He took darkness to new depths on Cannell’s production Profit (1996), a series with enough double-dealing, manipulation and revenge to feel right at home among the current crop of TV dramas. “Coming from documentaries, I was never afraid to mix color temperatures,” he notes. “I’d crosslight tungsten and HMI, and 35mm had a habit of making it quite aggressive with the contrast at 400 ASA.”
John Nicolella came to Canada to direct an episode of Charters’ next series, M.A.N.T.I.S., and when Nicolella began prepping a pilot called Nash Bridges, he asked Charters to come to San Francisco to shoot it. Says Charters, “I went to San Francisco with director Rob Cohen to shoot an outrageously expensive promo for the show — I think it was $4.5 million for 10 minutes! The network picked it up, and I never went back to Canada.”
Nash Bridges gave Charters a healthy budget with which to work. For example, Nash’s apartment set was built 18' off the ground in an old flying-boat hangar on Treasure Island, which allowed Charters to shoot from the apartment balcony down into the day or night TransLites. “The TransLites cost upwards of $290,000,” he recalls. “I’d never had that much money to spend before, even on a feature!”
After shooting 13 episodes of the series, Charters handed the cinematography duties over to Stephen Lighthill, ASC, and joined Nicolella in Bratislava to shoot the feature Kull the Conqueror (1997). Several telefilms followed, including Blind Faith, directed by Ernest Dickerson, ASC.
Charters subsequently got back into series work, shooting episodes for 20th Century Fox’s The Pretender and Roswell, and in 2001, the network approach him about a new series called 24 (AC Feb. ’04). “I watched the pilot [shot by Peter Levy, ASC, ACS] and thought, ‘Wow, this is good! I can’t believe I’m being offered this!” Charters met with pilot/episodic director Stephen Hopkins. He notes, “Stephen liked my style and pushed me like crazy to unmake myself, because it’s easy to get into a tele-formula after years of shooting.”
Charters shot all eight seasons of 24, earning two Emmy nominations in the process, and the show’s signature handheld, voyeuristic, snap-zoom camerawork became an oft-imitated style. “I really have to thank my remarkable operators,” he emphasizes. “Guy Skinner was handheld on A camera the whole time, and Jay Herron, who was on B camera, developed an uncanny knack for the 3:1 zoom in interiors at T2.8 at 420mm, whip-panning on a fluid head across the set to find faces. My gaffer, David St. Onge, and I pushed the film, effectively giving us the ability to shoot L.A. at night with a minimal package, but we maxed out at about 1,000 ASA.”
24 was an international hit. “I didn’t have a profile at all before 24,” notes Charters. “I once traveled to Tokyo and ended up doing nine interviews in one day about 24, and I was just the cinematographer! To be a part of that show was such an extraordinary experience.”
24 also was the last show on which Charters shot film. His next series, Showtime’s Shameless, was captured with the Red One. “For the second season, we switched to the Arri Alexa for its better black levels, and David [St. Onge] and I reduced the ‘big’ lights from 20Ks to 1K Pars!”
Charters next shot the pilot for the Charlie’s Angels reboot in Miami. In a remarkable coincidence, the gaffer, Danny Eccleston, had been the gaffer on Tony Scott’s first commercial. “We didn’t know each other when we were both [working with the Scotts],” says Charters. “With Charlie’s Angels, Danny and I finally did a job together after knowing about each other for years. We immediately bonded over our love for the remarkable low-light capabilities of the Alexa chip, and we strove to work at lower and lower light levels.”
The next stop was TNT’s reboot of Dallas (AC July ’12), which Charters is also shooting on the Alexa. “Coming from documentaries, I tend to find the light and augment it,” he explains. “With digital capture, LEDs have transformed how I can infinitely adjust the light levels, and I’m having a ball doing it! I shot in a bar the other night and was using the 3:1 zoom at 420mm and a 1,600 ISO, and the only light we added was a string of LEDs along the bar behind the bottles. It’s tremendously exciting to be a cinematographer at this time of technological innovation.”
After wrapping the first season of Dallas, Charters shot the pilot for Nashville, and when that was picked up, he had his choice between the two cities/shows. He opted to return to Dallas because the production offered him the opportunity to direct again. “Unfortunately, Larry Hagman passed away, and the episode I directed became the last one to feature J.R.,” he notes.
Charters became a member of the ASC in 2004. He confesses he was taken aback when he was informed of the Society’s decision to honor his career achievements this year. “I thought, ‘Is it over?! I’m not done yet!’” he says with a laugh. “I’m flabbergasted that people feel I have that kind of body of work. I’ve been lucky to get some interesting projects.”