With the recent Blu-ray release of Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery drawing new attention to David Lynch’s landmark production, I took the opportunity to speak with Frank Byers, ASC, who shot 29 episodes of the TV series. (Byers’ ASC colleague Ron Garcia shot the pilot, which he recently discussed in a podcast with American Cinematographer.)
Not long ago, Frank participated in a Twin Peaks symposium at the University of Southern California that included screenings of every episode. I asked him how it felt to see images he had crafted more than 20 years ago.
“Believe me, the experience was surreal,” he says. “The projection was beautiful and the image was 1.33, which struck me as odd [today]. I was very happy; I really liked the way it looked. I could remember shooting some of those scenes, and the circumstances, and that surprised me.
“Shooting Twin Peaks was a big challenge every day,” Frank recalls. “The scripts were so unusual, without precedent, and the directors were all so good. I worked with [episode director] Caleb Deschanel [ASC], and David Lynch directed four episodes. They all had very strong ideas on what to do in terms of coverage and style. David had a style he wanted, but it grew every day.”
I asked Frank how the look evolved over the course of two years. “At first, David wanted me to use Coral filters, but the quality of ABC’s transmission, at least on the first few episodes, was so poor. They were unable to deal with it. We slowly backed off the Corals, and by the end of the second year, I was using little or none.
“We shot the first year on Fuji film with Arriflex cameras and Zeiss lenses, which were too sharp for me. I liked the way Fuji responded to green, but we had some problems with the sprocket holes, so the second year we switched to Kodak. There was a lot of varnished wood in our sets, and Kodak seemed to have a better take on that, a better transference of red and green. We also switched to Panavision. It was all primes, single camera, seven days per episode.”
Frank recalled a scene shot at TreePeople Park near the intersection of Mulholland Drive and Coldwater Canyon Avenue in Los Angeles. In it, James (James Marshall) is picking up Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) on his motorcycle. “I remember shooting that day, and we were running out of light,” he says. “I never pushed, but it was T1.4, and I kept telling [episode director] Tim Hunter that we were going to lose the light. But, as usual, when you push that far, you get the best-looking images. There were dark pine trees, and I kept trying to get the sky in the background so I’d have something bright in the frame, and it worked great. I was crossing my fingers when we were shooting, but that was one of the best exteriors I’ve ever done.”
Frank has stayed very busy since Twin Peaks on series such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: NY and Hawthorne. I asked him how TV cinematography has changed. “I think you’re allowed to reach out a lot more,” he says. “Depending on the show, the producers actually care what it looks like. They want it to look like a feature film. Not all of them understand what that means, but at least they try.
“Unfortunately, I think the coming of digital has been a real letdown, although it’s getting better,” Frank continues. “Producers are trying to get rid of the DIT, and they want images delivered in Log C, which is a joke. The cinematographer is losing control and the chance to give input on the final look. On series TV, you often don’t have a chance to go in and do your own color correction. Without that, you’re at the mercy of the colorist, because a lot of shows don’t deliver LUTs to post. You’re either in Rec 709, or you’ve got three or four LUTs you set at the beginning of production. That might be fine if you’re working on the same sets every day, but on a show with a lot of location work, like Twin Peaks, those LUTs won’t translate to every scene. So, you end up giving these flat, washed-out Log C files to someone and asking him to interpret your work. That’s not the smart way to go.
“Prior to 2005, I shot three years of CSI,” he says. “We shot film, and there were two directors of photography, so I was able to go in and color correct most of my episodes. I was very happy with that, and the show runners were very much behind that. They got a great-looking show, and I think that did a lot to boost CSI’s cachet. The fact that it looked different, looked really good, was one reason the show did so well, in my opinion. Whether I’ll get that chance again, I don’t know.”