When NYPD Blue launched in 1993, it was praised for the work of Dennis Franz, new kinds of dialogue from Steven Bochco and David Milch, and an ensemble style that built on the innovations of Hill Street Blues. But what made it striking for many people it was the visual style, the camera work.
NYPD Blue had a restless camera engaged in what sometimes seemed like amphetamine photography. The camera would begin at the roof top of an 8 story apartment in neighborhood and scrape downwards to the street, and then sprint horizontally to the station house. Where most shows would "jump" from scene to scene, NYPD Blue liked to careen between them in real time. Indoors, the camera continued to fidget and drift, fixing first on one detail and then another. The NYPD Blue camera might as well have been a kid with ADD. Even when "moored" on an actor, it rocked in place
Some people called it the "shaky-cam." Others called the style "floaty" or "hitchy." And many frankly hated it. "It makes me seasick!" "It gives me vertigo!" Stop the presses. Or at least the camera. It looked like the motion of a handheld camera but it wasn't. The restlessness was induced, manufactured by a fluid head and the camera operator. Gregory Hoblit, the first director of photography, brought it to the show, and it was cultivated there by Mark Tinker.[i]
It turns out the restless camera was the creation of a guy called Leslie Dektor, a South African who has lived in the US since the 1980s. Dektor learned his craft at the knee of his mother, a documentarian. And he honed this craft as a still photographer working in the fashion business. He invented the restless camera while making ads for Levi's and AT&T. The guys on NYPD Blue gave Dektor full credit. When directing the camera, Tinker would say, "dektor over to Sipowitz."[ii]
Dektor's innovation is now a fixture of television. It's used across a range of shows: Homicide, Friday Night Lights, Battlestar Galactica, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, Reno 911!, and The Shield.
I called Leslie Dektor to ask him about his invention.[iii] He was very kind. I got the feeling he was expecting me to fail to grasp most of what he said, and I'm pretty sure I didn't disappoint him. There were a couple of long pauses in the course of the conversation where I could see him staring at the phone as if to say, "where did this guy come from."
Dektor told me that he wasn't trying to create a "technique." He said he was "trying to find the moment. I wanted to get to the moment almost a beat too late. I wanted to give an importance to the moment." The idea is "discovery." Dektor wants the camera to find the moment, to occupy the moment, to "retrieve the moment from its banality."
The trouble with some photography he says is that its "manicured," by which I think he means "premeditated." Indeed, the film camera has many masters: the producer, the director, the director of photography, the camera operator, the editor. Cameras are thoroughly "bossed around."
Dektor gives the camera back its liberty, the better to get accident, spontaneity and the ordinary back into the scene.[iv] Dektor told me his camera work is not about technique.
I especially like Dektor's idea that the camera should come to each scene "a moment too late." Surely, this was a camera incapable of bullying or inquisition. A late camera comes to the scene breathless, eager, as if to say, "wha'd I miss?" This camera is not the boss of anyone. It's ingenuous, alert, ready for anything.
I asked Dektor why the camera rocked in place.
I would let the camera vibrate because I wanted to be prepared to make the next move. It's poised for movement. I wanted frame to be rubbery to prepare myself for the next move. You never wanted it to go rock solid. You wanted to keep the softness, the vibration.
When Fritz Lang went to Hollywood in the 1930s, his style of movie making irritated cast and crew. There was no room for fluidity, improvisation, or adjustment. Lang came to the set with every shot specified down to the tiniest detail. And it had to be shot exactly that way.
Hollywood has moved steadily away from this kind of premeditation and control. Robert Altman was famous for throwing actors together and seeing what would happen. Hollywood learned to love improv and to take advantage of accident. Judd Apatow, Christopher Guest, and Mike Leigh all harvest the gifts of a freeform approach.[vi]
Dektor's camera helped create this culture.
[i] Wolk, Josh. 1999. Victimless Crime. Entertainment Weekly. May 25, 1999. http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,84404,00.html
[ii] Anonymous. n.d. "Through the Lens: The Look of Blue." Disc 4, Side B. NYPD Blue [on DVD]. Season 4. Steven Bocho Productions. 20th Century Fox. This wonderful little documentary appears on the DVD without attribution. I recommend it. There were lots of innovations on the show beyond the restless camera: the use of many light sources, mixing and matching light temperatures, shooting not just from above but below, running the gamut from near darkness to blinding overexposure. Wow. That's my anthropological assessment. Wow.
[iii] Dektor and I talked by phone on December 17, 2008. We talked for about an hour. I thank him and Faith Dektor for giving me the time.
[iv] Just to be completely clear, everything from "Indeed, film cameras…" to the end of this paragraph is my surmise and my language. I hope it captures Dektor's intention, but it may not. Just so you know.
[v] This sounded anthropological to me. That's the objective of the ethnographic interview, to be absolutely attentive to what the respondent is saying, to accept his or her terms, and to respond to them. What you don't want to do is the manhandle the interviewee or "manicure" the interview. I said this to Dektor. There was a long pause. Oh, dear, I thought. Then he said, "that sounds right." Whew.
[vi] "Leigh's distinctive film style—in which the commonplace is often tinged with the extraordinary—has been dubbed "social surrealism," or as Leigh prefers to call it, "heightened realism." He prefers to work without a script, writing the film as he rehearses with his cast, improvising and collaborating together." Simon, Alex. 2008. MIKE LEIGH: THE LORD HIGH EXECUTIONER SPEAKS OUT. The Hollywood Interview. October 30, 2008. http://thehollywoodinterview.blogspot.com/2008/10/mike-leigh-hollywood-interview.html