Capturing Chemistry on Film
Moonlighting's DP Gerald Finnerman
From Television: Companion to the PBS Television Series, written by Michael Winship as a companion to the 8-part PBS series TELEVISION which looked at the television industry including its history, success stories, disasters, and trends. The book was published in 1988 and contains numerous references to "Moonlighting" which was considered one of the most innovative and experimental TV programs on the air at that time. Creator/Executive Producer Glenn Gordon Caron; Director of Photography Gerald Finnerman, ASC; and Makeup Artist Dave Grayson were interviewed for the book.
Gerald Finnerman, ASC (pages 304-312)
Gerald Finnerman, ASC (American Society of Cinematographers), is the director of photography for Moonlighting, a show that spares no expense to get its very special look. Finnerman is a man who was brought up in the old school of cinematography, and he's proud of it. He brings an artistry and a meticulousness to his work that has been one of the key factors in making Moonlighting successful.
"I'm second generation," he said. "My father was one of the original members of the union, Local 659, International Photographers Guild. He came into the business of 1928. I grew up in the business. Since I was five or six years old, all I can remember is the motion picture business.
"Although I didn't major in photography in college, I always wanted to be a cameraman." Finnerman attended Loyola University and majored in abnormal psychology. In 1950 he took a job at Warner Brothers, where his father was on contract as a cinematographer. Soon, he was working as his father's assistant. When his father died at the age of fifty-five, Gerry Finnerman found a mentor in one of Hollywood's finest cinematographers, Harry Stradling, Sr., who had been a close friend of his father's. He worked for Stradling for eight years and was his camera operator when Stradling won the Academy Award for My Fair Lady. From Stradling, Finnerman learned the old-fashioned style that has served him well in creating beautiful television pictures. "Color wasn't very popular in television until the sixties," Finnerman said.
"At that particular point, everybody said, 'Well, you have to take a light over the lens and flat light color. Light everything.' Even the networks wanted you to light everything. Color would take care of itself-the shades of reds, greens, and blues would all take care of themselves and blend, and you'll have a nice-looking picture.
"But the old times, like Harry Stradling, James Wong Howe, Ernie Laszlo, Charlie Lang, would always go back and say, 'In the forties, when I was shooting black-and-white, you could only get dimension one way.' And that was by crosslighting and halftones. They stuck to the ways of the thirties and forties and still continued to light color as they would black-and-white, which wasn't as safe, but it certainly was pretty. They were the ones who were getting the dimensions when everything else was being flat lit…So I pretty well stuck to the theory of crosslighting, trying to get dimension. ...That's the way I was taught.
"That style is passe'. There are very few cinematographers today who could light a black-and-white show."
Finnerman's first television series as cinematographer was another landmark television show-Star Trek. He got the job by default. Stadling's son, Harry Stradling, Jr., was also a cinematographer, the director of photography on Gunsmoke. Star Trek's producers unsuccessfully tried to persuade him to join them. When he refused, they asked Stradling senior to try to convince his son. Stradling knew his son's decision was firm. He suggested they promote his camera operator, Gerry Finnerman. "I went over for an interview with Gene Rodenberry (Star Trek's executive producer). They said, 'We'll give you one show to do, and if we like it, we'll give you another show.'" Finnerman was hesitant, but Stradling senior was reassuring. He was about to start shooting the motion picture Funny Girl, with Barbra Streisand. If Finnerman didn't succeed at Star Trek, he could rejoin Stradling on the Funny Girl set.
"He said, 'You're a smart boy. You know what to do,'" Finnerman recalled. "So I went over in May, and I started. I was on the show one week, and they were oohing and ahhing, and at the end of the week, they came down and offered me a three-year contract at, I think, eight hundred dollars a week. That was a lot of money in those days. I couldn't believe it."
Finnerman approached Star Trek's unusual science fiction format with a basic philosophy: "the idea or vision of that third dimension. That was not seen on any of the other shows." It was difficult at first.
"I did have trouble with the network [NBC] at the beginning. They were hesitant to accept the fact that people were in shadows, or half-lit or silhouetted, or that colors were used on the hair. But Mr. Rodenberry was very nice and supportive, and said, 'I don't care what they say. I know what I'm seeing on the screen, and I like it. You just keep doing what you're doing.'
"A lot of it came by accident, because in those days I was searching, and a lot of it came from a certain amount of ego or arrogance. When somebody tells me I can't do anything, by God, I'm going to do it! The network would say, 'You're not to use any colors.' We were on a different planet every week, and I would look at this huge set that was supposed to be the planet-I couldn't envision a different planet without a certain warmth or coldness, depending on the script.
"It's like music. Photography is like an opera or a symphony. We all know that when we're tired and we sit down at night and we start listening to Wagner or Tchaikovsky, how involved we get, and how the juices start to flow. That's how I feel about photography. Certain romantic scripts, I make romantic with color and shadows. We had some scripts that were brutal, and I made them brutal-cold.
"Whatever was in the script, I tried to encompass. I took my time, I read the scripts. I tried to know the characters as well as the actors did. Finally, you really do know them almost as well as maybe the actors and the writers. A director will come through, and he's there for a week or two, and he's gone. But we're there all the time, you know, and pretty soon you get to know Captain Kirk or Spock or whatever show you're doing…it's a feeling you get that comes out on the screen."
Another program for which Finnerman won an Emmy was a TV movie based on the life of show business impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. "It was really a woman's show," Finnerman said. "In real life, Ziegfeldwas a womanizer, and we had four beautiful women in the show." As a result, Finnerman gained a reputation as a "women's cameraman," much as George Cukor had a reputation as a women's director. It helped lead to Finnerman's current job with Moonlighting. What does women's cameraman mean? "In this day and age, it's very important for every star to look as good as they can or better," he explained. "There are techniques whereby they can look better. As cinematographers we approach each individual like a plastic surgeon. Each one has flaws; each one has scars…
"Each one has a different kind of nose. Cybill [Shepherd], for example: She can look very bad if you put the light on the right side of the camera. She has a slight indentation in her nose, and when you put the light right of the camera, it just bends her nose like a banana, so you just have to watch it.
