ONFILM Interview: Lex du Pont

Published on website: July 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
Lex du Pont - Photo by D. Kirkland

“One of the things about lighting an episodic television series is that you are shooting on the same main sets every week. You need to find ways to keep it fresh and visually interesting, yet right for the stories. One of the great things about working on NYPD Blue for eight years was that we tried all kinds of different things. I lit the squad room more than 1,000 times. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but you need to light for the subject matter and not be obtrusive. There is so much talk about technology, but I don’t think the role that cinematographers play is going to change. The place where film really smokes digital media is in the complexity of the tonalities of colors. A character’s skin tones are like silent dialogue. I tell students and young crew members that the future is now. I tell them to master the art and craft of using the complex tonalities of colors, which play a subtle but important role in the storytelling that we do.”

Lex du Pont’s cinematography credits include NYPD Blue, Raines, Lincoln Heights, Saving Grace and Private Practice. His feature film credits include Confessions of a Sexist Pig and Saving Shiloh.

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

by Bob Fisher  

QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?DUPONT: I was born in Wilmington, Delaware. I lived there until I was 13 years old, when I went to Choate Prep School in Wallingford, Connecticut. It's a boarding school.

QUESTION: What did your family do?DUPONT: My father owned and operated a small airport. He was an avid scuba diver and racing car driver.

QUESTION: Was anyone in your family a photography hobbyist?
DUPONT: My father was an avid still photographer. I have early childhood memories of spending time in the darkroom in our house. I also had access to Hasselblad, Speed Graphic, Nikon and Pentax cameras, and took pictures all the time.

QUESTION: What types of photographs did you take?
DUPONT: I did some portraiture when I was young, but mainly it was action pictures. We rode motorcycles and were scuba divers and snorkelers. I also took pictures of fish and plants with underwater cameras.

QUESTION: Tell us about your experience at Choate.
DUPONT: It was a great experience. I was a photographer for the school newspaper and yearbook. In addition to taking pictures I spent a lot of time in the darkroom. I also met a lot of interesting people from different parts of the country and from around the world.

QUESTION: What were your boyhood ambitions? 
DUPONT: This is going to sound funny, but I wanted to be a cameraman in Hollywood before I knew what that meant. In my mind's eye, I was holding a camera on my shoulder. I thought that would be the coolest thing I could do as a grown up.

QUESTION: Did you have an 8 mm movie camera?
DUPONT: I did, but I didn't use it very often. I was more into still cameras, but there was something romantic about Hollywood as I perceived it.

QUESTION: What did you do after you graduated from Choate?
DUPONT: I went to Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island. About half-way through, I took a break and worked as a flight instructor at my father's airport. By the time I was 20, I had 800 hours of flying time. After a while, I went back to school because I wanted to do something more interesting with my life.

QUESTION: What was your major field of study at Brown?
DUPONT: I started in engineering, but switched to English and earned a bachelor's degree.

QUESTION: Why did you switch majors?
DUPONT: I took an aptitude test, because I wasn't enjoying engineering. After three days of intensified testing, they told me that I shouldn't be an engineer, lawyer or accountant. They said I should be a chef, a photographer or work in advertising.

QUESTION: What did you do after you graduated from Brown University?
DUPONT: I got a job in New York with a company that produced test commercials. They were called Animatics. I ran an Oxberry stop motion camera and filmed art work. They presented the films to test audiences to see how they responded. I was also working as a freelance still photographer taking pictures at weddings and parties.

QUESTION: What was the next step on your journey?
DUPONT: I was hired by Grey Advertising as an assistant commercial producer. After about a year, Marsteller Advertising hired me as a commercial producer.

QUESTION: What did that experience teach you?
DUPONT: This is going to sound funny, but looking back I remember when my boss gave me some advice when I was starting at Marsteller. He said when we're looking at reels from directors, it's the cinematographer who matters. That was a real eye opener for me. He said, you should always ask who the cinematographer was.

QUESTION: How long were you a commercial producer?
DUPONT: After about a year, I realized that advertising wasn't the right job for me. I quit with no job in sight. I was thinking about moving to Australia and looking for a job, because I knew some people there.

QUESTION: We take it that you didn't move to Australia. What did you do?
DUPONT: I was speaking to a friend who had married a cinematographer named Scott Lloyd-Davies. She said, before you go to Australia you should come to Los Angeles and see what's happening here. I took her advice. My mother gave me an 11 year old BMW car. I packed everything I owned in the trunk, and drove to Los Angeles. Scott got me a minimum wage job at the Leonetti rental facility. I did that for about two years and then began freelancing as a first assistant cameraman.

