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Behind the Lens: David Moxness, cinematographer

COW Library : Cinematography : Debra Kaufman : Behind the Lens: David Moxness, cinematographer
CreativeCOW presents Behind the Lens: David Moxness, cinematographer -- Cinematography Feature


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Creative COW's Debra Kaufman spoke to Moxness about his work on FRINGE as well as The Kennedys.


FRINGE is such a fun show in part because it portrays two very different parallel universes. Is it as hard as it looks to pull off the look of that show?

David Moxness

It's a very ambitious schedule, but that's one of the great things I like about it. I like to be challenged with those two shooting situations. It's a well-written show, which also makes it easier for us. If we didn't have a clear direction in terms of the show and the two universes and how each one opposes or plays together, it would be difficult to have a vision to shoot. But because the writing gives us clear direction, we can focus on making it visually stimulating. So it all comes together nicely.

FRINGE shoots at Vancouver Film Studios and in and around the Vancouver area, depending on the script. We shoot 8 days per episode and we're roughly five days on location and three in the studio, or four and four depending on the shoot.


What did you get from J.J. Abrams and other EPs in terms of what they were going for in terms of a look?

Our directive has been to keep the show as realistic as possible, not an overly sci-fi, stylized look. Strange or scary events are much more so when they take place in a more realistic environment. So, for example the lighting has a realistic, naturalist look.


Did you have a role in choosing the camera? And what do you use?

Absolutely I had a role in choosing the camera. For Seasons 1, 2 and 3, we had shot 35mm 3 perf. Going into Season 4 we've elected to go into a digital format; we're using the new ARRI Alexa camera. Obviously we wondered how the feeling of the show might change by going to a digital camera. It is guaranteed to be slightly different because it's a different medium but the Alexa is a very good camera and image-wise is excellent, so I don't feel like we've given anything up. We did a big round of testing to see if there was anything we had to do differently in shooting with this camera.


And what did you discover?

We didn't do too much differently. As I said, visually it's a very, very good camera so I equate it to learning a new film stock. So far it's been successful.



FRINGE: Olivia (Anna Torv, L) joins forces with the mysterious Sam Weiss (guest star Kevin Corrigan, R) in a desperate race against time in the FRINGE episode "The Last Sam Weiss" airing Friday, April 29 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Liane Hentscher/FOX
FRINGE: Olivia (Anna Torv, L) joins forces with the mysterious Sam Weiss (guest star Kevin Corrigan, R) in a desperate race against time in the FRINGE episode "The Last Sam Weiss". ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Liane Hentscher/FOX


How did shooting with the Alexa change your workflow?

On set, we have a DIT who makes sure the cameras are lined up and we have the correct LUT for that scene or location. Workflow in post is similar in that we run it through Technicolor with a dailies colorist and do final color at the end, but the in-between workflow between set and post is a little bit different, mainly with the software and equipment they're using. With the RAW images, we have lots of room to do wonderful VFX and color. So it's been great from that standpoint. But my workflow is pretty much the same except for the DIT station. I always joke we block and shoot exactly as we have before.


FRINGE: Peter (Joshua Jackson, R) and Broyles (Lance Reddick, L) investigate a killer that attaches herself to suicidal victims in the "Stowaway" episode of FRINGE airing Friday, March 18 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Liane Hentscher/FOX
FRINGE: Peter (Joshua Jackson, R) and Broyles (Lance Reddick, L) investigate a killer that attaches herself to suicidal victims in the "Stowaway" episode of FRINGE airing on FOX. ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Liane Hentscher/FOX


Have you changed your lighting package to accommodate using a digital camera?

No, the lighting package hasn't changed much. The grip package might have increased a bit. I've learned with other digital productions, the image can get flat quite quickly so you have to be careful. I do a bit more flagging to keep the light off the walls and create depth and texture on the frame. But in terms of lighting kit, it's very, very similar. We rolled into standing sets from the previous season with minimal changes.


What's ended up being the most challenging aspect of shooting FRINGE?

I think now after the third season for me personally some of the challenge is to keep it fresh and to keep my perspective fresh. I want to make sure I treat each scene as it's written on the page. Sometimes that can be a challenge: to keep it the same but give it a fresh flavor. We have the same crew; it's a good fit and a nice place to be.

FRINGE: Over there, Olivia (Anna Torv) investigates a bioterrorist in the "Immortality" episode of FRINGE airing Friday, Feb. 11 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Liane Hentscher/FOX
FRINGE: Over there, Olivia (Anna Torv) investigates a bioterrorist in the "Immortality" episode of FRINGE. ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Liane Hentscher/FOX


But I'm always looking for new angles. The other day, my Steadicam operator had an idea for a shot that was a wonderful idea; we moved through the space in a way we hadn't before. It's little ideas like that that keep it fresh.


