A true content king, Steve Fracol has been one of the main men behind the visual look of Scandal, currently one of the most watched TV shows in America. The 30-year camera operator veteran, who also served as the camera operator for Sons of Anarchy, sat down with us to talk the joys of working with Kerry Washington, Shonda Rhimes’ best trait, the evolution of cinematography over the years and much more.
George Kiel: How many man hours does it take to shoot one episode of Scandal? And what’s specifically done during those hours besides shooting?
Steve Fracol: Scandal is like most TV shows. The hours vary from day to day and week to week, depending on if we are on location or shooting on our standard sets. For example, when we shoot in OPA (Liv’s office and conference room), we know pretty much where things are going to be laid out for the day/night. Although we definitely keep things fresh for our viewers and not just fall into the same look every episode, the basis is still there and we tend to move faster on those days. The crew is a well-oiled machine. During those hours – while we are shooting – there is an entire next episode in prep. There’s a location/tech team scouting for the next episode, a post-production working on the current episode, a writing team, a costume team, a props team and a transportation prep team doing things for the next episode. Every department is busy getting ready for the next one. It’s like a living and breathing thing that ends up looking amazing on the TV screen for our TGIT viewers.
Kiel: How is it working with Kerry Washington on Scandal? Shonda Rhimes? What’s the strongest trait each one of the bring to a typical set?
Fracol: Kerry is one of the most amazing human beings I have been lucky enough to say I have worked with. Obviously she’s one of the top A list actresses, but she is such a real person. We became friends the first day we met. I specifically remember us sitting down during Season 2 (when I first arrived on the show) and between takes on a prison set she asked me all about my life, my career and my family. Whenever we go away on hiatus and come back, she asks me how my wife and kids are doing and even remembers their names and where they go to school. She brings her A game every day. She has a spirit inside her that sort of explodes around the set. Almost every shooting day, Scandal has an energy on set that is not like any show I have ever worked on. That is not easy for a TV show to carry on with the hours we work, and I can honestly attribute that to Kerry. She owns it. In my opinion, Kerry’s strongest trait (other than her acting ability) is probably her great real-life personality and people skills. She stops to talk with any guests that happen to be on set and is always polite to everyone.
As for Shonda, she stays busy in the office with the writers and in post production, so we do not get to see her very much on set. She is obviously extremely smart and talented on a whole other level. I would say Shonda’s genius is not only with show creation and content but surrounding herself with truly talented people. She gets the best people, and she completely trusts her team to deliver the goods. She gives a clear vision to everyone on the team and then hands it off to the producers, the director and the crew to shoot. She has gathered an amazing team of people that she completely trusts.
Kiel: If you could pinpoint one scene with Kerry Washington in regards to your cinematography, what would it be and why does it stick out to you?
Fracol: I have had so many great experiences shooting her close ups in so many scenes because she is so good in all of them. Maybe the kidnap scene because she dug really deep for that. Honestly, I guess I would have to say pulling her down the hallway on the Steadicam in the White House while she is on a phone call is one of my favorite things to shoot. It’s really just us working together to make our frame work, but we are not alone. We have Jon Zarkos, the A camera focus puller, Ben Wienert, our boom operator and usually Matt Boeka or Chip Caruso – or even our gaffer, Roger Sassen, carrying a light. It literally takes a train of about 4-5 people to pull those shots off successfully. They are super hard to do but hopefully for the viewers we make it look easy. I remember the very first time I had to do one of those shots I thought to myself, ‘Oh my, am I going to be able to walk backwards this fast?’ I’ll admit, I was hugely challenged the first few times we did those shots. I would never ask her to slow down because nobody tells Olivia Pope to slow down, especially for a camera operator. She totally understands camera, by the way. Many actors do not get that the camera is there to make them look good and if moving a few inches one way or the other is better, then they should listen to the camera operator. She totally gets it. She knows our job is to make her look great, and she trusts us 100%. Oftentimes, actors think we are moving them around to make it easier for us, but it is always about making them look good.
Kiel: Has there ever been a scene you’ve shot – for either Sons of Anarchy or Scandal – that has left you emotional due to the seriousness of the issue you all are trying to depict?
Fracol: When we shoot (kill) people in certain scenes, the actors are so good that it can sometimes be a bit disturbing. I remember a scene on SOA where Mark Boone “Bobby” Junior had to shoot and kill a man, and he came up to me afterwards and was truly distraught. He said, ‘My gosh, he made that seem so real; it is really messing with me. I felt like I actually shot him.’
He was speaking to the artistry of the actor he had to kill in the scene, but it is things like that that sometimes just make you think as an operator how crazy this business is. Most of the time things are so fake (how we shoot something) that it is no big deal.
Kiel: Sons of Anarchy is a show that became a cult classic, stretching over seven seasons with many memorable scenes of SAMCRO. If the rolls were reversed and you had to play one of the actors on screen, which character would you choose and why?
Fracol: First of all, I loved the entire cast on Sons of Anarchy. They are all great people in real life. Sons of Anarchy and Scandal are two of the best jobs in TV that I have ever had in regards to working with great actors, and none of them are hard to work with. We are all friends. The obvious cool answer to your question would be Jax (Charlie Hunnam), but I think there are actually two characters I could most relate to on the show – Opie (Ryan Hurst) and Piney (Bill Lucking). Both are supporting actors, but I loved what they stood for. They were always there for the team right up to the end. They gave there all for what they believed in; the club, SAMCRO and their FAMILY. They are both great actors and great people in real life when the camera was turned off.
Kiel: You’ve been self employed since 1994. What was your first ever job as a cinematographer and how have you networked to get to where you are today?
Fracol: I don’t recall my very first job as a cinematographer, but I do recall the first few jobs that made me realize how lucky I was to be working as a cinematographer. In my early days, I often worked with my good friend Damon Bryant, shooting TV News opens and TV News promotion. We worked in great markets like Chicago, Miami, Detroit, and Kansas City. That’s where I learned to appreciate what I do. He is one of the top TV News promotion managers in the country today, and we won several Emmy Awards together. He helped shape me into the cameraman I am today and what I became later in life. He always challenged me and pushed me beyond what I thought I was capable of doing. I would not trade those early days for anything. As for the networking side of this business, that takes people skills. Knowing how to ask for work or an opportunity to show them what you can do without looking or being desperate is a fine line. This is a people skills-oriented business. You have to know how to deal with people from all aspects of production. If you have the personality of an onion you will not get very far, but if you just listen to people and know when to be quiet and speak when the time is right, you can get doors to open, which breeds opportunities. When that opportunity happens, you better capitalize on it. Look for mentors that will actually help you and make a difference in your career; someone that cares about you personally and wants you to succeed, not someone that wants to talk about themselves all the time and how they got to where they are at. The entire film industry – in regards to behind the camera – is totally about contacts. It is all about who you know, networking, getting on the job and then getting on the next job with the same people. This is a very hard business. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. That said, it is probably one of the most rewarding industries to be part of if you can survive and thrive within its world.