A Conversation with Kenneth Zunder, ASC
Capturing Cultural Touchstones
Exclusive interview conducted by Johnny Lee Solis
Since earning my first cinematographer credit on the television series thirtysomething, I have worked on many features, television movies, and series such as Brooklyn Bridge, seaQuest, Chicago Hope, Lois and Clark, Judging Amy, The Starter Wife, The Closer and Major Crimes. I have also sampled runaway catering on two series and several features in rebate states across the country and Canada. I worked my way up through the camera ranks on such varied television projects as Wonder Woman and Lou Grant, and such theatricals as Rocky and Rain Man. Along the way, I was honored to receive six ASC and Primetime Emmy nominations. I credit my studies in Art History and my experience in documentary films with helping to shape my cinematography style. I have had the privilege of serving two terms as Cinematography Governor of the Television Academy. I am also a member of the Directors Guild of America, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and The American Society of Cinematographers where I served as an alternate on the Board of Governors. I am currently an Adjuct Professor of Cinematography at University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and love making woodworking projects with the Grandkids.
You are the cinematographer of iconic television series spanning over three decades, television shows that helped reflect and shape society in each era. Looking back at a groundbreaking ’80s series like THIRTYSOMETHING and a slick modern crime set like THE CLOSER, did fashion, music and production teams influence your cinematography? When collaborating with a director, how do you like to discuss aesthetics and styling cues of a specific project? Can you discuss certain looks you were striving for? How has your visual style changed or stayed the same?
Kenneth Zunder, ASC: I moved up to Director of Photography on thirtysomething, which was a unique groundbreaking show at the time. The producers, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, didn’t want it to look like your typical television show. It started with the directors they hired: Most had experience in Theater, Independent Feature Films, Commercials or were writers and actors. It was an extremely collaborative effort in deciding how to tell the story in a non-conventional visual way.
That style was evidenced in the staging and the lighting. We didn’t subscribe to the standard blocking of the day. There was no preconceived notion of a master and coverage. We did an unusual, for the time, amount of “oners”. The actors were free to move about as their characters saw fit.
The director and I would, then, determine what part of the action was “telling the story” and figure out how to present that to the audience. It wasn’t important that the person talking always be in frame. Who did we want the audience to see at any given time, and how did we want the audience to feel about the characters and the scene?
The lighting was very naturalistic. We abandoned the notion of backlights for interiors and went with large single soft directional sources. This was quite a departure at the time. I remember getting in trouble with one of the actresses at the time, when I mentioned in an article that we didn’t want our actresses to look glamorous.
The goal of the camerawork was to always reflect the intent of the scene. We were trying to tell the story in camera as much as possible. It was an ensemble show in which actors flowed in and out of each other’s shots captured by a constantly moving camera. We did 7 to 8 pages a day but often, because of our oners, only needed maybe 15 setups. Our oners involved complicated choreography that required rehearsals and often took 5 to 10 takes to get the acting and the camera just right and give the editors a choice of takes in post. We shot on film and had maybe 30 to 40 minutes of dailies.
Do you specifically look for projects with ensemble casts? Is that something you particularly enjoy? Are there any challenges with a large cast?
Kenneth Zunder, ASC: Today we shoot digitally and maybe have 4 hours of dailies. A show like THE CLOSER/MAJOR CRIMES, was an ensemble show that had a very fast paced editorial feel. The average shot lasted 2.1 seconds on screen. We often did multiple masters and a variety of coverage from many angles on scenes that often had 6 to 9 principals with dialogue. The cameras were very active, following dialogue from actor to actor, panning off for a reaction and “tagging” actions and objects that helped tell the story. Whereas thirtysomething was a single camera show, THE CLOSER almost always had 2 to 3 cameras covering the action and the actors. Instead of 15 setups a day, we had 15 setups per scene resulting in 60 or so setups a day. Each take was often different in that the cameras were often picking out different elements of the story. Because each take from each camera was different, there was always something worth printing resulting in the 4 plus hours of dailies.
Could you talk about the differences in your workflow when you’re shooting features versus episodic television?
Kenneth Zunder, ASC: What is the writer trying to convey, and what is the director’s take on presenting it to the audience? Once I get a picture of the forest, I can start picking out the trees. I like to get a feel for the director’s aesthetic so I can present them with choices, all of which I think they’ll like, all of which work for the story, all of which I think are appropriate for the show, and all of which are doable in terms of making our day. While the director is the one making the decisions, I am also mindful of the fact that I’m working for the producers as well.
If you could share your advice and insights for student filmmakers around the world, what are three important things that you would share?
Kenneth Zunder, ASC: My biggest recommendation for students, is to think like you’re shooting film while being bold because you’re shooting digitally. What I mean by that is in the days of film, we were always told “a dollar a foot”. Film is expensive. The more prep time you spend with the director, the more time you have on set to refine your choices. Think before you turn the camera on. Make sure you are shooting what you want. Is the camera exactly where you want it? Is the quality and placement of the lights giving the right mood and feel? Do the crew members need a rehearsal? Are make-up, hair, and wardrobe ready? Are there any microphone shadows in the shot? There is a long list of elements that result in a great take. You don’t want the actor to give a terrific performance that won’t make it into the show, because of a technical or aesthetic reason that could have been avoided with a little more prep and careful planning.
High quality digital monitors let the DP take chances and see if they’re on the right track. In the days of film, I used to think I did my best work when I lost sleep because I didn’t know till dailies if I made the right choice. Now, in the days of WYSIWYG, you can try things and sleep well at night. Be bold. Take a chance. It’s OK to have a point of view.
Another piece of advice for students is, don’t think about making a great movie, think about having a great career. It’s possible to do great work, but to have a great career, people need to want to work with you. It’s about character, relationships and communication. Be respectful of everyone’s job, and you’ll be amazed at how much better it makes yours.
Exclusive interview conducted by Johnny Lee Solis; NJ/NY based musician, composer and writer.