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Lenses, Latitude, Lush Visuals: Ron Fortunato’s Shooting Style for CBS’ 'Elementary'

Arthur Conan Doyle’s crime-solving dynamo Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson have taken many cinematic forms, but on CBS’ incarnation, Elementary, the Edwardian duo is re-imagined in contemporary Manhattan with Jonny Lee Miller as a more excitable young Holmes and Lucy Liu in likely the sexiest interpretation the Watson role to appear on screen. The photographic tone for the series—utilizing unusually wide-angle lenses (often in tight on the actors)—was set by cinematographer Nelson Cragg in the pilot. Cinematographer Ron Fortunato, ASC, who’s shot all the subsequent episodes, was very happy with the work he saw on the show’s initial installment.

Elementary stars Jonny Lee Miller as detective  Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson in a modern-day drama about a crime-solving duo that cracks the NYPD’s most difficult cases. Photo by Nino Muñoz/CBS

“It’s a fantastic pilot,” he says. “They didn’t go for the traditional kind of coverage you see on a lot of TV shows. I really liked the way it makes use of wide-angle lenses and handheld camerawork.”

Each episode is shot in eight days, usually four days at Silvercup East soundstages in New York’s Long Island City and four out and about in the city. Fortunato shoots with ARRI Alexa cameras—one with and one without the new optical reflex finder feature. Material is recorded in Log C mode to the camera’s internal SxS cards.

The wide-lens close-up approach to shooting certain scenes can be more challenging than the medium and tight shots common to television productions, Fortunato explains. The camera must be considerably closer to the actor, and such shots include more peripheral detail, both because of the angle of view and the relatively greater depth of field. The sets and locations have to hold up to scrutiny. Meanwhile, both the choreography of a scene and its lighting have to ensure that a second camera or light won’t end up in a shot.

“It forces us to be more creative with the second camera,” the cinematographer says. “Instead of covering the action with an 85mm and a 50mm lens from the same axis, you have to try different things. We try not to get into making too many rules and we do shoot with longer lenses sometimes—when I do that, I like to shoot at a [deep] stop like T-11 to hold onto some depth of field.

“But we’re constantly trying to keep it interesting,” he stresses. “We did a scene in an interrogation room where the two cameras were so close the operators were almost touching, but then they were shooting at about a 60-degree angle to each other. The trick is to make sure it works with the story and doesn’t seem self-conscious.”

The show’s Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn, left) and Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller). Photo by David M. Russell/CBS

Fortunato continues, “There’s a shot with Jonny that we shoot between a 28 and 35mm, depending on the scene. It’s not something you would do for a close-up of your star, but he eats it up. He looks fantastic in these shots. I’ll tell you honestly, I don’t usually get excited about the aesthetics of photographing men, but he has an amazing face. I’ve gotten real close with a 21mm lens and it works really nicely.”

When you cover scenes with wide lenses, it’s imperative that the environment the characters inhabit looks real because it’s not going to drop off into a blur. Fortunato stresses the importance of production designer Andrew Bernard’s contribution. “He really does great work,” the DP notes. “The main set consists of three big rooms in a railroad style apartment. It’s a very interesting set. And his scenic painters are incredible. It’s the best job of scenic painting I’ve ever seen.”

When Fortunato shot his first Alexa show, Pan Am, last year, his budget allowed him only a few days with a DIT; the arrangement for Elementary was essentially the same in that regard. “On Pan Am, when the DIT left, I was petrified,” he admits. “But I quickly adapted. The Alexa is different from the HD cameras I’ve worked with before. I have my calibrated monitor and I can light from that, but I also use my light meter, which I hadn’t used for years, and I occasionally work just like I did on film.”

Photo by Giovanni Rufino/CBS

Fortunato explains that shooting Log C helps preserve the sensor’s latitude and gives him plenty to work with in post. The cinematographer generally rates the Alexa at its native EI 800 to get the most latitude, though he will occasionally bump the EI up to 1250 or 1600 at night or to add some texture to a shot. He may also adjust the shutter angle to get a stop he desires. “I’ll go to a 220 or 270 shutter and it looks nice,” he says. “It doesn’t jump out at you.”

Files for the show go to Deluxe in New York. Fortunato works with Los Angeles-based senior colorist Tony D’Amore, who grades episodes from his theater at sister company Encore in Hollywood using Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve. Fortunato can work with D’Amore remotely from Deluxe in New York. “It’s a great system,” Fortunato says. “It really helps me on set knowing that I can work with Tony later using Power Windows to help take down the exposure a bit on a wall or part of a ceiling and add some more richness to the overall look.”

Fortunato credits the pilot as a significant inspiration, but he explains he definitely doesn’t just ‘copy’ it. “You can’t just imitate someone else’s work,” he says. “If you want to do your best work, you have to go by your own instincts.”