Fade to Black
Mar 1, 2003 12:00 PM, Michael Goldman
Thomas Del Ruth, ASC, Cinematographer
A touch of the flu couldn't keep Thomas Del Ruth away from this year's ASC Awards, and not only because his work was nominated by his peers for the eighth time overall. Del Ruth was nominated by the ASC for The West Wing for the fourth straight year — winning in the episodic television category the past two years. (This year, Robert Primes, ASC, captured the episodic award for his work on MDs.) Del Ruth particularly wanted to be at the event because of the evening's tribute to the late Conrad L. Hall, ASC, who captured the feature film award posthumously for The Road to Perdition.
“I shot eight movies as an operator, working for Conrad,” Del Ruth recalls. “Had it not been for my experiences with Conrad, I would not be in this business today. He was the one who opened up my eyes to what could be done with cinematography, as far as storytelling goes, and to the notion that it's okay to buck existing trends. He was a real rebel and innovator.”
Del Ruth apparently learned those lessons well, evolving into a respected creative force behind the look of the critically acclaimed West Wing. Besides his ASC awards in recent years, he has also been nominated for three Emmys — winning twice — for his work on the show. Del Ruth hopes those accomplishments, combined with the accomplishments of other cinematographers on episodic shows CSI, Alias, and dozens of others, are at the very least helping to demonstrate that TV cinematography deserves more respect than it generally gets.
“It's true, the ‘great’ cinematographers are guys who shot feature films over the years, in terms of public perception,” says Del Ruth. “Their work is better known and has a greater following. But in terms of the craft of cinematography, to do the level of work that we are doing today, in the last four or five years, on television, compared to the level of work on feature films, I personally feel there is a parallel in terms of scope and definition and quality and brilliance. Plus, of course, we have to do our work in a tenth of the time, with far less budget than those working on features. In that sense, you could argue that episodic DPs are showing far more creative ability than many of their feature film counterparts these days.”
Del Ruth's work on West Wing certainly reflects that creative ability, along with a level of artistic sophistication that wasn't possible on TV when he started as an assistant cameraman on Peyton Place (1964). He worked as an operator on dozens of feature films and TV shows after that before finally getting his first shot at being an episodic DP in the late 1970s on several episodes of Kate Columbo.
“The big difference from those days is the schedules have increased, and we can be more adventurous,” he says. “We no longer have limits in contrast levels and image quality thanks to faster film stocks and lenses, but really, the basic approach hasn't changed. It's still about imagination — the gift is still about seeing the light. Otherwise, you get nothing but a mechanical image, no matter the era, or what tools you are using.”
Serving as the primary “keeper of the look” on West Wing makes Del Ruth particularly proud.
“Our approach is a romanticized view of the White House,” says Del Ruth. “This is not a police or a spy show. Therefore, we can't travel to the same locations as those shows, or change things around as much as they can. Our focus is on grand ideas about social issues, and the visuals have to represent that with romantic, warm qualities. More stylized lighting setups, more characteristics of higher contrast imagery which differ from the everyday working world of the real White House or the way it is usually represented in TV or film. Lots of yellow to give gold and moody qualities to the images, a little smoke, nets on the cameras, these are all things that largely were developed for the pilot, and we've maintained them ever since.”
And when the West Wing gig ends someday, then what? Del Ruth will pursue his theory of “visual opportunism,” as he always has.
“If something comes along that I find compelling to shoot, I'm going to do it,” he says. “It's all about the material and the freedom I'm given to do what I do.”
Continue the discussion on “Crosstalk” the Millimeter Forum.