Deep Fried Interview: Person of Interest cinematographer Manuel Billeter
As cinematographer Manuel Billeter worked his way up through the crew ranks of the camera department as an assistant and then an operator, he tried to absorb something from every Director of Photography he came in contact with.
“With any DP that you work with, you always try to learn something,” Billeter said. “You’re almost like a spy (laughs), watching and trying to figure out what does and doesn’t work. It’s a free lesson in filmmaking.”
Billeter is now putting those lessons to use as one of the Directors of Photography on the CBS show Person of Interest, one of the most watched programs on television. Created by Dark Knight and Memento scribe Jonathan Nolan, the show follows the crime fighting exploits of a team led by a billionaire software genius alongside an ex-CIA op played by James Caviezel. The team uses a complex computer network of surveillance cameras known as “The Machine” to predict potential future crimes and stop them before they occur. The show’s Season 3 finale airs May 13th at 10 p.m. After that you can catch up with re-runs until Season 4 debuts in September.
Billeter talked to Deep Fried Movies about creating the look of Person of Interest, embracing the cinematic heritage of both his Italian and Swiss/German roots and his thoughts on the escalating race for high pixel count.
(Above) Person of Interest stars Michael Emerson (left) and Jim Caviezel (right) in a shot that typifies Billeter’s emphasis on noir-ish darkness on the show.
What was your relationship like with movies growing up?
I grew up in Switzerland, in Zurich, and I (went) to high school there. Then I did all my college and university in Berlin – West Berlin, it was at that time. We didn’t have TV at home so the only way for me to see moving images was either on Super 8 or to go to the movies. And it was going to movies where I learned to care about film as an art form. That’s where I encountered the magical world of film.
What types of movies did you seek out in the theater? Was it American genre movies or European films?
It was mostly European films. One of the first and foremost influences was (Federico) Fellini. My mother is Italian, so she might have been partially responsibility for pushing Italian filmmakers on me. (Laughs.) I was just blown away by the sheer imagination and magic that Fellini conjures up in his films. So I watched mostly Italian films – (Michelangelo) Antonioni, (Bernardo) Bertolucci. My dad was Swiss/German so I was also watching a lot of movies of Wim Wenders. But (as far as) American movies, I will never forget in the mid-80s going to see this movie by Jim Jarmusch called Stranger Than Paradise. And then a movie by another newcomer Spike Lee called She’s Gotta Have It. Those were two movies that deeply influenced my view of cinema and what it can potentially be.
How did you ultimately end up in New York?
(In college in Berlin) I studied mostly film theory, but I always was more interested in actually making movies rather than writing about movies. I didn’t really know that much about the whole process, so I was curious and needed to learn and then I saw that there were some film courses offered at NYU. I had a North American girlfriend at that time and we both wanted to settle down together somewhere and we both decided that New York would be the perfect city to do so. So I came to New York for (my) education. I did a course at NYU and I was encouraged to (continue). So I enrolled in an advanced course at New York Film Academy and that’s basically where I got my hands-on education.
You started your professional career working as a 1st Assistant Camera. When you initially came to New York to study were you always drawn to working with the camera?
I was actually drawn to directing, to making my own short movies. I loved it. But the way both of those New York (educational experiences) were structured was that each student makes a film, but then they help the other students with making their films. So I kind of fell into the role of shooting my fellow students’ short films and I really liked the process of directing the photography. People kept asking me to do it, so I thought this is something that I enjoy and people seem to like (my work) so there must be something to it. And that’s sort of how I fell into the cinematography aspect of filmmaking. After shooting a lot of short films, I put a reel together and I thought I had it (made). And an agent told me that, basically, it would be very, very difficult to make it as a director of photography and he was actually right. It was very difficult. So I started getting calls to assist for DPs that I knew and it turned out that I was good at that as well so for a while I was assisting, pulling focus and just watching other DPs work. I learned quite a bit just being on set, being in the front row. So it wasn’t my intention necessarily to start out as an AC, it was just what was available and what made me able to make a living.
You’ve now shot almost 20 episodes of Person of Interest over the last three years. How would you describe the show’s aesthetic?
The creator of the show (Jonathan Nolan) really comes from a film background. He always stressed the fact that he really wanted the show to look cinematic. He wasn’t interested in an easy and convenient TV look. He really wanted to push the cinematic look as much as possible within the production restrictions that we have on network TV. Another thing that he really liked is darkness. He likes it dark, he likes his blacks, and so do I, so it wasn’t really a stretch at all for me to fulfill his desires because his aesthetic is actually very close to mine. The catchword that I hear all the time is, ‘Make it noir.’
You worked extensively as a camera operator before graduating to the title of network television cinematographer, including operating on two dozen early Person of Interest episodes. Do you ever miss operating? Is it hard to hand that control off to someone else?
I loved operating. It was a great job. You’re right there. You’re the first audience member as the scene unfolds before your eyes. You’re really in the front row. There’s a very physical dimension to operating, almost like dancing with the actors, and you create a unique relationship with them because of your privileged position as an operator. Do I miss operating? I sure do sometimes. The camera operator is really an extension of yourself (as a cinematographer) so you really need to be able to trust them and to know that their aesthetic preferences in terms of movement and composition and timing match yours very closely. So I rely on the operators that work with me and I really have a strong group of collaborators on the show.
The Arri Alexa has been the main camera throughout Person of Interest’s run. What other cameras do you dust off for action scenes and for the surveillance footage generated by the show’s “Machine?””
