A Warm Winter Evening with Serge Ladouceur
In December of 2008, we made our first set visit to (finally!) interview Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles. As soon as we arrived, though, we were welcomed with open arms by everyone in this tight-knit crew. And we do mean everyone – PA’s, lighting crew, the great people in the props and costume departments, Production Designer Jerry Wanek, and Serge Ladouceur, Director of Photography, came over to introduce themselves to us. During our twelve hours in fangirl heaven, we were quite overwhelmed with how wonderful everyone was. (And frankly a bit confused considering the strange, arduous and often embarrassing road we’d traveled to get to this point.)
As we waited for Jensen to film his last scene of the day (the scene in “Sex and Violence” in which Dean is driving down yet another dark stretch of road, alone, having a cell phone conversation with Sam) Serge came over to explain what we were about to see. Think Dean was really alone? Not even close. There were about fifteen people clustered around the Impala working lights and other effects. Think he was really driving down a lonely stretch of road? Wrong. The shot was filmed entirely on the sound stage. And the movement of the car? Well, that was the movement of one very strong man with a 2×4 wedged underneath the back bumper, pressing up and down on it to make it look as if it were moving. It was an amazing team effort and smacked of the “magic of Hollywood”. Afterwards, Serge asked if we had any questions.
Ummm . . . Yes!!!
The next time we were back in Vancouver in February of 2009, we sat down with Serge in our hotel bar. (Note to anyone who decides to conduct interviews in bars – bad idea!! We’ll explain why in the next part of the interview.) His remains one of our favorite interviews – the man is gracious and thoughtful and quite generous with his time – especially when you consider that they had been filming all day and we didn’t start the interview until about 10:00 pm. Two hours later we were still chatting. We thought we’d share a few excerpts from our interview with Serge here. As fans, we’re fascinated by how our favorite show gets made – so we thought some of you might be as well.
(Please note – some of what follows is taken from questions previously emailed to Serge which he answered before we sat down with him and provided to us.)
One of our first questions was about the ‘third lead’ of the show, the Winchester brothers’ beloved Impala.
Lynn: John (the great guy in charge of the cars, and the man who provided the “motion” of the Impala in the scene we had watched being filmed in December) was telling us “You should have been there yesterday. We had a cool scene with the Impala!” I guess you put it on a flatbed truck and filmed from the process trailer?
Serge: It’s always interesting around the car! It’s a technical process and it’s always tedious setting the cameras around the car – everything has to be secure. And the monitor is on the truck so we watch that –
Lynn: (interrupting excitedly as she does – often) As you’re driving!
Serge: Yes. Yesterday I had two cameras, so all the operators were on the process trailer operating the cameras. Sometimes we would have mounted cameras, one on each side and one on the hood to cover all the angles. But that’s different from the process you witnessed when you were here [before].
Lynn: I wish I had a photograph of that – to remember it. Because it was so complex and even trying to describe it in words is difficult.
Kathy: I was watching that scene being filmed. When you look at the monitor it’s just Dean and he’s all alone. But then you look up and realize that there are fifteen people there.
Serge: Yes, waving a branch in front of the light, moving the car, spinning the lights or walking past behind [a black scrim]. Maybe next time I’ll try to get the bird’s view. Probably difficult to photograph because all the lights are all on the car.
Kathy: Have you had much interaction with the fans?
Serge: Well, not too much interaction. Over the years I’ve been going to websites where the fans express themselves. I like to go to the sites to keep in tune, keep informed – because it’s for them that we do this. So I like the feedback. . . . [but] I never interact with them.
(Given the touchiness, skittishness, annoyance, or downright deer-in-the-headlights panic fandom often experiences over the obliteration of the fourth wall, we tell him it’s probably a good thing.)
Serge: I found the quality of the sites I read are very good. Sometimes the analysis goes way beyond what you would expect.
