Hutton dons disco boots for Newsroom

The hit CBC series The Newsroom brought Toronto director of photography Joan Hutton one of her biggest successes, including a Gemini Award. So it was a no-brainer when show writer/director/actor Ken Finkleman asked her if she wanted to return to lens the long-awaited follow-up, Newsroom: The Movie, a two-hour TV movie picking up where the sardonic dramedy left off.

The hit CBC series The Newsroom brought Toronto director of photography Joan Hutton one of her biggest successes, including a Gemini Award. So it was a no-brainer when show writer/director/actor Ken Finkleman asked her if she wanted to return to lens the long-awaited follow-up, Newsroom: The Movie, a two-hour TV movie picking up where the sardonic dramedy left off.

In comparing the look of the series with the movie, which is three weeks into production at CBC’s Toronto studios, Hutton says, ‘I think we’ve refined all the technical stuff. We figured out a little bit better how to make a drama using documentary techniques. It just seems one step up.’

When The Newsroom first appeared in 1996, it was hailed for its biting insider look at the TV news biz. Its naturalistic style, put across with a loose, handheld camera, was more in the vein of a drama than a sitcom, which typically has a stagy studio-bound look and an intrusive soundtrack. The Newsroom was closest in flavor to The Larry Sanders Show, which debuted in 1992.

Despite the off-the-cuff style of the series and movie, Hutton assures that achieving this ‘naturalism’ requires both planning and spontaneity. Hutton operates the ever-moving camera herself, which she believes is the only way for a DOP on a show such as this to work. Finkleman likes to run his actors all the way through a scene, so it’s up to Hutton to follow the action and figure out framing as she goes. With all that movement within the newsroom environment, Hutton has to ensure the lights don’t get in the way.

‘I have a base light in the newsroom that comes from overhead scoops that look like fluorescent lights,’ she explains. ‘After that, I’ll pop lights into hidden places, depending on where we’re moving.’ She frequently relies on a 12V Kino Flo fixture suspended on a grip arm behind her to provide fill light no matter where the action is. The basic plan is to illuminate as large an area of the floor as possible so the crew does not have to relight with each shift in camera position. She compares this style to that on the groundbreaking crime series Homicide: Life on the Street, which first aired in 1993.

The Newsroom was shot on Digital Betacam with very careful lighting to minimize the video feel. ‘It only looks like available light,’ Hutton says with a laugh. The production then treated the footage with a ‘film look’ in post. The movie, while using Sony 700 Digital Betacam for interiors, incorporates 16mm film footage for exteriors. ‘It just looks much better than tape outside,’ Hutton explains, citing motion picture stock’s contrast and latitude. For these scenes she is using an Aaton camera, her favorite handheld 16mm brand. The stocks she is using are a combination of Kodak Vision 200T 7274 and Vision 320T 7277.

With the actors, especially Finkleman, towering above her, the diminutive Hutton needs a little boost to achieve a proper height between her lens and subject. She has solved this problem with the purchase of trendy Queen Street ‘disco boots’ with five-inch platform soles. She gets an additional three inches from ‘the hump,’ a pre-formed piece of foam placed on her shoulder on which the camera rests.

Longstanding collaboration

Hutton’s collaboration with Finkleman dates back to his 1995 series Married Life and continues to burn bright.

‘We each bring different things to the table,’ Hutton says. ‘He’s got that wonderful comedic sense, he works great with actors and he’s a really good director. And I have a pretty good feel for how things should be shot.’

Continuing to wear numerous hats on Newsroom: The Movie, Finkleman has to put a lot of trust in his DOP.

‘He relies on me to offer things up to him,’ Hutton explains. ‘We’ll block a scene, I’ll shoot it, and then he’ll go to playback and see if he likes what’s happening. Then we’ll talk and maybe readjust a couple of little things and take another run at it. It’s really fun working with someone who will let you experiment.’

Hutton entered the biz around 1975, following training at Humber College and Ryerson Polytechnic, and then worked her way up the camera rung. When she was a camera assistant, she helped form prodco High Road Productions, which pretty much guaranteed she would be DOP on in-house projects, and from there she steadily built a list of credits in high-end docs. She is one of only two female full members of the Canadian Society of Cinematographers, of which she is president, along with a handful of women affiliate and associate members.

In explaining this dearth of female shooters of her stature, Hutton offers, ‘It’s a pretty tough thing to do for anyone, and women started a lot later. When I started, there just weren’t any. When you consider that a lot of the women working today have only come into the industry in the past five or 10 years, it takes time to work up through the ranks.’

The veteran DOP says she currently spends about 10% of her time shooting commercials, with the rest divided between drama and docs. Her work on the acclaimed doc Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows brought her third CSC Award for best documentary, and the CSC recognized her again this year with The Fuji Award for outstanding service to the organization.