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Spotlight: Ron Fortunato, Cinematographer, ‘Elementary’

Elementary is a CBS crime drama series that puts a contemporary spin on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes characters, with Lucy Liu playing a female Dr. Watson to Jonny Lee Miller’s New York-based Holmes. Cinematographer Ron Fortunato, ASC, has shot the majority of episodes through the first two seasons, utilizing an ARRI Alexa camera package supplied by ARRI CSC and recording ProRes 4444 Log C.

What do you enjoy about working in television?

It’s a bit of a cliché but people are saying that we’re in the second golden age of television. Television used to be seen as less challenging than feature films, but the writing and the character of the shows has changed, and today’s big-screen TVs are another factor.

You have more cinematic possibilities now [on television] and you don’t have to shoot everything in close-ups. It’s attracting not only crew people who wouldn’t have done television years ago but actors as well. I love storytelling and the human aspect of filmmaking, and these days there’s more of that in television than in movies.

Ron Fortunato, ASC.

Is Elementary a challenging show to light?

I’m definitely working at a substantially lower light level than I have in the past. Previous digital cameras were about 320 ASA, but the Alexa is 800, and when you push to 1,600 there is no discernable difference. It has much better latitude, so not only are you using less light, you’re also a little bit less worried. One of my biggest complaints with HD used to be that highlights disappeared, but with Alexa the exposure in the high end is a big improvement.

It’s not very often that a piece of equipment comes along that really is a game-changer, but Alexa certainly was—just the quality of it, and the speed. I can shoot by candlelight now. It’s a whole different story than when I first shot with digital at the request of Sidney Lumet, for a film I did with him 14 years ago. I idolized Sidney and would have shot with anything he wanted, but when you compare what was possible then with the Alexa, it’s like night and day.

We’re allowed to light TV shows like movies now—in fact, it’s expected. They want a moody, cinematic look for almost every series, so as cinematographers, we’re in a very good place. The challenge comes when you have to do it in a third of the time, which can be difficult sometimes, but it makes you stronger as a DP.