“Gotham” Cinematographer David Stockton Discusses Lensing The Pilot

Gotham cinematographer David Stockton attended early makeup tests to begin crafting dramatic lighting. Pictured: Jada Pinkett Smith (Fish Mooney) and Robin Taylor (The Penguin). Photo credit: Fox Network

BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor

Growing up a fan of “Batman,” cinematographer David Stockton was thrilled to help set the visual tone in the pilot of “Gotham.”

“The subject matter is iconic. I’m a fan of the Nolan films and grew up with ‘Batman’ on TV. ‘Gotham’ is more a microcosm of our real world,” said Stockton. “It has a fine cast, it’s well written and the crew was very collaborative on creating every aspect of the city. The city is a major character; we had some CGI and set extensions, but most of what you see is real.”

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Stockton also enjoyed the added benefit of collaborating with Gotham producer / director Danny Cannon. The two had previously worked together on TV fare including “The Lottery”, “The Forgotten” and “Eleventh Hour.” The pilot’s cinematographer and director met in LA for three weeks of prep to go over Cannon’s vision and define all the “broad strokes” of camera placements and set ups.

“Danny is more of a Stanley Kubrick – he understands the technique, he has the images of the shots in his head, he’s a natural talent,” said Stockton. “Danny knows blocking and makes smart choices. I’m completely in line with his vision, (which made it) easier for me to work out the details.”

Stockton worked closely with production designer Doug Kraner, costume designer Lisa Padovani and makeup department head John Perkins to illustrate e the timeless quality emphasized of Bruno Heller’s script. The city of Gotham is composed of modern and classic architecture, automobiles from the 70s and 80s, the gritty atmosphere of former New York rock club CBGB, and 1950s noir films. The department heads put together a visual reference where they hung stills and snapshots that inspired and informed the look, and spent time watching films such as “The Godfather”, “The French Connection” and “Blade Runner” for inspiration.

To create dynamic lighting, Stockton approached each scene as if it were a blank canvas and placed his emphasis on balancing the gritty quality of the city with the dynamic elements created by the episode’s department heads. The cinematographer attended early makeup tests to begin exploring the best lighting set ups that emphasized the actor’s features and bone structure. By the time he was working on camera tests, he already had a handle on lighting each actor in a way that would make them stand out in the dark environments.

“I get to know the actors and get to develop trust. They see we care and want to make them look good,” said Stockton. “I’m able to light in unique ways. The actors know what I’m doing and we all work together to help each other.”

Shooting with the Arri Alexa HD, Stockton felt the camera’s sensitivity in latitude was a benefit in the lower light situations. He enjoyed experimenting with color temperature settings, pushing them in 100 degree increments. He found onset color grading to be a tremendous creative tool to push the look and ensure the director and producers were in agreement with the results.

“It’s important to ensure the technical elements match the aesthetic instead of leaving it to chance,” said Stockton. “I work with the DIT and quality monitors; watching the focus of foreign objects off frame, lens flairs, and smudges that can’t be seen in a viewfinder. It helps to ensure accuracy and creativity.”

Lens choices were also a crucial element to Stockton’s approach as the cinematographer for the “Gotham” pilot. He switched between 12:1 and 4.7:1 Angenieux Zoom Lenses and Compact 1540mm, 2876 and 45120 Cook Prime Lenses.

While creating a compelling aesthetic is important to Stockton, he believes the primary goal for any cinematographer is to find images that best move any story forward. Starting in the grip and electrical department, Stockton rose through the ranks and honed his skills in the 90s and 2000s shooting music videos and commercials. He’s operated cameras underwater, from a helicopter thousands of feet above ground and in every type of climate and landscape found worldwide. He feels the experience crafting unique, story-propelling shots in these diverse scenarios has provided an invaluable education.

“I learned how to use these techniques to propel a story, not squander them on visual impact,” said Stockton. “You need the audience to feel it, not just see it. One of my camera assistants said it best. ‘We can’t let our process scare the drama away.’”

Up next for Stockton: he is working on another series that has yet to be announced.

“Gotham” premiers on Fox Monday, September 22nd. To learn more about “Gotham”, please visit:
http://www.fox.com/gotham/