The Dallas Decoder Interview: Rodney Charters

Rodney Charters (Photo: Douglas Kirland)

Rodney Charters (Photo: Douglas Kirland)

Rodney Charters is the director of photography — a.k.a. cinematographer — for TNT’s “Dallas,” which resumes its third season on Monday, August 18. The New Zealand native previously worked on “24,” where he earned two Emmy nominations, as well as series such as “Shameless” and “Nashville.” I spoke to Charters in the spring, as he was wrapping up production on “Dallas’s” third-season finale, and then caught up with him again last week.

You have one of the coolest jobs on “Dallas.” For readers who may not know, can you explain what you do?

The director of photography is really responsible for “imaging” the script. It places me in sort of an interesting position of being on the right hand of the director and, along with the production designer, one of two people who help the director realize his or her vision. The director is the captain of the ship, but the director of photography and the production designer are the lieutenants.

So you help determine what viewers see on their screens — how the actors appear in a given shot, how they’re lit, the overall look of the scene, et cetera.

We’re shooting a scene today where the director wants to look through a window into a darkened bar and see a character, and then pull [the camera] out through the window — without seeing himself in the reflection — to find another character doing something to the first person’s car. So we’ll try to achieve that by putting up a dark false wall to hide the camera, or we’ll use filters to take away the reflection.

That sounds like a lot of work for a single shot.

You have to be ahead of the game because we never have an enormous amount of time to shoot an episode. Yesterday, we had two locations that required quite a bit of work. We were in a restaurant that had a certain style of lamp, but the production designer and the set decorator wanted to bring in more lamps, and they all needed to be hung 20 feet from a very tall ceiling. And they worked very carefully to do that before we arrived, so that once we showed up, we were ready to shoot.

Dallas, Michael M. Robin, Rodney Charters, TNT

Director Michael M. Robin and Charters

There’s a lot of teamwork involved, isn’t it?

Every time a cinematographer touches a camera, he needs to think of half a dozen other people he needs to work with in order to bring about what happens in the frame.

And that includes your own team. Talk a little bit about how the work is divvied up.

My right hand man is my gaffer. He’s responsible for physically placing all of the lights for me. There’s a team of grips who are responsible for mounting and putting up the equipment that supports the cameras. And then, of course, there are the camera operators. So roughly there’s a team of 15 to 20 people who work directly for me on set, and then I liaise with several others.

Like Rachel Sage Kunin, the costume designer.

She’ll consult with me about whether the material in a costume is going to work. On the Ewing Global set, there’s a green screen hanging outside the window, and we project the Dallas skyline onto that screen [in post-production]. If an actor wore green in one of those scenes, the exterior of Dallas might show up on their clothing. So all of that comes into play.

Dallas, Linda Gray, Rodney Charters, TNT

Linda Gray and Charters (David Strick/The Hollywood Reporter)

That raises an interesting point. Most of “Dallas’s” interior shots — including all the rooms inside Southfork — are filmed on a soundstage, while the exterior shots are shot outdoors. Which environment do you prefer?

I think a balance is worthy. There are some efficiencies on a stage because lights have been pre-hung and actors feel comfortable in certain areas, so you can leave some lights up to save time. But I’m a firm believer that what we put before the camera should feel as real as possible. When we’re shooting on the Southfork stage and you see through the window to the trees outside, that’s actually a giant photo mural. That presents challenges because when we shoot exteriors at Southfork in the winter, the trees are just woody nobs, and then when we go back to the stage, the trees outside look like they’re flowering.

Could you do green screens on the Southfork sets?

Green screen has its own problems. Backings reflect onto any reflective material on the set, so if you have glass tables or other glass surfaces as we do at Southfork, you run into problems. In the large apartment that Pamela occupied for so long, any lights we put up are then reflected in the windows. We drop the blinds down one section because we are on the 19th floor and we cannot rotate the windows, which is our trick on the Ewing Global set, where all the glass is on a gimbal. In Pamela’s apartment, we struggle to avoid seeing ourselves [so] we put up walls of black material and then wear black to avoid seeing the camera and the operators.

Hollywood magic!

There are always multiple solutions to any challenge. You’re always looking for the decisions that will allow you to get 200 people on and off a set within a 12-hour day. Today we’re starting at 1 o’clock and we’ll shoot right through the night. We’ll probably end up finishing at 3 a.m. We’re going to be in and out of four different locations, and only one of those is a stage. That’s a huge amount of loading and unloading of 15 tractor-trailer units full of equipment.

It sounds like every day is like making a movie.

The difference is you’re on a television schedule. A feature [film crew] can say, “Look, we’re going to be on this street corner, right at sunset, and we want to photograph it just as the dying rays of the sun are visible.” And everything works around that one moment. You prepare for it, you arrive at that spot and then you shoot that. And that may be all you do that day. [On “Dallas”], we may shoot 12 pages of script in order to have a lighter page count for a complex stunt day — a page being roughly a minute of finished screen time. A feature film crew will shoot only two pages of script, so they can do one scene a day and they can appropriately arrive and execute the whole scene just at the magic moment when the light is hitting its perfection.

