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The Drama of "The Good Wife": Fred Murphy Goes In Depth on CBS Series

When Peter Florrick, a former state attorney, is sent to prison following a corruption scandal, Alicia Florrick plays the role of the good wife and returns to work as a litigator to provide for her family in the award-winning CBS television series The Good Wife. With Julianna Margulies in the lead, the show also stars Chris Noth, Christine Baranski and Archie Panjabi.

The series marks its sixth season, and cinematographer Fred Murphy, ASC has been lensing the show since the start. For the first few seasons, Murphy was the sole director of photography, but now alternates with Tim Guinness, who moved up from serving as the show's gaffer. For most of his career, Murphy plied his trade in the feature film world, having shot such movies as Eddie and the Cruisers, Hoosiers, Murder in the First, October Sky, The Mothman Prophecies, Auto Focus and Secret Window. But as of late, he has ventured into television, shooting the series In Treatment and episodes of Fringe. His work on The Good Wife garnered a 2011 Emmy® Award nomination.

Beginning with the show's first season in 2009, Murphy, a New York native, turned to Panavision New York primarily for two reasons—comfort and digital expertise. Panavision has been part of the majority of movies Murphy has filmed throughout his career because of the level of service and equipment. But a network edict to shift to digital capture six years ago cemented Murphy's choice.

“Panavision was one of the digital leaders because the best digital camera at the time was the Genesis,” Murphy says. “Because everyone went digital around the same time, they didn't have enough Genesis cameras.”

Typical of Panavision's commitment to service, the company purchased Sony F35 CineAlta cameras that Murphy used on The Good Wife for three years. After the ARRI Alexa was introduced, the production switched cameras.

“I like the lenses, so it was easy to stay with Panavision,” Murphy says. “I also have a lot of confidence in the people I deal with there, whom I've known ever since I started in the early 1970s.”

Using two Panavised Alexas most of the time, Murphy and Guinness shoot in the 1920x1080 aspect ratio and record in ProRes 444. “We position the cameras side by side usually, because we're lighting from the same direction,” says Murphy. “Sometimes shots are more complicated, and the cameras are moving around and that isn't always possible. Lately, there has been a fair amount of camera movement, both dollies and Steadicam. Once in a blue moon there will be a handheld shot.”

Panavision Primo Zooms—the SLZ 4:1 (17.5mm-75mm) and SLZ 11 (24mm-275mm)—are the predominant lenses. “The Panavision Primo 4:1 has turned out to be a great lens for this show,” Murphy says. “It's not a new lens; it's from the late 1980s. I remember I was one of the first people in New York to use one. It has a great look for digital—a mellowness to it, a sweetness to it, but oddly clear and sharp. It's good with the highlights and shadows, fairly fast at a T2.3, and actually accurate with the apertures.”

To further aid in taking the digital edge off the imagery, Murphy places very light Schneider 1/8 Hollywood Black Magic filters in front of the lenses.

Murphy does use the Primo Zooms much like variable prime lenses for speed and efficiency. The show, with its drama, intrigue and scandal, actually is framed in a “very classic” manner, Murphy points out.

“We are an old-fashioned show in the conservative range of lenses, which provides a slightly elegant look at things,” he says. “There are a lot of 32s, 40s, 50s and 60s. On occasion, we have a super-wide angle and rarely a telephoto over 100mm, unless it is a point-of-view or spy shot.” (Primes such as the 14mm and 17mm are used for those certain wider shots.)

For each episode, shot on stage at Broadway Stages in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn and on location, Murphy has about five days to prep, followed by eight to nine days to shoot the episode, which are usually 12-hour days. With the compressed schedule, typical of television, Murphy counts on Panavision's support.

“If anything happens, Panavision immediately is involved,” he notes. “If something breaks, it immediately is replaced. If I need a special monitor, they buy it for me. They are very knowledgeable in setting up monitors—everything on our set is wired, so we use Panavision's breakout box to see the shot in full HD with a LUT for my monitors.”

Murphy's lighting approach for The Good Wife strives for glamour. “It's a show about women so most of the light is from extremely large sources that are bounced and double diffused,” he explains. “We use mostly Blondes, Redheads and Fay lights. Large hard lights like 10Ks and 20Ks come through windows. In lighting this way, we can move in quickly and do the close-ups without needing to do anything to fix them—we're lighting the environment and the people simultaneously. The main set has a great deal of false overhead fluorescent fixtures that really have tungsten bulbs in them so that color is consistent. We also have a fair amount of homemade trough lights as backlights that are extremely soft.”

Technicolor L.A. tackles postproduction work, with colorist Tim Vincent handling the color grading duties. On occasion, Murphy is able to sit in real-time grading sessions at the Technicolor NY facility, linked to Los Angeles via Technicolor's fiber optic network.

“Most of the color grade is achieved on set with the way it's lit,” Murphy says. “There is a little desaturation, but the dailies look pretty much like the show does.”

For this sixth season, Murphy has pushed the limits of the cameras and lenses a little more. “We had some very dark scenes with very little light, which is unusual for our show,” he reveals … somewhat. “But, I can't give the story away—you'll see!”