By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
|Photo by Jack Gould|
Michael Katz, the chief lighting technician for NYPD Blue, watches the light play across the face of a stand-in as he sets the daylight source for an interrogation scene — and he doesn’t like what he sees. “Show me panning left to right,” he calls to the lamp operator, positioned on a ladder behind a 2,500-watt HMI just beyond the wall of the sound-stage set. “Show me tilting up and down. Okay. Hold that.” Katz leans in with his quirky yellow light meter (“I’m quite fond of it. I’d love to meet the other guy in town who said, ‘I don’t care what color it is, it’s a bargain’”) to check the f-stop of the light hitting the stand-in’s black skin. “It’s still a half less than what I had before. Fuck.”
Without missing a beat, the paunchy Katz drops to one knee, presses his head in close behind the stand-in’s ear and stares up through a window, straight into the white-hot HMI that’s doubling for the sun. It’s not something he likes to do. Looking into the intensity of the high-voltage lamps, the essential instruments of his craft, always leaves him temporarily unable to gauge with his own eye the subtle effects of his directions to his crew. Sometimes, however, Katz needs to “find the center of the light” as he puts it, if he wants to give the cinematographer exactly the right value for the shot.
Maybe to break the mild tension of the moment, Mike Echols, the stand-in, gives Katz a little ribbing. “Are you going to give the brother his stop?” he says. “The brother needs his two-eight-and-a-half.”
Katz stands up with a smile. “I’m asking for it, I’m trying to get you a full stop up. But you know it can’t make up for all those years the brothers were shot at one-four.”
As the head of the lighting department — or gaffer, as he prefers it — Katz is at the heart of the image-making process, where aesthetic, even cultural concerns are translated into technical terms and back again with intuitive ease.
“I love the vernacular of this job,” he says, his deep, booming voice muffled to a whisper while another scene is being shot. “From the old parlance, like the term ‘gaffer’ or ‘best boy,’ to the verbs that we use. We pound light down the street, we squirt light up into the trees, we bounce it, we drive it, we chase it. At the end of the day, when we’re ready to wrap, I’ll ask, ‘Do we die here? Is this where we die?’”
This is the energy that Katz puts in service of the cinematographer. He calls the show’s alternating directors of photography, Steve Crawford and Lex du Pont, “Boss,” and they refer to him as “Mr. Katz.” While the relationship between cinematographer and gaffer — from the British word for old man or foreman — can vary, on NYPD Blue it’s a respectful melding of sensibilities. With 50 or so types of lights and various accessories — scrims, stands, color gels — at his disposal, Katz works closely with the D.P.s to achieve their visions even as he’s given leeway to add his own touches.
A 24-year veteran of film (including Blue Velvet), commercials and television, Katz has been with NYPD Blue for two seasons, and has become intimately familiar with Crawford and du Pont’s tastes. “You’re always looking for patterns,” he says. “I always try to tailor my suggestions to the guy who is doing the work.
“Especially an older gaffer will look at a young cameraman as wine grapes — you fertilize them, you try to propagate them, and hopefully they’ll bear fruit. I see it as a creative partnership that has everything a marriage has. I want dinner ready when he comes home, I want him satisfied, I want him feeling like he’s got a partner who’s really looking out for his interests.”
“I lean on Michael a lot,” says du Pont. “I have an exact picture of what I want in my mind’s eye, and Michael helps me get it a lot faster.”
Katz distinguishes between his job and the cinematographer’s in a joke: “What’s the difference between a foot candle and an f-stop? About $3,000 a week.” Where Katz deals with foot candles, the amount of light hitting the scene, the director of photography works in f-stops, a calculation involving foot candles and film speed that determines the exposure setting. “Historically, gaffers used meters that only read foot candles,” he says. “I know a gaffer who goes right up to the camera and sets the f-stop himself. The cameraman is fine with it, but that’s all wrong. If a gaffer is doing that, he should make more money.”
Katz is also responsible for power distribution on the set and, ultimately, for the electrical safety of a production. He depends on his best boys — indeed, his entire five-person crew — to manage the rigging of cables and to keep an eye on loads and capacity, but he can reel off mini-tutorials on AC/DC, Ohm’s law, power-factor correction, square-wave ballast and harmonic imbalance. Having come up as a gaffer during the mid-’70s boom in independent production (he joined Local 728 Motion Picture Studio Electrical Lighting Technicians in 1978), he learned most of these concepts on the job, and even he is sometimes surprised by his accumulated knowledge. “Gaffers often say, ‘C’mon, it’s not rocket science,’” he says. “We tend to denigrate what it is that we know. We forget how fully trained we really are — and have to be. It doesn’t take much electricity to kill you, about 100 milliamps, something the size of a string of Christmas-tree lights.”
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