Leslie Dektor, inventing a camera inventing a culture

This little essay was written for my new book, Chief Culture Officer, out in the fall.  There is some question about whether it will make the final manuscript and I want to get it on line so that Dektor can get us due and so that film buffs can get their mitts on it.  (Let the debate begin.)

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.

It’s about sight.  It’s about breathing, I don’t ever think about it.  If someone like me thinks about it, it becomes technique.  [Photography is something that works when] it’s just something.  It is [a process of] opening yourself up.  [The camera] is an extension of yourself.  I don’t even think about the camera.  The camera moves.  The camera itself forces you to move a certain way. […]  I never know what I’m going to do in a situation.  I never let people know what I am going to do with a piece.  I want the moment to be the author of the moment, and the actors to be the author of the moment.[v]

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 created a camera that is helping 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

5 thoughts on “Leslie Dektor, inventing a camera inventing a culture

  1. Amy Alkon

    Thank you so much for doing this interview and posting it. I think, more than ever, people feel a need for stuff that’s not overmanicured, but I think the suits running big companies are too nervous to let things be a little messy or to just hire a talented person and let them do their stuff and get out of the way.

  2. the communicatrix

    Leslie is a great director, and one of the more interesting that I’ve worked for/with.

    It’s pretty easy to reduce the “shaky-cam” technique to some kind of lowest common denominator of the ridiculous; plenty of people saw what Dektor was doing and did poor imitations of it, using it as a style rather than a tool, the way he did (or tried to do).

    It may be of interest to note that of all the commercial directors I auditioned for, Dektor had a unique way of interviewing his actors. There were these strange monologues that had nothing to do with the commercial at hand, ever, and of which no one could determine the provenance. I remember seeing one once that looked suspiciously like something I’d read somewhere, but I never got confirmation on that.

    Anyway, the reason his commercials usually had a more realistic texture to them was because of this crazy attention to detail, this willingness to explore new methodologies and an equally strong willingness to stick with what worked. Like the equally famous (if more infamous) Joe Pytka, Dektor tended to work with certain pools of actors over and over, and they were unusual, non-commercial actors for the most part. (I was lucky enough to straddle the line, although not fortunate–or perhaps, good–enough to work enough jobs to own The House that Pytka/Dektor Built.)

    What a great interview to have in the collection, Grant! I love the way you think.

  3. Sean

    I appreciate the comments of Dektor in your interview I feel that the line “dektor over to Sipowitz” clearly demonstrates that his creation has been reduced to a cliche.
    The freedom that the previous poster (communicatrix) speaks to is the freedom to get from A to Z in a way that works best for the vision of the director as he establishes the edges for his actors. A camera technique that is meant to “find a moment” will have a hard time doing so with a cast that is limited in capability or ability to improvise and bring their uniqueness to a scene.
    Basically what I am trying to say is that to focus on a camera movement and state that it is a source of “finding the moment” is short changing the other things that must be present to allow a moment to happen in the first place.
    I respect what Dektor has done and feel that to simply “dektor over to Sipowitz” is really not in the spirit of what he creating. It is about the field that is created on the set that allows everyone involved – including a really good DP and camera operator to be in synch with the moments as they come.
    I still love the post and the points that it raises.
    Thank you

  4. Scott Ellington

    I’d like to make note of a certain similarity between your description of the Leslie Dektor approach to camerawork, and the manner in which David Milch approaches storytelling. In both cases, the creator works without an outline — a predetermined, conventional formula — producing an under-the-gun, in-the-moment shotlist or blueprint for blocking, narrative and dialogue — which very effectively precludes Notes and the suggestions/demands/ultimatums of special interests, like studio and network executives. Dektor and Milch have, if nothing else, proofed themselves (and, more importantly, their respective works) against micromanagement by PTB comittee.

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