My recent conversation with Wayne Kennan, ASC, reached back to the early 1970s, when Wayne was a student at San Diego State University. He remembers Desi Arnaz speaking to his class. Arnaz was an actor/producer who worked closely with Karl Freund, ASC, to develop a multi-camera approach to shooting comedy for television; some aspects of this approach are still in use today.
Wayne recalled that Arnaz had a home in nearby Del Mar. “Later in life, I’d run on that beach, and sometimes he’d be on his porch in a robe,” Wayne recalls. “I’d always yell, ‘Hey, Babalu!’ and he would wave.” (“Babalu” was the signature song of Ricky Ricardo, Arnaz’s character in I Love Lucy.)
Wayne went on to carve out an important place for himself in television comedy, working on more than 130 episodes of Seinfeld, and more than 70 other TV productions. “When I started out operating, I was working on car-chase shows like B.J. and the Bear, Sheriff Lobo and The Dukes of Hazzard,” says Wayne. “It was fun, but eventually I found that I like being on a comedy set, where everybody was trying to make me laugh.”
It was while working on Mork & Mindy that he came to this realization. “Up to that point, sitcoms had been filmed with three cameras,” he says. “But on that show, the script would just say, ‘Mork goes crazy.’ In other words, Robin Williams was going to improvise and go wherever he felt like going. He wasn’t hitting any marks. And so they hired me as a fourth camera because they were afraid they were going to miss something."
“A lot of the writers on these shows come from stand-up,” he adds. “They’re always joking. They are writers, so they might seem like introverts, but when you get them in front of an audience, they can really hold them and make them laugh.”
I asked Wayne to share his impressions of how the sitcom form has evolved. “There’s still a basic formula for setting up your lighting scheme, which is back-crosses, to throw the mic shadows downstage and give people some modeling,” he says. “Sometimes you treat the lead actress with an Obie or some specialized lighting. But when I look at older shows, I think what has really changed quite a bit are the sets — they are messier! Recently my daughter was watching an episode of Mr. Ed, and inside the house there was a just a wall with one painting on it behind him. Nowadays there would be layers, and probably a window with greens and a backdrop. There’d probably be some things that relate to this guy’s character.
“I think the advent of digital cameras [that fit] in the palm of your hand, and the fact that everything is digitized now, has helped lead to more emphasis on enhanced realism,” Wayne says. “I was really impressed by Emmanuel Lubezki’s work on Birdman. His cinematography moved the story along, and I thought it also had a very natural feeling … like he wasn’t trying to embellish the actors as much as he was aiding their performances to support the whole story. It was brilliant.”
Wayne recently wrapped 10 episodes of the multi-camera TBS comedy Clipped, about a group of barbershop coworkers. The show premiered in June. “The networks have that herd mentality, and right now the trend is toward single-camera comedies,” he says. “That's great — I love Modern Family, and I think they do a great job. But on a multi-camera show, when the director asks for handheld or Steadicam, quite often when it boils down to actually shooting it, all of that goes away. We end up lighting it in a more traditional way because that works for everyone.
“Clipped is much more contrasty,” he says. “Some people are going to call it darker, but I’m just going to say it’s more natural. People will talk, and even tell a joke, with less than full-face lighting, which breaks one of the rules of sitcom cinematography.”
Wayne calls himself one of the lucky people. “I feel so fortunate to go work on a show,” he says. “I still love doing what I do, and I love it not one bit less than I did when I was first getting into it. I’m still excited. You’re hoping for ratings. It’s that roll of the dice.”