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‘Modern Family’ Values and Visuals: James Bagdonas, ASC, Advances the Cinematography for the Series

Now in its fifth season, ABC’s top-rated comedy Modern Family has evolved its shooting style beyond the tight strictures of its first few seasons. James Bagdonas, ASC, has been an essential contributor to the development of the show’s look as the series’ director of photography and occasional director. When the show began, the concept for the production had certain cost savings built in.

In the January episode “Under Pressure,” Gloria encounters a “mean girl” mom (guest star Jane Krakowski) at the high school open house. From left, Sofia Vergara as Gloria, Eric Stonestreet as Cam and Jane Krakowski. Phoyo by Richard Cartwright/ABC.

The show, from co-creators Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, is shot in the “mockumentary” style of The Office or Parks and Recreation. Shooting was designed to take place almost entirely on fixed sets on the 20th Century Fox lot using a lighting package made up entirely of decades-old tungsten units the studio had once rented regularly but which rarely left their storage area by 2009.

Today a television phenomenon with the Nielsen share and Emmy Awards (18 wins) to prove it, Modern Family has significantly expanded its locations beyond that Fox soundstage, increased its lighting package, switched from Sony F35 cameras to ARRI Alexa cameras and subtly added some drama and modeling to the lighting setups without ever abandoning its initial look and feel.

Bagdonas recalls the operational parameters under which he shot early episodes. The strategy was threefold: use the studio’s vintage lighting units, set up shots in a manner that would allow operators the freedom to cover action in almost any direction, and deliver the high-key lighting that audiences associate with comedy. (In a network television sitcom, there are no shadows.)

The interior rooms of each family’s house were designed with translucent ceilings through which Bagdonas could blast various Mole-Richardson tungsten units to provide a very uniform fill—”room tone,” he calls it—for day interiors. He would then dim those lights and gel them cooler for night.

He and gaffer Hugo Cortina (who takes on cinematography duties the weeks Bagdonas directs) would augment the “room tone” with some harder light from similar units coming in through windows and a few practicals to provide accents and subtle modeling, but the permanent fill from above allowed operators to cross-shoot without worrying about catching lights on the floor.

Director of photography James Bagdonas (at right) sets up an outside scene for the episode “A Fair to Remember.” Photo by Ron Tom/ABC.

“It’s been a very effective approach,” Bagdonas notes. “It wasn’t artistically exactly the way I’d go. I’d prefer to go a little more dramatic with more modeling on the faces and letting the background fall off,” he admits, but it was what the creators and the network wanted, and it certainly didn’t deter viewers from watching.

As the show’s popularity built, the cinematographer lobbied to nudge the look a bit. He started with the personal interview sections, where the characters speak directly to camera. “I was able to lower the fill and add more modeling,” he says of those segments. “We could move backlight and make it more dramatic with more modeling on faces.”

At the start of season four, the show switched from Sony F35s to shooting with ARRI Alexa cameras. Bagdonas stresses that he was very happy with the performance of the F35, although the bodies were on the heavy side for an all-handheld show. He adds that he’s been impressed with the images he’s seen come out of many of the current generation of digital cameras. Having said that, he notes that Alexa was the perfect choice for Modern Family at the time and that he doesn’t take the decision lightly to switch cameras mid-series.

What impressed him about the first-generation Alexas (which he continues to use) was “look, first and foremost.” The cinematographer found a noticeable improvement in shooting ProRes 4:2:2 and Log C (to SxS cards). He adds, “Aesthetically, it’s friendlier on faces, and I feel I can work with more of a dynamic range. I can light a little more dramatically with it.

In the fourth season, Bagdonas was able to broaden his approach to lighting the show. While he continues to use Fox’s cache of old lighting units, he’s gotten the green light to tap other sources as well.

Phil (Ty Burrell, pictured) tricks Luke into taking a dance class, but the joke’s on him when the white lie indirectly lands him in the slammer. Photo by Ron Tom/ABC.

“I backed off on lighting so much from above,” he says of his work on the standing sets. “I light rooms more from windows and bounce from walls and furniture, which is a more naturalistic look. I set the key light more for the room rather than focusing entirely on making it the perfect light for the actors. You still have to see faces and expressions, of course, but within that, I’ll put the key where it maybe doesn’t hit both eyes. Obviously we want to see the actors—if someone is in full silhouette, I need to move the key—but I think it’s more truthful and also more dramatic.”

He’s also moved more of the fill to the floor and generated the fill with much newer units, such as Barger-Baglites and a lot of LED panels. Though the cost of rentals can add up (especially next to the unlimited package of Fox’s vintage tungsten units), the LED units are enormously effective, Bagdonas explains, for the elaborate location work the show has been doing.

An upcoming episode takes place in Las Vegas. The cinematographer feels it would have been virtually impossible to shoot the way they did in hotel rooms and the casino floor without using LED units. “They’re flat, lightweight, and they put out a lot of light,” he says of the mixture of Litepanels, Lowel and Mac Tech units he’s been using both to enhance the standing sets and to light locations like the casino floor.

The show spends a significant amount of time outdoors these days. And while there are more resources in the lighting and grip departments than there were in the early seasons, the show is still mandated to take a streamlined approach to photography.

Bagdonas recalls, “I still rarely light an exterior. First, it wouldn’t serve the show if it ever looked ‘lit,’ and second, we don’t have the manpower to start silking large areas or bringing in Condors. We do more now than we did a few seasons ago, but still the lighting we do is grip lighting”—bouncing and cutting available light—“and very rarely will we even put an eyelight in. We almost never even carry a generator.”

Director of photography James Bagdonas (behind camera). Photo by Peter “Hopper” Stone/ABC.

Furthermore, since the operators shoot opposite directions, he doesn’t have the option of putting everybody in backlight. One side’s backlight and one side’s front light. The challenge is to get your exposure right and smooth it out in post. The approach looks right for the show and lets us shoot at the pace the show needs. Unfortunately, our actors just sometimes have to squint.”

The DP uses the Alexa’s native 800 ISO and adds ND in front of the lens so he can open up to a reasonable stop. The rest of his filter kit consists of the lowest gradation of [Tiffen] Soft/FX for general use and the equivalently mild Black/FX for the occasional close-up in relatively harsh lighting conditions, and a very mild UltraCon to help tame very contrasty situations. He has no problem pulling all the filters in any situation where a harsh light would draw attention to their presence on the camera and take away the images’ naturalistic feel.

While the changes to ModernFamily’s look are all deliberately subtle, the show has come a long way from the days when the availability of free lights helped make the difference between a go and a no. “I think now I’ve pushed it to the point where if I go more stylistic, I’ll call attention to what I’m doing,” Bagdonas observes. “I think we’ve really hit our stride in terms of the series’ look.”  

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