Nikita, played by Maggie Q is a rogue assassin trying to exact vengeance on the former employees who once controlled her – an organization called Divison. With the help on the inside from Lyndsy Fonseca’s character, Alex, Nikita is making it very clear that she will stop at nothing to expose and destroy their covert operations As the new CW series illustrates the real charisma and presence of Nikita, it was up to David Stockton, the pilot episode’s cinematographer to make it happen along with director Danny Cannon.
It may have been by sheer coincidence that Stockton met Cannon, but working on the last six of seven pilots i(ncluding CSI and Eleventh Hour together) hasn’t. Coming off The Forgotten, Stockton and Cannon teamed up with an amazing crew in Toronto for a thirteen day shoot (one LA day). 1st AD Micheal Viglietta, production designer Doug Kraner and key grip Mark Manchester, to name a few, put together a beautifully crafted and powerful debut episode of Nikita.
Before landing in Los Angeles, Stockton grew up in Greenwich Village in New York. When he was just six years old he found himself watching old 16mm prints his best friend Jonathan’s father would put on. After school, in a 9th street home, they’d sit down and soak in some classics like King Kong, Gone with the Wind and Charlie Chaplinmovies. Stockton ate it up like popcorn. Technically, he was amazed with the idea of movie-making and knew he wanted to do it. Until about the age of 9 Stockton and his friend would run around and play at filmmaking with a broken camera. It was just a box and a lamp, but they didn’t care.
When Stockton got his first Super 8 camera his fascination of putting together films grew. Early influences were movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and cinematographer Gregg Toland of Citizen Kane. “In terms of separation and contrast, Citizen Kane was a real example of how you can tell a story by what you don’t show in a frame than what you do show,” says Stockton. Stockton enjoyed all aspects of filmmaking, but it wasn’t until working as a child actor where he really became in tuned with cinemaphotography. While on set he’d always find himself hanging out with the lighting and camera guys asking questions and jumping on camera in between takes.
While at NYU film school Stockton put together a short film about a man that built a tiny airplane and then shrunk himself to fly it around in his own apartment. When the man in the apartment woke up, he wasn’t sure dreamt his flying fun or not. (Feel free to contact David for a private viewing on VHS.) “It was interesting to me that film is the one art form that incorporates all other art forms. From the acting, wardrobe, stunts, the music and directing, anything people may have done, someone has made a movie about it,” mentions Stockton.
Gear packed and a few hundred dollars in his pocket, Stockton moved to Los Angeles where he met some other creatives and together they began to build spec reels. In ’92, he landed his first agent and was given an opportunity to work alongside Zach Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300). He began traveling the world up, until around 2003, working on various commercials, films and music video projects. He told me it was one of the greatest experiences ever in his life. From extreme weather conditions to the remote locations and language barriers that were overcome, everything Stockton learned helped him to be the humble yet knowledgeable cinematographer he is today.
Stockton loves approaching narrative work and was hungry to transition into new challenges in his career. It was because of a film (Underground) he worked on for free that gave CSI the confidence in Stockton. “I can’t encourage it enough for people to do as many projects as they can. You’ll always meet somebody and if you’re doing it for the love of the process, you’ll definitely gain more skills,” says Stockton. \Working on episode after episode with Cannon, Stockton learned all the tricks and skills needed to propel a narrative story forward. From shooting 8 pages in 12 hours to covering multiple characters or multiple eye-lines and camera movements that progress the story without sacrificing aesthetics. “Sometimes it’s not always about stringing a bunch of pretty pictures together,” says Stockton.
The Nikita pilot was no different. From the opening poolside scene in a majestic Malibu mansion, a ridiculously sexy, diva-esque Nikita saunters her way toward her first kill. A series of eloquent but simplistic shots helped form and set the stage for our main character — beauty meets badass. The one day California shoot was filmed on a Genesis camera with Panavision lenses.
In fact, the whole pilot was shot in HD. The Toronto shooting days were done on the Sony F35. Angenieux lenses were used with the 12:1 lens being one of their staples. “During testing, we were very happy with the results. We used all the same glass while shooting. “The compact PL mount zoom lenses it made it a lot easier to change focal lengths because we didn’t have to rebalance the focal lengths,” explains Stockton.
Since Stockton and Cannon have been working together for such a long time, when they go out on technical scouts, it become like a set of twins finishing each other’s sentences. Stockton generally follows behind Cannon who says a few thoughts and Stockton knows exactly what he is talking about. They’ll talk about lenses, if it’s handheld or not, shutter angles, speed changes. Based on the feeling Cannon wants the story to have, Stockton will offer techniques to help the scene. “Cannon is a very visual and technical savvy director. He’s really good at blocking scenes for photography and is very specific about the coverage he needs. This is great because it allows me to think more about lighting and focus on compositions and nuances of a scene,” says Stockton.
But working together over multiple shows doesn’t just have the benefit of shorthand conversation on set, it allows each other to collaborate and utilize each other’s strengths to make a better show. In a scene near the end of the episode, Nikita interjects a Division plan to kill a high ranking official, General Swafani. She ends up saving his life by kidnapping him out of the hotel. Disoriented in the backseat of a limo, Swafani wants answers to what was going on. Through the limo’s back window, you could see a steam source and the red haze from the brake light. It was this subtle lighting cue that Cannon came up with which showed the audience that even though things were safe now, Nikita wasn’t in park and ready to get out of there at a moment’s notice.
“It’s a perfect example about how a visual director adds a lighting nuance to propel the story forward. One of the things is are really fun in the partnership with the director is to primarily move the narrative forward. I’ll help aid and visually move the story forward but at the same time, we are creating the depth or level of beauty in an image or emotion based on a story point. When a director comes up with something like that, it not only makes the show look better, but me as well,” says Stockton.
To show a contrast between Division and Nikita’s place, they used fluorescent lighting during the Division scenes to give a stark look compared to warm, inviting tones inside of Nikita’s home. “We wanted to create a different texture with the art direction and wardrobe of Division headquarters. The goal was to create a very dark and underground world and the production designer helped us achieve very symmetrical compositions,” says Stockton. As for Nikita’s lair, they wanted an abandoned space but make a romantic one as well. Something eloquent and beautiful to emphasize her character.
During the flashbacks, we learn more about Nikita’s character and why she left Division in the first place. She fell in love with her “cover” which is something not to be tolerated. Instead of going with a look we’ve seen in Saving Private Ryan, Stockton utilized a frame rate change and in post, Cannon finished it off with a defocus pass.
In many of the environments they used practical lighting and tried not to over accentuate a scene. “Instead of setting up something difficult, we aimed for things that were unique and less complicated. You have to learn to pick and choose your battles,” says Stockton. And in terms of color, they looked at the location and if there were any technical issues, they’d discuss either changing the color temperature of the camera or work with what was already there.
“When you can surround yourself with people that are going to make the show better it opens up the room to contribute other ideas. Nikita was one of those sets, mentions Stockton. “The production design and crew were really at a high end and Canon had a very clear vision to what he wanted,” adds Stockton.
When I asked Stockton if he had any advice for up and coming cinematographers, he said the best thing you can do is to move the story forward without getting in the way — without giving it too much pizzazz.