"It's sometimes difficult for the men to understand, because it seems like we take so much time on the women. But everybody on the set is treated equally."
Finnerman was not involved with Moonlighting's pilot, but shortly after it was completed, he was approached by the show's producers.
"They came to me and said, 'We have a show that is unique. We want a different look. We want the look of the black-and-white of the forties.' We all sat down and had a meeting, and they said, 'We want this incorporated and this and this. Can you do it?'
"I said, 'Yes.' And then I said, 'It would be nice if we could maybe get away from those lousy-looking zoom lenses. They suck the background of people to you and not you to the people.' I also said, 'It would be nice if we could go through long master shots (the wide shot that includes the characters in a scene), seven, eight, nine pages, like Hitchcock.' We're throwing ideas back and forth. We say for about two hours, discussing the concept of the show. I mean, I'm still discussing, and I didn't know whether I had the job. But I threw everything I had into it, saying, 'Yes, I saw your pilot. I think I can do a better job on the lady. I think, overall, I could give you what you want.' When we finished, there was a satisfaction on everybody's part. Right away we're saying, 'Hey, let's get rid of all the television gimmicks.'
"I went back home and they had already called my agent. I was tickled. This seemed to me to be a terrific thing. I signed to do the series, and it started."
Finnerman's background and training appealed to executive producer Glenn Gordon Caron, who is a certified movie nut. Finnerman cites Hitchcock, John Ford, Fred Zinnerman, and Preston Sturges as primary directorial influences. Moonlighting is shot more in movie style than television style. The long master shots, for example: "They don't do that in many shows that I've seen," Finnerman said. In other programs "it's a lot of quick cuts. Bring the characters in and three close-ups. Take them out and three close-ups. Take them over, sit them down, and talk for eight pages. We don't do that. This show never stops moving."
As for his own role:
"Without a doubt, the cinematographer on a television series, dealing within the parameters of a producer's wishes and specifications, not only sets the style, but he sets a show-sets the movement, sets the lenses. And usually the directors who come in will adhere to the parameters of the show. It is not very easy when the star of the show is as knowledgeable as Cybill Shepherd and is saying, 'I don't want the camera dropped on me. Don't shoot up on me.'
"She's absolutely right. You don't do low shots if you want a lady to look pretty. She's very camera-conscious. I know she likes to get her coverage done first because she gets tired in the afternoon, and it shows. You put makeup on during the day, and you add to it. You don't take it off and put it on and take it off and put it on. So by the end of the day, after twelve hours, we watch her very carefully. We use different diffusion; we use different lighting if possible; we go from hard lighting to soft lighting."
Diffusion, the process by which you film through a somewhat opaque filter to soften hard edges, is a minor sore point on the Moonlighting set. Cybill Shepherd's shots are diffused, and if you look closely at Moonlighting, you can see the difference between the way she is filmed and the way costar Bruce Willis is shot. According to Finnerman, "Women have to be diffused. I don't care who it is….Somebody took a pretty good shot at me [in a magazine article] for overdiffusing Cybill. I went to my producers, and they said, 'You just keep doing what you're doing. We love it, the network loves it, and she loves it.' I can't go by the opinion of one man who might need new glasses. I have to defend myself by saying, 'Yes, we use diffusion-we use heavy diffusion-but I don't consider it jarring.'" Case closed.
Finnerman sees his relationship with the director as key. Younger directors often have not been exposed to the old techniques that he learned: big dolly shots, cross-lighting, etc. "It bewilders them." He feels that unlike other series, "there's no formula for this show that somebody walks in the door, we take them over to here and then over to there. I approach the directors and I say, 'You work with the people, and you get the performance, and I will give you the look of the show you want.' Basically they are much happier that way. It takes the pressure off of them.
"They rehearse a scene with the people, and then they'll turn the set over to me. Then I will block the shot. I'll go so far, and if it works the whole way, I'll say, 'Okay, we can do the whole eight pages.' If there is a problem, I can stop and work it out--I feel I have omnipotence in that area.
"We get directors who are not what you would call strong camera directors. Many of them have not done film, or many of them done only two- or three-camera comedy shows. Sometimes they're not as confident or cognizant of screen direction, cuts, overlaps. It's my job to protect them, and I do.
"It's different from doing a three- or four-camera comedy show on tape, where you can see the monitors and say, 'All right, cut from the close-up to an over-the-shoulder, or cut back to the master.' You don't have the ability to do that on film… There are a lot of critics here checking performance and angles. It's a lot different, a lot scarier."
The cinematographer serves other functions with the director as well. Finnerman's college psychology training comes in handy. "We deal with an awful lot of ego, especially on a show that's as hot as this one is," he said. "You have to remember that you are the therapist between the director and the stars. There comes a point where the stars know their characters better than anybody else. They sometimes frown on a director coming in and trying to direct them before they've had a rehearsal….This has happened a couple of times, and I can see the sparks start to fly.
"I try to be the buffer, I'll take the director aside and try to explain to them that it's best to watch what they [the actors] do, get their feel or their input, and then go from there, rather than come in and demand this and that."
Problem solving comes relatively easy to Finnerman: "I learned through a long period of going to a psychiatrist that there is more than one alternative. It's never either/or; it's this and this and this. There are so many different ways to approach everything, whether its photography, directing, acting, that nobody should be pinpointing one little thing. Give me a problem, and I'll change it. That's the way you have to think."
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