Naval Gazing

In this age of network conservatism, the Don Bellisario-created series NCIS is nothing short of a phenomenon. There are hundreds of fan clubs and blogs, and hundreds of thousands of rabid fans known to interrupt major meetings to make sure the TiVo is set for the week’s episode, schedule vacations around NCIS marathon weekends and haunt video stores to rent or buy every episode available.

This rabid attraction has convinced CBS that they’ve got audiences where they want them, and in a time when a pickup for nine or maybe 12 new shows per season is the norm, this year, NCIS has an order for 26.

"I think one of the reasons that the show is such a hit is that people really key into our characters," explains cinematographer William Webb. "I am always amazed at the audience reaction. Even though this is a ‘crime’ show set with a military-service backdrop, what they remember are the relationships. Father figure Leroy Jethro Gibbs and his dysfunctional family could very well live next door and often have the same problems that everyday Americans face.

"In the past few seasons, we’ve begun to back off of the military stories," Webb adds. "The public is getting enough from the real war. They don’t need to see their ‘extended family’ involved in Iraq or Afghanistan. For this sixth season, you will see a lot more interpersonal relationships in areas that are definitely not war-oriented."

Cinematographer William Webb looks through the viewfinder.

There’s another rarity in this television series—it’s still shot on film, and Webb recently changed stocks. The show started on Kodak 5279. He tested 5260 but found the slightly low contrast not great for the series. He later moved into 5218, but when it became scarce, he switched to the new 5219. "And I’m loving what I get out of the film," he says. "The color, the density, the latitude exceeds even what I got in 18. It has such tremendous depth that it is phenomenal in what I can do digitally when we get into post."

It’s rare to see just one Panavision camera on the set. At least 75 percent of the time there are two, or even three or four cameras capturing the action from very unusual angles. "More cameras mean more work for our camera crews," explains Webb. "I love the idea of being able to bring in top-quality camera people who can make those challenging moves that are really the ‘norm’ of this show. I could not do it without a crack crew."

None of the setups are simple, which isn’t in the NCIS vocabulary. "Our shots are a lot more extreme than most shows," he admits. "That’s where superior equipment is so important. What we’ve learned to do with all the equipment available is unusual. It isn’t uncommon for us to put a Steadicam on a Titan crane and drive it at 12 mph starting with a shot of people driving in a car and passing off to a couple walking down a street. That’s a feature move, but we can do it on a television schedule because my crew really knows their stuff."