QUESTION: What did you learn while working at the Leonetti rental house?
DUPONT: I got to know crew people, mainly assistants and operators, and, of course, Matt Leonetti (ASC) and some other cinematographers. I also learned about the equipment they used.

QUESTION: How did you get started working as a first assistant?
DUPONT: I worked on a lot of low-budget films during the early 1980s. After a while, I got opportunities to work on bigger projects. I worked with Gil Hubbs (ASC) on a film called Flowers in the Attic. I was also a first assistant and later as an operator on film crews with Fred Elmes (ASC), Julio Macat (ASC), Frank Byers (ASC), Bob Richardson (ASC), and I worked with Daniel Pearl (ASC) on rock videos with Fleetwood Mac, Van Halen and other music artists.

QUESTION: In retrospect, what did you learn from that experience?
DUPONT: I learned to appreciate and respect the roles that everyone on the crew plays. I think first assistant cameraman can be the most stressful job on the set. Sometimes you are under tremendous time constraints in impossibly difficult situations. A seemingly simple shot can become a focusing nightmare for the focus puller.

QUESTION: Let's talk about your experiences with different cinematographers. Share some memories about working with Gil Hubbs.
DUPONT: Gil is an amazingly accomplished cinematographer. This might sound funny, but watching Gil taught me that you can enjoy your work, be relaxed, and do a good job. Gil set the tone on the set. He helped everyone relax.

QUESTION: What about Fred Elmes?
DUPONT: Fred is another great guy and talented cinematographer. Blue Velvet was one of the films that I worked on with him. It was an anamorphic feature which was a whole new experience for me. We were at the studio in Wilmington, North Carolina. It was an opportunity for me to work with and watch a master. He was very meticulous. Fred is an artist. He was determined to make a film that we would all be proud of.

QUESTION: How about Bob Richardson?
DUPONT: I worked on Eight Men Out with Bob. He's a genius. What more can I say? He did an absolutely spectacular job in very trying circumstances.

QUESTION: You also worked on a few films with Julio Macat (ASC).
DUPONT: I worked with Julio as a first assistant on Home Alone and as the A camera operator on My Fellow Americans and The Nutty Professor. He's another talented cinematographer who knows how to share his vision and get people on his side.

QUESTION: Were there other cinematographers who influenced you?
DUPONT: It's a pretty long list. I worked with Tom Burstyn on a television film called The Dreamer of Oz in 1990. I remember him saying, we are going to do great work and have fun. That was early in my career. It had a big influence on me.

QUESTION: How did you step up to camera operator?
DUPONT: I had a back injury in 1989 while I was working on Home Alone. I didn't work for about four months, and couldn't go back to work as a first assistant, because it involved lifting heavy cases. I thought my career was over. Then, Frank Byers brought me onto the television series Twin Peaks as his camera operator.

QUESTION: When and how did you step up to cinematographer?
DUPONT: In 1997, I was a camera operator on NYPD Blue. One day, the producers said, by the way, you are going to be the director of photography.

QUESTION: Was that an exciting experience?
DUPONT: Flat out terrifying would be a more accurate description. It was also exhilarating. I asked a cinematographer whom I had worked with for advice. He said, you go to the set, look around and put up your first light. Then, you put your second light, and your third light. That's how it works.

QUESTION: Is cinematography intuitive or is it something you learn?
DUPONT: You learn … I'll be honest with you. I don't know how anybody can become an accomplished director of photography unless you get opportunities to make lots of mistakes that you learn from. The great thing about working on NYPD Blue for years was that we tried all kinds of different things. Some of them worked and some didn't, but we learned and learned. I figure that I lit the squad room more than 1,000 times. We tried everything under the sun, and learned what worked and what didn't.

QUESTION: Some people who aren't cinematographers think you light to expose film. Please shed a little light on that issue.DUPONT: You light to augment the mood. It doesn't have to be complicated, but you need to light for the subject matter and not be obtrusive. Your lighting should help tell the story and not be an entity to itself. You want the audience to feel the mood. I don't want people saying the cinematography looks interesting. That detracts from the story.

QUESTION: What was it like having a camera crew and having to deal with gaffers when you first stepped up from operating and started shooting?
DUPONT: Julio Macat told me that working as a cinematographer was 25 percent lighting and 75 percent managing people. My experience has been more like 50-50. You are dealing with a lot of people. Sometimes it's like herding cats. You are trying to keep everyone involved and on the same track, while you are working crazy hours. 