Christopher Ewing, Dallas, Jesse Metcalfe, Rodney Charters, TNT

On set with Jesse Metcalfe

So what do you like best about your job?

I love working with the actors to make them feel comfortable in the space we provide them. There’s a process to how you light a show and the mood and tone you set — the actors pick up on that and it helps them with their performance. Sometimes a director will say, “I don’t see enough of the eyes. Can you do something here?” Because ultimately, all of the true emotion in a scene is expressed by the eyes. And if the eyes aren’t there, you don’t telegraph what’s going on with the actor.

You must enjoy working with Linda Gray, who has such amazing eyes.

Oh, she’s fantastic. The whole cast is extraordinary. We’re really blessed. Great actors, all of them. We just try to make them feel at home. And it rapidly becomes a team. It’s like professional sports. Everybody’s being trained at a high level and they easily fit together. They do the job they’ve trained to do, and they do it well.

You’ve also directed some episodes. You must enjoy that.

Directing is the ultimate. It’s like playing a Stradivarius. [Laughs] The big picture becomes very, very complex when you’re not only responsible for positioning and framing the images, but also working closely with the actors. Because the director will walk away from the monitors at the “video village” and go right past the camera and talk very quietly with an actor. It’s you and the actor, trying to motivate a performance. Only the director can do that, and ultimately, there’s nothing better.

You directed last season’s racecar episode, which is one of my favorites.

Well, that was up my alley because it moved fast and had a lot of action. We’re usually much more of a language kind of show, with most of the action in the bedroom. [Laughs]

Dallas, D.T.R., Emma Bell, Emma Ryland, Judith Light, Judith Ryland, TNT

Emma Bell and Judith Light in “D.T.R.”

You also directed “D.T.R.,” the episode where Sue Ellen blackmails the governor and Emma and Judith have that tense showdown in the restaurant.

That scene was particularly cool. I was thrilled to be able to elicit those kind of performances. Both of those actors — Emma Bell and Judith Light — are superb. I loved the physicality of [Light’s] hand grabbing the documents and both hands sliding across the table. Little touches like that — if you don’t photograph them, they’re not going to be in the scene.

So what’s your proudest accomplishment on “Dallas”?

Well, that scene is pretty high on the list, [along with] one dangerously dramatic scene in [the third season’s 13th episode, airing September 15]. I also had fun with the pilot, because it helped set the tone and look of the show. But overall, there’s a sense of satisfaction about the whole series. You can see the city of Dallas [on “Dallas”]. That’s important to me because I try to make it feel as real as possible. But it’s a soap, let’s face it.

How do you feel about doing the big close-ups, which are a “Dallas” staple?

Well, a lot of people are watching on television on tablets and smartphones, so the big close-ups are helpful in those instances. We’re facing a big change in the way people watch television. It’s all on-demand now. And “demand” may be the shopping queue or the bank queue. There’s a myriad of different places where people can choose to watch their favorite episodes. I was in Singapore [recently] and watched a young woman commuting while she watched her favorite soap — a hospital drama made in Korea and translated into her local dialect but under her bigger screen was an iPhone and a stream of chat which she would respond to as she watched. I was fascinated [because] I believe this is the future of success, delivering to the world on demand. But we have got to get her to fall in love with “Dallas”!

Dallas, "Changing of the Guard," John Ross Ewing, Josh Henderson, TNT

Josh Henderson in “Changing of the Guard”

How do you like to watch television?

I don’t have a television, to be honest. I use Apple TV to watch what I want on demand. Appointment TV is gradually taking over fans’ viewing habits.

Really, no TV?

No. I have a 60-inch screen, and in the process of finishing off the shows, I receive an online master. It doesn’t get any better than the way I watch it. It’s a pristine, 50-gigabyte file of digital data. But generally, I’m an on-demand person. I’d rather buy an online stream and watch it on my 60-inch screen.

Well, maybe we’ll all just come over to your house and watch “Dallas” on your big screen!

Yeah, OK. [Laughs]

But seriously: You’ve spoken before about how much you appreciate the fans.

I really do thank them for continuing to watch us. It’s the most vital part of what we do. I’m on Twitter — I’m @rodneykiwi — and it’s very satisfying to see what the fans are saying. It’s a tremendous worldwide community. It’s very exciting to think that our product is being seen in Arabian villages in the darkest part of the Sahara in Africa. It’s just a fantastic business to be in.

Share your comments below and read more interviews from Dallas Decoder.

Comments

  1. Great interview. He seem like a very nice person. So much going on to produce a television series. Very interesting!!

  2. Garnet McGee says:

    One of the elements of the show that immediately captivated me was its dark, sleek look which is very different from the original. Kudos to Charters. I’d be curious to know what
    other shows he watches.

  3. “We’re shooting a scene today…” I hope this interview is recent!!!

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