Although he misses working as a cinematographer, Constantine Makris, ASC, has been directing almost exclusively for 15 years. He is most closely associated with the Law & Order franchise, but he has also directed episodes of Orange Is the New Black, Mistresses, Rescue Me and Criminal Minds, to mention just a few. In total, he has directed more than 160 episodes of series television.
“I miss the purity of the craft of cinematography,” says Constantine, who received three Emmys for his work behind the lens. “I miss the sheer joy of helping a director visualize a project, and I miss the camaraderie of the crew, although I still make a point of learning everyone’s names as the director. I’ve always dreamt of getting a small, manageable feature that I could direct and shoot, but that has not yet materialized.”
Constantine made his first foray into directing close to the end of the fourth season of Law & Order — at the insistence of producer Ed Sherin. “I told him I wasn’t interested, but he got very insistent,” Constantine recalls. “He said, ‘If you don’t like it, you won’t do it again, but you have to try it.’ Because I had helped develop the photographic style of the show, I was comfortable, and I saw that I could piece it together, like a sort of picture puzzle. I could do it. Once I moved on to other shows, I had to learn how to shoot within the walls, so to speak, of each specific show.”
Thinking of my recent conversation with James Bagdonas, ASC, I asked Constantine if the fact that television is more of a writer’s medium had helped make his transition to directing successful. James observed that the actors’ familiarity with their characters and the cinematographer’s thorough understanding of the sets and blocking were other advantages.
“I believe that to be true,” Constantine says. “Directing is a much more political environment, and perhaps a more dangerous and toxic environment, than being a cinematographer. I find that writers are just as sensitive and insecure as actors, and that’s saying something. You have to choose your words carefully. But it does have its rewards.”
An hour-long episode of the Netflix series Orange is the New Black is done in nine days. “There’s a lot of time pressure,” says Constantine. “Many cable shows want it done in seven days, which is damn near impossible. I spend a fair amount of time with the assistant director, going over these 60 scenes we need to shoot. He’s required to give the producer an estimate of how long each shoot day will be, and they don’t want anything over 12 hours. So you’re asked to trim, trim, trim. I think one reason cinematographers do well in directing episodic TV is because we have that background. When the shit hits the fan, we can stick with it, stage a scene and get it shot. As cinematographers, we all have that in our DNA; we’re sensitive to the clock, and we can deliver.” On Orange is the New Black, he is currently working with cinematographer Ludovic Littee, who moved up from operator when Yaron Orbach moved on.
Constantine completed the transition to directing just as TV production was shifting from film to digital. Only one episode that he has directed — on 30 Rock — was on film.
“I do try to keep up with the digital world,” he says. “I’m still a member of the ASC, and I still read American Cinematographer. But it’s much more difficult to keep up when you’re not doing it hands-on. It can seem like a bunch of technical jargon that’s hard to assimilate unless you’re actually working with it. Sometimes I spend time with the cinematographer and ask questions: ‘What’s the deal with that? Wow, that’s really low light. What are you shooting at? ’ Sometimes I can barely see it on the set, but with digital, I can always see it on the monitor. We can rate the camera at 2,000 and the camera somehow responds. It’s a whole different thing!”