Kathy: A fan pointed this out a few days ago – in the episode “Afterschool Special” – the scene where the boys go to burn someone’s bones – it’s the same scene, except flipflopped, from another episode. She said the reason she noticed it was because Dean’s ring was on the wrong hand.
Serge: Wow! Really? You know, when we filmed that episode, we didn’t shoot that, there was nothing in the script about the burning of the bones – there was only the scene we shot where they throw the shovels in the trunk. That was the only thing we did. And when I saw the episode finished I said, “Is this outtakes from something we did earlier?” In the writers room they think sometimes that just throwing the shovel in the trunk would be enough, so then at some point in the editing they think the reverse – there’s a missing link there.
Kathy: Season three — Fans talk about how much brighter it was.
Serge: Actually we started changing the look of the show midway in season two. If you look at season one and the beginning of season two you’ll see the change midway in season two. We were going to stay the course, keep it dark. But that was a wish – well, it was more than a wish — from the network. They wanted it a little brighter. So we went along. We went a little less dark and more colorful. Some of that was justified, but overall I’ve always felt the series was a dark series and should stay dark. I enjoyed doing that season anyway because it was an experiment. The beginning of the fourth season Eric Kripke told me, “So we’re staying dark”.
How difficult do you find it to light such a dark show?
Serge:Creating a dark mood means that I have to evaluate all the time the ratio between light and dark in the shot. The balance between the 2 is the essence. Sometimes all the elements within a scene, set, costumes, contribute to create that dark goal, but sometimes things get a little tricky when you have to deal with set elements that are pale for instance and the script calls for a scary beat or weather conditions that are not ideal. I would call this a challenge.
Do Jared and Jensen have much or any input into the look of the show?
Serge: Jared and Jenson influence the look of the show in a way because they are so good technically that I can have them perform little adjustments in their acting so they would catch for instance that little ray of light that I want them to catch as they step into a dark corner. That helps me a lot to keep the show on the dark side. By being as good as they are they provide me with that extra edge.
Lynn: Sometimes it seems like the network doesn’t have a good read as to the fans of the show . . . but somebody does. Jared and Jensen tend to be lit quite beautifully, almost like they’re works of art.
Serge: Well they’re very handsome guys, you know, and they are easy to light because they can take many kinds of lights. I mean, I can lay lights on them, if I want them to be dark and just have room light or a bit of sidelight – I can do it, you know?
Lynn: Because they have good bone structure or complexion or – what does it?
Serge: It’s the structure of the face, it’s the eyes. Sometimes if you have an actor that the eyes are recessed, you have to light in a certain way because otherwise you create a big shadow on their face. But in a way, sometimes, not that I do that all the time, but I would light them as I would light women.
At this point Kathy worried that she would have to physically restrain Lynn, who took just a bit too much delight in Serge’s response.
Lynn: Yes!!!!! (Remembering herself and sensing Kathy’s warning glare, she gets academic again.) That’s the look of it, and you’re not used to seeing men lit that way.
Serge: It’s not to make a gender separation, but you know there are some lightings that I would not use on a woman that I would use on these guys – harder light, shadow across their face – I would do exactly the same on a woman and it would not look good. But them, they can take most lighting.
Lynn: Sometimes it’s quite dramatic. (Kathy was here quite proud of Lynn for her unwonted understatement). The fans told us to tell you that they appreciate the way you light the boys.
Serge: That’s very nice to hear.
Kathy: Can you tell us what the process is, from script to shooting?
Serge: I get all the versions of the script. [The]one page per scene [version] just to get an idea. Then the outline with some examples of dialogue. Then the writers’ draft and the second writers’ draft and then you have the studio draft which will be followed by the network draft. The studio gets the writers’ draft and they’ll put their two cents in.
Lynn: So might they change something? Like “We could never budget for this, or this is impractical?”
Serge: Yeah. I can’t read everything because it’s too much. Normally I like to read the writers’ draft and the production draft. I like to do that because the intentions are there but sometimes it gets scaled down because the writers have large plans.
Kathy: How long before filming do you get the script? What’s the time frame?
