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posted by - Thursday, 26 February 2004

by Christine Bunish

Cinematography on the Small Screen

“Scrubs”, the ensemble comedy which airs Thursday nights on NBC, is one of a handful of series shot on Super 16mm today. “It’s a great medium for the show because we move very fast, have small sets and a very fluid camera style,” says John Inwood who has been “Scrubs” director of photography for all but its pilot. “There are a lot of walks-and-talks through hallways, in and out of rooms and elevators.”

Steadicam and A Camera Operator Rich Davis uses Inwood’s own Aaton XTRprod to shoot the fast-paced series, now in its third season; Sylvain d’Hautcourt is the first camera assistant. A longtime Aaton user, Inwood likes the camera’s superior registration, good balance for extensive Steadicam work and ergonomic design for occasional handheld shots. His camera has been modified with an adjustable shutter so it can produce the clipped, staccato look of “CSI: Miami” or “Cold Case” if desired. It can also accommodate the Preston shutter-speed control device for adjusting frame rates during the course of a shot.

Inwood’s Aaton XTRprod is backed up by an Aaton from Abel Cine Tech which also furnishes additional camera support.

“Scrubs” has a unique production environment. For eight or nine months a year it occupies a former hospital near Studio City which, before its discovery by scouts, had been idle since its closing a decade ago. “We are self-sufficient and under one roof,” Inwood points out. Four floors offer everything from a real OR, ICU, patient rooms and nursing stations to a cafeteria, lobby and admissions center. The hospital also houses the series’ production offices, edit suites and dressing rooms plus two studio spaces for sitting and revolving sets. The hospital’s parking lot has even been used for building a park, forests, carnival and two-story sets.

Since its debut, “Scrubs” has “matured on many levels,” Inwood says. “We’ve gotten better at shooting it, better at lighting it. We’ve done all we possibly can to challenge ourselves in various ways, so we’re ready for anything the directors throw at us.”

Inwood teams with Production Designer Cabot McMullen to “find ways to open hallways and create windows, to bring in interesting light and create more depth” in the practical location. “Scrubs” has one of Hollywood’s bigger lighting packages, according to Inwood, with a Condor with two 18K lights on standby at all times, another approximately 15 18Ks, 10 12Ks and dozens of Kino Flos.

On all of the “Scrubs” episodes Inwood has worked with Gaffer Andy Rawson and Key Grip Sean Crowell. “They’ve been instrumental in helping design the look of the show and discovering short cuts,” he reveals. The series has both day and night scenes, and while there’s more opportunity for dramatic lighting at nighttime a natural look is the overall goal.

While “Scrubs” remains fast paced, another sign of its maturity is less frantic and frenetic scripts. “In the first season the snappy, fast-moving style almost got ahead of itself,” Inwood notes. “The scripts were so chockfull of great scenes there was almost too much material for the amount of air time.” Each episode now averages some 30 scenes, down from an average 40-plus in previous seasons and a record 60-plus for certain episodes. “The show’s creator, Bill Lawrence, and the writers have made a conscious decision to make scenes play out a bit longer now,” Inwood explains.

The camera team shoots an average of 10 scenes or six-and-a-half pages a day which is still quite a fast rate of shooting. “Scenes may be less than a page long, with as many as five or six characters, requiring a lot of intricate blocking and camera movement,” he says. “The camera is constantly adjusting and moving. A given shot may begin with a transition, become an establishing shot, develop into a Steadicam walk-and-talk and end as an over-the-shoulder coverage shot, all done rapidly and fluidly.”

Most of “Scrubs” is shot with wider lenses, between 10mm and 20mm in Super 16. “The wider lenses support the comedy, and they also accommodate the small sets that we shoot on,” he explains. “However, one of the wonderful things about the show is how the scripts combine different types of comedy with drama and romance, sometimes within the same scene. I don’t hesitate to use longer lenses — from 50mm to 300mm — when the tone of the show changes. The visual style breathes with the content of the scripts.”

Inwood also uses a variety of filters from time to time. On exteriors he often employs a polarizer as well as ND and ND Grads, and he uses warming filters, such as coral filters, occasionally. “I like the 812 warming filter even more than the coral,” he says. “There’s a touch of magenta in the filter that I like; it’s flattering with flesh tones. I also use a light diffusion filter such as the half Soft EFX on close ups.

“Sometimes I will put a black stocking on the back of the lenses for a particularly romantic scene,” he adds. “I once used the stocking for a series of night scenes at a carnival: It does wonderful things with light sources and light bulbs.”

Inwood has chosen to shoot Super 16mm with medium ASA stocks. He opts for Kodak 7246 250 ASA and 7274 200 ASA because he wants as fine grain as possible to handle all the tonal ranges that need to be photographed. “We approach the look of 35mm with all the benefits of Super 16: a smaller camera moving fast through small spaces,” he notes. Inwood tested Kodak’s new 500 ASA stock but found the grain structure did not hold up against the 200 stocks for the look he wants to achieve. He also uses reversal film stocks for flashback sequences.

Prior to “Scrubs” Inwood served as DP on about half of the episodes of Nickelodeon’s “The Adventures of Pete and Pete” and shot a number of independent features including Face which premiered at Sundance 2002 and is slated for release in April.

Three years into the “Scrubs” run, the actors have hit their stride, the writers have risen to new heights and the crew works like a “balletic machine,” surefooted, efficient and creative. “The show is known around town for having great energy, a great vibe,” says Inwood who made his directorial debut on an episode this season.

Reprinted with permission of Markee Magazine.

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