ONFILM Interview: John Fleckenstein

Published on website: July 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
John Fleckenstein
John Fleckenstein - Photo by D. Kirkland

"Women's Murder Club is based on a James Patterson book about four women who interact and collaborate to solve homicides. We have a wonderful cast. I studied their faces, eyes, hair styles, and decided what colors and lighting work best for them. It is like shooting fashion photography in real environments with the models and cameras constantly moving. I use unconventional, unmotivated lighting to set moods. I can shoot five stops overexposed in the background and keep the actresses looking beautiful and natural in sometimes dark foregrounds. Film gives you that latitude. It's a natural look the way our eyes see reality. Chances are this series will be seen in different languages around the world because film is a global language. As broadcast technology transitions to HD, getting the right look is more important than ever."

John Fleckenstein has shot commercials and music videos, A Different Kind of Christmas, Moonlight Becomes You and other television movies, and such series as Any Day Now, 10-8: Officers on Duty, Summerland and Windfall. He earned a 2007 ASC Outstanding Achievement Award nomination for Women's Murder Club.

[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]  

A Conversation with John Fleckenstein
by Bob Fisher

QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?
FLECKENSTEIN: I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and have always lived here.

QUESTION: Was anybody in your family in the film industry?
FLECKENSTEIN: No one in my family worked in the film industry. My dad played professional football with the Chicago Bears. His family was in the brewery business in Minnesota going back to the mid-1800s. They sold it to larger brewery in 1964.

QUESTION: Were you a still photography hobbyist during your youth?
FLECKENSTEIN: I was into rock 'n roll music. I took guitar lessons when I was a kid and played in high school bands. I played bass for a group called The Standells, which toured the country and recorded albums. I also wrote a song called "Riot on Sunset Strip," which was the theme of a movie with that title. I also played with another group called Love. I worked on a lot of rock videos and music videos with different groups.

QUESTION: How and when did you transition from creating music to filmmaking?
FLECKENSTEIN: I had a high school friend whose dad owned the optical house at Columbia Studios. I went to work there during my last year in high school. I operated an optical printer creating fades, dissolves and titles for different films when I was 17 to 18 years old. That is how I became a member of the International Cinematographers Guild. They had different group levels depending upon experience. I was in group three. I wanted to go out on productions, but you had to be in group one for that.

QUESTION: Looking back, was that early optical experience useful training?
FLECKENSTEIN: Absolutely. It gave me an early sense of how optical effects could enhance the images a cinematographer creates and how important it is to control them. I worked on a big Mel Brooks movie, History of the World: Part 1. Albert Whitlock, a legendary visual effects artist, supervised the background plates. I still played music at parties on weekends and became an avid still photographer. I also took a year-long, night cinematography course at USC. I learned to shoot with a 16 mm Beaulieu camera, but my best lessons were getting out on sets delivering dailies from the insert department. I got to watch some of the great cinematographers at work lighting, including Jerry Finnerman (ASC), Ralph Woolsey (ASC) and Burnett Guffey (ASC). One day, I watched Bill Daniels (ASC) film scenes with Frank Sinatra in Robin and the 7 Hoods, and moved on to another stage where Glenn Ford was performing on a Western set.

QUESTION: What was the next step for you?
FLECKENSTEIN: I became an assistant cameraman in 1971 on a low-budget film called The Christian Licorice Store. Pretty soon after that, I started getting calls to go out as a camera assistant on commercials with different directors, including Joe Pytka. I traveled around the world with him for five months on one series, including the Bahamas, countries in South America, Hawaii, and across the United States. It was great work with Joe. I learned a lot about overall production design and lighting from him. I also worked with Bob Giraldi as a camera operator and also as a DP on music videos that won MTV awards. Commercials and music videos were both experimental in those days. We got to create different looks that were sometimes really dark and moody, and other times sepia toned or very high contrast. We also shot a lot of concerts including a few with Fleetwood Mac. There were usually several cinematographers covering concerts from different angles, and a lot of handheld shots.

