Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
To PBS Hollywood Presents
Old Settler
HomeGlossaryFeedbackSite Map
TimelineIn-Depth InterviewsKey ScenesProduction RolesAbout the Show

John Simmons: The Director of Photography In-Depth

Back to Director of Photography Overview

Working With the Director

Setting Up the Shots

John Simmons 
"I usually do storyboards, but in this show we didn't. We jumped right in because Debbie knows what she wants. She can express it. She understands the technology and she understands how to tell a story. She knows lenses. She can call out a lens size in millimeters. A lot of directors have problems getting on the other side of a stage line, jumping to the other side of the room during the scene. She has absolutely no problem with that."

"Debbie has a real visual sense. And since we've been working together for almost twenty years it's pretty easy for us to get on the same page."

"In this case, the play is very different from a film. You don't visually see what's happening. And once we got the film script in our hands, even then it was quite wordy. But even though I didn't see it on the page, I knew she knew what she wanted."

"Debbie is also a choreographer, so she makes the camera do a lot of things that you don't expect a director to ask for. So we do very long masters [in this case, with the camera on a dolly], and then we go back and clean them up, [shooting additional coverage to provide editing options].

On a 4 x 8 piece of plywood the dolly that the camera's on might take twelve different positions [during the dolly move].

Which means sometimes we're moving the camera three inches, sometimes we're moving three feet. We can show the entire room on one 4 x 8 piece of wood!"


Debbie Allen and John Simmons
Debbie Allen and John Simmons discuss the Savoy Ballroom scene


The camera crew
The camera crew rehearses a 'dolly shot'



The Look

Creating a Mood

John Simmons 
"The whole feeling of warmth I can't take responsibility for. That's something Gordon Willis started when he made The Godfather and made everything sort of amber and warm. That set the tone for every period picture from then on. That's what people expect when you say period now."

"Debbie and I discussed dramatic tone and mood.

What's wonderful about the approach she takes is we wanted not only a period look but a period feel like the '50s where the camera doesn't cut.

People walk into their close-ups. So we do a lot of coverage without the cut."


Living room set
The living room set shows the warm tones of a period piece

Capturing the Period

Set props
1940's props add convincing detail

John Simmons 
"Harlem in the '40s is a period that I'm familiar with. I've done a number of period films. I didn't have to do any research because I love the photographs of the period.

I like looking at the '40s, the clothes people wear and things like that.

I have lots of books with pictures in them from that time, and I've watched a lot of stock footage."




The Job of Lighting

Leading the Lighting Crew

John Simmons 
"The essential people that work close to me in order to get my job done are my gaffer, Edwin Schiernecker, who's in charge of the lighting.

I basically describe to him what it is I'm looking for. He brings the elements in and we paint the picture.

On this show, a man named Dave Terry is my key grip. He's in charge of the shadow and all the rigging. So I have Edwin who brings in the light, Dave who brings in the shadows. Edwin takes care of all the electrical stuff, Dave takes care of all the rigging, all the flags. Jim Bandy works the dimmer board. He takes care of the intensity of the light, working closely with Edwin."


Gaffer Edwin Schiernecker
Gaffer Edwin Schiernecker examines the lighting he created for the Savoy Ballroom scene


Lighting the Scene

Debbie Allen by a window
The DP and gaffer use light to make a scene from The Old Settler look like a painting


John Simmons 
"I have a gaffer, Edwin Schiernecker, who I've been working with for a very long time.

Edwin and I can get on the same page rather quickly because we both like paintings.

I can say a painter's name and because we've spent late nights looking at different artists we can basically say we want this restaurant to feel like Caravaggio or we want the kitchen to be like Vermeer in the morning. Or okay, it's late afternoon, let's make this feel like Hopper and make the shadows very definite."


Chopping the Light Up

John Simmons 
"[A big part of the job is] 'chopping' the light up. Once we put the light in we chop the light away.

Because the name of the game is to put the light where you want people to see and put the shadow where you don't want them to see.

And those two things together create the mood of the picture."