QUESTION: What are your feelings about the relationship between actors and actresses in the cast and cinematographers? Do you try to establish a rapport?
DUPONT: My feeling is that it is best to have a friendly but formal relationship, and keep our interactions on a professional level and not get between them and the director.

QUESTION: How about an episodic series where you are there every week, and there is usually a different director for each new episode? 
DUPONT: I like the directors to run the set, even though sometimes we think of them as guests, because we're there all the time. You have to master a talent for listening.

QUESTION: What did you work on after NYPD Blue?
DUPONT: When I finished an eight year stint working on NYPD Blue, I was convinced that I would never work again. I suppose that's what we all go through. Then, I got hired to shoot Lincoln Heights, which is an ABC Family show that I very much enjoyed. We produced that series in Super 16 format on (Kodak Vision 2 500T) 7218 film. I wouldn't have used a high- speed 16 mm stock for a high-definition show in the past, but if you expose the new stocks correctly, they treat you right. Lincoln Heights was a great experience. It was an all black cast with some pretty dark flesh tones. I made sure my exposures were right and used fill light in the right places.

QUESTION: What came after that?
DUPONT: An NBC cop show called Raines. The executive producer was Felix Alcala, who is an ex-cameraman. That was quite an experience. Felix had some strong feelings about doing less. He wouldn't let me hang lights on the set. He wanted us to make maximum use of practical light. That was an interesting ride. We had a large set that was supposed to be a police station in Venice, California. It had big windows. I lined the outside with Maxi-Brute lights and used practical lights that I could turn on or off on the set. I also used a little eye light when it was needed.

QUESTION: Are you seeing enhanced latitude with the new film stocks?
DUPONT: I find it interesting that everyone seems obsessed with getting more latitude. I know that's important, but the place where film really smokes digital media is in the complexity of the tonalities of colors. That is so important in Private Practice, the show I'm shooting now. It's all about beautiful women. Getting beautiful flesh tones is so important on this show. I don't think everyone understands how important that it.

QUESTION: Didn't you shoot something between Raines and Private Practice?
DUPONT: I shot eight episodes of Saving Grace. That was also on Super 16 film. It was a good experience with some interesting challenges, but I decided to move on when I was given an opportunity to shoot Private Practice.

QUESTION: What appealed to you about Private Practice?DUPONT: I liked the story, and it isn't a cop show. Don't get me wrong. I've loved the cop shows that I've worked on, but I saw Private Practice as an opportunity to do something different that I found interesting and challenging. It's a spin-off of Grey's Anatomy. There's a great cast, interesting characters and excellent writing.

QUESTION: Tell us about your first meeting to talk about this show.
DUPONT: In my first meeting with the producers, I had to convince them that I know how to film women. Luckily, I was working with Holly Hunter on Saving Grace. I believe what they saw on the air convinced them I could light beautiful women.

QUESTION: What was their vision for Private Practice
DUPONT: They envisioned a funny, touching, serious dramedy that appeals to women.

QUESTION: Were you involved in setting the environments on the sets with the production designer? DUPONT: We had worked together on Raines and had a good collaboration. This show is produced at Raleigh Studios, primarily on stages 1, 6, 7, and 14. We just added another stage at the Sunset Gower studio. The setting is a large medical clinic with a good sized reception area. Every room has at least one glass wall. I asked for skylights. The production designer wasn't real keen on that, but he listened to my reasoning and agreed.

QUESTION: Why did you want skylights?
DUPONT: It gave us more options for lighting, and we could do it faster. One of the things about lighting an episodic television series is that you shooting on the same main sets every week. You need to find ways to keep it fresh and interesting looking. The skylights gave me a tremendous option for using what we call fire starters - Par 64s. We could use them to bang hot and glowing light in the background and also use them for bounced key light. That opened up different possibilities. Otherwise it would have been a relatively dark set, which wasn't what we wanted. We wanted a cheerful, colorful California environment in contrast to the parent show, Grey's Anatomy.

QUESTION: Do you think the audience is perceptive about how cinematography augments moods and helps establish a sense of time and place?
DUPONT: I think audiences perceive subtleties in images even if it is on a subconscious level. Grey's Anatomy does a great job of making the audience feel that it's another gray day in Seattle with cool light and muted colors, and it's not too contrasty. I don't think we could be more opposite on Private Practice. We have a warm and contrasty look that's bright where it is supposed to be bright and dark where it's supposed to be dark.

QUESTION: Do you shoot tests with the cast?
DUPONT: I sometimes shoot tests. It can be important. For instance on Saving Grace, I shot tests with a stand-in for Holly Hunter. I gave myself the flexibility of making a quick adjustment in lighting, if necessary. When she came on the set the first day, I took one look and asked Holly to give me 10 minutes. I scrubbed everything I planned and started over from scratch.