QUESTION: That must have been a great experience.
FLECKENSTEIN: Many of the commercials that I did with Jeff Lovinger were huge campaigns for companies like New York Life and American Express. They were like shooting mini-features or today's one-hour television dramas.

QUESTION: When did you transition from assistant to operator?
FLECKENSTEIN: I was working with Michael Butler and his brother David Butler as an assistant cameraman on different films they shot. In 1974, Michael shot a picture for Paul Mazursky called Harry and Tonto. He said, 'You have been working with me for six years as an assistant. It's time that you stepped up to operator.' Art Carney won an Oscar for performing, and Paul Mazursky had a nomination for writing the script. Right after that, I was the camera operator on several other pictures, including Telefon, Small Circle of Friends, and Jaws 2 with Mike Butler again. We were on that film for about a year and a half at locations in Martha's Vineyard in Florida and on Catalina Island off the California coast.

QUESTION: Who were some of the other cinematographers you worked with during that period who made an impression on you?
FLECKENSTEIN: I was a camera operator with Allen Daviau (ASC) on E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. He is a brilliant cinematographer, and it was also wonderful working with Steven Spielberg directing that film. I had previously worked with Allen on some commercials. He got a well-deserved Oscar nomination for E.T. I was also fortunate to work with both John Alonzo (ASC) and John Alcott on commercials and some music videos. John Alcott was a very unassuming man who did some big lighting setups on commercials. I learned a lot about hard lighting by watching what he did and how it worked. John Alonzo was also terrific. I worked with him on a commercial for Kodak. We shot on a huge stage that he lit with one 10K silked lamp in the corner of the stage.

QUESTION: What was the next step in your journey?
FLECKENSTEIN: Right after E.T. came out, I was director of photography on The Men's Club, a low-budget film directed by Peter Medak with a great cast. Then soon after that, a commercial company hired me to direct and shoot commercials. The company was based in New York, but I worked all around the country. Their spots were usually music driven and visually oriented without a lot of dialog. We had 30 seconds to use images to grab and hold people's attention and make an impression. I worked on creating those spots for around two or two-and-a-half years. There was an actors' strike, which slowed things down, and I wanted to get into long form story-telling. After The Men's Club in 1986, I shot some TV series, beginning with The Byrds of Paradise with Steven Bochco.

QUESTION: You have subsequently earned a long list of credits for memorable television series and movies, including Flipper, Any Day Now, 10-8: Officers on Duty, Summerland, Windfall, Waterfront, to name a few. Most recently, you have been shooting Women's Murder Club, and received an ASC Outstanding Achievement Award nomination from your peers in ASC for that series. Please share some thoughts.
FLECKENSTEIN: The series is based on a James Patterson book about four women - a detective, a medical examiner, a newspaper reporter and an assistant attorney - who interact and collaborate to solve homicides.

QUESTION: How did they and you decide what the right look was?
FLECKENSTEIN: The director and I knew that they would be looking at the dailies for the first episode under a microscope. During preproduction, we looked at several movies together, Mr. Brooks and The Thomas Crown Affair. The first film was a suspenseful thriller with a very gritty, hard look. The Thomas Crown Affair was very smooth looking with a more romantic look. We spoke a lot while watching those films and decided on a suspenseful look using soft light to keep the woman looking good.

QUESTION: What was else done during preproduction?
FLECKENSTEIN: I worked closely with the production designer on the primary sets, including one that is two stories with 30-foot high windows. I decided to do primary lighting on faces with China balls with skirts over the tops of them to keep illumination off the walls. They are a very soft source of light that is easy to move with the cast.

QUESTION: Please step us through the process of designing that two story set.
FLECKENSTEIN: We began with a completely empty, bare stage and spoke about designing the interior of police headquarters with four big 30-foot high windows. Then, we worked very closely together, planning where and what types of practical lights should be designed into the set. We also designed the set to enable us to make a lot of 360-degree moves without flat lighting. We planned to use a Janis dimmer board with a talented operator, so we could interactively control the light as the cast and camera moved around the set. He had to set up his dimmer board so front light fades and backlight, kickers and sidelight come up as the actors and cameras move. It has to look natural and flatter the actresses.

