To augment the fire and flame bars provided by special-effects supervisor John Milinac, gaffer Tony Lullo often utilizes Nine-light Maxi-Brutes for bigger lighting effects. For more detailed work, the team uses a “covered dragon,” a type of covered wagon. Wiegand explains, “It’s high-intensity bulbs screwed into a board wrapped with chicken wire, which is then wrapped with intense orange gels. We use 11⁄2 Full CTS to simulate the color of the flames. Those lights are on their own flicker generators.”
Reza Tabrizi operates the A camera, and William Eichler is on B camera and Steadicam. Their division of labor often does not follow the traditional wide-and-tight scheme, especially when smoke is involved. “If you add smoke until you’re happy with it on the wide angle, there’s just too much when you go at it with the telephoto, and the shots look like they don’t match,” says Wiegand. “So we either find ways of doing things at similar focal lengths on both cameras or, if we’re on a wider lens close to the actors’ faces, we’ll have the other camera on the longer lens getting shots like silhouettes in the smoke.
“We use lots and lots of white smoke on set because it’s safer to work in than black smoke,” she adds. “We’re conservative about black smoke on set and add what’s needed in post.”
Occasionally, a complex scene involves bracketing and composites. For instance, in a dramatic moment in the pilot, a floor collapses in a burning building and two firefighters fall through it. Using a locked-off camera, the filmmakers ran separate passes, sometimes at multiple exposures, for the falling stuntmen, flaming beams and falling debris. “We used a slightly wider lens than we needed for the final shot so we could push in and put a little handheld motion on it,” says Nachmanoff. “Then, we composited them all together and balanced out the exposure so it looked right.”
Most often, however, Wiegand controls the exposure as the scene unfolds in a double-fisted maneuver on remote iris controls. “I have my own setup where I work off two 251⁄2-inch monitors and a dual waveform system,” says the cinematographer, who does not use a digital-imaging technician on the show. “In my hands I have both iris controls. We have this aesthetic of following the characters, and sometimes it involves following them from outside to inside, or from inside the fire truck to a sunny exterior. I’m often doing a five-stop iris rack in one shot, and because we have characters with different skin tones, I’ll often have to ride the iris just to make sure I get enough detail on everyone’s faces.”
Despite the complexity of the action, sometimes the best solutions are low-tech. For the episode “Rear View Mirror,” the team was stymied by one scene that felt dramatically flat. In it, Lt. Matthew Casey (Jesse Spencer) and two residents are trapped in an eighth-floor apartment while fire rages in the hallway. As firemen outside maneuver a ladder to the window, Casey leans against the apartment door as flames lick through its cracks and its inset window explodes from the heat. “The first couple of times we rolled on that, it was just boring,” says Wiegand. “It was supposed to feel like the fire is beating on the door, like it was hard for him to keep that door closed.” After several takes, Tabrizi asked if he could try something. “Reza went back in there and just went nuts with the zoom and handheld moves,” continues Wiegand. “Afterward, everyone applauded because it finally felt like there was a monster behind that door. It made a huge difference. It told that story.”
The sequence also included an element that is becoming one of the show’s signatures: a high rescue. For scenes like this, Wiegand typically taps a 50' Technocrane. “That allows us to do some great following-firemen-up-the-ladder-type shots,” she says. The problem, she notes, is the smoothness of the motorized heads: “It feels a little too graceful. It’s hard to keep the energy when you’re on the crane and the zoom isn’t in your hand.” As an alternative, she sometimes puts a camera operator in the air. “In one scene involving a rescue at a church, there was a guy hanging off the roof, and we put Reza up in a 120-foot Condor just cresting the roof doing handheld. That helped a lot. Zooming on the barrel with your hand can feel a lot more organic and immediate.”
Another signature of the show is the fire-engine mounts. “Fire trucks are dream vehicles to mount [cameras] on because there’s stuff all over them,” says Nachmanoff. “The poor guys who do car commercials have gleaming Porsches — where do you stick something? Fire trucks have handles everywhere!” During prep for the series, key grip Mike Lewis walked around the trucks with Wiegand to identify likely spots. “Mike is hardcore — he likes to build out of wood so he can screw stuff all over it and modify it quickly,” says Wiegand.
A mount inside the cab is also in frequent use. Wiegand explains, “Mike puts a 3-foot slider in there and locks it down, and we put an OConnor 100 [fluid head] on it and get Reza in there to ride it. We have one of the skinniest and best first ACs in the business, Lewis Fowler, who just shoves himself between two of the seats. I have to pull iris, so I’m in there with a little monitor. There’s often just a ton of us in that truck, and when we land, we swarm out to capture the firefighters running out of it.”
— Patricia Thomson