Gaffer's crew positions a light
A member of the gaffer's crew positions a light with a cloth 'flag'in front of it


The Dimmer Board

Jim Bandy
Jim Bandy works the dimmer board


John Simmons 
"We have everything on a dimmer board because being on this schedule we don't have time to re-light anything. We do all our lighting plots in pre-production, and for the most part we try to do as much lighting as we can in advance during the rehearsal. And situations that we can't anticipate we have to light as the situation arises. If we do close-ups we have to tweak them and make them look nice.

The guy in charge of the dimmer board can turn those lights off and on as we need them or bring them down, or change a window from daytime to nighttime."



High-Definition Video

The Advantages of Using High-Definition

John Simmons 
"We decided to do this show in High-Definition because it was something that the studio wanted to try. It was something both Debbie and I wanted to try.

I shoot mostly in film and I love film, but High-Definition is a wonderful medium for interiors.

We had a couple of nice Panavision lenses on this picture that made the High-Definition look like something other than tape. It was beautiful."


Video Monitor
A technician monitors the output from the High-Definition video equipment


The Downsides to Using High-Definition

John Simmons 
"Outside it's a bit of a struggle to make High-Definition work. Contrast becomes a problem. You're dealing with videotape, which doesn't have the latitude of film. As long as we were off bright stuff, it worked very well. Inside, because they live in an apartment and the window is very important, we would always have to ride the dimmers on the lights from the window and raise the lights in the room to bring them into an acceptable range for the camera."

"When working in High-Definition or any electronic medium, being able to decrease the amount of depth of field helps a lot with the look. So we shot everything wide open and I put everything on the longest possible lens that I could.

The problem of working in the confined space we had is always trying to put the camera back far enough so that I could compress the background against the subject enough to lose that depth of field that video wants to give me.

That was an issue in terms of creating a look."

"Another thing that bothers me about High-Definition is all the cables that are connected to the camera. I can't move around as much as I want to. There's a lot of technology that delays the situation. Everything is being fixed all day long. But I think a lot of it has to do with people not being that familiar with the medium. It's the kind of medium that people are still working bugs out of. And there is no state of the art in video. As soon as you learn one electronic medium something else comes up, so it never gets a chance to truly arrive."



The Shoot

Preparing to Shoot

John Simmons 
"Rehearsals are very important for camera and lighting. During rehearsals, stand-ins are good but we can only make the picture look right when we get the real talent in the frame.

The talent has make-up and wardrobe, the stand-ins don't.

One day, for instance, Debbie has a yellow dress on and the stand-in comes to work in a black dress. So we just threw a yellow sweater around her shoulders."


Play Video - 56kPlay Video - 220k

John Simmons

John Simmons talks about rehearsing with the camera


Taking Advantage of Shadows

Livingroom set
John Simmons was not afraid to leave shadows on The Old Settler apartment set


John Simmons 
"A lot of the photography is determined by the geography. There are only so many places that someone can go. And it's amazing how Debbie is able to work all the geography into her story. We show the entire apartment all the time. We're always pretty much lighting 180 degrees because that dolly is going to go all over that apartment.

Fortunately for us, the light comes from one direction and I'm not afraid to let people go into the shadows. I like that. If they go into the shadows for a minute it's nice, that's what happens."


Coordinating the Camera Crew

John Simmons 
"Besides my lighting crew, the other people essential to me are my camera crew.

Michelle Crenshaw, whom I've done a number of pictures with and who I love working with is my focus puller. She makes sure that all the cameras are running all the time, that they are sharp and that the picture is always in focus. Michelle has her second assistant that helps her keep all that technology going. Gordon works at the color correction and records everything."


Camera Crew
Camera assistant Michelle Crenshaw


Working With the Jimmy Jib

Jimmy Jib
The camera on the end of the jimmy jib


John Simmons 
"The camera on the long crane that swooped in and out, that's a jib arm, or jimmy jib. It allows the camera to be operated by monitor as a remote head. It's just a device to replace a crane that requires more than one guy to operate it. It's a one-man machine, and it works quite well with video cameras. It actually allows the camera to be more mobile quickly. We can go up and down very fast. With an operator you can't do that. The other thing is that you can go up very high and go all the way down to the floor with the jib arm. For instance, we used it to bring a certain amount of animation to the pictures that we took outside."


Back to Director of Photography Overview



Home Timeline Interviews Key Scenes Roles About the Show Glossary Feedback Site Map