“Sometimes when you’re shooting a short for no money with a very small crew, the look sort of creates itself.”
Billy Webb, ASC may hold the unofficial record for a cinematographer’s longevity on a single television series, having logged 13 seasons on the original NCIS. He says he is often asked how he keeps it fresh. “It’s a remarkable group of people, right up to my producers and Mark Harmon, who is one of the key reasons the show runs so smoothly. Compared to most shows, there’s very little in terms of politics, infighting or backtalking.
“At this point, the producers trust me so much,” Billy continues. “I go out and find the latest tools, including recording devices and workflows, and have fun. I dig through the stockpile of old lenses that Panavision has, for example. So every episode ends up becoming almost a test or an experiment for me, and, fortunately, most of the time it turns out pretty well.”
During a recent hiatus from the series, Billy volunteered on a different type of project: Silent War, a short film written, produced and directed by Joel Gretsch, who plays a recurring role on NCIS. The 12-minute film tells of a military servicewoman who is raped by an officer.
“Three or four days before we started shooting, I went home and asked myself what I’d done,” Billy recalls wryly. “Am I really this insane that I have to keep shooting, even on my time off? But this turned out to be one of those remarkable experiences. It took us about four days to shoot it, and almost everything we pointed the camera at was magical and worked beautifully. It reminded me why I love the craft of cinematography so much. It was remarkably fun and creative.
“My philosophy, especially on a low-budget project, is, ‘Prep, prep, prep,’” he continues. “That goes back to my student days at AFI. You should take twice as much time to prep as you’re going to need to shoot. If you can lock a location, [you should] drag your director in there, have him or her act out all the parts, and discuss the way you want [the actors] to stand and what you want them to do. Of course, things change, but there’s something about being that prepared, especially if you have no money and the clock is ticking. Even if you change it spontaneously, you’re more prepared to make that change more quickly.”
One location for Silent War was the Lee Strasberg Institute in West Hollywood. Billy lit and shot without much grip work because of good planning for optimal time of day. For most of the shoot, he used an Arri Alexa package similar to what he employs on NCIS. Some subjective scenes depicting a U.S. Marines obstacle course were done with Canon C300 and C500 cameras. A few flashback scenes were treated with an impressionistic feel that was achieved with a 280-degree shutter and overexposure.
“Sometimes when you’re shooting a short for no money with a very small crew, the look sort of creates itself,” notes Billy. “We did some things that were really fun, and sometimes we pushed it almost too far. We walked the line a little bit, but it ended up looking exactly as Joel wanted it.”
He had his longtime key grip, Billy Baker, by his side, along with a couple of electricians. Billy says the crew dynamic doesn’t change much when members of his team accompany him on a project of this type. “It’s something you hear all the great cinematographers say: You don’t really have to say all that much. Everyone just knows exactly what you’re doing. I can be very brief in my description, and if it’s a new idea or something I’m not sure we can pull off given the time and budget, I can just say, ‘Hey, what if?’ and these guys make it happen. They have the same approach no matter what we’re working on, and, of course, that can-do attitude is wonderful.”
Billy is optimistic about Silent War’s chances. “Joel is well connected, and he is in a good position to begin a mid-life career change,” he observes. “I like him a lot. When we sit and talk about favorite movies and stories to tell and things we want to try visually, we really seem to be in sync. Until you actually see someone doing it, you’re always wondering whether he or she can really direct, but Joel showed me that he could. He was wonderful. We had some very young actors and others who were very, very experienced, and he handled them all so beautifully. Silent War is being shown in some festivals, and I think it will lead to good things.”