Scandal is an ABC dramatic series set in the highest levels of U.S. government. The characters are smart, savvy, and complicated – none of them are completely villainous or angelic – and they all have secrets. At the show’s center is the crisis management firm run by Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), who knows how to fix everyone’s life but her own.
The political thriller’s creator is Shonda Rhimes, best known for her association with Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice. Both of those shows went well over the magical 100-episode mark. Scandal, now in production on season three, is well on its way.
“Shonda’s writing is brilliant, and sometime outrageous, but always emotionally plausible,” says Oliver Bokelberg, ASC, BVK, who has been shooting the show on the ARRI ALEXA since its inception. “Visually, it’s most important for the audience to buy into our truth, to believe everything they see. I just like the look of the ALEXA. Our cast is diverse, and the ALEXA handles all our skin colors beautifully. To my eyes, there is no other camera that can handle this as well. There’s a certain softness to it, almost an organic grain structure. I feel it’s the closest I can get to a film look.”
Bokelberg plays with subjective and objective camera placement, usually with two cameras. Using two and sometimes three cameras has prompted the filmmakers to move beyond standard coverage, he says. In keeping with the secretive subject matter, watching the show often feels like peering in on a conversation from another room.
“It’s as if we are witnessing a real-life scene out of the corner of our eye,” says Bokelberg. “We pick our moments. We try to leave our characters’ dignity intact. If a character is crying, we might give them privacy and let them step or turn away from camera. That rings true to me. At other times, when a character is emotionally involved, we might choose a subjective view, to enter their frame of mind and join their journey.”
Omitting certain information is key in either situation. “You don’t want to chew information for an audience,” says Bokelberg. “You want them to be engaged. If you don’t show everything, they want to see more. If it’s all there, one easily becomes bored.”
The search for realism leads the filmmakers to embrace “flaws” like camera flares. Sometimes beveled glass panels are set before the lens, adding dynamic distortions to the image as the camera dollies past. This technique is in harmony with the beveled glass doors and partitions in the Pope & Associates offices set. Bokelberg credits pilot director Paul McGuigan for this technique.
“I don’t necessarily place the camera in the perfect spot,” he says. “I sort of peek in on the situation, and that helps it become more real.”
The show is produced mainly at Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood and at locations around Los Angeles, including Griffith Park, Hancock Park, Pasadena and downtown L.A. An episode is usually made in eight first-unit days, with one additional double-up day. Sometimes park scenes shot green-screen in L.A. are composited with recognizable Washington DC backdrops.
“Ideally, we get our master against the green screen, and then get the long lens coverage in our set environment without visual effects,” says Bokelberg. “That keeps our images less ‘effected,’ and saves production the expense of compositing shots. For all green screen work we shoot clean, removing our Glimmerglass filters, and in general keeping our ISO at 400 or below. This way the ALEXA delivers at its best for an easy compositing key.”
Bokelberg has a long history with the camera, having shot another ABC show in 2010, No Ordinary Family, with ALEXA bodies number 3 and 4. At that time he and DIT Andy Lemon developed a smooth workflow in close collaboration with Technicolor. On the Scandal set, a new ASC-CDL (Color Decision List) is created for every setup. On-set color correction is done with the Technicolor DP Lights system, which they use to dial in colors and contrast while lighting.
“I am constantly balancing how detailed we need to get with the lighting and where my color correction takes over,” says the cinematographer. “Without a doubt this system makes us faster and saves production valuable time on set.”
The images are recorded using SxS cards, and the format is C-log 4:2:2 ProRes. The color correction is not baked into the files, but is instead sent to Technicolor with the hard drives, where dailies timer Ben Chan uses the numbers as a starting point in Colorfront. These adjusted CDL numbers also provide guidance for colorist Gareth Cook in the creation of the on-air master.
“We have a great working relationship with Technicolor, and Gareth is an integral part of the look of the show,” says Bokelberg.