Sometimes we have something like a C300 or a Black Magic as a crash camera and put it into a crash housing so that you can put it into harm’s way because you wouldn’t want to put an Alexa in harm’s way. We shoot a lot with Go-Pros for the surveillance footage (that represents) The Machine’s point of view. Those are shot with 7D’s or Go-Pros.
(Below) A pair of images generated by Person of Interest’s “Machine,” a look Billeter achieves by employing Go-Pros and Canon 7D DSLRs.
How has your experience with the Alexa been over the course of the show?
The Alexa is just a fantastic camera. I haven’t seen a digital camera yet that comes close to it. It’s a workhorse. I don’t think we’ve ever had a problem with an Alexa in the three years (the show has been on). They just work and they make beautiful images. I think it comes as close to film as any (digital) camera that I’ve seen so far.
What is your lens package like?
We use Angenieux Optimo zooms pretty much all the time, though we do also use Cooke primes. It’s a network TV schedule and with zooms you’re more flexible. With that said, I’d rather use the primes more often, but with the time restraints we have we can’t change (to a different prime) lens with each new set-up and then move the camera closer and so on. Unfortunately, very often we just keep the camera in one place and then zoom in. I’m really not a fan of shooting close-ups on a 200mm lens, but that’s sometimes something you just have to compromise (on) for time reasons. That’s just the reality that we have to deal with.
Are you shooting Raw or ProRes and what were the factors behind that decision?
Bigger files equate to better resolution and more information, however it’s just a question of data management. All these shows that have started to shoot 4K, they basically broke the bank with data management. It’s a big expense and a massive amount of storage that is needed. I’m not sure if this race to higher and higher resolution and bigger and bigger files is going to continue or if it will stop at some point. I don’t think the number of pixels is necessarily what is relevant in creating an image. I think it’s the content of that image – how you light it, how you approach the storytelling – that has much more relevance to me than the number of pixels.
Do you still have to protect for the old television aspect ratio standard of 4:3 or have the networks finally given up the ghost on that?
You still kind of get notes about 4:3, but we’re not protecting the composition for 4:3. We frame for 16:9 and that’s really the bottom line. However, we are strongly encouraged not to frame anything that is absolutely relevant to the show outside of 4:3.
What is your relationship like with your DIT (Digital Imaging Technician) on Person of Interest?
We don’t have a DIT anymore on set. That position was taken away. I enjoyed very much working with a DIT and I definitely weighed in to keep the position alive on our show, but unfortunately it was taken away. Frankly, I miss working and coloring with a DIT on set and bouncing ideas back and forth and playing with the image and grading it to my liking on set immediately, but on the other hand there’s something a little bit liberating about not having that extra tool on set. What happens often with the presence of the DIT is that the DP kind of as a default hides in the tent with the DIT because they have fantastic monitors. (Laughs.) DP’s just love images so they’d rather see them on a fantastic monitor than on a little saltine cracker-sized onboard monitor. The creative process without a DIT focuses more on being there in the field with the director and the writer and that can be a good thing.
Manuel took a few extra minutes to talk about some of the projects he was a part of early in his career.
Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), translator
A friend of mine had a friend who had just been hired to work on the Avid with Alfonso Cuaron in New York on the editing of the film. This was a time where (I was just starting my career) so I asked if they needed an assistant to help them out with postproduction. I was curious to learn a little bit about digital editing because it was a novel concept for me. I had learned how to edit film on Steenbecks. So I asked if there would be room for an assistant, just running errands or whatever. And there was and it was a good fit. I loved the film and they liked me and they liked my work ethic and then one thing led to the next and they needed people also to create subtitles and I could do that because I’m fluent in German and Italian. I ended up working many, many months on the project and I learned a lot just by sitting in the editing room for a long time. One thing that attracted me to the project was that I learned that Emmanuel Lubezki had shot the film and he was definitely one of the cinematographers that I looked up to the most. So it introduced me to postproduction and the whole workflow there and I was again sitting in the front row being able to watch (Lubezki’s) footage. It was really at my disposal. I could watch outtakes and shots that they didn’t use (in the final edit) just to study the cinematography. I was very proud of working on that film and to this day I still am. It’s probably the best feature film I’ve ever worked on.
Stella: Season 1 (2005), 1st Assistant Camera
It was, unfortunately, way too short-lived. We had a blast. Every day was a blast. I was in awe of the stuff that David Wain, Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black came up with. I found their sense of comedy absolutely delightful and crazy and surreal. It was a pleasure to go to work and laugh all day long because you were just surrounded by comic genius.
Tower Heist (2011), B-Cam Operator
I was lucky enough to be introduced to Dante Spinotti (cinematographer of Heat and L.A. Confidential) just when I had changed my union card from camera assistant to camera operator. I was visiting a friend on the set of a movie she was working on in New York and Dante Spinotti was the cinematographer. She introduced me to him and she mentioned, ‘Oh, he’s a camera operator,’ and Spinotti looked at me and said, ‘Maybe if we have a C camera or D camera maybe you can come work.’ And was I ever surprised when maybe three weeks later I got a call from the camera assistant to see if I was available to come in and operate for one day. And it was a fantastic experience. We hit it off very well and every time Dante then came to New York for film projects I always got the call from him to operate. That was a fantastic opportunity to work so close with somebody who I had admired for a long time who was also a nice person. I was very lucky. He’s been a great mentor to me.