Christian Sebaldt, ASC Photo by D. Kirkland
“My images are the result of a collaboration of so many bright minds. CSI is approaching its 300th episode, and we’re still pushing creatively. One glance at a well-crafted image, and the audience understands the story it tells. It’s a visual medium, and we must create with this in mind. Film is a point-and-shoot instrument. It’s reliable and easy to work with, and its silky, smooth texture makes everyone look good. For me, seeing the final results is still an astonishing and humbling experience.”
Christian Sebaldt, ASC has photographed 45 episodes of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation over the past four seasons. He is the longest-serving director of photography on that series, which also earned him a 2010 Emmy® Award. His credits also include more than 40 other narrative credits, including Parasomnia, FeardotCom, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Bratz, Race to Space, and The Dark.
[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]
A Conversation with Christian Sebaldt, ASC
QUESTION: How did you first become interested in photography?
Sebaldt: Watching my dad produce and direct commercials in Munich. It seemed there were always new challenges and it was never boring. It looked like pure fun, only later did I realize how much hard work is put into it. When I was about 12 years old, I got a black and white lab from an uncle in East Germany. I took it home to Munich, assembled it in our basement and started experimenting. I discovered the magic of 35 mm film – an image in the developer appearing mysteriously before my eyes. A photograph I had taken days earlier, so far only a memory in my mind, was suddenly visible to everybody. This was quite mesmerizing for me as a boy, and it still is today. Seeing your images projected in a movie theater is an even more astonishing experience that you don’t easily forget.
Tell us about that feeling of seeing an audience see and react to your work.
Sebaldt: It is gratifying and humbling too, because what you are viewing is a collaboration of so many bright minds. When people compliment your work, you shouldn’t forget that maybe hundreds of people contributed in so many ways. Once I got into the business, I found that I loved being on the set with a big crew, all working toward the same goal. And in the mad dash throughout the day, we are often able to achieve something even better than what we had hoped for. I worked as a camera assistant on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Lili Marleen and was astonished to experience what could be achieved on a major motion picture set. All these little fractured moments, captured over several months, with almost military precision, all came together in the final film. They came alive and swept me away into one continuous, emotional and dramatic journey. I had discovered my passion: filmmaking.
Is film history important to you and your work? If so, why?
Sebaldt: Absolutely. I don’t think you can call yourself a cinematographer if you are not aware of who has come before you, what they have done and how they achieved it. If you don’t appreciate and study the many classic movies and their cinematographer’s contributions, you probably cannot even become an accomplished cinematographer. Film history is the foundation from which our ‘cinematography minds’ forge new images.
Are cinematographers artists?
Sebaldt: Study all the cinematographers’ work in the many famous movies of the last 100 years and the answer must be yes. But it’s not just about what’s visible on the screen. Cinematographers are not ‘just’ artists. We are hired to manage crew, money and time on the set to achieve the director’s goals within the producer’s means. So if you have six hours to accomplish something, you need to make that happen. If your ego is bigger than that, you’ll probably encounter issues. You cannot just be an artist. It’s a balancing act every day, all day long.
Is there an overemphasis on technology today?
Sebaldt: Much publicity is generated by the big manufacturers about their latest ‘toys’, which often creates an artificial excitement through ‘clever’ advertising. New gear is sometimes on the set, simply because it has been so well promoted and you don’t want to be the last one trying it… In the end one might find, “I could have done that better with the tools I’ve already been using for years.” New technology can be a distraction on set, but also an asset, so it’s wise to figure out its benefits and pitfalls in advance. As a professional cinematographer I have to be able to deliver my images quickly, predictably and without unnecessary risk.
You work with multiple cameras on CSI?
Sebaldt: Yes. We have at least two cameras rolling at all times. When we do stunts or special effects, we use more. We try to capture multiple angles at the same time for better coverage, to give the editors more choices to shape the scenes, as well as the episode.
What are some of the characteristics of the look of CSI?
Sebaldt: The key to CSI is backlight. I use really hot beauty backlight, but try not to flare the lenses, which can be a bit of a struggle at times. The backlights are usually very low in order to be really sharp and crisp. I also use a good mix of complementary colors on the set, and we often live in the world of straws and cyans. We shoot quite fast and capture multiple angles at the same time, and some of those shots are just going to be a little bit brighter, having more front light, some darker, having more backlight. We vignette shots in post, take the color down a little bit to de-saturate. We make it a little moodier where needed and often add a bit of contrast to day exteriors. This is where our remarkable colorist Paul Westerbeck (Encore Hollywood) watches my back and often ‘saves the day’.
Do audiences perceive images shot on film differently?
Sebaldt: Certainly in a theater, you quickly feel the difference. A beautifully crafted motion picture shot on film often has more of an emotional impact on a subliminal level. I think digital movies don’t have that silkiness and smoothness, and I think that is a difference that an audience subconsciously perceives.
Are audiences savvier these days?
Sebaldt: Absolutely. As audiences have become more sophisticated, we have changed the look and feel of our show. We have gone darker, changed the pace in editing, invented new flashback looks, etc. We often have sequences where our heroes go into unknown spaces, and we very carefully choose what not to light, what to leave to the audience’s imagination. The show has been around for almost 300 episodes, but it is still evolving. Everyone here is a contributing element of the show and we all help shape it and that’s exciting! Our storylines are often based on very recent and often tragic events, so the series remains very current that way and audiences are able to relate to the characters and events.
Have bigger, better television images changed the way you shoot?
Sebaldt: We are very careful with makeup, set dressing, props, etc. We make sure that every minute detail is correct – a label on an evidence box, the victim‘s name on a syringe, the shape of bloodstains on the wall. Sometimes it may seem silly, but then you watch the episode, and yes, you see those details and they matter. It’s a forensics show, so you want the technical details to be correct, you want every episode to be grounded in reality. It’s important to us, and I believe that the audience recognizes and appreciates the effort.
What are your overall goals or standards for the images?
Sebaldt: Even under the pressure of a television production schedule, I want my images to be exciting and as appropriate as they can be. If a character is trapped and uncertain how to survive the next five minutes, I need to put the audience emotionally in his place. How do I do that visually? With a handheld Dutch angle? By keeping frame elements out of focus? Or by concealing the person in a dark space with just a little cold edge light? A well crafted image quickly generates the right visceral reaction. We need to avoid relying on dialog for explanation – this is a visual medium.