Serge: If we’re talking just about the production draft – I would get that probably on the first or second day of prep [pre-production] which means eight days before we start filming. But I would have gotten the other version of the script. I like to read in advance [so] if there are special things I can do in regards to lighting, I can get ready.
Lynn: And then do you sit down with the director and start conceptualizing? How closely do you work with the director?
Serge: Because I’m shooting every episode, I don’t do the prep. I did the prep for the first episode of the season and the first one after the writer’s strike. . . . . The way I get involved is – I’m aware of the script. Whenever they have something in particular they want to address as far as lighting they come on the set, like they did today, and they ask “What do you think we should do?” At this point I would involve other people like my cameraman, my gaffer, my key grip. On the survey days, for instance, my gaffer and my key grip take off and go on the survey van and they gather all the information and they come back to me and say “Ok, they want to do this and this – what do you want to do? Or they suggest [things to] me. My gaffer is pretty good, we’ve been working four years together, so they know how I like things to be done. So in general, when I get to a location, the lights are in place and if I want to change them, we’re not starting from scratch.
Kathy: What are some of the most challenging things to film?
Serge: Each episode carries its bag of difficulties and challenges. And for me that’s part of the pleasure of filming this series. First we don’t have any standing sets like many television series have, where you just walk in and switch the lights back on and with some tweaking you’re ready to shoot. On Supernatural, we’re in different environments all the time, and some are easier than others.
In Season One, for “Bloody Mary”, we dealt with mirrors and reflections. That alone creates its own set of problems as you want to avoid seeing lights, off sets, camera, etc… Moving shots involving mirrors look easy but they are always complicated to do.
In “Route 666”, for the truck and car chases we had to light about one mile and a half of country road at night without the help of any existing street lights. The electric lay out and the lighting undertaking is still to this day probably the biggest we did on the show. “Shadow” had many tricky lighting situations. Director Kim Manners wanted to film this episode with a “film noir” look in mind. Because the spirits were revealed as and by shadows we wanted the whole episode to reflect this bias. When you work with hard light, the blocking of the action must be very accurate and the actors have to hit their mark very precisely. Soft lighting is more forgiven on actors’ positions.
There are episodes also that, although they’re not as difficult conceptually, the undertaking is huge. “Hollywood Babylon” is one of them. Here you are in a Hollywood sound stage and you have the film in the film. With director Phil Sgriccia we wanted to make a stylistic difference between “Hell Hazer II, The Reckoning” and the story line of the episode. Different and more saturated colors for the motion picture scenes and our down to reality approach for the action with Sam and Dean.
Some of the most challenging things to film are scenes that call for no light. There’s no window, there’s no flashlight, there’s no justification for light, but still you have to show something on the screen. And it’s always for me, since the beginning of the show, those scenes are always a big challenge for me.
In the second season, [another] episode that comes to mind as a difficult one as far as lighting is concerned is “No Exit”, another Kim Manners episode. In this episode the spirit of H.H. Holmes, the first serial killer in the history of the US, lives in an old sewer system below an apartment building. Theoretically, there is no light down there. When our heroes search the place they carry their flashlights so this part is taken care of but when we first introduce the Holmes character, he is shown with his captive women and they should be in total darkness. This is always a photographic challenge, creating darkness for the screen so you believe they are in a chamber where there is no light. In prep we discussed the possibility of using techniques different from standard back and kick lights to convey that idea. I considered the possibility of using infrared film but extensive testing would have been in order but time was lacking to conduct these tests so we settled for conventional cinematography.
Lynn: What about “Family Remains” and the scene where Dean is in an unlit basement?
Serge: We actually filmed [that] with infrared lighting. It was so, so bizarre, that shooting.
(We had heard about some of the trials and tribulations of filming this scene from propmaster Chris Cooper, who we interviewed for Supernatural Magazine. Chris had told us about the difficulties of getting the color of the blood right on the rat. And yes, we are acutely aware how strange that sounds.)
