A Little Knowledge

A while back I re-watched Firefly on DVD.

It’s a Western. With Spaceships.

It’s also bloody marvellous, and if you can’t cope with the collision of those two genres I’m sorry – but you’re missing out on a fantastically well-made TV show.

(This has no relevance at all to the content of this post. I just wanted to get it off my chest before we got onto the important stuff.)

So I’m watching the episode “Out of Gas”, and something’s bugging me about the picture. There’s a lot of strange colour in there, and more to the point, the grain on the picture – especially in the flashback sequences – is enormous.

And I’m thinking – was this shot on 16mm? I know the first two seasons of Buffy were, and that grain is so strong…

So I looked it up.

And it turns out that there are several pages on how the look-and-feel of the show was created at The American Society of Cinematographers website.

Turns out that most of the episode was shot on cross-processed Fuji 50D – basically they use processing chemicals to develop the film stock that weren’t designed for it – which gives it that lovely grainy, colour-shifted look.

Another of life’s little mysteries solved. Happiness ensues.

Here’s why this is important for writers:

Assuming you want to become a showrunner in the long-term (and why wouldn’t you?) you need to know a little about what all the department heads can do.

You’re not expected to know about the details of cinematography. The DP will handle all that. But you need to know what’s possible, and what’s easy, and what’s hard, and maybe be able to point to some examples of the-sort-of-thing you want.

A little knowledge, they say, is a dangerous thing.

But you don’t have to know about the details of the process. You do need to be able to have a conversation with your cinematographer about the basics, so that they can then deliver what you want.

I always try to know enough to be dangerous.

5 Replies to “A Little Knowledge”

  1. Yeah, but do you need the knowledge or more the idea if you’re in charge? Wouldn’t what you’re saying also be achieved in this sorta fashion:

    SHOWRUNNER: You know what? It’d be great if you guys could make the end picture look all lovely and grainy, I love that.
    PICTURE GUY: You mean like on Firefly?
    SHOWRUNNER: Yeah, right, like on Firefly. Can you do that?
    PICTURE GUY: Sure can.

  2. Sure, in the case above you don’t need to know it’s specifically cross-processed Fuji 50D. But in my experience, a manager who doesn’t take the time to find out the basics of how the people working for them do their jobs is a terrible manager.

    In the example you give:

    SHOWRUNNER: Because I say so.
    PICTURE GUY: No, I mean what emotional tone are you going for here?
    SHOWRUNNER: Emotional tone? The director and actors deal with that. I just want it to look lovely and grainy, and with funny colours, cos that looked cool.

    You need to be able to have a conversation with your people, not just tell them what to do. Because they know better than you how to achieve what you’re looking for.

    But before you can tell them that, you need some common points of reference.

  3. Why can’t you have a conversation about emotional tone without knowing about processed Fuji 50D? I thought a showrunner was, at the heart of it all, a writer – and writers deal with emotional tone all the time.

  4. You don’t need to know about the specifics – but I personally want to know how things work, for two reasons. One’s the emotional satisfaction of knowing how it works, and the other is because it helps me to talk with the people I work with.

    In the example you gave, the showrunner wasn’t talking about using the effect to get across the emotional tone, but because they saw something they liked once and wanted to copy it.

    More importantly, perhaps, I’d actually disagree with you about what a showrunner is.

    A showrunner is a producer. They’re the person with the final say about what happens in the production itself. (Sure, the network could fire them, or refuse to air the show – but the showrunner’s the final call on what gets produced.)

    In the US system, they’re also a writer. I personally think that makes for better TV.

    But when you’re talking to the DP, or the sound engineer, or the actor, or the director about the emotional tone you’re trying to get across in a scene, your life will be easier if you know a little about the tools they use to achieve that.

    All of which are production skills, not writing ones.

    Sure, you can do it without. But it’s easier with.

  5. I never said the showrunner *wasn’t* a producer – the likes of RTD clearly are. But I do think, first and foremost, they’re a writer and different from producer-producers.

    I don’t disagree it’s good to know what people working for you do – for one thing, they need to know you appreciate the effort they’re making. Without them, there would be no show; film, TV, etc is a collaborative effort. There should be no “auteur” nonsense.

    I do think my definition of “what people working for you do” is very different to yours, however. I would never, ever in one million years, find out about something as detailed as Fuji film. If I was a showrunner, I believe that I would be more interested in the story and how it works, than how it looks.

    But then I am far more likely to watch something like Coronation Street than Firefly.

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