On the strength of its long-running parent show's popularity, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit got a spot on NBC's fall schedule without a pilot. The focus of the new series, which premiered in September and airs Monday nights at 9pm ET, is an NYPD division that specializes in violent sex crimes--a special victims unit. Executive producers Dick Wolf and Ted Kotcheff were interested in creating a spin-off that was less rigidly confined to Law & Order's two-act structure, and which delved more into the personal lives of the main characters. But according to director of photography Anthony Jannelli, the connection to the Emmy-winning nine-year-old series is still strong.
"There are a lot of tie-ins with Law & Order," says Jannelli, who was just completing the new series' third episode when interviewed in July. "Their actors sometimes are in scenes with our actors, and at times we shoot in their courtroom and some of their other sets." Jannelli adds that his admiration for Law & Order chief DP Constantine (Gus) Makris' work, which has won two Emmys over the years, knows no bounds. "The last thing I wanted to do was abandon what nine great-looking seasons look like and create something totally new."
That said, Jannelli continues, "We definitely wanted to be our own show. The overall style of theirs has been gritty, not really seeking out the beautiful parts of the New York spaces they go into. They do a lot of handheld; on their close-ups, the camera is alive and breathing. We are not doing that. We are using a lot of Steadicam, and a lot of dolly shots; it's an extremely controlled, choreographed camera style. But our lighting style is probably more in keeping with Law & Order."
Not that anything is set in stone at this early date in Special Victims Unit's production. "It's evolving as we go," says Jannelli. "The most important thing was to come up with a general lighting scheme that would work." The show came together with unusual speed: "I started my prep June 1, having meetings and scouting locations, and we started shooting later that month. Previously, I was basically prepping the show by telephone from LA, where I was shooting a pilot for MTV. I would get home from my shooting day and get on the phone to New York, talking to producer David De Clerk and production designer Teresa Carriker-Thayer, who faxed me sketches, blueprints, and color chips of the large standing sets. They would update me on what was happening, and we would go over the script and plan shots."
Jannelli's involvement with Carriker-Thayer was crucial, because the central police precinct set was going into a New Jersey space that was in the process of being transformed into a studio. "Studio space is at a premium in New York City, and we needed some big space," the DP explains. "This show is being put together with the intention of being around for a while, so we weren't just going to throw up some flats somewhere. We considered going to Astoria, and David looked at several raw spaces in Manhattan which were rejected because of scheduling. From the time this show got its green light to when we needed to start shooting was a pretty brief couple of months."
The structure ultimately chosen was an empty industrial space "five minutes from the Lincoln Tunnel" in North Bergen. "They had the square footage, the power and flexibility we needed, and I guess most of all, they were ready to go," says Jannelli. Later, power became an issue: "By the time we brought in all our 10ks and sky pans, along with the air conditioning to cool things down, we had to bring in more power. But these are just the things that you deal with in preproduction."
As conceived, the police precinct set is a bit out of the norm. "They had the wonderful idea that the Special Victims Unit headquarters would be in a retrofitted courthouse," says the cinematographer. "So instead of the very commonly seen glass cubicles that divide people's desks, we have these offices that are formerly judge's quarters. The architecture reflects rich, thick, layered New York buildings that have been allowed to go to seed, and then had a coat of paint thrown on. The set is amazingly shooter-friendly, and sort of tells the story on its own before we get into the actual plotline of each episode. It's a special division that deals with sex crimes--perhaps down the hall is robberies--and that maybe was instituted some time later."
Besides the precinct, the other stage interiors include the Upper East Side apartment of Det. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), who is single, and the Queens home of her partner, Det. Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), who has a wife and children. "We find out who they are in their personal lives, and how this difficult and grim and emotionally involving work affects their interactions with their families," says the DP. The show's other regulars include Richard Belzer as Det. John Munch, late of the departed Homicide: Life on the Street series, and Dann Florek as Captain Donald Cragen, a former regular on Law & Order.
After Jannelli and his gaffer, Richie Ford, received the blueprints for the sets, "we got an idea of how many lights we would need, and how big they would be. Richie and I came up with a theorized lighting plot; we decided to fly a grid above the sets and work out what we thought we would need, and then we went ahead and hung those lights and lit the sets as they were being built. The week before we started shooting was quite a tumultuous time. Here and there in the precinct we ended up adding a skylight to certain back areas I couldn't figure out how to get light into. But I have to say, we were very close on our estimations.
"One of the things about shooting on standing sets is, producers expect a greater page count than they do when you're on location," continues Jannelli, who adds that the average split on Special Victims Unit is two days in the studio, six on location. "Ideally, you throw a switch, the set lights up, and you begin shooting. But it's never that way, really, because you have different scenarios and different moods and so on. By and large, the characters are at work in the daytime and at home in the evening. So the first thing for me was to create a general day look in the precinct, which would be an appealing look of warm sunlight streaming in the windows in the middle of the afternoon."
