2011 saw the release of the indie hit thriller Limitless, a critical and box office success directed by Neil Burger. The film followed a struggling writer, played by Academy Award® nominee Bradley Cooper, with the ability to access 100% of his brain’s power after taking a drug called NZT. A new CBS series of the same name picks up where the movie left off, with Cooper starring as Senator Eddie Morra and Jake McDorman taking on the lead role as Brian Finch, a man who discovers the brain-boosting power of NZT, but is quickly coerced by the FBI to use his extraordinary cognitive abilities to solve complex cases. Set in New York City, Finch finds himself working closely with FBI agents Rebecca Harris (Jennifer Carpenter) and Spellman Boyle (Hill Harper).
Unbeknownst to the FBI, Finch also has a clandestine relationship with Morra, a presidential hopeful and regular user of NZT, who has plans for his new protégé. Fueled with a steady supply of NZT, Finch becomes more efficient than all of the FBI agents combined, making him one of the greatest assets the Bureau has ever possessed.
The show is shot (in tandem with DP Jimmy Lindsey) by Robert Gantz, ASC, whose many television credits include the pilot of NBC’s The Mysteries of Laura, the third season of USA Network’s White Collar and series episodes for NBC’s Chase from Jerry Bruckheimer. Gantz’s features résumé includes the upcoming action thriller Blood Father starring Mel Gibson and the exceptional two-part project Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 and Mesrine: Killer Instinct, for which Gantz garnered a Best Cinematography Caesar Award nomination.
Gantz notes that the two cinematographers work in sync on the series with similar lighting styles to grace the show with a consistent look. “The look is in many ways similar to the movie,” explains Gantz. “There are two main looks—when Brian is on NZT and when he’s not. On NZT, the look is sharp and warm, with the camera on a dolly, so it feels like we’re in control. When he’s not on the pill, the look tends toward handheld with a sort of silvery look, giving an obvious distinction between the two states.”
Gantz began shooting his first episode with director Guillermo Navarro, then episode 5 with Joshua Butler. “We saw the pilot directed by Marc Webb [The Amazing Spider-Man, (500) Days of Summer], which varied slightly from the film because two looks aren’t as apparent in the TV show. Marc devised a language we followed as closely as possible, so that when it’s an NZT look, Brian’s eyeline is tighter to the lens, indicating that he’s more focused. He’s not looking into the camera, but he’s closer to it so the audience can sense his intensity.”
Butler adds that the show took visual cues from Neil Burger and Jo Willems (director and cinematographer of the feature), and Marc Webb and Jonathan Sela (director and cinematographer of the pilot).
“We went with very symmetrical frames, warm lighting and elegant camera moves to give the viewer the sensation of seeing the world through Brian’s eyes,” explains Butler. “To represent the ‘non-NZT Brian,’ we used less formally composed compositions, colder lighting, handheld cameras and a style that portrays him as a more fallible being.”
Gantz also reveals that he helped prep the show, as many of the department heads came on late. “It all came together around the same time as we arrived, so we were able to help design the main FBI set,” he says. “That really made a big difference for us. Sarah [Frank, production designer] did a fabulous job making an interesting set that allows us to stage scenes in a very creative way.”
One of the main challenges for Gantz was getting up to speed with everyone on set. “Episodic TV is much more of a challenge than shooting a pilot because they’re one-offs. When you make shooting decisions on a show, you need to keep in mind the long-term results.”
Gantz chose to shoot 4:4:4 ARRIRAW on the ARRI ALEXA XT with Fujinon lenses. “For me, it’s the best choice because it captures a filmic look, gives you the best color rendition and is very dependable,” he outlines. “I also like the F65, but it’s a big camera and not as flexible as the ALEXA, especially with the Mini, which is very lightweight. Steadicam guys love it, plus the studios are very comfortable with it, too. It really has become an industry standard.
“The ALEXA works better in lower light than film, which is another advantage,” he continues, noting 15 stops of dynamic range at ISO 800, a measurement comparable only to actual film stock. “It’s kind of astounding because it can be so dark, yet you look at your image and you’ve got plenty of stop.”
The Limitless film opened with a memorable, continuous and apparently infinite zoom shot, taking the audience on an immersive ride through the streets of New York, the human brain and then a bird’s-eye view of Manhattan.
Termed a “fractal zoom,” it was conceived by the film’s director and the show’s EP Neil Burger, and is also featured in the series. Gantz explains the fractal zoom this way: “Three cameras are set up in a parallax view mounted on a stationary tripod with each camera featuring a different lens—a wide angle, a longer one and an even longer one. Then, by taking the three different image views, you create a semi-3D image that you can move through after applying post effects.”
In terms of lighting, the team built a lot of lights into the main FBI set. “That way we could add nice soft keylights on the actors, as needed,” says Gantz. “We designed it so that everywhere you look you have interesting backgrounds and foregrounds. We keyed with Kino Celebs and backlit with T12s.”
The show’s schedule is basically four days on the Brooklyn stages and four days on location. “This varies a bit from episode to episode, but the show is like every other TV shoot in that you have to move very quickly,” he says. “You need to be well prepared and know exactly what you’re doing.
“You can shoot beautiful stuff, but you can’t move at a feature film pace,” he adds on features versus TV shows. “You need to get 30 to 40 setups a day—although that might include two cameras shooting the same scene for two setups—and you need to realize that every image captured can’t be too precious. You have to get as much as you can to look great, and if there are compromises to be had, then so be it. Hopefully, the editor will have mercy on you and pick the better shots.”
Gantz also worked closely on set with the show’s DIT, Gabe Kolodny. “We set LUTs before the footage goes to Harbor Post in New York, who do the dailies,” he says. “They send back stills from their transfer before we approve them, and most of the time they’re right on, before footage gets sent to L.A. for editing and the final color grade, along with virtual telecine sessions.”
Summing up, Gantz feels the show “has been a great project to shoot and exciting to work on with a cinematic approach, indicating that the line between movies and TV is getting ever smaller.”
“The brilliant Marc Webb spearheaded the look of the series and really maintained the visual elements that made the film so exciting,” wraps Butler. “Limitless has a true cinematic look, so even though it has an episodic television format, it could also be viewed as a sequel to the movie. We responded to the surrealist humor and fantasy elements Marc brought to the show. The look and style of the series is both an homage to the film’s suspenseful narrative and a fun extension of the comedic notion ‘This is your brain on NZT.’”
For more about the series, go to cbs.com/shows/limitless.