Articles >

Cinematographer Gives Radio Show A Visual Life

Showtime

For the past three years, Adam Beckman received an Outstanding Cinematography for Non-Fiction Programming Emmy nomination for a most unique program: the Showtime series of the National Public Radio staple,  “This American Life."

“This American Life," hosted by Ira Glass, has been broadcast nationwide on National Public Radio stations for fourteen years.  Each episode of the radio program presents a theme related to the American experience, and a number of stories (generally 2-5) explore and define that theme.  Beckman’s introduction to the show came when his wife was hired as a producer for the program.

"My wife (Wendy Dorr) said ‘Listen to this, it’s just so good.  They are doing with radio what you want to be doing with film,’" said Beckman.  "She ended up working on the show as a radio producer, and I got to know everyone.  At that time their plans to turn it into a television show were vague."

Up to that point, Beckman’s career as a cinematographer involved shooting commercials, independent films, and a series of music videos from acts including Radiohead, Pearl Jam, Green Day, and Ice Cube.

"I was always interested in shooting music videos that were remotely connected," said Beckman, "where images were evoking the emotional content and interpreting the music rather than the actual interpretation of the lyrics.  As a cinematographer, that’s at the core of what I want to do; what any cinematographer wants to do.  It should be to allow the images to be really active in evoking moods, not redundant."

In 2001, Beckman had the chance to write a segment for “This American Life” entitled "The House at Loon Lake," an hour long program about an abandoned house Beckman discovered when he was a boy. 

"It was a great experience for me, because I got to see their process from the inside," said Beckman.  "I got to see how they go about telling a story, and the careful craftsmanship and control that they have over nuances in storytelling for the radio."

After "The House at Loon Lake" became a successful episode that achieved strong download numbers on the internet,  Beckman was asked to share his thoughts, as a cameraman, regarding the look a filmed version of "This American Life" should have.  He suggested the series venture away from hand-held,  documentary-style shooting.

"When I first became a fan of the radio show, I read an interview with Ira Glass in which he said that if they ever were to adapt their radio show for television, they’d want it to be shot like a music video," said Beckman.  That really struck me because I completely agreed; the documentary form could be as lyrical as the music video."

After  explaining his take of utilizing principles from music video into the aesthetic of the television show to Ira Glass, Beckman was hired as the show’s cinematographer.  Although Beckman had a clear sense of the visual style for “This American Life,” the directorial style was still evolving.  After two directors failed to connect with the visions of the “This American Life” crew,  Chris Wilcha was brought on board.

 

Although every episode was handled differently: some interviews were done first, while others had all elements of the story being shot simultaneously, Wilcha and Beckman made decisions on the equipment and set-ups that would be applied to all shoots.

"One of the first decisions that we made esthetically was to keep the camera on a tripod," said Beckman.  "The norm right now on TV for documentary, non-fiction and reality, is for the camera to just sponge down the scene and not make a compositional commitment.  We thought, the radio show is quiet, our camera work needs to be quiet."

"We worked with what the budget could afford us; a pretty rudimentary standard definition camera for season one, and a hi-def for season two.  We had two small consumer-type cameras that we could use in cars or if we needed to be inconspicuous."

They also used a two camera set up for all interviews; a wide and a tight shot. 

"Chris and I talked about how interviews really should be two shots: a close up which is all about the emotional content in the face, and a wide shot, which is the person as head to toe as you can get them in the context of their environment," said Beckman.  "We wanted it to be the editor’s choice to cut from a wide to a close up shot."

With a plan in place, the challenging element of crafting the imagery that would service the story while maintaining the qualities of the radio program was the next hurdle to overcome.  Beckman articulates the difficulties of this challenge in an essay he wrote entitled "I am a Cameraman for a Radio Show":

The most challenging question was: how can we make the TV show look the way the radio show sounds.  On radio, “This American Life’s” stylistic sensibility makes it instantly recognizable.  Beyond Ira’s tone, there’s something purely aesthetic going on between the evocative music and meticulously paced story beats.  Part of this is the careful crafting of voices, effects and music, but as we neared shooting, the really daunting thing to realize was: part of this thing was the medium: radio itself, the absence of image."

