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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
CreativeCOW presents Behind the Lens: White Collar with DP Russell Lee Fine -- Cinematography Feature


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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.' Photos courtesy of USA Network
Matt Bomer stars as Neal Caffrey and Tim DeKay as Peter Burke, in USA Network's original series 'White Collar.'
This an example of Fine's preference to use natural light when shooting outdoors. Photo 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, left, and Russell Lee Fine, right, directing episode 301 of White Collar, 'On Guard,' which first aired on June 7, 2011. Photo credits: Myles Aronowitz/USA Network
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
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
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.


Photo credits: Myles Aronowitz/USA Network
WHITE COLLAR -- "On Guard" Episode 301 -- Photo by: Myles Aronowitz/USA Network



Comments

Re: Behind the Lens: White Collar with DP Russell Lee Fine
by Annod Ralsek
Guess it would have helped if I saw the article first... Think I found my answer as to what changed from the first season to the second..."We started off using the Sony F23s, which were fine. Then the second and now this third season, we moved to Sony F35s." Kind of sad, newer doesn't always mean better!! :(
Re: Behind the Lens: White Collar with DP Russell Lee Fine
by Annod Ralsek
Absolutely love this show! Especially loved the clarity of the first season... not a dark area on the screen, all images were crystal... the scenes of the FBI office, through the glass, they were amazing...even the night shots were clear... but what happened? After the first season it doesn't have the same look? Still loving the show, but miss the clarity.
Re: Behind the Lens: White Collar with DP Russell Lee Fine
by Mark Suszko
I am fascinated by the unity of the looks between these USA Network shows; White Collar, Burn Notice, and Royal Pains.

I feel like sometimes you can just put all three shows into one timeline and they fit as one. Not to say they don't each have little variations, because they do, but overall, they definitely give the network's programming a singular, signature, "brand" look. I would love to hear more about how and why that is achieved. Is it all down to the cameras and lenses, is it a recipe the colorists all stick with, was this a strategy or just a happy coincidence.

One of the things I admire about all three shows, but especially about Burn Notice, is they are obviously shot on relatively economic budgets, but they work very hard and creatively not to look like it, using the carefully considered photography and editing style to show more there, than there really is.

What's the secret?


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