QUESTION: Can you explain why it wasn't the right light for her?
DUPONT: The right light for Holly Hunter is slightly above eye level with a 4x4 Kino Flo on either side with around a two to one lighting ratio.

QUESTION: What is the production format for Private Practice?
DUPONT: It's three-perf 35 mm film framed in 16:9 aspect ratio.

QUESTION: Please share some words about what you learned in the tests you shot with characters on Private Practice.
DUPONT: Depending on the scene with Kate Walsh, I use either a 4x4 horizontal Kino Flo with a light board on either the right or left side of the lens. I try to get the light board as wide as I can, and then either handhold a light panel to get a little bit of highlight on her face, or use a Diva on a stand as a fill. I also decided not to light Tim Daly from the ceiling. I use vertical lighting for him from the floor using two 4x4 Kino Flos. It could be different on another show or movie if it's a dramatic or emotional, but in Private Practice, his character is a sex symbol, and we light him that way.

QUESTION: Are you filming episodes of Private Practice with one or two cameras?DUPONT: We try to shoot with two cameras whenever possible and sometimes three.

QUESTION: Tell us why you use two cameras and sometimes three?
DUPONT: The short answer is that there is a perception that shooting with two cameras takes less time, and it's even shorter with three. To some degree that's true, but to a large degree it's not. It takes time to set up a third camera. You can light for one, two and even for three angles, but it takes more time and it's not going to be quite the same look. If you light for one angle, it's just plain going to look better.

QUESTION: Is Private Practice totally shot on sets?
DUPONT: There is usually a day, a day and a half, or two days an episode on location.

QUESTION: Give us an example of locations you have used.
DUPONT: We had an episode where we shot scenes in a sick person's house. We shot an exterior of our characters going into the house, and in the living room and bedroom.

QUESTION: Do you have prep time to scout locations?
DUPONT: I rely on my best boy electric and my best boy gaffer to protect me.

QUESTION: What does protect you mean?
DUPONT: It means they go on location scouts, and, if necessary, they say, 'Lex is not going to line the actors up against a white wall with the sun at his back.' Or, they say, 'If we are going to shoot this scene with a character sitting in that chair, Lex is going to want to put neutral density filtration on those windows behind him.'

QUESTION: What film stocks are you using on Private Practice?
DUPONT: We are shooting with (Kodak Vision 3) 5219 and 5207.

QUESTION: What difference do you see between the Vision2 and Vision3 stocks?
DUPONT: The new stock has a finer grain structure. That allowed me to drop my key light a half a stop with no loss in image quality. A half a stop translates to a lot less light.

QUESTION: What about cameras and lenses?
DUPONT: We're shooting with Panavision Platinum and Primo lenses. The 24:275 zoom is our workhorse.

QUESTION: How about post production.
DUPONT: Randy Starnes is the colorist and Regan McGowan does our dailies. Together, they do a spectacular job. I've been working with Randy for 15 years, so it's all shorthand. He knows exactly what I want and how I shoot. I give Randy and Regan a gray scale at the beginning of every new scene to give them an idea of what I'm thinking. They take that under advisement, but not literally. It gives them a place to start.

QUESTION: What role do you think a show like Private Practice play in our society? Is it pure entertainment, or does it influence our perception about people and issues?
DUPONT: It definitely affects our perceptions. So much of what we see on television today is a reflection of reality, though sometimes it's a preview of tomorrow's reality or a memory of what things were like in the past. Either way, I believe television can educate people in a way that is easy to take way. A lot of the subject matters that we approach in the shows that I've worked on are based on real events. It's like reading a book that entertains and educates you at the same time.

QUESTION: This is a totally unfair question. If you could reverse roles and pick out a director to work with who would it be?
DUPONT: Andrei Konchalovsky. I was a first assistant on Homer and Eddie and Tango & Cash which he directed in 1989. He had a different vision, because he comes from a different culture and film history in Russia. He's also a powerful director who got great performances from the actors. There are more than a few other directors on my wish list.

QUESTION: What do you tell film students and young people who ask for advice, and what you think the future will bring?
DUPONT: I tell them the future is now. There is so much talk about technology, but I don't think that the role cinematographers play is going to change. Our job is understanding stories, lighting, blocking and dealing with directors, actors, our crew and everyone else. I also tell them to master the art and craft of using the complex tonalities of colors which plays a subtle but important role in the storytelling that we do. A character's skin tones are like silent dialogue. Maybe I learned how important that is when I was taking portraits one picture at a time. We never want to lose that.