Who’s Shooting House?
A bus breaks apart and passengers fly through the air in slow motion as a crash ensues. A man with locked in syndrome slips in and out of consciousness, the world fuzzy and distorted. A three quarter shot of Hugh Laurie as he stares at the photograph of a deceased staff member, unable to contain his pain and bewilderment.
These are the kinds of shots cinematographer Gale Tattersall captures week after week in the hit drama “House.”
Tattersall began building the career that led him to “House” in architectural school.
As a student at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, Tattersall assumed the role of school photographer. When renowned architect Buckminster Fuller was scheduled to speak at the school, Tattersall was asked to film the presentation.
“I picked up a Bolex and became completely enthralled in the whole process,” recalls Tattersall.
Tattersall enrolled in a two-year program at the London Film School. Upon graduating, he received a grant from the British Film Institute to shoot “Value for Money,” which starred Quentin Crisp. This piece became the calling card that attracted award-winning director Bruce Beresford, who asked Tattersall to join him in Australia as his camera operator. At that time, directors such as Peter Weir, George Miller and Fred Schepsi were on the rise, and Tattersall gained a wealth of experience during the Australian film industry boom. Tattersall returned to England and worked as a camera operator in the commercial industry with such directors as David Bailey and Tony Scott.
Once Tattersall received his first opportunity to work as a Director of Photography on a feature, even Stanley Kubrick’s offer for him to act as camera operator on “Full Metal Jacket” couldn’t turn him away. Since then, he’s photographed diverse movies such as “The Commitments,” “The Addams Family,” “Pushing Tin,” and “13 Ghosts.” He’s also shot countless commercials for everything from the Irish Tourist Board to Bud Light.
Being a father to two teenage boys, Tattersall was looking for something that would keep him in Los Angeles, where he’s been residing for 20 years. “You know,” said Tattersall, “that’s the difficult side of being a filmmaker or DP; the constant travel and being away from your family.”
When Tattersall received his “House” call, he was not only enthusiastic to join a television series shooting in LA, but also working with lead actor Hugh Laurie.
“I’ve always been a great fan of Hugh Laurie,” said Tattersall. “We reminded each other that we worked on a Kate Bush video together about 25 years ago. He’s one of the finest actors on the planet. I also just thought the scripts were so stunning. David Shore and his team, they just keep it going. It’s amazingly good writing, with so many back stories and such complexity. Getting all that medical stuff believable and possible is quite an achievement week after week.”
Tattersall shoots each episode of “House” with an Arriflex camera. “Because of the post production workflow, we haven’t taken the step to go digital yet, although we might in the future,” said Tattersall.
“We shoot on 35 and I’ve found that Arriflex is basically the best system these days for doing just that. We have Arriflex cameras, Cooke prime lenses, Angenieux zoom lenses. One of my battles in the very beginning of coming on board ‘House’ was to have basically enough equipment on hand to not have to think ‘Maybe we need a little crane for Thursday, maybe we need steadicam on Wednesday.’ We just have these things basically available to us so we have much more creative tools.”
The creative tools Tattersall has on hand have resulted in providing stunning cinematography in episodes such as last year’s Emmy winning “House’s Head” and more recently, “Locked In.”
“I’m the first to admit that we’re the worst thieves on the planet!” jokes Tattersall about his inspiration for the look of “Locked In.” “A lot of the inspiration for the look came from ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,’ shot by Janusz Kaminski. But, we developed on it. We developed a lot of ways of moving the camera around to simulate a patient on a gurney or a patient going into an MRI machine.”
The episode follows a patient, played by Mos Def, who, through the result of exposure to a toxic resin, has no muscular control over his body. Although he is mentally coherent, he’s unable to communicate at all. The only body parts he can control are his eyelids.
“It was a very interesting episode because my wonderful camera operator, Tony Gaudioz, really became a member of the cast,” said Tattersall. “He had to put himself in the character, to be able to react like someone who was locked in that way. We used a device called the Lens Baby, which is basically like a swing shift lens. It’s in a rather stiff rubber bellows which, by bending the lens with your hand, you can throw the planes of focus across the lens from one point to another. Gaudioz would react to the dialogue with that lens.”
With very limited time and budget, Tattersall works closely with his lighting crew to provide inventive lighting effects that enhance the tone and mood of each episode.
“I always think about what arc the episode is going through,” said Tattersall. “Where’s it starting, where’s it going to be in the middle, where’s it going to go at the end. Then I think of how the lighting can be employed to subtlety enhance that arc by creating a mood. It’s a combination of lighting and help from the art department and designer, Jeremy Cassells.”
In the episode entitled “House’s Head,” for which director Greg Yaitanes won a Best Director Emmy in 2008, Tattersall had to capture the interior of a bus as it crashed, and then visually reconstruct this interior as the holding place of House’s memory as his body lay unconscious.
“Creating a look is all great fun,” said Tattersall. “I wanted a stylized feeling of lighting, so we could go into the fantasy that kept the movement of light going, as if still traveling on a bus. Moving light was a constant theme in the episode.”
The effect Tattersall, along with the lighting and art department, developed was a fully encompassing blanket of soft white light. The light bathed the interior of the bus and minimizing all colors except those of the actors present. The colors of the characters outfits and skin tones remained vibrant and were not blown out. This year, the episode entitled “Simple Explanation” involved a foundation-shaking plot twist for the series characters. Tattersall wanted the lighting to enhance the somber tone of the episode.
“We did a really radical change,” said Tattersall. “We brought it way down. I used smoke in the hospital and very contrasting lighting to create a really somber mood, and drained the world of color. It was more a photographic effect than anything else. These are the scenes that really get my creative juices flowing and make it fun and a challenge. I think this is the stuff that actually keeps you alive as an artist.”
Tattersall has fully enjoyed his work on “House” and the challenges working in television provide.
“It’s a complete and absolutely brutal change initially because it’s very hard to work at that pace and be happy with your work. It’s quite a huge leap for a DP to make from commercials and features,” said Tattersall. “It’s taken me quite a while to adapt. There’s so much more pressure in television. The hours are sort of gruesome, but it seems these days that all the best scripts appear to be in television. There’s always something good to be said about making a change. I’d happily swap the brutal hours we work for the great scripts that we work on. And, the wonderful family that develops on something like a TV show because basically you work together for season after season.”
Tattersall would like to return to features in the future. He’s enjoyed all the films and television he’s worked on, including the series “From the Earth to the Moon” which provided interesting opportunities.
“Astronauts are such very, very special people, and that was a fantastic project to be a part of,” said Tattersall. “It was kind of chilling to be standing on the pad at Cape Kennedy, where Neil Armstrong set off for the moon. Dave Scott was our advisor for the series. He had walked on the moon with Apollo 15, and it was just an absolutely stunning experience and a pleasure to be a part of.”
“One thing I would love to do is sit in a hide for six months and wait for some amazing piece of wildlife to come along. I probably wouldn’t be very good at it because I don’t have the patience, but it strikes me as a really wonderful thing,” said Tattersall of the type of cinematography he would love to try. “Take for instance ‘Planet Earth.’ I mean it’s just so breath-taking. Those are the people I take my hat off to. Of course, you are always fascinated by something completely different from your own field.”
Said Tattersall, “I’ve been very happy with the kind of breaks I have, and I’ve been very lucky. To work on ‘House’ is an absolute honor.”
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