FRINGE: Olivia (Anna Torv, R) and Walter (John Noble, L) work together in the lab in the "Stowaway" episode of FRINGE airing Friday, March 18 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Liane Hentscher/FOX
FRINGE: Olivia (Anna Torv, R) and Walter (John Noble, L) work together in the lab in the "Stowaway" episode of FRINGE. Keeping it fresh with a cow in the background. ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Liane Hentscher/FOX


Has that look evolved in any way?

Yes, of course it's evolved. One thing that's evolved is the story in introducing the two universes coming together. It's been fun to do that. We've been able to create things differently on our end, provided by the writing, which has been great. It's pretty common in the first season for a show to find itself and we had a bit of that. Now it's found its place and we have a good direction on it.

Basically, at the end of last season, the two universes came together in a common space. It was fun to be able to achieve that, as VFX combined with repeatable heads and almost-motion control. We had the same actors playing the different characters from each universe. That comes up from time to time now in the last season, with the different characters in the two universes played by the same actors.


What are we going to see in the upcoming season?

It's all top secret--I can't tell you! But I can say there are going to be some really interesting twists with the characters and characters' relationships that audiences will love. I'm looking forward to getting the season started.

FRINGE will be like it's always been in look and style...just way better.


Did you shoot The Kennedys when FRINGE was on hiatus?

Yes, I did The Kennedys between Season 2 and 3 of FRINGE. I had an overlap of a couple of months with a few episodes, but production was kind enough to let me finish The Kenendys project and re-join FRINGE once I was done.


The Kennedys -- Miniseries - Greg Kinnear, Barry Pepper, Katie Holmes, Tom Wilkinson, Kristin Booth and Diana Hardcastle in The Kennedys
The Kennedys Miniseries - L to R: Barry Pepper, Kristin Booth, Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, Tom Wilkinson and Diana Hardcastle. ©2010 Kennedys Productions (Ontario) Inc., and Zak Cassar.


Tell us about your work on that show. What camera did you choose?

We ended up shooting digitally, with the Sony F35 camera. Originally I wanted to shoot film as did a number of us. We felt that film would give the proper texture and emotion. It was a great script and story and the Kennedys are a kind of an American royal family of sorts and we wanted to treat it with respect. But as it came together, we realized that film wouldn't be available not just because of budget but other aspects. The Alexa wasn't quite ready for us, so we shot tests and felt we could achieve results we wanted with the Sony F35 and it ended up being a fine camera for the series.


What was the look that the filmmakers wanted and what were the challenges in achieving that look?

There were some definite visual challenges. The script we had spanned several decades, from 1927 through 1963. Some scripts had many flashbacks and I didn't want it to become about getting in and out of those flashbacks but keep the characters up front and center. We elected tonally to treat each period as its own look so we didn't have to use a technique to go to and from flashbacks. In the end, it worked fantastically. Shooting digitally, we had a lot of control to see exactly where we were going. At the same time, I was always careful to make sure we had the texture we wanted.



©2010 Kennedys Productions (Ontario) Inc., and Zak Cassar


I was so pleased that we were able to achieve the look and feel of the picture. Jon Cassar did a fantastic job as director, always giving us a path to be on. The collaboration was fantastic and that's reflected by the fact that we got 10 nominations in such a wide range of categories. The industry recognizes the hard work and dedication of the crew.






For his lensing of REELZ Channel's controversial miniseries, Moxness earned the Gemini Award for Best Photography in a Dramatic Program or Series award. The Gemini Awards are Canada's equivalent to the Emmys®.

The Emmys are also recognizing Moxness' work this year. His Kennedys photography is nominated for the Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries or Movie award.

He is is also nominated for a Leo Award, given by the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Foundation of British Columbia.

"I tried to shoot the emotion of every scene," says Moxness. "It's a real character piece, so I chose a naturalistic approach, although I kept the grandeur of it. They’re an opulent family."

2011 being a particularly stellar year for Moxness, the DP also received his fifth Leo Award nomination. His work on an episode of Fringe, "The Man from the Other Side" earned a Best Cinematography in a Dramatic Series nod.

Moxness previously collected Leo noms in 2007 and 2008 for Smallville episodes "Arrow" and "Phantom." In 2010, he earned a nomination for "I Am an Adult Now," an episode of The Listener. He also received a Best Cinematography in a Feature Length Drama nomination for his work on Alien Trespass. In 2001, he received his first Gemini nomination for Earth: Final Conflict.

His inventory of awards doesn’t end there however; Moxness won an American Society of Cinematographers Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Episodic TV Series for his work on Smallville. He also received two Canadian Society of Cinematographers nominations for Best Cinematography in a TV Series for Smallville and Kevin Hill.



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