Above photo: Kerry Washington and Elyse Mirto on SCANDEL – “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” – Olivia is feeling more and more frustrated as she takes on “First Lady” type responsibilities at the White House. Meanwhile, Mellie proves just how powerful she can be and Jake and Huck continue the hunt for Rowan on the winter finale. Photo Credit: ABC/Eric McCandless
By Katie Larsen with Steven Fracol, SOC and Jack Messitt, SOC
While the on-screen players range from super spies to presidential mistress, there are two characters that are lesser known to the audience… They are the men behind the cameras: Steve Fracol, SOC and Jack Messitt, SOC. These men are not just proverbial flies on the wall. Their lenses are invisible characters standing in the room with the actors.
Fracol and Messitt are no strangers to hard work. With a combined history of over 40 years on set, both SOC members have the experience to show for it: Fracol (Green Lantern, Sons of Anarchy, My Boys), and Messitt (Bones, Extant, American Idol).
On a show known for its fast-paced style, the mile-a-minute dialogue is mirrored by quick moving camera work. Fracol and Messitt have become quite the dance partners with their acting counterparts in front of the camera.
And to stay in step with the actors, their cameras are always moving. More than that, both operators are given a lot of freedom with the lens. Always zooming in or widening out within the shot, these men shine with their ability to find the moments within each scene that tell the story.
FREEDOM TO SHOOT
“I always encourage them to tell stories with the lens, even if it means breaking away from what we may have initially planned,” says Tom Verica, Scandal’s executive producer and producing director. “Initially, I try to communicate what I want emotionally, without getting too specific. If I have a shot in mind. I’ll ask for that, but I want to set them free to interpret and tell the story of what they are seeing. They are so dialed into the style and characters, they are able to capture those unrehearsed moments that can really make a scene. And they often get a lot more than I anticipated.”
“If the camera is set up in a medium shot,” describes Messitt, “and I see a teardrop coming or hands brushing up against each other…I am free to go down there and catch that. It might blow the intended shot, but we are finding those genuine and spur-of-the-moment visuals that really tell the story. From the top down, Steve and I are encouraged to go for it. Sometimes it works great and sometimes it doesn’t. But no one is afraid of a second take.”
THE LOOK AND FEEL
The look of Scandal is guided by two influential directors of photography: Oliver Bokelberg, ASC and Daryn Okada, ASC. They give the two operators the chance to compose their shots under certain parameters while giving them the freedom to challenge the frames. Every shot is a little different take to take. With the unique freedom to go for the subtle moments, they constantly push the envelope on how to tell the story visually.
Director of photography, Oliver Bokelberg talks about how great it is to have these two men maintain the style. “On Scandal the camera is always moving. Mostly lateral dollies. Looking in on situations. Often times we are cross shooting. I am fortunate to have such great operators, with a keen sense of composition and storytelling. I encourage them to not repeat themselves on subsequent takes, but to keep it fresh. Listen to the dialogue, pan with the story. Show me what they are interested in at the moment. That’s what the audience wants to see, not my preconceived notions. And Steve and Jack are right on with their instincts.”
WORKING WITH THE DP
“Working with Steve Fracol and Jack Messit for the past months reaffirms the creative contribution of a great camera operator. Their talent is not just in the mechanics of framing a shot but in the attention to watching and listening as the director and cinematographer work through their process and approach to a scene. They bring a focus to the elements of the shot by collaborating with everyone on the crew. I can count on the operators to keep the efforts of everyone moving forward with each set-up to achieve the best work on screen. That’s the incredible value the best camera operators can bring to a production,” adds director of photography, Daryn Okada.
Visual freedom doesn’t come without its set of obstacles. Sometimes the ability to get a great shot is hindered by any of the many possible factors: lights, space and sometimes just the camera’s placement. On top of that, the two work around the hurdle of being co-operators. There is a fine balance between finding two good shots versus two average shots.
“Jack and I really work together to make sure that both of us are getting what we need out of a set-up,” says Fracol. “Neither one of us has a ego about our shots.”
“We have A and B camera labels like any show,” adds Messitt, “but none of us look at it that way. We are all after the same thing, making a good looking show that captures the emotions of the moment. You can’t do that if you’re not working together.”
“It takes the entire camera crew to pull off what we do in every shot,” says Fracol. “Honestly, our dolly grips (Rick Maxey and Gene Rivera) are operating the cameras just as much as Jack and I are—we can only compose what they offer up to us.”
“And with all the off-the-cuff camerawork, I have no idea how our focus pullers do it,” exclaims Messitt. “We constantly put them in absolutely terrible positions: no marks, no pre-planning, and a lens pegged to 290—and they pull it off!”
With little shorthand and more mind reading capabilities than most, Jon Zarkos and Emily Mackley are two of the best focus pullers in the business.
“When I go in to find something,” says Fracol, “they don’t always know what I am doing. They are constantly trying to figure it out on the spot.”
“And sometimes when you’re fishing for a shot,” Messitt adds, “you end up stepping on each other’s toes. Between takes, you hash out your ideas and try again. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but when you find those moments and everything comes together—that’s when what you’re capturing is magic. And we get a lot of that!”
“Our show shoots in both an objective and subjective point of view,” says Verica. “So our operators are really characters in the scene rather than just documenting it. Fracol and Messitt are experts on enhancing and making the scene better than I originally had imagined. They both get in there and get inside the head of the stories they are telling. And when Fracol flies the Steadicam, we hash it out, and I start describing about where the scene will go, and he will always improve upon the scene.”
HOW THEY DO IT
When Verica is directing, and any incoming director, the blocking of the camera is just as important as the blocking for the actors. Whether the actors are turning, spinning or crossing a room, the camera is probably
doing the equal and opposite reaction. The working relationship between actors, director and cameramen allows for the constant building of moving parts within each shot and ultimately each scene.