QUESTION: So, being a cinematographer requires an ability to work with a lot of different people in a collaborative environment.
FLECKENSTEIN: Exactly. It takes a lot of people working together to figure out what works best for the story and cast, and making everyone feel relaxed and comfortable.

QUESTION: Give us an example of camera movement and how you lit?
FLECKENSTEIN: We had a big chase sequence in the first episode. The producers wanted the women to look good in a gritty environment with realistic shadows. The chase goes all around the top of the building, down an alleyway and onto the roof that is eight stories high with a big green fluorescent sign above it. The actresses went through shadows, but when we came into close-ups, I came in with the LEDs to reveal their faces. When the chase went by the pool, I used big Pars to bounce light into the water. The reflections lit the actresses when they went running by the pool.

QUESTION: How does the transition to HD and bigger, flat panel screens in households affect the way that you film a television program like Women's Murder Club?
FLECKENSTEIN: The transition to HD and bigger television screens makes it more important than ever to create the right looks for stories and casts. We choose to shoot this series on film to get the looks that the producers want and the story deserves. I can shoot five stops overexposed in the background in daylight scenes, and keep the actresses looking soft and beautiful in the foreground. We have big windows in the background on the big set that are hot with softer light on faces in the foreground in many scenes. It's a natural look the way our eyes see reality. Film gives you that latitude.

QUESTION: Where do you actually film this program?
FLECKENSTEIN: The sets are on stages at Hollywood Center Studios in Los Angeles. Our main set is police headquarters with rows of desks and stairs going up to offices with an outside walkway balcony. It is a huge set that is about 60-feet high with hallways that lead to offices. There are moving shots on that set with a Steadicam where our motivated light sources change three or four times. We'll go from daylight coming through windows into beautiful incandescent light into fluorescents in a hallway, and then into an interrogation room with a mixture of fluorescent and very soft light. Several of the offices have very warm light with lots of wood designed into the set. I worked closely with an absolutely great production designer. She had some real challenges. There was the big set that I mentioned, and we had hard ceilings in our interrogation rooms and in parts of hallways, because there was a second story above it. It was like working at a practical location without top light.

QUESTION: Do you motivate lighting visible sources or is it interpretive?
FLECKENSTEIN: I do both. I take what I call artistic license with lighting to set moods. I'll use the dimmers to take the sunlight down on our actresses standing in front of a window and create a little sidelight if that's right for a scene.

QUESTION: Is there a backing outside the windows on the set?
FLECKENSTEIN: We have a 260-foot long backing made from photographs of a street in San Francisco which covers the entire set. I was involved in choosing the backing and its density. We wanted to make the light a little bit softer because more TV screens in homes today are bigger, sharper and crisper. Instead of a harsher video look we want it to be more like a painting that feels romantic and more like a movie experience.

QUESTION: Can you give us an example?
FLECKENSTEIN: During the chase scene with the women on the roof, we had two big lights off to the sides pointing at the cityscape, so instead of just seeing little pinholes of light coming from windows you see buildings.

QUESTION: Do you also go out on location?
FLECKENSTEIN: We shoot five days on stages and three days at practical locations averaging three or four a day. We use smaller trucks carrying grip and lighting equipment, so we can make quick moves. We send a team to locations ahead of us. They lay the cable and get everything set up for us. I love shooting on location, because every one of them takes on its own life with its own challenges. It's fun to figure out what has to be done at all these different places.

QUESTION: Do you get time for preparation or go from one to the next one?
FLECKENSTEIN: The best boys scout locations and bring me back digital stills. We use them to plan how we are going to block and light scenes. Tom Keefer is my key grip. I've worked with him for years. Derrick Kolus is the gaffer. It's our first project together. He has a state of the art dimmer board that we use on all our sets using practical lights.

QUESTION: Is location lighting preplanned or sometimes interactive?
FLECKENSTEIN: It depends on where and when we are working, but I try to make it as interactive as possible. I don't get a chance to really scout locations, except for watching the stills on a computer screen. We can move them around the screen and look at the setting from different angles. Then, I talk with the director of the next episode to get his feelings about what he's trying to get out of different scenes.

