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HD Heroics: ‘Rescue Me’ Enlists Tom Houghton

FX Network’s “Rescue Me” stars Denis Leary as Tommy, a fireman who is plagued with guilt after he survives the World Trade Center attack on 9/11 while his cousin and best friend do not. His marriage has fallen apart and he’s also visited by ghosts of the victims he was unable to save. “Rescue Me” depicts much more about firefighters than simply what their line of work entails, the series also shows their personal struggles in life. Making a realistic depiction of these people was not taken lightly by Leary, who lost a firefighter cousin a few years ago in a warehouse fire. The cast is rounded out by an ensemble including Mike Lombardi, James McCaffrey and Jack McGee, who was once a firefighter. Says cinematographer Tom Houghton (“The Cookout,” “Barstow 2008,” “Fire Down Below”), “Tommy is very sarcastic, caustic and he has demons. People can relate to that. There’s plenty of bathroom humor but there are doses of reality. A character may be saving lives, but he also has a wife with Alzheimer’s. It gets serious, which makes it interesting to work on.”

For Houghton, this was his first production shot on high definition 24p although he was familiar with the medium after attending Sony’s Lab24p two years ago. The workshop invited cinematographers to test the cameras in a variety of conditions with a three-minute segment by each DP transferred to film for reference. “We tested all kinds of things on set, with actors, even strobing,” says Houghton. “Once we saw all the individual pieces, everything was different since you have 30 different DPs. That’s why it’s still an artform — we aren’t interchangeable, as DPs we can do different things.”

Unlike the controlled environment of the workshop, “Rescue Me” is shot at a fast pace with a block of 14 days to shoot two episodes under the same director. “On our show there’s no time for the delicate nuances of photography. We shoot seven to 15 pages a day, which is unrelenting. You don’t have time to experiment — you have to shoot,” he explains.

Instead of the polished look of other shows on television, the rushed schedule lends itself to a more organic rendering. Says the DP, “This is not your standard, clean-looking TV show; it’s very energized, passionate and spontaneous. We accentuate what we can do well and within the budget, and it’s the bumps and the rough patches that give it style. It’s tough work, but we come out with a great show.”

The production utilizes a combination of stage work mixed with locations in New York City. Despite concerns on how the technology would handle bright exteriors, the cameras fared better than Houghton expected. “They are not delicate,” he points out. “We’ve had scenes in full daylight in HD and I was amazed. I did a scene where Tommy jumps out of his car and starts beating a guy up. We shot it at 11 a.m. so the sun was high, very contrasty. We went 180 degrees shooting the full sun to half-light. I was wary of doing that, but it held up. You have to remember that in many cases when they’re cutting back and forth, the shot is only for an instant so no one will notice these problems. You trust the storyline to make it all work.”
Each show features a fire or rescue of some design. All fire effects are done in-camera and the production works closely with consultant Terry Quinn, even drawing plotlines based on some of his experiences. For Houghton, working with fire entails using it as a light source while proceeding with extreme caution. “Oftentimes in real fires, the lights are out so the only illumination we use is fire and smoke,” Houghton says. “We’re very conscious of the safety on the show because fire is involved — all the operators and assistants have to wear fire retardant suits.”

Adding to the show’s kinetic energy are the use of two Sony F900s with Canon wide and long zooms that are handheld for the majority of scenes. Says the DP, “It’s not perfect coverage, but it works. It makes the footage fresh. We’ve done a six page scene in two hours (with three cameras that day). It almost becomes a three-camera sitcom without the proscenium, shooting it on one side and then turning around and getting the other side for coverage. We usually work with two cameras and the third camera is for special days or stunts.”

Houghton oversees the visual design on the show but he also makes sure the operators contribute their skills. Operators Gabor Kover, Jamie Silverstein, Peter Nolan and Derek Walker work with the directors to break down the coverage of the script. “They aren’t just recording with the camera,” points out Houghton. “I don’t set up the shots. I set up the angles or the direction, but I let the operators work on the shooting and they’re damn good at it. They work hard and I’m very proud of them.”

Because the on camera viewfinders are not as accurate as the HD monitor Houghton intently studies the action from, the DP needed to be able to communicate with his crew when the footage isn’t optimal. “In film when you’re operating, [the viewfinder] is very close to what is going on. In HD I can see what is in focus on my monitor, but the operators can’t always tell. It’s taken some getting used to. I have a walkie-talkie and the operators wear earplugs so I can tell them to check focus.”

For the cinematographer, working with new technology on a critically acclaimed show is a refreshing experience that matures with each episode. “HD is becoming a friendlier medium as we’re learning on this show. We will make adjustments for the season next year, we’re discovering what our show is and every show should have that privilege. It’s just getting better and better.”

“Rescue Me” airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. on the FX Network. Go to the “Rescue Me” website, to see clips of episodes, downloads and bios of cast and crew.