Flame On

Dick Wolf’s sterling track record in television gives him carte blanche to dream up and try out new stories. The creator of Law & Order calls his latest, NBC’s Chicago Fire, "a classic, adult, platinum drama." The show is set in a firehouse, but it’s not procedural or "fire of the week," he says. Although firefighting is often depicted, Wolf insists that the series is built around the characters and their interactions.

The Chicago Fire pilot is slated to air on October 10. The series features a large ensemble cast that includes Jesse Spencer, Taylor Kinney, Charlie Barnett, Eamonn Walker and Monica Raymund, and while the pilot sets up some tension between characters, there’s also plenty of action. Cinematographer Lisa Wiegand, who brings experience on television series like Dollhouse, Detroit 1-8-7 and 24, must capture the human interplay of the cast, as well as the spectacle of firefighters doing their dangerous work.

The city of Chicago has been extraordinarily supportive, providing actual fire and paramedic vehicles, along with personnel to maintain and drive the trucks. Even Mayor Rahm Emanuel is getting in on the action with a cameo. The city gave the production access to an actual firehouse for the filming of the pilot.

For the episodes, production designer Craig Jackson designed a spacious version of the firehouse, which was built at Cinespace on Chicago’s West Side. Technically, an episode is done in eight days, but there’s a lot of overlap. A total of 13 episodes will be in the can by mid-December.

According to Wiegand, she wanted to create a look that was truly modern. She did extensive testing to determine the photographic properties of various fuels, as well as the best methods for shooting fire.

Wiegand says that Wolf describes the look of the show as "urban heroic," adding, "I interpret that as a realistic feeling with a touch of gloss. There are so many reality shows and documentaries out there using handheld cameras, so people are used to that language and that aesthetic. I feel that if we did this show without employing handheld cameras, it just wouldn’t feel immediate and real enough. It would feel stoic and outdated."

Wiegand shoots the show with ARRI ALEXAs, using multiple cameras for scenes with the entire cast, or on action and stunts. All the camera gear is supplied by Keslow Camera. The main lens package consists of Angénieux Optimo zooms—15-40mm, 28-76mm and 45-120mm. Zooming during a shot—sometimes obviously and sometimes hidden in a move—is part of the language. Unlike Detroit 1-8-7, though, the look is not grainy, gritty or desaturated, and the handheld operating is more controlled, sometimes settling on an actor or a two-shot for conversation. Lensing tends to be wide and close, which better shows off the Chicago locations.

A camera operator Reza Tabrizi plays an important role. "He will talk with the director about his ideas for how to make the action all flow together and how to incorporate the second camera," says Wiegand. "There’s so much to do on this show. If I had to pick and design the shots, then work with lighting, grip and effects, we’d never get the show done on schedule. There’s so much to get. So we work more like a British system, with plenty of give and take."