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'CSI: Las Vegas' Director of Photography Thomas Camarda Recounts Shooting the Season 2 Finale
August 4, 2023

Written by Pauline Rogers, ICG

It was the last episode of Season 2 of CSI: Vegas, and to leave a lasting impression, Director of Photography Thomas Camarda and his Guild camera team created a complex time-lapse oner. The dark scene is centered on the addicted mother of one of the main characters (Josh Folsom), who is murdered in a slot machine warehouse – the machines are used to smuggle drugs in and out of Vegas. The mother (Lolita Davidovich) is led into the dreary warehouse only to discover a body on the ground and soon realizes she will soon be the next victim. 

“At this moment, we cut away to a wide shot that shows her killer [or killers] enter the warehouse through a set of double doors in the background of the shot,” Camarda explains. “Before revealing the despicable act, the camera starts to dolly away through the length of the dark warehouse, where we transition from night to day. The camera then lands on a large wall of plastic freezer curtain where we see the shadow of the roll-up door rise and the silhouetted arrival of our CSI lead investigator, Maxine Roby. We then travel back into the warehouse, full of crime scene investigators busily searching the location for clues to the murder.”

The location was carefully scouted and planned ahead of time. In the script, written and directed by showrunner Jason Tracey, the camera direction specifically notes that viewers do not see the murder take place. Yet the camera remains in the location where a passage of time happens on camera. “We needed a large space with at least two entrances because the main entrance would be locked off as a hot set,” Camarda adds. “The challenge was creating an in-camera time-lapse effect from night to day while looking out the opening of a large warehouse loading-dock door. We didn’t have the luxury of leaving a camera locked off overnight to create that effect. We had all of three hours to shoot this scene in its entirety.”

The solution was to create a false wall or vestibule that would allow the Guild camera team to hide the lights for the transition effect. Production Designer Vaughan Edwards and Camarda came up with a giant wall of transparent “freezer” curtain, about 15-20 feet in front of the entrance. The cast could be on or near camera, yet also give the crew the space they needed to set the illusion. It also provided an opportunity to create the effect of seeing the shadow of a roll-up door rise and reveal the silhouette of the lead actress as she arrives at the scene. It then fell to Edwards to populate the area with elements that would ground the story. “That was easy,” the designer says. “We added interesting images of roulette wheels, bar stuff, slot machines and poker machines in rows. We even added this Visqueen [polyethylene plastic sheeting] that felt like shrink wrap, where bodies could be rolled up, adding to the danger element.”

Key Grip Michael Catanzarite picks up the story. “My key rigging grip, Kirk Greenberg, and I have achieved these [transition] shots on several occasions – most recently on Lucifer. Good grips embrace the challenge when time and budget allow. As different as all these shots are, they have similarities. You always need a light source, either one light or a group of lights, and the transitional reveal. In this case, the warehouse already had a large interior bay door that was rolled up and down by a pull chain and an operator. We would use the roll-up door as the reveal. The trick is to create a space for lighting and camera – and make it dramatic.”

The main source for the sunrise effect was an 18K HMI stationed outside the warehouse, with several Creamsource Vortex8 units on dimmers used inside the warehouse to complete the illusion. While working at the lab, Chief Lighting Technician Russell Caldwell, who had scouted the location, had his rigging crew prepare. 

“Knowing that we had this transition from night to day, it was important that all of our interior lights be flexible,” Caldwell recalls. “Light levels and color could be changed or tweaked on the fly as we had little time to work it out. In just a few minutes, I had colors and levels chosen for the hanging warehouse lights that looked like regular fluorescent tubes but were four-foot Astera Titan tubes, which are wireless in every sense. 

“Our console programmer had full control,” Caldwell continues. “We had programmable SkyPanels and Vortex lights in key positions that started in the night look with specific colors, then transitioned to day as the dolly traced across the room and the daylight was revealed through the clear vinyl curtain. Built into the lighting cue were three banks of four warehouse overhead lighting fixtures that housed the Astera Titan tubes. At specific times, these were turned off as the camera dollies across the room.” 

Catanzarite says, “We tried the reveal with this setup. But the change from night interior warehouse to sun-streaming-in day interior was not drastic or shocking enough.” So, Catanzarite and Camarda came up with another idea. They built a quick tent that allowed them to control and channel the light from the source to the rolling door. Adding more Vortex8 units to the 18K outside completed the effect. 

“Timing of the physical elements, the light, and the camera movement were so important to selling this illusion,” Camarda reflects. “With careful planning and a good amount of anticipation and experience, we were able to pull it off,” adds A-Camera Operator Jens Piotrowski, SOC. “My close collaborators, Danny Mattson [A-Camera dolly grip] and Simon Jarvis [A-Camera 1st AC], were as helpful and integral as always. We used about 60 to 70 feet of dolly track and leveled it as much as possible to minimize unwanted camera movement. The timing was essential, as Jason was very specific about not seeing the actual murder and hiding the face of the killer. He was going to be revealed later in the episode. 

“Of course, we did a few second-team rehearsals, just to get a feeling for the movement and speed,” Piotrowski adds. “However, we didn’t fully rehearse the second half of the shot. After shooting the first half, we were careful to lock off the camera and dolly. Everything got marked – pan, tilt, boom, and so on – nothing left to chance. Everything worked as planned, and we were able to move on after the first try on the second half of the shot.” 

“Timing was everything,” Camarada concludes. “When you have a crew that has worked together for 13 episodes of a season, you begin to finish each other’s sentences. You always have a bit of doubt in the back of your mind whether you should even try to attempt certain things given the time and resources, but if we didn’t, we would be doing ourselves and the production a disservice. Pulling something like this off requires everyone to be on board with the desired result. It’s a great sense of accomplishment for all involved when we get it right.” 

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