Sorry for the delay in getting this week’s blog up. We were shut down for President’s day and I didn’t have the tech support I needed to get the blog online. (i.e. I have a very limited knowledge of computers and I need my awesome assistant Erin to actually do anything.)
AWESOME ASSISTANT ERIN
OK – last night’s episode was one that I directed, which invariably means that I have more to say about it.
First of all, this is the one split episode that every TV show does each season. This means that we prepped the episode in late December, then took a two-week vacation, and then came back shooting. Historically, on whatever show I’m on, this episode is one that I, as the show’s producer, frequently take on, because it’s hard on any other director. In late December the crew is tired, everyone is really ready for their Christmas break, and the prep is frequently kind of sketchy. Jim Chory, the line producer and I, joked about how there are several days back in December that we don’t even remember.
Then, to make matters worse everyone goes and rests and forgets all about the show, and then, with no days of additional prep – we all just come back and start shooting. I took this episode on because I’m pretty good at rolling with the punches and thinking on my feet. And, because I know the show so well, I can compensate for anything that slips between the cracks.
HEROES is a real tricky show as a director, because there are so many different stories going at once, and because each story has it’s own unique visual style, pace and performance style. It’s hard enough to grasp the different styles, if you don’t also plan how the styles will integrate together you can end up with an episode that feels vaguely erratic. I don’t knit, but I imagine it’s like knitting a sweater with a number of different types of wools and thread pattern. You have to carefully plan what you’re going to do ahead of time and then make sure you’re executing it in the moment.
Maybe the thing to do is to just talk through a few scenes and talk about what I was going for stylistically and in terms of performance.
First of all, I’m very happy with the whole Peter/Claude/Isaac storyline. My whole directorial style is to try to first glean (a) which character controls the scene – sometimes it shifts within a scene (b) what is the inherent emotional quality of the scene – meaning, both, what do the characters feel and what do I want the audience to feel? – sometimes they’re the same, sometimes they’re different. (c) what stylistic techniques – i.e. what colors, compositions, camera movement and camera lensing – will support these emotions. I wanted the Peter/Claude – Peter/Isaac storyline to have a uniform quality, an inherent tension. I’d been noticing that handheld really works for us. I’d done a lot on my episode 6, less so on episode 9. I consciously chose to do most of this storyline handheld.
In the first scene with HRG and Isaac, HRG is in control of the scene. So in that one I used cranes and dollys and let the shots sweep and push in. Trying to visually mimic the emotion of the scene – pressure. The pressure HRG is putting on Isaac. After that, there’s a scene on the roof with Claude and Milo, where Claude beats the hell out of Peter with a Bo Stick. In this almost every shot is handheld and the camera trades off from character to character a lot. This technique adds a sense of chaos and unbalance - and whenever I cut wide to show the special relationship’s (important to do so your audience doesn’t get completely disoriented) I used big sweeping wide shots done from a crane, which are always passing over foreground objects. Moving past close foreground on full figure shots adds both a sense of speed and a sense of pressure.
In the second rooftop scene, the one at night (which begins with Claude and Peter and then shifts to their being attacked by HRG and The Haitian), I began the scenes on the dolly, with lyrical dolly shots. The first shot is a longish dolly shot which begins on a pigeon, drifts across the birdcage into a two shot of Peter and Claude and then pushes in. There was no coverage (i.e. other shots to cut to) until Claude turns and says, “I think he meant you friend." Eccleston came to me before the scene and expressed that he thought it was important on that one line to express a softening in his character. That he’s beginning to like and be impressed with Peter. I agreed and supported this with gently moving shots. When HRG appears all the angles on Claude and Peter go to handheld – but the ones on HRG and Haitian are stable – on the dolly. I particularly love the wide wide shot where Peter jumps off the edge of the building. Our set is a huge set on a blue screen stage. I shot it as wide as I could and the VFX people at Stargate added a background building extension and New York backdrop. It’s so cool. It’s a quick cut, but it looks like Peter just jumps off the building and drops into nowhere.
The flying shots I had actually shot way back in December, at the same time as we had done shots for Peter being thrown off the roof for episode 14. I’ve done flying before, on SMALLVILLE. There’s a sequence in the season premiere of season 4, when Clark flies into the air, out onto the edge of space and up to Lex Luthor’s jet. I thought that was pretty good TV! But trust me flying is hard too do right. You have to hang the actors in uncomfortable positions on a huge blue screen stage and blow giant wind-fans at them, then you have to swoop the camera around them to mimic their flight through the air. The hours fly by as you have lots of discussions about “tilt” and “yaw” while the actors are getting angrier and angrier because their testicles are being crushed by the harness they’re in. It’s not that fun. I’m pretty happy with the way Peter’s flight turned out – but I don’t think it’s 100% brilliant or groundbreaking. I tell you this is a really hard thing to do right. Next time I’ll do better.
I’m very happy with the scene in Peter’s apartment where Claude wakes up, gets all paranoid and runs out. This scene, to me, was driven by Claude. Claude is scared – a state we’ve never seen him in. He knows he’s in danger. Peter is confused. I wanted to support this emotion, again by going handheld and also by dropping back and shooting with long lenses through windows and French doors – long lenses compress the filmed image and this created tension and a sense of “surveillance” – like they might be being watched. I alternated this by doing super close close-ups on relatively wide 40mm lenses. Alternating between long lens full shots and wide lens close ups is sort of the opposite way from the traditional. It gives the scene an unbalanced “afraid” feeling.
