Maps, Mystery and Constant Motion: Building the Frenetic Pace of 'Blindspot'

“I like to find some sort of allegory for the camera in its role on the show," says DP David Tuttman.
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A beautiful woman, with no memories of her past, is found naked in Times Square with her body fully covered in tattoos. Her discovery sets off a mystery that captures the attention of the FBI, whose agents follow the road map on her body to reveal a larger conspiracy of crime while bringing her closer to discovering the truth about her identity.

NBC’s Blindspot was created by Martin Gero (Bored to Death, L.A. Complex). Gero serves as writer and an executive producer. The pilot was directed by executive producer Mark Pellington (Cold Case, Arlington Road) and shot by cinematographer Martin Ahlgren with the look and feel of an action movie. The series has two rotating directors of photography—David Johnson (Resident Evil, AVP: Alien vs. Predator) and David Tuttman (The Following, Damages)—to handle the 23-episode first season.

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A woman (Jaimie Alexander) is found in Times Square with no memory of her past. Photo by Virginia Sherwood/NBC.

It’s often difficult for a cinematographer to join a show after the pilot, where much of the show’s look is defined, has already been shot. This wasn’t the case for Tuttman and Johnson. “When David and I were offered the job, Martin [Ahlgren] graciously met with us for three hours one morning to talk about the show, the philosophy of lighting and other stuff,” reveals Tuttman. “I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve had very pleasant interactions with cinematographers from whom I’ve inherited shows. I felt very comfortable going into this.”

In terms of rotating episodes, Tuttman and Johnson work seamlessly and see many advantages to having two cinematographers. “We have different styles, which is a good thing, although it all becomes Blindspot in the end,” says Tuttman. “Although I love shooting, the extra prep allows me to wind down after a high pressure shooting experience.”

“There might be a slight difference in our lighting approaches but I don’t think it’s enough to make the viewer aware of any differences,” says Johnson. “Martin did such a great job on the pilot and our inspiration is just to achieve those ingredients.”

Blindspot is shot with several ARRI Alexa Plus cameras with lightweight Angenieux Optimo zooms, and occasionally Cooke S4i primes. At the request of Gero, they’re capturing 12-bit ARRIRAW to give them more flexibility, as well as the ability to slightly recompose frames, in the edit room.

“We also have strong direction from pilot director Mark Pellington, who likes the look of handheld with snappy zooms,” says Johnson. “I’ve used the Alexa on practically everything I’ve shot in the past five years. Because I come from a film background, it feels more familiar than most other digital cameras, which have more computer-oriented menus. The Alexa seems to have the right buttons.”

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Photo by Virginia Sherwood/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

In terms of the look, Tuttman describes Blindspot as a show with a lot of motion to it, filmed with a very inquisitive camera. Camera operators are asked to frame shots in a unique way and to approach each take differently to give editors more choices in post. “I like to find some sort of allegory for the camera in its role on the show, and with the tattoos and all, it’s definitely a puzzle-like show. The camera is always looking, always swinging around to see or to tie things in, whether directly or not,” says Tuttman. “Sometimes it’s not about dialogue or relationships but just to keep things moving and push the envelope in terms of the number of shots.”

One of the biggest challenges for Tuttman is working on a show with minimal lighting. He typically uses Mole-Richardson Tweenies and Kino Flo Celeb 200s to augment the natural or practical light at Blindspot’s locations. Johnson has an affinity for Brute lights, but since they’re rarely used nowadays, he deploys DeSisti Goya HMIs to capture clean shadows. Recently, he bought two Dracast LED500 lights, which are battery operated, bi-color, dimmable, and small at 12” x 6”. Johnson keeps them available on stands to wheel in at a moment’s notice. “I think LED lights are an amazing way forward for studio lighting,” he says, “but I would like to see a really powerful LED to complement what we use with 2K and 5K Fresnel lights.”

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Dodi (Ayman Samman), Doe and Weller. Photo by Paul Sarkis/NBC.

Along with the Alexas, the production employs Blackmagic Cinema and Pocket Cinema cameras, mainly for stash and lock-off shots involving car chases or explosions. “Since they’re inexpensive, we often will put them in the line of fire,” explains Tuttman. “We were pressed for a camera yesterday and I used one for a VFX shot. I think it’s going to come out great. I love those cameras and I love how they’re democratizing filmmaking in the way that they’re so accessible.”

When the production uses Blackmagic cameras in conjunction with the Alexas, the files hold up well, according to Johnson. “I don’t think anybody would notice the difference by the time it has gone through the postproduction process,” he says. “We’re using the same lenses on them as well. The Blackmagics are great cameras, but they’re just not as well supported in terms of the accessories we’re used to using on the Alexa.”

Blindspot has been the highest-rated show of the new fall season and was the first new series to be picked up for a full order. Both cinematographers are having a blast shooting it. “People seem to be very excited by it, and they’re very attracted to the look and the mystery of the show,” says Tuttman. “We’re getting to the more character-driven part of the series, after completing most of the action quotients. As we get to know our characters even better, we can keep this momentum going.”

“We’re also very lucky to be filming in New York City,” concludes Johnson. “It’s an amazing background and a fantastic city. We’re able every episode to travel out and find some weird and wonderful location that’s a great pleasure. I’ve never seen a team that works so quickly and so efficiently and I think we’re putting together a great show.”  

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