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January / 2001

PROFILE: David Frazee csc
Filming the Realism of Vancouver’s Nasty Side

“We’re doing real stories and they are honest stories”

by Don Angus

DAVID FRAZEE CSC was born and raised in Vancouver, but his three seasons as director of photography on the award-winning CBC series Da Vinci’s Inquest have shown him — and us — the seamy side of his hometown.

“One of the interesting challenges which is part of my agenda, and certainly (creator/executive producer) Chris Haddock’s, is to show a side of Vancouver that wouldn’t be seen that often. We are down in the nastiest parts of Vancouver — and there are five or six square blocks that are as nasty as anywhere I’ve been before.

David Frazee csc

“There are a lot of junkies, and the female addicts are turning tricks,” Frazee told CSC News on the sets of Da Vinci’s Inquest in Burnaby. “They’re shooting up right on the streets. We’re in their neighbourhood, which is awkward because you’re moving into their space.

“You also see a lot of hard luck cases. It’s what we’re portraying in the show quite a lot, what the coroner (Dominic Da Vinci, played by Nicholas Campbell) deals with on a regular basis. So the realism of the show is an attempt to be honest about what is going on. Most of the stories are right out of Vancouver, and (recently retired) Chief Coroner Larry Campbell has been a big part of the show.”

The DOP said the idea “right from the beginning” of Da Vinci’s Inquest, winner of the 1999 and 2000 Gemini Awards for Best Dramatic Series, “was to keep it naturalistic — the acting, the cinematography, the whole package. We’re doing real stories and they are honest stories. The characters are portrayed that way and it’s lit that way and shot with a slightly haphazard feel to it.

“I’m using a Porta-Jib. The idea was not to let the camera die, not get into static shots. We move the camera almost all the time. You can run on the dolly, so you can drop in and make overs work all the time. We try not to pin actors to hard marks. Let them have a little bit of freedom, and make corrections with the camera and the dolly.

“We encourage actors to move around quite a bit, which is challenging from a lighting perspective, but certainly something that I think keeps the show alive quite well. We try to make the moves sort of natural and continuous. It’s an idea that Chris and Anne (Wheeler) and I came up with in the beginning.”

The look of the series, captured in Super 16mm, “was certainly a combination of a lot of people — David Fisher, the original designer, Chris Haddock and Anne Wheeler, who was the director of the first three episodes. It was definitely a discussion among all those participants that set up the look of the show.”

This season, which wrapped in November, “we managed to talk the CBC into broadcasting 1.77 and I’m really excited because I’ve been beating that drum for quite awhile. I love watching it in that format. It’s just a nicer frame, it’s a more cinematic frame, you get more room from side to side. That’s been a huge change, and I think the CBC was really brave to take a risk like that.”

‘A lot of fill from below
and a lot of table bounce’

ON DA VINCI’S SET: DOP David Frazee csc relaxes in the detectives’ room, one of the realistic standing sets of Da Vinci’s Inquest in Burnaby. Photo: Don Angus
Frazee said he shoots with a pair of Arri SR3s, Zeiss primes and a Canon zoom, and he sometimes uses a Steadicam. He lights with “a lot of the standard tungsten stuff, but a lot of Kino Flos, too. I use a lot of diffusion and a lot of balance. The Kinos are directional soft lights that are fast to use — and to be fast is something that’s important on a television schedule, especially a Canadian show that has a limited budget.

“We like to spend as much money as possible on locations. We have huge casts as well that soak up a good portion of the dough. So being fast is something that is quite important to the producers. Kinos are really great for being quick to drop in and having a nice soft look. I don’t use too much hard light at all.”

He said he lights with “a lot of fill from below and a lot of table bounce. I like the look of it. I think it’s a natural thing, like sunlight coming in. Another thing is that I try to keep the colours fairly monochromatic. We try to do that with sets as well as with lighting, to keep the chroma down a bit, and I also pull a little bit out in the timing.”

Like most series DOPs, Frazee complains about the lack of time to prep. “Maybe a conversation at lunch . . . solving a couple of problems or fixing a few little things, but it’s not designing or building anything, which is a really satisfying aspect of doing longer-format MOWs or features.” Among his longer-format credits are the acclaimed TV movies Milgaard and The Sheldon Kennedy Story.

“Prep is everything. That’s where you design the whole thing and make it work. I really like to have a bare minimum of three weeks prep for a four-week movie. It sounds like a lot, but I think I save productions quite a bit of time. Being able to go over the project with the director and know what we’re doing from start to finish is so much more gratifying, and the product ends up being quite a bit better.”

Time for post-production on series is not much better, he added. “I don’t even get to go to the timings, which is very vexing. I get to look at a VHS tape and make comments. Hopefully, you trust the timers. You have long conversations with them the first couple of shows, and they’re pretty competent people for the most part and will keep it consistent after that.”

Frazee said he directed an episode of Da Vinci’s Inquest this season and one last year, and he’s looking forward to more directorial challenges when he returns as DOP for a fourth season. Will that possibly be behind the lens of a high-definition video camera?

“Entirely as a result of budgetary constraints, I can certainly imagine us going to 24P. I imagine a good portion of the television shows will. It’s certainly a cleaner image, although I don’t think it’s as responsive as the contrast ratio of film. But there is going to be a lot of pressure from production to be shooting on tape, to be sure.”

After the third season of Da Vinci’s Inquest, Frazee went to work as DOP and operator on the independent feature Show and Tell for director Anne Wheeler (Bye Bye Blues) which wraps in North Vancouver this month. Starring Wendy Crewson, “it’s an interesting romantic comedy which I haven’t done before.”


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