Focus On Film

The Cinema History Behind ABC’s Castle

Published on website: September 20, 2010
Categories: 35mm , Television , Focus On Film , VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219/7219
CASTLE © 2010 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

Rob Bowman has television in his blood. His father, Chuck Bowman, directed and produced hundreds of hours of prime time television, working on hit shows like Jake and the Fatman, Alien Nation, The Incredible Hulk, and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

“My father grew up in the Midwest and he used the movies as an escape,” says the younger Bowman. “He knew all the directors, actors, producers and studios, and discussing the filmmaking craft was normal dinner conversation in our house. We grew up with an awareness of how many craftspeople it took behind the scenes to make the magic that appeared on the screen. We also knew that when it was done right all that hard work becomes invisible, and what remains are the emotions and the drama of the story and the characters. What remains is the magic.”

The elder Bowman made documentaries and local commercials, and Rob tagged along from an early age, holding a reflector or loading the camera. Eventually the family moved to Burbank, and while the father became a successful television director and producer, the son hung out at the video store and became an expert on the history of motion pictures.

Castle
CASTLE © 2010 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

“My goal was to see and understand exactly what my heroes did,” says Rob. “I think the most exciting aspect was seeing how each director used the exact same tools to construct their own incredibly distinct aesthetic. I learned early on that to be successful as a director, you had to have your own signature. Otherwise, why hire one person over another? Just by watching all these movies and seeing what I responded to, I’d started to develop my own aesthetic as well. Becoming a filmmaker wasn’t the most secure ambition, so I wanted to do whatever I could to make it work and I knew that the best thing I could do was to come to it with a strong point of view.”

Bowman has gone on to have a major impact on today’s television entertainment. He was a key contributor to The X-Files, and is credited with changing the way television looks. The success of The X-Files also had a ripple effect on the writing and editing styles of the TV shows that followed.

“The X-Files came at a time when television was ready to jump forward in its film look, in its film aesthetic, as well as in the storytelling and production values,” says Bowman. “Around that time, you started seeing more feature film producers getting involved in television. On X-Files, we were dealing with paranormal, supernatural themes, and sometimes what you can’t see has a much stronger emotional impact. Shadows became an important narrative part of the show and part of its whole look. We tried to take our time and be very careful about how we lit each scene.”

Castle
CASTLE © 2010 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

The X-Files brought Bowman together with Bill Roe, ASC. Their collaboration continues today on the series Castle, which stars Nathan Fillion as Richard Castle, a well-known author of mystery novels who tries to overcome his writer’s block by tagging along on police investigations. Stana Katic stars as the no-nonsense detective who grudgingly admits that Castle’s imagination and ability to think like a criminal helps solve cases. Romantic sparks fly between the pair and there are occasional comedic moments.

Bowman and Roe photograph Castle entirely on KODAK VISION3 500T 5219 film. They usually use two cameras, often with 11:1 zoom lenses and classical camera movement.

“The camera is moving pretty much every shot,” says Roe. “Often the movement is subtle – we call it ‘drifting.’ We use sliders, dolly track, or whatever seems appropriate for a given shot. We have a lot of dialog on Castle, so we try to spice it up with some movement and bold colors.

“Rob and I both come from a widescreen, anamorphic background,” adds Roe. “We stack things up by staying on the long end of the zooms. We like framing the actors really tight, no headroom, and keeping the camera off their shoulder instead of over their ear. When things get intense, in the interrogation room, for example, we sometimes shoot 360-degree shots that put the actor in the center of the frame with the background moving behind them.”

Roe says that his history with Bowman informs their choices on Castle. “We all learned a lot on The X-Files,” he says. “That was really a groundbreaking show. It’s not as easy as people think to shoot something very dark yet still maintain layers in that darkness. On Castle, we’re shooting eight or nine pages a day. You have to be as creative as possible within that difficult schedule. You have to have a crew that is willing to push themselves in order to keep things fresh.”

The tight television schedule is one reason Bowman and Roe insist on shooting 35 mm film. “There are two main reasons why film is right for Castle,” says Bowman, who serves as executive producer and directs some episodes. “This is a fast-paced production with a lot of setups and a lot of cuts. I wanted to be able to promise to deliver a quality show on time and within the budget. I knew I didn’t need to add more technology to the set. I needed to keep the set as simple and dependable as possible. We average 55 setups a day. Some days we do 40 and some days we do 80. From a purely practical sense, a camera that is only plugged into a battery is a better idea.

Castle
CASTLE © 2010 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

“Last year, ABC Studios did a full cost impact comparing film and HD,” Bowman says. “When they included updating archives, adding another AVID and another assistant for all the footage, et cetera, they found very little difference. Also, with film you don’t have tents on the set where everybody and their mother are commenting on the look. You’re still going into color timing in post anyway, so color timing on the set just slows you down. We just don’t have time for that. I think that digital production was sold with some numerical aphrodisiacs – numbers that weren’t really grounded in the realities of production.

“But ideally, the decision about which medium to use should be an aesthetic choice about what looks right for your show,” Bowman continues. “We feel that the dynamic range of film is superior to HD. It has better blacks and it holds the highlights better. Bill and I prefer the look and softness of film. It’s a chemical process, more like how our brains work. There’s an indescribable, warm feeling we have when we watch film. Digital has a starker look. And I think that turning images into numbers and retranslating them back into images for viewing, as is done in digital formats, has a different emotional effect on people.”

Castle
CASTLE © 2010 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

The right cinematographer, according to Bowman, is the one who will tell the story from the script, rather than from his or her own predilections. Roe fits that description. “Even though he is very unpretentious about his work, Bill really is a poet with light,” he says. “He reads the script, sees what the narrative is, and identifies the emotional values. The textures, colors and compositions grow out of that. Quite often people bring their historical baggage with them and just do the same old thing, or copy something they saw somewhere else. What’s interesting to me is telling this particular story using the pace, rhythm, locations, and the direction and nature of the light. All these are expressive tools. Bill’s lighting is not showy. He doesn’t light for light’s sake.”

Film’s archival qualities also appeal to Bowman, which makes sense given his respect for cinema history. “Once you make archival files in a certain digital format, you know that format is going to change,” he says. “If you need to go back to that format, and there’s nothing to play it back, that product is as good as gone. Film is as universal as the alphabet. It’s always going to be there as long as you keep it safe and sound. We joke in the editing room that when you lock picture, you better be happy with it, because for the rest of your life and long after you’re dead that is the cut. Have Gun, Will Travel still airs on the Western channel, even though most of the people who made it aren’t with us any more. I don’t think they’ve really worked out a dependable solution for digital archiving. But film has worked for a long time.”

Castle earned three 2010 Emmy nominations. The third season of the series began airing in September 2010.