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Making TV: Fun With Cars, Bombs And Spies

 

You haven’t seen a car chase or car stunt until you’ve seen Burn Notice, the USA Network spy drama.

By Michael Fickes

making television
Bart Tau (right) with steadicam operator David Kimbelman on the set of USA Network’s Burn Notice.

Have you ever seen a car driven off of the top floor of a parking garage and crash into a store across the street? In one episode of Burn Notice, Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), the “burned” or discredited spy of the show’s title, sends a red convertible over the edge to distract some bad guys. The ploy works, but sends the usually easy-going Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell), a retired Navy SEAL, into a dither because the car belonged not to Westen but to Axe’s girlfriend.

Other cast members include Gabrielle Anwar as Fiona Glenanne, Westen’s “trigger-happy” girlfriend and former IRA bomb maker. Sharon Gless of Cagney and Lacey fame plays Westen’s chain-smoking, shrewder-than-she-looks mother. Coby Bell joined the cast as the fifth regular – Jesse Porter – in season four.

Shot in Miami, Burn Notice moves fast, with crazy schemes, fights, car chases, explosions and intricate plot twists about spies.

Telling the story: voiceover plus cinematography

To keep viewers up with the lightning fast plots, Executive Producer and Writer Matt Nix uses Westen as a voiceover narrator who explains what the devil is going on. The crystal-clear cinematography keyed to the voiceover makes the show riveting.

Bart Tau and Dennis Hall shot the 16 episodes of season five. Tau will return for season six, slated to begin shooting and running in March. (Hall passed away in October 2011.) Tau has grown expert at shooting the car chases and stunts, which, along with numerous large explosions, stand as the series’ signature scenes.

“We have seven days to shoot 70 pages – and only five days on location,” Tau says. “That’s not a lot of time” to shoot a couple of wild car chases and eye-popping explosions, as well as scenes about the relationships between characters important to the program.

Chase scenes and bombs

The chase scenes, car stunts and explosions must be shot fast and right – as well as safely. To keep things moving, Tau’s unit and a second unit camera team work those scenes together.

Each scene begins with the actors getting into the car (or cars), or planting or tossing explosives; next comes a cut and the stunt team replaces the actors. “There is a lot of starting, cutting, and getting into and out of scenes,” Tau chuckles. “Then after the crash or explosion, we cut again, send the actors back in and shoot the aftermath.”

It’s mostly real, too. “The effects are usually done in camera,” Tau says. “When a car blows up, it blows up.”

Among the show’s four Emmy Award nominations (no wins, yet), there is one for Outstanding Stunt Coordination.

Cameras, lights

Tau Hall shoots with the RED camera. He says the show is testing the new RED camera now and considering it for the sixth season. Canon 7D cameras capture point of view footage in harm’s way on the cars and in the explosions.

Lenses for the two-camera show are Angenieux zoom. “The A camera gets wide-angled shots and the B camera does close-up and medium shots,” explains Tau. “If the A camera is shooting 15mm to 40mm, then the B camera will be 28mm to 76mm. When we’re on dollies, we use bigger lenses – 24mm to 290mm, for instance.”

The exterior lighting package includes Miami’s natural light plus ARRI 18K HMI and 12K PAR lamps. The show’s equipment includes a crane, but Tau says he mostly works with dollies.

Characters

Tau works to give each character a unique look. The Michael Westen character is the driven hero, and the goal is to make him look as good as possible. He comes across as always thinking and never emotional.

By contrast, Sam Axe loves Mojitos, Hawaiian shirts and the ladies. Tau shoots Axe with a wider lens, saying he wants to show Axe as “bigger than life.” Sam is emotional, but always cool and competent when the pressure is on.

“Fiona is beautiful,” continues Tau, “and we shoot her more on the longer end of the lens, 85mm, with warm lighting. We want her to be a focal point.” Fiona is also the emotional flip side of Michael, albeit cool and calm in a crisis.

Put them together, along with Michael’s mom and newcomer Jesse, and the small screen literally crashes, burns and then explodes.

 

Correction: The original version of this article stated that Hall would be returning for the next season of Burn Notice. We were unaware at press time that he had passed away in October 2011 while working on the set of another show. We extend our condolences to his family and friends.