Serge: Right, we had to change the color. When we actually shot that scene – it was only one scene – there were green hues – there was actually no visible light on the set. We had just a work light just to see what we were doing and then when we started filming [we just] had infrared light. The camera would pick up the infrared light, and that’s what you saw. It was a little grainy. There was no light on the set at all. That was really strange. I hope it worked!
Lynn: What about the scene where Sam decapitates Gordon (in “Fresh Blood”)? Before that he can’t see.
Serge: That was another experiment. I’m not completely satisfied with that. The vampiric vision, I think works. On Sam’s side, I’m not totally satisfied with that. We were still trying to get around the concept.
Lynn: All the flashlight shots work fabulously. Is that hard to do?
Serge: We have to plan for that. The only way you would see a shaft of light like that is through smoke. If you don’t put that smoke – “atmo” we call it – it’s the only way to show a beam of light. If you have no atmo, you can’t control it. And that’s another element of the show since season one. We’ve been controlling the smoke on the set to create sometimes a lighting effect or just to supplement… It’s very difficult to control it. We’re always in touch, asking “What do you want to do with smoke?”
Lynn: I never realized how much interaction and coordination it takes between all the different departments.
Serge: Organically, as a crew, we’ve been working for four years now and we’re still there, because we enjoy each other. Also the chemistry between the people is good. Sometimes you do a project, you’re happy to end it after two weeks. . . . I think it’s one of the reasons for the success of the show. It’s the combination of all the creativity of everyone on the set toward the same goal.
Kathy: What about working with greenscreens?
Serge: Visual effects and green screens are an integral part of the deal when you do a series involving spirits and supernatural events. I like doing these shots because they’re of the essence of the show.
[T]echnically these effects require [you] to be right on the technique of green and blue screens, be precise on the balance of light so the key can be done without complication, with minimum so called digital cleaning. Also working with Ivan Hayden, visual effects supervisor, is a pleasure, he is full of imagination and he is not only providing CG elements, he is helping in creating the mood around them as well.
Although we try to make as many in camera effects as possible, there are shots that just cannot be done without a CG intervention. Ivan and I always consult each other regarding upcoming effects. At the time of foreground shooting I will provide the scene with interactive lighting like for instance when a demon is killed and the CG effect incorporates a burst of phenomenal light escaping from his/her body and playing on the other characters. And when the effects are at the temp stage I keep in tune with Ivan for any inputs I might have in relation to the lighting and the mood.
Supernatural is a show that lends itself wonderfully well to filmic analysis, with many layers of text and subtext to be drawn from within each frame.
Serge: This is important and must always be taken into consideration. Images do have a subtext: what the image means before a single word is spoken. On the one hand, something is shown; on the other hand, something is said. Sometimes these two levels of meaning overlap, and sometimes they contradict each other. It’s a kind of semiotic game, and I love being a part of it. Of course, the director is in charge of the game. But these issues must be addressed, otherwise we only shoot what is obvious. Cinematography is not just about lighting. Light helps to create meaning. A good script focuses on an essential conflict. As a cinematographer, I am looking for the essential light that will be the extension of that conflict and that will enable the viewer to experience it.
Henri Alekan (1909-2001), famous French cinematographer who shot Jean Cocteau’s classic Beauty and the Beast and Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire amongst many others once wrote:
L’apparence des choses, des formes, est le fait de la lumière. […] La lumière donne à voir, mais plus encore, elle donne à penser »
The appearance of everything and of all shapes is a fact of light. (…) Light makes us see, but more over, it makes us think.
And Serge certainly made us think. In next week’s blog, we’ll post some more excerpts of our talk with Serge in which we find out about his background and influences, and then ask him to give us a behind the scenes commentary on some fan-favorite screencaps from the show. He shares some surprising answers, from how that dramatic flare around Dean’s head at sunrise happened (you know the one!) to his thoughts on the emotional impact of the ending scene of “A Very Supernatural Christmas”. Stay tuned.