The West Wing documentary special.


Former White House Director of Communications David Gergen is recalling the unforgettable day that President Reagan and his staff woke up at Versailles Palace, had lunch with the Pope and ate dinner with Queen Elizabeth. My problem, however, is lighting his dark suit without pouring too much light on the top of his head.

Henry Kissinger is describing the peace agreement in Vietnam as a high point in his White House service. But how do I get light in both of his eyes without creating distracting glare in his glasses? And what do I do about the moiré pattern on his tie?

Bill Clinton reveals that he is more idealistic about the presidency now than when he took office, Jimmy Carter tells us he did the right thing by not bombing Iran, and Gerald Ford defends his pardon of Nixon as necessary to heal the country after Watergate. But will their respective shots integrate well with our show, despite differences in setting and lighting? And how do I pre-set these interviews, knowing that I will have a bare 30 seconds to adjust each person’s lighting after he sits in?

These challenges were just a fraction of what I encountered as director of photography for the Emmy-winning The West Wing Documentary Special, which NBC aired on April 24, 2002. During 11 shooting days, in five cities around the country, we created a classic look to suit the subject matter and reflect the grandeur of our locations. Our talking-head interviews of Gergen, Kissinger, Ford, Carter, Clinton, and a dozen presidential aides, shot on digital Betacam, would be intercut with the fictional White House world of The West Wing, and we were constantly challenged to match the shadowy, peripatetic look of the show, which is filmed in 35mm by Emmy winner Thomas Del Ruth, ASC.

Our director was Oscar-winning documentarian Bill Couturié, with whom I have collaborated often over the past year. The West Wing shoots most exterior scenes and some interiors in Washington, and we follow suit in our documentary, carefully choosing, lighting and dressing locations to resemble the grandeur of the White House and other D.C. government temples.

Many former White House staffers are on the schedule as we start our shoot. Former president Bill Clinton has agreed in principle to appear on the show, but only if another president agrees. The Bushes will not be on the show, Reagan no longer appears in public, and Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are deciding.

In all, I make two trips to Washington, three to New York, one to Atlanta, and one to Rancho Mirage near Palm Springs, with San Francisco-based producer Anne Sandkuhler and video field engineer Jim Rolin. Bill Couturié, who lives in southern California, joins us at each of these venues, conducts all of the interviews, and completes postproduction in Hollywood. Production coordinator Alexis Ercoli also accompanies us on several of these trips.

Our Washington location is at the headquarters of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a block or two from the White House. We set up in the grand President General's Room, where many presidents, first ladies and world leaders have awaited the start of events in adjacent Constitution Hall, the DAR's gem of a concert venue.

On our first day, we interview Marlin Fitzwater and Dee Dee Myers, press secretaries to Reagan-Bush and Clinton, respectively, and Clinton adviser Paul Begala. We also scout other rooms in the DAR complex and decide to change locations daily.

We had planned to record this show in HDTV, using that medium's cinematic qualities and native widescreen format to help blend our look with that of The West Wing's fictional material. But budget considerations dictate our shooting in the 16x9 aspect ratio with a Sony 790WS camcorder on digital Betacam. Later, we switch to an Ikegami HL388 camera with a separate tape deck, all from Videofax in San Francisco. Both cameras use 15x8mm Canon zooms.

Fitzwater, Myers, and Begala reflect on their White House days, the trappings of Presidential power, the lack of time for a personal life, the respect and affection for their respective bosses, and the thrill of working for causes they believed in. Begala is particularly exciting and articulate in this trio of Washington pros. He remarks at one point that being in the political consulting business with his better-known partner, James Carville, is "kind of like being Dolly Parton's feet."

We wrap out of the President General's Room and wheel all of our video, sound, lighting, grip, and prop gear through the serpentine cellar of the DAR complex, which actually consists of three interconnected buildings. We emerge in the classic old Museum wing, with wide marble staircases, arched hallways, statuary and enormous paintings. Large items need to be carried upstairs, though a tiny, temperamental elevator is available for small loads. It holds an old brass plaque dedicated to Josiah Bartlett, a signer of the Declaration of the Independence and real-life ancestor of The West Wing’s fictional president, played by Martin Sheen.

Truly, our production value mantra is location, location, location. The walls at the DAR document two centuries of the nation and the Daughters' history, and marbled corridors connect dozens of ornate rooms, most named after states, some large, some small and roped-off like museum dioramas. We shoot two interviews in the Connecticut Board Room, now famous as the room where former presidential candidate Bob Dole once filmed a Viagra commercial.

Our subjects are lit with a 1200-watt HMI PAR light in a medium Chimera softbox. The Chimera comes with a variety of front diffusions, baffles, and inner diffusions, and the PAR light has several changeable lenses. The Chimera diffusions warm up the 1200’s daylight color, and we typically add an additional 1/4 CTO gel. This key light provides a flattering, controllable, variable, soft, direct glow on the subject's face, yet it can be moved in a moment.

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.