“The show is very stylistic,” says Messitt. “An empty frame rarely makes the final cut, so everything is done to make sure we have something to look at, something visually interesting.”
As operators, Fracol and Messitt are always looking for visual foreground elements. To help get foreground to the varying lens heights, the grips devised a shelf dubbed the “Messitt Board” to fill with props to fill the frame.
“On-set dresser, Steve Lauritzen, and I combed the prop warehouse for interesting things to shoot through,” says Messitt. “Glass with bevels or edges seems to work best, especially for the close-ups. They add some real texture to the shot.”
But they do not stop at using just objects… The AD team works with the operators to get the background to duck and weave through the frames. The operators have mastered the choreography needed to blend the background actors seamlessly within each scene.
PACE OF THE SHOW
With rapid-fire dialogue and constant action, the pacing of the show relies on the camera movement. Fast-talking, fast-walking, fast movement.
“The pace of the show is essential,” says Verica. “When we have guest cameramen on our double-up days, the shorthand tends to lack. I always appreciate having Fracol and Messitt around. They can ratchet from 100 down to 20. It’s important when there is a more emotional scene, and there is a need for them to move at a different pace. That is a trick to our show. We play things at such variable speeds. There’s an essential need for them to be tapped into the characters and the scene that we are shooting.”
Verica is a director/producer that welcomes input and feedback. With the encouragement of collaboration, there is a unique opportunity for real teamwork.
“No scene is considered a single vision,” explains Verica. “The collaboration of everyone involved is crucial to keeping the show fresh and new. If every single set up is an A to B to C day in and day out, people tend to get into a rut. On a show that runs nine months out of the year, it’s important to keep people engaged and excited to come to work every day. When people feel like they are part of making the show, it appears on the screen.”
ON THE DIRECTORS
Like many, if not all network shows, a selection of incoming directors takes over the helm of the ship every nine days. They are steering in a new direction on the same boat. The variation of fresh eyes and new storytellers in the fold opens up new ideas to come to fruition on the screen. The new directors carry the expectation that they will bring their past experiences and new elements to the table. Elements and ideas that Scandal hasn’t approached yet.
“What is scary is when the new kid at school doesn’t want to get on the bull and ride,” says Verica. “It puts a lot of pressure on our DPs and operators who are the front line for the look of the show. With new directors, I try to stress that communication is key. If they share with the operators what they want from the scene, they will get it for them. They will also make sure to keep it within the style of the show.”
“With new incoming directors,” adds Fracol, “you can’t figure them out in one episode. When they come back, a second or third time is when you really start to get their vision as a director.”
“When we have a director that hasn’t been here before, it can be a tough transition,” Messitt agrees. “When they want something that is out of the scope of what we do, we do our best to give them what they are asking for and put it within the context of our show. We try to find a happy compromise. The goal of any incoming director is to put their fingerprints on the show while fitting within an already existing world and look.”
ENJOYING THE PROCESS
The on-screen drama can often take on grave, dark themes, but the shooting crew does its best to strike a balance and keep things light. While they all take their work very seriously, they try to have a good time doing it. When Verica is not directing, he makes sure to get to the set as a supportive producer.
“The feeling of being too serious each day detracts from the creativity,” says Verica. “With the hours and speed, there is a tendency for people to get bogged down or stressed with the demands of a show. I feel if you’re not having fun, you don’t make as good of a product. The best thing about these guys is they like to have fun. They are easy going and that doesn’t just help me on a day to day basis, it helps remind everyone that we have to love what we do and enjoy coming to work each day. While the show we make is serious, intense and dramatic, it doesn’t draw away from the fact we still like to have fun.”
“Something that keeps people coming back season after season is being able to come to work and have fun,” says Fracol. “There is a strong feeling of family within the Scandal crew.”
“I love this crew,” says Messitt. “I worked on the first few episodes of the first season before returning to the show in the third. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel lucky to be with such great people.”
The camera crew is made up of 2nd ACs, Tony Schultz and Gayle Hilary, utility, George Montejano and DIT, Andy Lemon.
“We have the best crew, by far the best I have ever worked with,” says Fracol. “I could be working with a lot of people I didn’t like, but it’s a lot more fun to come to work, laugh and have fun with the same individual’s day after day. Television, in general, is a tough thing to do month after month with the same people. Scandal like most shows has long days and a lot to get accomplished each day on a tight, but constantly changing schedule.”
Fracol has been nominated twice as SOC Camera Operator of the Year for his work on Scandal.
“He’s in great company,” says Verica. “The nominees he’s up against are great. It’s a tough competitive place to be. For me as a director, I will have to strive hard to come up with more complicated, unique shots for him.”
Fracol never shies away from the tough shots, which due to a difficult schedule always seem to land the first thing in the morning, or Friday night at midnight on the last scene of the evening. The scene is scripted to happen in an office. But as rehearsal moves forward, it’s clear that the scene looks and feels stagnant.
After some discussion, Verica gives a knowing smile and, without asking, Fracol heads to his Steadicam. The scene is going from something that seemed a little boring to having a life. The movement makes all the difference and the scene is changed for the better. And that change has so much to do with the fact that both of these guys understand the stories and characters.
“Fracol and Messitt are two guys who like to come to work every day,” says Verica. “The Scandal crew is lucky to have them behind the cameras day in and day out. These are two operators that not only care about the shot they but also about the characters and stories inside the Scandal world. The two of them allow the audience to be a part of this super secret scandalous world. Their work here is appreciated and supremely valued. Without them behind the lens, Scandal wouldn’t be the success that it is. We are glad they are here!”