Shades of Blue, the new NBC police series starring Jennifer Lopez, starts with a bang. Lopez plays Harlee Santos, a single mother and resourceful, but compromised detective at the heart of a tight-knit crew of Brooklyn detectives. Led by enigmatic Lt. Matt Wozniak (Ray Liotta), Santos is looking far from glamorous while confessing to all manner of shady dealings after being busted by the FBI. As the tired, bruised Santos starts to sing, we flashback to the twisty course of events that have landed her in trouble.
That’s the setup of Shades of Blue, a cinematically inspired story following Santos as she’s wired and pitted against her very own unit. As newly turned informant, she struggles to safeguard herself and avoid arrest while engaging in a perilous dance with her FBI handler, Special Agent Stahl (Warren Kole). Stahl soon develops an unhealthy obsession with her, as Wozniak, acting as the unit’s patriarch, begins an all-consuming hunt for the unidentified informant. A top-notch cast includes Drea de Matteo (The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy), Dayo Okeniyi (Terminator Genisys, The Hunger Games), Vincent Laresca (The Aviator, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift), Hampton Fluker (Aquarius, The Blind Side) and Sarah Jeffery (Rogue, Wayward Pines).
The show also boasts heavyweight talent in executive producer Barry Levinson (Rain Man, And Justice for All), who also directed the pilot and first episode, series creator and writer Adi Hasak (Generation Kill, 3 Days to Kill), and EPs Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Benny Medina, Ryan Seacrest and Nina Wass (and Lopez).
If TV is the new cinema, then the show’s polished and ambitious look goes to both Levinson and director of photography Stefan Czapsky, ASC. Czapsky is widely recognized for his work crafting iconic films such as Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Blades of Glory and Ed Wood.
Coincidentally, for one of his first projects as a DP, Czapsky shot another cop story with “Blue” in the title, director Errol Morris’ acclaimed 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line. He subsequently shot on inventive cult pictures including Vampire’s Kiss and Last Exit to Brooklyn.
Shades of Blue marks Czapsky’s first foray into episodic TV. “When Barry hired me, he expressed a desire to do something fresh, even showed me a Steve Wozniak Cadillac car commercial on his iPhone that also encouraged me to be inventive,” recalls Czapsky on meeting Levinson.
“We decided not to shoot handheld, as Barry felt that had already been done,” he adds. “We went for a long-lens look for the show instead, also shooting multiple cameras off dollies on Steadicam when it was a better alternative. When we did shoot handheld, it was also about capturing a steady look.”
Czapsky chose to stay with the show after shooting the pilot with Levinson, noting that the director “let me do my own thing, and encouraged me to be collaborative in the storytelling. What drove us both was the dramatic story, plus working with great actors who were playing complex characters. Barry trusts that if it’s interesting for him, then it will be for the audience. In terms of the script, we had a number of challenges on set—a big one was how to shoot so many scenes with the action inside driving cars.”
On that point, Czapsky adds that Levinson didn’t want to shoot the car scenes practically, and in the usual way. With the show shot in New York, a city so gridlocked with traffic, it was impossible to drive for any length of time. Extensive greenscreen work also wasn’t in the budget. As a result, Czapsky decided to use large video monitors set up like a diorama around car scenes shot in studio.
“I went out and shot panoramic backgrounds with three Panasonic GH4s mounted on a camera car,” he says. “This gave us 180 degrees of material to play on 90-inch monitors that were placed outside the car windows in the studio. We shot with multiple cameras using telephoto lenses that were wide open to bring those backgrounds slightly out of focus, then added reflections on the glass with interactive light also hitting the actors. This felt consistent with the show’s look, which features many reflective images.”
Continuing his discussion of the crew’s creative approach, Czapsky notes various “spy-cam” angles required on the show.
“Harlee gets a spycam necklace to spy on her boss, but quickly gets paranoid and smashes the necklace with her gun,” explains Czapsky. “The spy cam footage needed to look different from the rest of the show, so I came up with a mechanical solution based on camera work and tests I’d done previously for Max, a film I did last year about a dog and its POV.”
Testing a number of miniature cameras, including GoPros and the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, Czapsky quickly discovered that the Blackmagic was the perfect solution.
“It’s very small and records to DNG, which is like shooting RAW,” he explains. “I was able to match this footage to the ALEXA, and while it doesn’t have the same dynamic range, it looked great when we played it back on a 30-foot screen to analyze.”
