Lisa Wiegand, ASC, and I chatted during a brief break in the action on Chicago Fire, where she is finishing up season three. She had also recently shot the pilot for a spinoff from Dick Wolf Productions that could become Chicago Medical.
Each season, the Chicago Fire assignment means 42 weeks of shooting, with 70- to 80-hour weeks at a minimum. Lisa’s rare days off are devoted to stress reduction in the form of massage, acupuncture and sensory-deprivation tanks. I asked her how the experience of being a successful working cinematographer compared with her early dreams about the life. “It’s nothing like what I imagined,” she says. “Really, when I was 15 and became interested in becoming a cinematographer, I had no idea. I began to have an idea in film school; I studied for nine years, trying to make sure I was as prepared as possible.” [She earned master’s degrees in cinematography from UCLA and AFI.]
“I knew there would be long hours, and I knew it would be stressful, but I looked forward to having opportunities to creatively collaborate,” she continues. “It might just be the nature of one-hour television dramas, but I’ve found that once you establish the look of the show and you’re running with it, the job of a network television cinematographer is more about being a manager. I get to be more creative every once in awhile, when we have a new location or a new set. But in my current role, I don’t get to prep any of the episodes with the directors. We don’t rotate cinematographers, so I’m on set virtually every day. I do try to scout the new locations, but most of my work is reactive rather than proactive. I’m just reacting to what’s happening through the skills I’ve developed, based on what I know the show needs.
“That’s something I really miss about feature films: the opportunity to really collaborate with directors, to have a real, serious vision for the story. In television, which uses guest directors, it’s a different process, and I’m more beholden to the show in and of itself. On a feature, everyone is listening to the director because that person was hired for his or her ideas and vision. I miss that. I’m not going to say that it’s better than television; it’s just different.”
As is often the case in television production, Chicago Fire has a recipe for coverage, framing and camera moves that dovetails with the editing style, and which in general must be followed. And, of course, efficiency is a prime directive. “Part of our approach on Chicago Fire is that the camera should feel like another firefighter arriving at the scene — that’s written into the script,” Lisa explains. “The specific machine that we’ve built to make the show works most quickly and most efficiently in a certain style. A lot is handheld, but we do some dolly work and a lot of crane work. We don’t normally carry a Steadicam or a jib arm, so if someone insists on that kind of shot, it’s not only not our style, but we don’t even have those tools on hand. And the crew is not going to be as fast as we normally are.”
As she approaches the end of season three, Lisa has been casting an eye on the future. “I would really love to be at home in Los Angeles, at least for a little while, because I basically haven’t lived there in three years,” she says. “I told my agent that finding work in L.A. is my top priority. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s a feature, a pilot or a cable series. I’d just prefer something director-driven, with more of a single-vision dynamic.”
In spite of the challenges, Lisa remains passionate about her work. “I really love cinematography. I’m in a good place, doing exactly what I want to do. I like being the one to help the director achieve something really awesome. I just want to be there, creating the images.”