What makes The Sopranos look so different from other television shows? Director of Photography Alik Sakharov, ASC offers a scene-by-scene view.
As The Sopranos' original director of photography (he now alternates episodes with Phil Abraham) Alik Sakharov says the show's signature look can be traced directly back to series creator David Chase. "David wanted a look that would have its own two feet," he says. "From the pilot, we would sit down with the whole script and break the scenes down into shots. That's what you do with feature films. But the approach was very different for television."
"We talked about lenses, about lighting, the choreography, about the moving and the not-moving as we approached different scenes," Sakharov says.
"We talked how to define moods and styles of scenes. That's why it's very important to maintain the texture of Northern New Jersey. The light is different here, the way the sun travels is different and the spatial relationship. Driving down the Pulaski Skyway, with all of the things going by, you couldn't get those things shooting on the West Coast."
"When I first read the pilot, it felt like a lot of the style of the show was already partially built into it," Sakharov says. "David's writing is very tight; if you open the pilot script on any page, the scene direction is poetry. There's a scene where a guy drops his coffee. It's a visual joke, but it's right there in the script, on page 7. It's hilarious. So how you're going to photograph it is decided in the writing stage."
"We all talked a lot about Melfi's scenes and about how her office would be defined. Ed Pisoni who was our Production Designer came up with the idea of a circular space," Sakharov says. "An office with no corners has psychological value." "Originally, we were going to do a lot of moving with the camera, but we realized it would distract the viewer. The words of the therapy sessions are very important, and very, very precise. We realized that we had to park the camera and let the actors do their thing."
A hallmark of The Sopranos style is the naturalistic lighting. "We create the mood not by lighting the character, but lighting the environment," Sakharov says. "It's very feature film-like. The car arrives in one shot. Chris goes in and out of the light, and is lit by the freezer. It creates energy in the show. On this show, you don't have a director saying, "Hey, are we going to see their eyes? We have to know who this is.' We know who the fuck this is!"
"Sometimes, minimalism is important," Sakharov says. "I remember we talked a lot about a scene in the pilot where Tony picks up his newspaper. For TV, you'd usually shoot Tony from behind, get a shot of his back, shot of the front, shot of the paper, cover the shit out of it. But David has developed a visual sense that requires fewer shots. We just covered the whole thing in one shot with a Steadycam. And it works."
"Every single shot in the show, we discussed. That's the level of detail David likes," Sakharov says. "When Tony passes out next to his barbeque, we wanted a birds eye view. Up high, it humanizes. Here's this mafia boss and he's just a human being. When you shoot from below, it makes people look more powerful."
"What's really important is retaining the discipline, that less is more, visually," Sakharov says. "The shot of Tony going into the phone booth in "College" is a very subtle shot, very mature. There's very little information in the shot; key information is revealed when you need to see it. He comes into the light, and that's all you need to see."
"It's very intriguing as a viewer when you have to concentrate to see what's going on in a character's eyes," Sakharov says. "When Tony is talking about paying fake claims, you see virtually nothing of his eyes. And then, he steps back in."
"This is a classic 'Sopranos' look. Christopher's in a nightclub, but lit from the back. You can see the architecture of his face, but it makes you lean in toward the TV," Sakharov says. "They're talking very explicitly about how displeased they are with Tony. If you light them too brightly, it's too explicit. We do this a lot in the Bada Bing backroom. If you hear it, you don't have to show it."
"David likes very dramatic lighting," Sakharov says. "So a lot of the scenes are really painterly. Darkness intensifies the drama, and gives much more texture."
"Sometimes you intentionally theatricalize something, but at the same time, it's real," Sakharov says. "It's very dynamic; you have the information here. But you know these characters. You could go nuts trying to light their faces."
"I like this scene. If it were a traditional hospital scene, it would be all overlit. So we talked about it, and decided to create our own reality."
"For this shot, we put a light up a pole and brought in a water truck to wet the streets," Sakharov says." Sometimes we photograph in silhouette or really, really dark close-ups. Sometimes we do really bold things."
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