There are five large arched windows on the set, backed by an 80' (24m) translight view of lower Manhattan. Sunlight is supplied by 10ks outside the windows, while the translight is lit by sky pans--"a sufficient amount of illumination so it looks like a beautiful day outside," says the DP. "And we hung many, many lights around the set to provide backlight and fill. We're very often at the desks of our principals, and in the adjacent interrogation room, so we've flown lights for the most common uses of those spaces."
Jannelli adds, "I would like to get to the point where instead of just turning it all on and shooting a lot of pages, I can create a dusk look in there, a rainy day look, some different things that reflect each script." For now, however, it's just a matter of getting episodes in the can. "We've already done some small night scenes in the precinct, since it's up and operating 24 hours a day. The light then is provided by the overhead fluorescents and the desk lamps and so on, for a more contrasty, low-key look. We have fixtures that look crummy and 10 or 15 years old above their heads, and I have fitted those with 3200K-balanced fluorescents. All the lighting on the set is incandescent; aside from the look of it, I find it to be the most controllable. We don't use any HMIs. We do use Kino Flos, but again, they're balanced for 3200K." In both the precinct and the characters' homes, and even on location interiors, "I use the practical lamps on the set as much as possible, to motivate the light that hits the actors' faces, and to give it a warm tone. To me, it looks the most natural, and it's also beautiful."
The show's exterior locations, primarily shot in Manhattan, "play against the inherent darkness of the material," says Jannelli. "Dick and Ted didn't want everything to be gloom and doom, they wanted to present New York as the handsome city it is. How I'm interpreting that is, on our exteriors I always try to shoot with a wider-angle lens than I might normally, to take in more of the city. I'm also timing the color and using filters to keep a certain warmth in the backgrounds. The other side of the coin is that just about every episode starts with the discovery of a crime scene at night. So it's unavoidable to have the dramatic, moody, darker side."
Jannelli stresses that the studio and location lighting packages for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit are kept completely separate. "We have a setup that stays on the truck, and we don't bring any of those lights into the studio," he says. "It's pretty expensive to have two separate packages, but if you examine over the long run the man-hours it would take to move those lights into and out of the studio every time, eventually there's a break-even point." The location package includes a full complement of HMIs for day scenes, and for night, "I mostly use an 18k up in a Condor as an ambient moonlight/general city backlight or 3/4 edge light. Very often, there are police cars parked around with their headlights on, and I'll use that to motivate a tungsten wash over a scene by bouncing light behind the camera. I also love to use flashlights with a halogen bulb to provide key light on someone's face. In those situations, I'm using Eastman Kodak 5298; that film is so fast, and has such a wide exposure range, that it's very practical and possible to light a scene with a flashlight." Jannelli also uses 5245 for exterior day scenes, as well as 5246, a 250ASA stock, for "later in the day, when there's not as much sun around, and into the dusk."
The DP, whose other credits include the series Dellaventura, the feature film Longtime Companion, Jonathan Demme's documentary Cousin Bobby and concert film Storefront Hitchcock, and second-unit cinematography on Scent of a Woman, Philadelphia, 8mm, and NYPD Blue, says the biggest trick on series work is learning to pace oneself. "On a film you're shooting for 12 weeks, and the last couple of weeks you may get blown out, but you muster up the strength to do it. This I'll be doing without a break until Thanksgiving. The first show [directed by former DP Jean de Segonzac], we worked long and hard, and did things you will never see in episodic, like driving rain at night. We wanted to come out of the box with something impressive." All along, he says, "there are certain scenes that take more time, and you hang your hat on those scenes. Then there are other scenes where, okay, he comes out of the building and gets into a car, let's shoot it.
"Starting up a new series, there are so many issues to get settled, and a lot of that falls into my area, with a crew that works together smoothly," Jannelli continues. One of his chief goals is to "get our shooting days down to 12 hours." He chuckles at how that sounds. "In what other industry do they talk about getting your work down to 12 hours a day?"
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY Anthony Jannelli
GAFFER Richie Ford
LIGHTING SUPPLIERS Panavision New York Lighting Universal Studios Lighting
LIGHTING EQUIPMENT Arri HMI PARs Chimera HMI PARs ETC Express 250 control board and monitor Ianiro Blondes and Redheads Kino Flo 2- and 4-tube units Lowel-Light K5 kits LTM Pepper fresnels and HMI PARs Mole-Richardson Baby Babys, Baby Juniors, Baby Seniors, and Baby Teners Sky Pans Strand CD80 dimmer racks Sunray HMI fresnels