QUESTION: Do you have time between episodes?
FLECKENSTEIN: No. We go straight from one episode into shooting the next one with a different director.

QUESTION: How do you keep the look consistent working with different directors?
FLECKENSTEIN: There is a basic look that slightly changes with each director. The basic look of the show doesn't change, but one director might want a scene look more dramatic and feel more suspenseful than another one.

QUESTION: Is camera movement all planned, or is it sometimes spontaneous?
FLECKENSTEIN: There is kind of shorthand of understanding. I always try to keep a practical light or maybe a window in shots to motivate light. Maybe a character is standing against a wall in a close-up shot, and we'll find an angle with a more interesting background, or maybe there is a practical light or window that gives a scene a little pop.

QUESTION: When and how do you decide to do a Steadicam shot instead of having the camera on a dolly or crane or handheld?
FLECKENSTEIN: When we do long walking and talking shots, and when we have characters going up and down stairs, through hallways and other places where you can't use a dolly, it's usually going to be a Steadicam or handheld shot depending on the sense of visual tension we want. We use the Steadicam when we want smoother movement on a moving shot in places where we can't use a dolly. Maybe we'll go for a handheld shot in a scene when people are sitting and talking and we want a feeling of tension or immediacy.

QUESTION: When is the camera on a crane?
FLECKENSTEIN: We are on a big two story, open set where we use a lot of Technocrane shots, so we can get up over the second floor balcony, do some moves and drop down into the bullpen where all the detectives are sitting.

QUESTION: When are you shooting with two cameras?
FLECKENSTEIN: We use two cameras when we can get both of them on the set without one of them getting in the way and if it works for the director.

QUESTION: How do you typically use the second camera?FLECKENSTEIN: To get a different perspective, either a wider or a tighter shot, for instance. Sometimes we'll have two cameras covering a scene from opposite directions, so we can get different shots of two characters at the same time. If we have a child in the scene, or if it's an emotional scene, maybe with someone crying, and we don't want to do it two or three times, I'll use both cameras and do it in one take.

QUESTION: What cameras and lenses are you using?
FLECKENSTEIN: We are using two Panaflex Platinum cameras and carry a Panavision lightweight camera for the Steadicam. We usually have Primo 4:1 zoom lenses on both cameras. It has a fast T2.3 stop, and can use it for variable focus without changing lenses. We also carry a Primo 11:1 zoom for certain situations.

QUESTION: What negative or negatives are you using?
FLECKENSTEIN: We have to move fast, so I'm choosing to work with a single stock, (KODAK VISION2) 5279. It records a little less contrast than the other 500T films.

QUESTION: How do you decide what stop to use in different environments?
FLECKENSTEIN: I remember at the beginning of my career walking on a set at the studio when Glen Ford was doing a Western with horses on the stage. It was a daylight exterior scene filmed in black and white with a 50-speed film. The light was so hot that my eyes were burning. Today, I can walk on a set and trust my eyes, pick the right stop, put in or pull some filters and paint with light.

QUESTION: Where is postproduction being done?
FLECKENSTEIN: Postproduction is done at Modern VideoFilm. My colorist gives me good feedback and I trust her explicitly, especially when she tells me that the images are little too dark or too bright.

QUESTION: What role do you think film and television plays in society. Are they just entertainment or something more?
FLECKENSTEIN: Films are entertainment, but they also make an impression on our thinking, especially kids who are very impressionable. When we produce a film or a television shows, chances are that it will be seen in different languages in Europe, Asia and around the world. I remember turning on a television set in our hotel while we were visiting Japan and seeing Bonanza with Japanese dialogue.

QUESTION: What meaning do you take away from that?
FLECKENSTEIN: People around the world speak different languages, but film is a global language.

QUESTION: Are you pessimistic or optimistic about the future of this industry?
FLECKENSTEIN: I am definitely optimistic � with more and more people installing big screens in their homes, people are seeing films closer to the way they are meant to be seen, whether it is original content aired on television or DVDs.