The Good Wife turns talking lawyers into visual, emotional, suspenseful drama.
By Michael Fickes
Some television shows want you to forget about the camera and focus on the emotional contact among the characters. The Good Wife is a show like that. The quiet camera of the CBS drama, managed by Director of Photography Fred Murphy, ASC, has helped the show garner 30 Emmy nominations over five seasons – including one in 2011 for Outstanding Cinematography For A Single-camera Series.
The Good Wife is a series about characters, with a politician’s wife at the center. Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) stands by her politician husband even when he is disgraced by an affair, accused of a crime, and sent to jail. After his fall, Alicia returns to work as an attorney to take care of her two children, while trying, and mostly succeeding, to remain loyal to her husband – as the good wife of the title.
The cinematography features lawyers “lawyering” by talking. “Lawyers play a mental game, not a physical one,” says Murphy. “For the first five seasons, we have shot their conversations simply, without too much camera movement, often without the people moving. That is the nature of the lawyer business. It is all about the mental game.”
In a change for the current sixth season, the camera will be on the move a bit more. The moves, however, remain simple and quiet. Murphy shoots with an ARRI Alexa with Panavision zoom lenses and Primo prime lenses. He selects something between 60mm and 100mm for close up scenes.
While he does use zooms, he doesn’t zoom across the set. “For close-ups, we move the camera physically closer,” he said.
He doesn’t shoot much with wide-angle lenses. “For a wide shot of a small location, you need a wide-angle lens, but we try to use longer lenses – 25mm is wide-angle for us,” he said.
“We want the lighting to provide soft, polished realism,” Murphy said. “Then we place large sources, such as 12x12s or 8x8s – rarely anything smaller than 6x6 – close to people and bounce the light. Except for effects like the sun coming through the window, we always bounce large light sources to diffuse and soften the light. Most of the scenes are shot on stages set up to do this.”
Murphy refines the big source lights with a little back lighting and a little edge lighting. He has balanced the lighting for all of the sets for a 2.8 F-Stop camera setting. “So you shoot at the same stop – 2.8 at 800 ASA – all the time.
“It can be awkward to set up large sources like this, but once you start shooting, you don’t need to re-light for close-ups,” he said. “The large source crosses the set and bathes everyone in beautiful light. When you go close, you simply adjust the fill ratio.”
“The basic shooting style is modified 1940s movies, which focused on making people look dramatic and beautiful,” Murphy said. “We decided early on to make the show elegant. We want Julianna Margulies [Alicia Florrick] to look elegant. We stay away from wide lenses, and rarely use anything under 50mm if she is close to the camera. And we position the large light sources as close to her as physically possible. We also use a small Schneider filter – very weak, but it helps smooth out the shots.
“She is a wonderful actress,” Murphy continued. “She can invest small gestures with a lot of meaning.”
That is the key to the drama of The Good Wife. Most of the cast has the same kind of talent, the ability to communicate in subtle, understated ways – a phrase, a raised eyebrow, a cold stare – perfectly timed to build the tension and drama. Murphy’s lighting and camera work delivers all of that – the mental game that lawyers play – to the audience. And it is riveting.