One way to overcome this hurdle was to think of B-roll as A-roll.  Capturing what was outside the frame of the interview would be the important element of what to cut with the interview.

"If you think about what radio is, it’s a denial of the visual," said Beckman.  "I had to think about denying information, to force the viewer to do what they do with the radio show, which is listen.  I can’t show the whole thing, I have to show part of it.  If I were shooting a person doing something, I would focus on what the person was doing, and crop their head out of the frame.  Instead of an individual whose face you were drawn to, it was an ‘everyman,’ and this made it more general."

Beckman also found ways of shooting locations that took the viewer outside the domain.  He shared the example of a boy and his family having dinner together.  Shooting inside the dining room felt too invasive, so a different solution had to be found.

"There were windows all around the house," said Beckman.  "We just walked around and with a telephoto lens we filmed them through the windows, denying the proximity.  The image was really diffused and you could scarcely see through the reflection.  It was showing you, ‘you can’t be in this family.’"

In addition to composing shots that revealed elements of the story without overexposing the content, Beckman also manipulated the look of the shot to enhance the tone of the story.

"We were fully on board with the idea that we should make as strong a statement that we could, without it becoming garish, "said Beckman.  "We went for completely over-saturated or de-saturated colors to enhance the mood, and we very much manipulated the images.  I think Ira gets a lot of grief in the journalistic community – that he’s telling stories the way he sees them.  I think that any documentary filmmaker is telling the story that they see, they may just be masquerading as some form of objectivity.  We said, ‘Let’s just pull that out’ you might as well just accept it and do it consciously."

"John Smith," the final episode of season two, is also be the final episode of the series.  Nominated for Outstanding Program, Outstanding Cinematography, Outstanding Editing, and Outstanding Directing Emmys, the program combined the lives of seven different men named John Smith: an infant, a seven year old,  21 year old,  36 year old, 46 year old, 70 year old, and 79 year old to follow the progression of one "life" from birth to death.  Shots such as John describing his science fair project, John waiting for his son to return from the Iraq war, John aiding his mother on her deathbed, and John’s children aiding him on his, were connected with transitional segments including  the multi-aged Johns playing video games, driving in cars, and observing the landscapes around them.

"All of us who worked on the show feel that the final episode achieved the lyricism of the radio program, ultimately and somewhat ironically, by denying the tried and true format of the radio show," said Beckman.  "I think it was this revelation that ultimately convinced Ira to avoid trying to shoot stories and stick with radio."

With “This American Life” completed, Beckman would like to change his creative course.

"I want to do a full blown narrative," said Beckman.  "I’ve always enjoyed being able to manipulate color, light and the quality of the light.  I felt what was great about ‘This American Life’ was that I was in a position to do everything I could with what I had; a suitcase full of lights.  It was more about turning lights off rather than on, and shutting windows and finding locations that were graphic.  But, there was a limit to how really artistic I could become with the individual components of story telling.  I think now I look forward to having the ability to work on something that will allow me to tell stories."

 

After "The House at Loon Lake" became a successful episode that achieved strong download numbers on the internet,  Beckman was asked to share his thoughts, as a cameraman, regarding the look a filmed version of "This American Life" should have.  He suggested the series venture away from hand-held,  documentary-style shooting.

"When I first became a fan of the radio show, I read an interview with Ira Glass in which he said that if they ever were to adapt their radio show for television, they’d want it to be shot like a music video," said Beckman.  That really struck me because I completely agreed; the documentary form could be as lyrical as the music video."

After  explaining his take of utilizing principles from music video into the aesthetic of the television show to Ira Glass, Beckman was hired as the show’s cinematographer.  Although Beckman had a clear sense of the visual style for “This American Life,” the directorial style was still evolving.  After two directors failed to connect with the visions of the “This American Life” crew,  Chris Wilcha was brought on board.

"Chris and I really just hit it off.  We completely saw the potential for the program," said Beckman.