Scene Breakdown: Madam Secretary ep. 507

This scene I shot as 2nd unit DP for episode 507 of the CBS series Madam Secretary serves as a decent illustration of what goes into a simple day exterior photographed with available light, so I thought I would walk through it briefly.


The master setup, establishing the scene’s geography, the relationships between characters, and the color palette in one image. On the tech scout our series DP Learan Kahanov noted that the sun rose over the stands in the background so we planned our day to begin looking in that direction to provide a striking edge light and deep shadows to outline our subjects. This was shot at a T4/5.6 on the wider end of a Fujinon 25-300 zoom lens, which was the only lens we were budgeted to carry for the day (times 2, as we had two cameras for the scene), with a filter pack of a Formatt Firecrest True ND 1.8 to control exposure plus a soft-edge grad ND .6 to provide a little “Days of Thunder” feel from the top left corner of the frame. VFX would eventually change the signage above the characters.


Tighter coverage looking the same direction. Same ND, no grad. James is “keyed” by the bounce off the dragstrip he’s standing on from the intense sun over his left shoulder. For the color of the scene, I wanted the skintones to seem healthyish but the overall feel to have a kind of kerosene-polluted warmth; more red/magenta than I would normally go, to be evocative of a racetrack ambience.


For the reverse coverage of Erich, I didn’t want the harsh direct sun on his face if I could help it. For the tighter shots we pulled out the major piece of grip gear for the day: a 12x20 light grid diffusion frame. In the final version I asked the colorist to stretch the highlights a bit on both Erich and the background so the contrast shift wouldn’t feel so extreme when cutting back and forth between James and Erich.

Here’s a little behind-the-scenes shot of what it looked like to fly that 20x:


However, we had a problem in the wider shots of Erich.


One thing I did not know about the front windshield of a stock car is that it is raked backward at a very shallow angle, but we discovered while blocking a dolly move which revealed Blake that it was impossible to both cover Erich with the frame and keep its reflection out of the car. Another thing I learned is that the windows are polycarbonate, which made using our polarizing filter to attenuate the reflection impossible because of the rainbow moire interference patterns created when the filter was introduced. We minimized it as much as possible, but then got lucky to have a thin cloud layer roll in while we still had time to go back and reshoot the wider shot without the frame.


We didn’t get to the coverage of Usuki’s Assistant until that cloud layer had settled in, so in this setup I miss a bright back/edge light I’d otherwise want to be there to match what was established in the master. If this were a main unit scene with the electric truck available I might have asked for the gaffer to recreate that hot backlight, but alas.