Cover Story: Shooting USA Network's 'White Collar'
Issue: September 1, 2011

Cover Story: Shooting USA Network's 'White Collar'

NEW YORK — Thanks to some competitive tax incentives, the streets of New York are becoming flush with TV and film productions, many of them capturing footage digitally. USA Network’s White Collar, which was shooting its Season Three finale at press time, is one of them. 

DP Russell Lee Fine has worked on all White Color episodes, including the pilot, setting the look of the show along the way. He enjoys shooting in the city and uses the streets of Manhattan as a set.

Last season, Fine took off his DP hat and put on the director’s hat for one episode. For Season Three, he helmed the season premiere, a mid-season episode and the aforementioned season finale.

Fine works closely with DIT Othmar Dickbauer, who explains the workflow: “We are shooting on Sony F35 cameras and recording onto HDCAM SR tapes. We do immediate color grading on set with a remote control housed at the DIT station. This allows us to create the looks on set with two engineering monitors allowing for continuous control.” He calls this process fast and immediate.

Dickbauer describes his relationship with Fine as very collaborative. The two sit shoulder to shoulder, along with the gaffer Andrew Hansen, to set tonalities, grading and contrast. “The whole look is created collaboratively,” he says.

After the look is established on set, it’s baked in and sent to Technicolor New York for dailies. Minor color correction and matching happens at Technicolor in LA with colorist Joe Cook, who works on the DaVinci 2K Plus. Cook says all the heavy lifting for the look of the show was really done in Season 1, but he and Fine will communicate by phone and with emails on occasion, especially when working on any visual effects shoots.

According to LA-based post producer Keira Morrisette, they get MFX files and bring that footage into the Avid Media Composer at their Woodland Hills, CA, office where the show’s two editors — Jonathan Chibnall and Doug Hannah — cut in DNx36. 

Fine graciously took time from shooting the season finale for a quick chat.

POST: You shoot White Collar on Sony F35s? Is this the same format you shot on last year? 

RUSSELL LEE FINE: “We’ve shot White Collar on Sony F35 cameras since Season 2. We’re a show that doesn’t do hand-held or Steadicam as a rule, so the moderate size of the camera isn’t an issue. We’re able to get more gear and lenses by using a two-year-old camera with no discernible difference in image quality. It’s not as if there was no great photography before the latest digital systems. In fact, if you asked most people what TV shows or films they found the most beautiful, they would likely be ones shot on equipment that would be considered un-usable today.”

POST: Have you considered other digital cameras?

FINE: “I love the Alexa and like the Red, and have used both extensively. We carry a Sony F3 on which I use Nikon lenses for inserts (60mm macro, most often) or wider PL primes as an occasional ‘C’ camera. We principally shoot with Arri master primes, often close to wide open or Arri master zooms. Our long lens is the Angenieux Optimo.”

POST: You work with a DIT on-set, can you describe that relationship?

FINE: “Our DIT, Othmar Dickbauer, is the heart of our set — open to all departments. We never hide in a tent, and try to get as close to set as possible. A and B cameras are featured on separate monitors (matched Sony Trimasters) with Preston remote iris controls on each camera. There is rarely a shot that we are not manipulating the aperture on as the scenes play. We have some sort of conventional remote paintbox where we can adjust the gain and shutter to control depth of field, etc. 

“We’re the rare show that uses long runs of dolly track and two cameras cross-shooting on the streets at all times. Our grip crew, led by John Dolan, can set down 100 feet of dolly track before we’ve finished rehearsing!”

POST: You have been directing a bit more this season. What happens to the DP role while you are at the helm?

FINE: “I’ve been the series DP since the pilot, so when I’m directing I have a solid idea of the type of locations to choose and which will best accommodate our photographic approach. Niels Alpert, my friend and operator for 20 years, is the DP when I direct, and we share an aesthetic developed over many projects together — The Wire, Black Donnellys, the Crash TV series.”

POST: What is the type of look that is set for the show? 

FINE: “We do most of our color matching on set at the DIT station. We’ll often use silhouettes on one camera while the other camera is shooting at a 90-degree angle with cross-light. USA, our network, likes splashes of saturated color and blue skies, but we’ll temper that with the softening effects of reflections and foreground blurring. We do almost no lighting on exteriors, and favor mixed, natural lighting at most locations.”

POST: Can you talk about shooting in New York City?

FINE: “Even as a NYC-based DP and director, I’ve never tired of using the city as a location. Everything from deciding where to walk away for food or coffee to riding bikes to work at dawn to navigating the aleatory aspects of shooting in the vivid street environment still remains a true joy after 25 years in the city.

“On White Collar, we use the city as our principal set for the show. We’ll typically cut out all the street level signage and commercial clutter and feature the great design and architecture that exists right above the first floor. Our signature master framing is an asymmetrical low-angle shot with high headroom with the characters relatively small. We balance graphic compositions with cluttered, moving long lens shots. You’ll not mistake our show as taking place anywhere but NYC, and I’ve been eager to pay homage to the great artists who’ve worked here, by referencing their work: Woody Allen, Paul Strand, Helen Levitt, William Klein,  etc. We love showing how architecture speaks to character and we feature locations from beaux-arts to cutting-edge contemporary.”