The camera is almost always moving, usually on a dolly and sometimes with a simultaneous zoom on an Angenieux Optimo zoom lens. “I was inspired by something Vilmos Zsigmond says on the bonus tracks of The Long Goodbye DVD,” says Bokelberg. “He says that a sideways dolly combined with a zoom appears as a diagonal dolly movie. To me, it feels like I’m wrapping around the character, being sucked into his or her frame of mind. If successful, the zoom becomes imperceptible, and doesn’t call attention to the camerawork. We jokingly call this our ‘Scandal Vortex.’”
Bokelberg prizes a clean white, and white is an important color in the show. It shows up in the many iconic buildings and monuments of Washington, DC, and is echoed in the wardrobe of the Olivia Pope character.
“The cameras can handle the contrast very well,” he says. “There is no need to ‘tea’ down the materials. To me, a white shirt should be white. One of my favorite movies of all time is Jean-Luc Godard’s 1961 classic A Woman is a Woman, photographed by Raoul Coutard. The lead character lives in an apartment with white walls and white sheer curtains. A few touches of controlled reds or blues here and there, and the result is absolutely gorgeous.
“On Scandal, we tend to stay away from overly warm lighting, it feels too ‘west coast’ to me,” says Bokelberg. “Gaffer Roger Sassen brings in a lot of steel blue, cyan and some slight plus-green gels that work together with white light, or sometimes 1/4 or 1/2 CTO.”
Most interiors are shot at ISO 800, but Bokelberg feels comfortable going to 1280 or even 1600. On exteriors, he starts at ISO 200. “One of the beautiful features of the ALEXA is its ease of use,” he says. “And then there is the reliability – I’ve been shooting somewhere around 500 production days with the ALEXA, and it’s been extremely dependable.”
Co-executive producer Tom Verica has directed a half-dozen episodes of Scandal, with more on the Season 3 schedule. He also preps incoming directors on the nuts and bolts of the show, while encouraging them to bring their own flavor. “Oliver and pilot director Paul McGuigan defined the language of our show,” says Verica. “What we have now was borne out of their original. Oliver is a constant collaborator in making the show interesting, different and organic as possible.”
Verica says that the ARRI ALEXA is a key to the show’s visual signature. “I love the flexibility that the ALEXA has,” he says. “I’ve just been very happy with the results. Situations can be challenging with the amount of light we have, and I’m always very pleased with what comes out. They’re just really brilliant pictures. I come from the acting world – I’ve been an actor for 25 years – and I think back to a time when we shot all film. The freedom to keep rolling, to keep performances fresh without worrying about reloading, is a tremendous asset.”
Verica and Bokelberg have been employing a new technique on the show that involves shooting the ALEXA at 120 frames per second for to create a still image with the slightest bit of selective motion. “It’s a way of heightening a specific moment in time,” Verica says. “It’s a graceful way of integrating historical images that lends the images a different visual style. We’ve been very pleased with the results.”
Bokelberg describes the shooting style as free-form, and credits his “incredibly talented and committed crew” with making it work smoothly. “Michael Wojciechowski and Steve Fracol, SOC, our camera operators, who both have an incredible sense of story, framing and timing supported by dolly grips Rick Maxey and Eugene Rivera,” he says. “The camera assistants Jon Zarkos, Emily Mackley, Tony Schultz and Gayle Hilary are extraordinarily intuitive and masters at pulling focus and keeping the technical machine running smoothly. DIT Andy Lemon has a beautiful eye for mood and colors, but is also greatly accurate and reliable at the management and safekeeping of our data. Utility George Montejano manages our wireless transmitters and helps run the operation. Also essential is my longstanding collaboration with gaffer Roger Sassen and key grip Kevin Kennedy and their teams.
“I love having together this team of collaborators,” says Bokelberg. “Everyone’s eyes help and elevate the final product.”
Season 3 of Scandal will premiere on October 3, 2013.