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Driving Light

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.”

With all of this somewhere in his head (“Safety is always at the front of my mind,” he says), Katz arrives a little before 6 on a Monday morning at the Spearmint Rhino, a strip club in Van Nuys, on a rare shoot away from sound stages 9 and 10 on the 20th Century Fox lot. For what will be a 14-hour workday, Katz was up at 4:30 — while his wife and daughter, on spring break from Berkeley, were still asleep — and out the door of his Ocean Park home a little after 5. At 6 sharp, after a veggie egg-white omelet from craft services, Katz is standing in the middle of the club, conferring with Crawford about the location’s “lighting opportunities.” The immediate challenge is that the club’s interior won’t allow Katz to rig lights high on the walls or ceilings. Instead, they’ll have to tuck lights into the lap-dancing alcoves. “We’re trying to hide lights everywhere,” Katz says after calling out over his headset for the lamps they’ll need: “It’s tweenies and babies and midgets.”

Making things a little easier is the fact that the actors will be fitted with radio mikes. On the sound stage, Katz must work with the microphone boom operator to avoid shadows. “It’s all lighting by negotiation,” he says. That aspect of the gaffer’s job is especially crucial in his relations with the grip department. While the gaffer and â electricians place the lights, part of the grips’ job is to shape it and block inadvertent, or “spill,” light. Given the logistics of the Spearmint Rhino, Katz is relying heavily on the key grip and his crew to rig up lamps that can’t be set on stands for the shot.

The territorial tensions between grips and electricians are of almost folkloric proportions. Later in the week on the sound stages, Katz sarcastically chastises a grip who placed black wrap — heat-resistant black foil — around the air vents of a $4,000 electronic lamp. It’s a professional point that Katz nevertheless wishes he had made differently. “I was running hot,” he says. “And that energy didn’t help to make the scene. A big part of this job is not just evaluating the lighting and coming up with a plan, it’s relationship building. If I lost the grips’ good will, I couldn’t do my job.”

Within an hour of arriving at the Spearmint Rhino — after Katz has watched several rehearsals and the stand-ins have taken their marks — he is sketching in the initial setup. With a laser pointer he directs where certain lamps need to be. Then he revisits each of the eight lights his crew has set up to adjust their position, value and color. “Is that junior ready to go? Send it to the top of the stick,” he says. “Change his to a blue and keep her warm.”

“Hey, Mike, how are you liking this baby?” asks one of his lamp operators.

“I’m loving it to pieces,” Katz shoots back. “Tip it up slightly.”

Katz is in constant motion as he “stacks colors,” assigning different effects gels to the lamps covering foreground and background, “setting subtractive primaries against primaries” to add depth. Crawford didn’t tell him to do it, although he must approve the look. It’s just a technique that Katz himself finds satisfying. By the time the camera starts rolling, he’s dealt with last-minute changes in the blocking and unwanted reflections from the numerous dancers’ portraits that line the walls, and even given a few tips to his “permit,” the 20-something trainee on his crew hopefully getting the 30 days he needs to join the union.

 

The trainee is only here because most of the some 350 gaffers in local 728 are already working, as a result of the strike-fear-induced production crunch. (The recent settlement between writers and producers means Katz can rest a little easier while visiting his son on a six-week tour of Asia, which he began soon after NYPD Blue wrapped at the end of April.) The boom time now, however, masks a long-term downturn in local production and wages that Katz says is devastating his craft. “I honestly believe that the industry will be globalized away from us,” he says. “Some of the contracts that the [International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees] is handing us, in order to compete with our own union brothers and sisters in Canada, it’s a race to the bottom.”

Still, Katz has a deep reverence for the Hollywood production process. Not just because, in his case, it’s allowed him to “make a living, put two kids through school, build a house and achieve a measure of financial security,” but because he sees the system he’s a part of as an indigenous craft — as uniquely American, he says, as jazz. It’s one of the reasons he loves the language of the job so much. “This industry is a national cultural treasure,” he says. “It has provided me with an aesthetic gratification that most people don’t get on their jobs. I have been really lucky to have this huge canvas and an almost limitless palette to work with.”


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