Phil Abraham, ASC - On Location with the Sopranos

reated by David Chase, HBO's new smash
“The Sopranos” may not be The Godfather,
but their similarities are hard to dispute.
The overriding theme of both is the Mafia,
backed by the immutable Italian tradition of
family. Comparing New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano
(James Gandolfini) with the Godfather (Marlon Brando),
however may be more like comparing Buffy to The
Unlike Brando, Gandolfini's character is not the head
of a classic patriarchal mob family. Rather, this occasionally lighthearted noir-series finds Tony at the head of the
ultimate dysfunctional American family and under psychiatric care. Who can blame him? His wife, Carmela
(Edie Falco), is strong-willed and prone to giving him lip;
his daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), is a rebellious
teenager; and his mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), is
manipulative and spends her time plotting revenge like
other senior citizens play canasta. "It's a bit of a genre
bender," said the show's director of photography (DP),
Phil Abraham. "It portrays the life of a mobster engaging
in the acts that mobsters do. However, he [Tony] also
sees the human side of himself, his family life, and his
contemporary problems. That's what gives this story its
emotional edge."
While Abraham handles the comic elements in “The
Sopranos” with less ominous lighting techniques than
those used in The Godfather, he acknowledges that DP
Gordon Willis' treatment of that movie has influenced
him as well as most contemporary cinematographers.
Both Chase and the show's original DP, Alik Sakharov,
used that inspiration when they filmed the show's pilot.
"Willis' techniques were popular enough to be
ingrained in much of today's modern cinematography,"
added Abraham. "He was the first to make large use of
bay lights, which are common equipment today. The use
of a soft overhead source seemed very appropriate for
The Godfather, rendering the characters in a subdued
light and letting their eyes go a little dark. He also introduced the basic philosophy that it is the actors, rather
than the camera, that should move, while lighting and
composition should take center stage to create mood
and drama. On the other hand, I was assistant cameraman to Vilmos Zsigmond while filming the movie The
Witches of Eastwick, and he moves the camera and
zooms constantly," said Abraham. "But he moves it in
such a continuous and intuitively fluid way that it is
barely noticeable. They are both great cameramen with
very different styles, and any new cameraman shooting
today will look to them and several others for influence.
They are the forerunners of modern cinematography."
In the motion picture industry for 15 years, Abraham
has worked with many of today's great cameramen, first
as an assistant and more recently as an operator. He
worked closely with John Bailey for many years as his
focus-puller on films such as Nobody's Fool and Extreme
Measures and then as his operator and occasional second unit DP on The Out of Towners and For Love of the
Game. He had shot two small, independent movies in
New York—Trouble on the Corner and Cherry—before
working on the television series "The Sopranos" with
Sakharov. Because Sakharov had committed to the first
half of the season only and had motion picture commitments, he "encouraged" the producers to promote
camera operator Abraham to director of photography.
That's when they made Abraham the offer, and he could
not refuse. "Sakharov did a great job of setting up this
show, and I am enjoying the challenge of continuing the
visual style, while adding my own touches," said
One of Abraham's personal touches is an innovative
use of Tiffen's Tobacco filters. "Sakharov usually used a
#1 or #2 Tobacco filter together with a Tiffen 85 for
color correction [tungsten to daylight balance]," said
Abraham. "The Tobacco filters are an easy way to tie
the exteriors to the interiors by making them a bit
warmer. I found that in haze, the Tobacco filter reacted
with the lower levels of fill and went too yellow. For
that reason, I'm not using the 85, but letting the
Tobacco filters do my color corrections for me.
Whenever possible, I combine it with a Tiffen Polarizer,
which really seems to bring out the rich saturation of
the Tobacco filter."
Abraham uses Kodak Vision 500T 5279 as the primary
film stock for both exteriors and interiors. In really low
light situations, he has experimented with Kodak Vision
800T 5289. "I use it sparingly when I want to go to a
really low light level, in those scenes where I'm hoping
that whatever is bright in the frame is enough to give us
some contrast. The stock has worked quite well in
those situations."
The series is shot with the Platinum and Millennium
Panaflex Super 35 cameras. Abraham prefers to use the
"The Tobacco filters are an
easy way to tie the exteriors to
the interiors by making them
a bit warmer."
older Platinum as the "A" camera because it is more
appropriate for his shooting style. "With the Platinum, I
can adjust the shutter angle instead of the lens aperture and maintain a consistent depth-of-field," said
Abraham. "And although the Millennium is a great camera, it is entirely digital. You can program shutter
changes, but there's no way to do it on the fly."
Abraham admits that this series is his first opportunity
to work with television. “Trouble on the Corner and
Cherry, by their very nature, were ambitious. Small budgets usually mean limited resources, but I have never
encountered the speed with which you have to work
on television," he said. However, Abraham is executing
his new position with a virtuoso performance. “‘The
Sopranos’ melds a moody, realistic photographic style,
audacious writing, insightful casting, and bravura acting
to tremendous effect," wrote Eric Rudolph in American
Cinematographer [October 1999]. Last year the show
received 16 Emmy nominations. It is also the first pay
cable series—ever—to be nominated as "Best Dramatic
Series." Even the venerable New York Times went as far
as to suggest that “‘The Sopranos’ may be the greatest
creation of American popular culture of the last quarter century.” In short, this mob's producing a hit, and
we're not talking gangster style.
APRIL 2000
Photography by Anthony Neste/HBO