Czapsky used the Blackmagic with a Lumix 7-14mm zoom attached for the necklace spy camera footage, as it was light and small enough for Lopez to wear around her neck. “It had just enough distortion to look like a spy cam, but not too distorted like, say, a GoPro,” he explains. “I could use the camera in places where the ALEXA couldn’t fit, such as inside a car or various tight corners. I also used a Zeiss lens to match to my main storytelling lenses. I get great angles on the camera, plus it’s fast and easy to use.”
Other lenses used with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera included the Lumix 12-35mm zoom and the Olympus 12mm prime, plus a set of Super 16mm Zeiss primes with a PL to micro 4/3 adapter.
ARRI ALEXA Plus cameras functioned as the main setup on the show, capturing Log C ProRes 444 at 1920×1080. Czapsky also worked with DIT Guillermo Tuñon while teaming up with his regular camera operators, David Taicher on A camera and Eric Tramp on B.
“Getting the right people in key crew positions is crucial in delivering a great show,” he expresses. “In early prep, I was laying out what we needed, and the idea of shooting with the Pocket camera came up. I think the lab wasn’t crazy about the idea of shooting it RAW in the DNG format, as they felt it wasn’t necessary and the files are so big, far bigger than the ALEXA files. Plus, they take up more lab time, but I knew it would make a huge difference shooting RAW to match with ALEXA footage, so I was relieved when the DIT, who I was working with for the first time, spoke up to support shooting RAW, as he felt it was the best quality for post.”
Czapsky shot most of the show on zooms, including the Angénieux Optimo 24-290mm T2.8 lens. “A fantastic zoom that I also have a doubler for, so it could stretch it all the way to 580mm,” he reports.
The DP also had three short Angénieux Optimos in hand—the 15-40mm T2.6, the 28-76mm T2.6 and the 45-120mm T2.8—noting their ease shooting handheld or even on Steadicam. “I also had a set of the old Zeiss T1.3 lenses available [18mm, 25mm, 35mm, 50mm, 65mm and 85mm] that I’d use in a pinch, usually when we shot outside with very little time to light or we needed to go with existing light.”
Like any DP, Czapsky has strong ideas about lighting, and he’s a big fan of Smith-Victor units, especially the Photoflood “scoop” lights.
“They’re a very lightweight photoflood bell lamp that I usually use with a 75W bulb, and maybe a piece of paper,” he reports. “I’ve been using them for decades now—very light with the ability to cast soft, but dramatic lighting. They create a very pretty, natural look when shooting people’s faces. Aesthetically, I needed to find the right balance between glamour and drama on the show, especially when lighting for Jennifer Lopez and the rest of the cast. The scoops aren’t too big, and I can easily and quickly change their position. A lot of shows use huge soft sources, and even when you add egg crates, it’s very difficult to take the light away. The key is in controlling the amount of light hitting your actors, especially when different skin tones are next to each other. As a result, I prefer smaller units to larger ones.”
Along with these, Czapsky uses other units that he has fashioned himself using LEDs.
“I buy strips of LED bulbs and tape them into aluminum pans,” he reveals. “By practice, I’m someone who doesn’t want to restrict the director’s vision—and I don’t want to restrict the actors if they suddenly decide to do something different in any given scene. It’s helpful to have lightweight units like this that can be easily moved. Part of my skill as a DP is to quickly position lights in a way that shapes an actor’s performance, as seen through the camera, and thereby create the right dramatic mood.”
Czapsky cites his use of painter’s blue tape, as an example. “I’ll take some strips, place them on the ceiling, and tape Velcro® on them before attaching lights to the Velcro®,” he says. “I really get off on solving lighting problems, as I have throughout my career.”
Czapsky also used Kino Flo Celebs, “especially the 2-foot version,” he notes. “They’re brighter than my LED pans, and very quick when you need to change their color temperature, plus they have a very nice grid.”
Having shot Max last year, his first digital movie, Czapsky got on point with working with a DIT and quickly discovered it was possible for his dailies to come out exactly as he intended.
“It’s very important to work with your DIT, not just as a data manager, but as a creative part of your team,” he posits. “The DIT is the one who helps you ensure that the look you capture on set survives through the whole process to editorial.
“Shooting my first TV show is the same as doing a movie in terms of what I bring to the project,” wraps Czapsky. “The differences revolve around time and budget restrictions, but I’ve also shot so many low-budget movies that I come in to Shades of Blue with the same enthusiasm and goals and, obviously, there’s some very interesting and compelling work being created on television right now.”
Visit the Shades of Blue website at nbc.com/shades-of-blue.