MILO ON A VIDEO MONITOR
CHRIS ECCLESTON – FIXIN’ TO FLY
MILO AND CHRIS – LEARN TO FLY
MILO AND CHRIS – LIKE A FREE BIRD
I’m pretty happy with the Suresh/Sylar story as well. First of all I think these two actors are terrific together. Zack Quinto was amazing at shifting between the mild mannered character of Zane and the frightful Sylar. The gust star Rusty Schwimmer was great and brought great empathy to her character in just 2 short scenes. I got a little experimental in these scenes and with, in my opinion, some but not complete success.
Again I went hand held for a lot of the firsts scene when the two guys arrive at the car repair shop. The first phase of that scene, for me, was about general movement – Mohinder controls the scene – but he’s not completely “in” control of the result. In this part I made the camera move handheld on a relatively long shot that tracks them in, playing a fair bit of dialogue on their backs. Being on backs when people are talking creates a sense of discomfort in the audience. You have to be careful with it, because it can also alienate the audience from the characters – so you have to do it at the right time. As the scene progresses Sylar begins to take over. Here I began to use a “swing and tilt” lens on many of the close-ups. The swing and tilt is a lens that was invented for architectural photography – to photograph buildings and keep the whole surface of a building in focus. With most lenses the plane of focus is flat. With these lenses the plane of focus can be shifted to the diagonal, either up and down or side to side. So, as Rusty’s character began to tell her story, and Sylar gets excited about obtaining her power – I used these lenses in his close up and her close up – but not on Suresh’s CU. To the audience the close ups look “weird” kind of in focus, kind of not – but now what we’re normally used to seeing. Again – it’s uncomfortable. I’ve been using these lenses a lot on HEROES, but not so aggressively in a place where you would normally use a traditional lens – like this scene. At the end of the day I feel it’s only a partial success. The shots are a bit too self-conscious. And, because we’re in traditional coverage, we cut back to them several times, which makes them call attention to themselves more than I’d like. Next time I’ll back off this technique or use it AND get a regular shot – so the weird ones can be used more judiciously.
Later, however, I used the same technique to good effect. In the scene where Sylar comes to kill Dale, I used one swing and tilt lenses on one shot on her close up when she says, “What’s that sound in your heart.” And again in the close up where he says “murder.” Once more, the shots feel weird and the plane of focus is not what we’re used to. But because each shot is used just once or twice the technique doesn’t become so apparent – and it works better.
All the scenes in the Bennett storyline I’m quite happy with as well. Claire’s scenes tend to be driven by Claire. She is always fighting for understanding and stability. I tend to be more stable with the camera in Claire’s story. Not moving the camera or moving it slowly and menacingly. In the scene where she nervously tells her mother not to trust Dad, for instance, the camera was always static… But I alternated between big wide shots where Claire and her mother were on opposite sides of the frame and the couch and coffee table dominated the foreground. I shot Mrs. Bennett’s close ups traditionally and shot Claire’s shots either super-tight, or off-center with uncomfortably little room on the leading edge of the frame – all designed to create a sense of discomfort. Because the camera’s never moving, the pace of editing determines the rhythm of the scene. In the mother’s speeches we tended to stay in one shot. In Claire’s speeches we tended to jump from one Claire close-up to another. Again this adds a sense of disquiet and tension.
The scene in the hospital with Claire and her father is one of my favorite scenes I’ve done on the show. I did nothing fancy besides shoot two close ups… But Jack and Hayden were awesome. On a performance level I talked d to Jack about the idea of losing control. That this is the first time in the show we’ve seen a chink in the armor. . I think he played that wonderfully. I particularly love his expression when he thinks that, once again, he’s been able to win her over and she suddenly shouts “No!” and pushes him back. Sometimes in my job it’s about style. Sometimes the most appropriate style is to get out of the way and let the actors and the script do their thing.
If there’s any area I’m not as happy about it’s a couple of the Hiro/Ando scenes. Typically I shoot Hiro’s story framed a bit wider and more traditionally... i.e. in a more comedic style. I think I let the comedy get away from me on this one. It’s the first time I’ve had a situation where there were other characters who were meant to be comedic besides Hiro. At least that was my interpretation of what Hope and Gustavson’s roles were intended to be. Specifically, there is the big shootout scene. Jeph Loeb kept telling me that they didn’t want it to be about the gunfire or cars blowing up. Frankly, I was confused. I think I sort of nodded and “yeah, yeah, yeahed….” But I’m not sure I ever got what he was saying. I mean, the two characters were shooting at each other for a page of dialogue. So I photographed the scene, figuring we can either choose to see or not see the gunfire in editing. By the way that kind of work is hard. It was two all-night shoots. It was freezing cold. And it takes a long time to set up shots between explosions. I was off my game in that I didn’t have my own strong point of view about the scene… I kept thinking about the what-not-to-do instead of the what-to-do. In the end I feel disappointed with myself. I don’t feel like I found a way into these scenes that was special or especially well planned like the others I’ve been describing. I feel I did let the comedy get a little too big I’m not sure how you, the fans, felt… But I know that I have a sense of not having completely succeeded here and it’s makes my stomach turn in knots and has for weeks. But, in reflection, I’m not 100% sure what I would have done differently…
Actually, the last Hiro and Ando scene I really like. The one where Hiro says goodbye and gets on the bus. I think Masi and James did a very nice job and the scene feels melancholy in a good way. Also, when Hiro gets on the bus, the bus driver is played by Stan Lee… Stan Lee! The guy who invented Spiderman, The Fantastic Four and the X-Men!!! How cool is that. He’s like the funniest nicest guy too.
That’s it for now. Next week we blow up West Texas and see how it all began for Claire and HRG!
See you then!
JEPH LOEB AND I
SANTIAGO CABRERA AND I
MILO, SANTIAGO AND A PAINTING OF MILO
MASI, STAN LEE AND JEPH LOEB
MASI AND STAN LEE HAMMING IT UP FOR THE PRESS
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR TONY ADLER CONTEMPLATES LIFE AND DEATH