David Geddes, ASC, CSC, checked in from a fishing trip in Vancouver, where he was relaxing after finishing the second season of Under the Dome in Wilmington, N.C. Prior to that assignment, David worked on the series Almost Human, sharing episodes with two other cinematographers, and on Fringe, where he shot 10 episodes.
David’s cinematography career began in documentary films, and then segued into television and feature work. Mixed in with his more prominent credits are numerous short films, including Friend (2013), Last Christmas (2011) and Move Out Clean (2010). I asked him about these projects.
“I’ve always liked the teaching aspect of our industry,” David explains. “I’ve found that there are so many younger people who are doing a university thesis film or have recently graduated, people who are trying to develop themselves as directors, who need more practical learning experience. Sometimes friends need a short film as a portfolio piece to move up the ladder. It might mean securing better funding sources, or building their careers and having their talents recognized. I will get a call from someone who explains his project and says, ‘I hear you’re open to this kind of thing.’ If I have the time and the energy, I’ll jump onboard and help him."
“Our industry can be so complicated,” he continues. “It’s satisfying to shoot these projects because you have to be a lot more inventive — it’s like going back to your roots. You don’t have access to all the toys. You have to come up with a different, simpler way of capturing the vision, and that is stimulating. You’re digging deeper, getting the creative juices flowing.
“It looks easier when you have a crew of people and two 40-foot trucks full of gear, but that still requires the knowledge of what to do with the gear and the ability to command that army of people. In time, we come to take that expertise for granted. I have learned over my many decades in the industry that intuition springs from knowledge and experience. I tap into that intuition automatically, so controlling a set seems easy, but, of course, it isn’t! Filmmaking is a very complex undertaking. That’s why mentoring, sharing our thought processes, is so important.”
Our conversation turned to changing technology and its impact on cinematography. David shot Under the Dome with Arri Alexas and Panavision Primo lenses. He found that the Primos paired with the Alexa offer a more rounded texture and analog feel without filtration, creating a look that is more filmic than digital.
Technology breakthroughs extend to more than camera equipment, he says. “On Under the Dome, we had a tunnel set where the bottom of the tunnel was 16 feet in the air to simulate a cliff edge,” David says. “The top was probably 25 feet above the stage floor. In the story, it’s a tunnel without light, and the cast walks in with flashlights and various lamps. The scene called for ‘film dark,’ meaning I had to light the walls enough so the audience would know it’s a tunnel. But the height of the set made it very complicated to run cable everywhere. Not long ago, we would have had to run power, drill holes and place crew members outside the set. The set was made of Styrofoam, which could have melted or caught on fire with incandescent lamps.”
The solution was battery-powered 1’x1’ Litepanels LEDs. About a dozen of these fixtures were placed behind stones and outcroppings and powered by Anton-Bauer 24-volt batteries. “That really is a game changer in terms of efficiency," says David. "With traditional lighting technology, we’d probably still be there trying to light it!”
On other Dome sets, David was able to control lighting with Luminaire software running on an iPad. He says these advances are helping cinematographers deliver feature-film production value on TV schedules and budgets. “People are watching $200 million movies on large LED or LCD TVs at home, and they expect the same level of quality from TV shows,” David observes. “They can’t possibly realize the time and money it takes to achieve that look. A single shot in an action feature can take as many days to shoot as we have to film an entire episode of a TV series. Naturally, TV producers push for that same amazing look, and the cinematographer is caught in the middle of the creativity-productivity conundrum. It’s our job to manage that conflict using every tool and trick of the trade at our disposal.”