and said, you know this is an intimate scene, why don't we shoot this here instead? We quickly mobilized and shot there and the scene ended up beautiful--as if we scouted for it. I do that as a director and after DPing this many shows, I can be nimble and quick. The photography is second nature, especially with a show that I've been on since the beginning. That way, I can focus on the acting.
How did you get into cinematography?
I came up doing still photography as a kid. I got a dark room for my bar mitzvah. I was hugely interested in cinema but didn't know it was a career option. I had a friend going into the film industry in NYC and I started working as a camera PA in the late 1980s and realized you could actually do what you like. I have been a career DP and director ever since.
When I was starting out as a struggling camera assistant in NYC, it was the height of the first peak of MTV and music videos. There was tons of work shooting hip hop and heavy metal music videos; it was enormous category of work. If you wanted to shoot something, you could get on a low budget music video. I still look back on that as some of the best jobs I've done. It was a really creative hotbed and you could do interesting, arty, experimental work…and your work would be on the air. You could travel and do funky satisfying jobs and at the same time, learn on the job. I knew photography and art history and had an idea of what a nice frame looked like but in terms of lighting and running a crew and in terms of collaborating with a director was something I learned on the job.
I did music videos, eight or nine small indie films and on-air promos before I stumbled into TV. I've worked for six solid years doing episodic TV: The Black Donnellys, The Wire, the first season of the Crash series and a few pilots. Most of the programs I've worked on is moody, heavy content until White Collar.
Who or what has influenced your style the most?
With regard to White Collar, I've been on the show since the pilot so I helped create the look that helped spawn a look for the USA Network. We're a very stylish show for an entertainment show. When I'm on the set and framing things, I think back on my knowledge and love of still photography. In terms of just technique and aesthetics, everything I do comes from a blend of innate love of photography from classic landscape to contemporary photojournalism, from Alex Webb to Robert Frank. That was especially true when I was doing The Wire. I also keep current on what's out there. I can see a show at MOMA and be inspired by it. It blends a whole life of image consumption into my work.
Title graphic still from "WHITE COLLAR." Pictured: (l-r) Matthew Bomer as Neal Caffrey, Tim DeKay as Peter Burke. USA Network Photo: David Giesbrecht