Cinematographer John Simmons, ASC, shares his thoughts on lighting sitcoms in today’s digital world, and discusses working with DigitalFilm Tree on the unique approach to style and color for the recent Roseanne reboot.
Article written by Pauline Rogers taken from ICG June July 2018 Issue
GROWING UP IN CHICAGO DURING THE 1960S, JOHNNY SIMMONS, ASC LEARNED THAT EACH IMAGE HAD TO HAVE ITS OWN NARRATIVE. HE WORKED AS A STILL PHOTOGRAPHER FOR THE CHICAGO DEFENDER, THE OLDEST CONTINUING AFRICAN-AMERICAN NEWSPAPER IN THE COUNTRY, ESTABLISHED IN 1906. WHILE ON SCHOLARSHIP AT FISK UNIVERSITY IN NASHVILLE, TN, HE MET DIRECTOR/WRITER/ HISTORIAN CARLTON MOSS, WHO SAW IN HIS STILLS THE EYE OF A CINEMATOGRAPHER. A SCHOLARSHIP TO USC’S GRADUATE PROGRAM LATER LED TO SHOOTING MUSIC VIDEOS FOR SNOOP DOGG, EAZY-E, ICE CUBE, AND TUPAC SHAKUR, AS WELL AS TO MOVIES LIKE SELMA, LORD, SELMA AND RUBY BRIDGES. HIS FIRST FEATURE WAS FOR TIM REID, ONCE UPON A TIME…WHEN WE WERE COLORED. SIMMONS’ MOVE INTO MULTI-CAMERA SITCOM CAME WHEN CINEMATOGRAPHER BRUCE FINN INVITED HIM TO THE SET OF THE HUGHLEYS. SINCE THEN HE’S WORKED A BROAD SPECTRUM OF COMEDY SHOWS, GARNERING ONE PRIME TIME EMMY AND THREE NOMINATIONS.
“DOING AUDIENCE SHOWS IS AMAZING – THERE’S AN ENERGY THE AUDIENCE AND THE ACTORS SHARE THAT’S MAGICAL.”
What was it like to move from single to multi-camera? The Hughleys and One on One (2002) were my first times seeing a stage setup for multi-camera. I’d never seen so many lights hanging from the grid. Bruce Finn showed me some looks and explained the way things were done, and a few days later he asked me if I wanted to do his show. I had to learn a new approach to lighting – a style that fills from the front and keys from upstage with four cameras shooting from a camera aisle. The shadow side and a ratio created by a continuous bounce hanging over the camera aisle were all new. In sitcoms, it’s a delicate contrast-ratio balance because some cameras are always on the flat side and someone else is on the shadow side. That ratio has to work so you feel the contrast, but the shadow side has to be lit enough to be acceptable to the performance of all four cameras. There’s a fine line in not making things look flat.
How did you start to build your own look, as in the pilot for The Tracy Morgan Show? I want the light to go where the action takes place. Geographically, if no one ever goes to certain areas of the set, I use those areas to light for texture and style. It’s great when a set has good windows and a real light source. This gives motivation and logic to believe the light is coming from the source. In this situation, I can work more contrast in to make things feel more real. There are some very cinematic art directors who understand the importance of depth and logical light sources. Because the four cameras are shooting in a proscenium, it helps when there’s a different feeling of shadow light and depth.
Do comedy directors have different styles? The genre is dialogue-driven, so the style comes from the material. The directors I work with on multi-camera shows vary. Some are in love with the camera and want to work closely with the cinematographer – they’re my favorites! Other directors see it as a formula. No matter the genre, we cinematographers always want to push the envelope creatively within the framework and time we’re given. There’s always room to stretch out and individualize a look.
Have you done single-camera comedy? My one single-camera comedy show was The Jonas Brothers for Disney. It was fun because in single camera you light to tell the story – shadows, light, camera movement and composition are all incorporated to move the narrative forward in an emotional way. You also get to work more closely with the director, designing shots and choosing lenses. On multi-camera, there is an associate director who sets up the shots with the director. They work together on rehearsal days when none of the crew is there. When we show up, they’ve worked most of the shots out. I have a creative collaboration with the director and associate director on swing sets mostly because they’re special to the episode. The action in the permanent sets is usually in the same places, so camera angles for the most part are repeated, and a formula gets established.
The Roseanne reboot had a huge audience. What was that like? It was an honor. The first conversations were about the look from 18 years ago. We shot tests, and [post house] DigitalFilm Tree and I played with different plug-ins and after effects to try and find that quality of the old show. It wasn’t something I was excited about; the original series was shot on tape and there wasn’t much concern with matching camera or maintaining a visual consistency. One episode they gave me to study looked nothing like the one they’d given me to watch earlier. They finally settled on season five, episode five as the “look.” But we departed from that and went for a look more in tune with today. I spent a lot of time in the color bay with the producers. Some of them were actors on the original show, so there was a strong connection, having grown up on the set.
Why do you think the Academy chose your Nickelodeon series, Nicky, Ricky, Dicky, and Dawn, for an Emmy? It was an hour-long special filled with wonderful practical sets on locations and exteriors. We were able to light, move cameras and tell the story in a cinematic way, like single-camera, even though it was always four cameras shooting all sides of the action. Anytime a sitcom goes off stage it’s like moving a circus. It’s something a lot of departments aren’t accustomed to. Everything we did on stage wants to happen outside. We traveled with a large video village with lots of writers and even Switcher to do line cuts on locations. It was my third nomination and first win.
How different is it shooting a kids’ show? It’s always about the kid time, so there’s a little more pressure because when you reach your time limit there is no negotiating – the day is over. Also you have to light in broader strokes because the actors aren’t usually as seasoned in hitting the same marks. The amount of takes they do on kid shows is like nothing you can imagine. I once did 17 takes of a boy and a dog running between two trashcans. They were doing small adjustments that nobody could really see. The scripts often include stunts and sight gags that require resets and cleanups. It’s those times that I really miss adult shows and comedy driven by dialogue. But the atmosphere on both kid shows and adult sitcoms is always supportive of all departments. Doing audience shows is amazing – there’s an energy the audience and the actors share that’s magical. It’s not like we’re saving the world – we’re just trying to create some laughs.