The Look and Sound of “Bosch” (article 1 of 3)

Titus Welliver as Harry Bosch in the final shot of “Raise the Dead,” Episode Four, Season Five of Bosch

Amazon Prime Video’s Bosch, is not just the best damn cop show on TV today, it is also one of the finest police procedural series in the history of television, right up there with Dragnet, Hill Street Blues, and Prime Suspect. The show, which premiered its fifth season this April, combines intense, riveting storytelling with intelligent scripting, creative direction, and one of the finest acting ensembles you’ll see on the small screen.

Based on the novels of Michael Connelly (who is also the series’ executive producer), Bosch centers around an LA homicide detective named Harry Bosch. (Harry’s birth name is Hieronymus, after the 15th Century Dutch painter.) Connelly’s biggest influence was the great writer Raymond Chandler, who, along with Dashiell Hammett, established the hard-boiled tone and style that typifies American mystery fiction. In the 1940s, Chandler became the most notable fictional chronicler of the city of Los Angeles, a tradition Connelly continues in his work. Like Chandler’s private detective hero Philip Marlowe, Bosch operates from a strong moral code and is dedicated to furthering the cause of justice no matter what the consequences are or whose authority is threatened by the results of his investigations, his main goals to bring peace and some sense of closure to the crime victims and their families. (Bosch’s motto is “Everybody counts or nobody counts.”) No small credit for the series’ excellence belongs to the letter-perfect casting of television veteran Titus Welliver as Harry Bosch, a role it seems as though he was born to play.

In their determination to preserve the quality of the novels, Connelly worked closely with writer and producer Erik Overmyer, who played a major role in developing the series for Amazon. Connelly and Overmyer were well aware of how film versions of books by Chandler and Hammett were the basis of the equally hard-boiled genre of crime movies known for their dark, gritty look that the French critics later dubbed “film noir,” and that the Bosch series needed to reflect that noir tradition. As a result, the series has a very distinctive look and sound that set it apart from other TV detective shows. In this series of articles, I’ll be talking to the behind-the-scenes artists who are responsible for the series’ unique qualities, starting with two directors from the show’s most recent season.

Director Ernest R. Dickerson has been with the Bosch series since its first season. A former cinematographer-turned-director, Dickerson’s visual style is considered to be such a valuable asset to the series that, starting with the third season, it’s become a tradition to entrust him with the show’s season finales. As Dickerson explained, “I’m always thinking of how to use the camera to tell the story. Each shot should tell a part of the story—if a scene is a paragraph, then each shot should be a sentence. Even as a cinematographer, I always tried to use the camera as more than a recording device, but to help immerse the audience in the experience of the story.”

Dickerson acknowledges the series’ cinematic tradition. “Bosch is LA Noir and the great thing about this show is that LA is a major character in the series. We get to show the city in its good sides and the bad. Plus we get to show some of LA history like Angels Flight and the old Red Line subway tunnels in Season Four.”

Unlike Dickerson, Laura Belsey is a newcomer to Bosch, but she’s an experienced, in-demand director, perhaps been known for her work on the CW’s superhero shows Arrow and The Flash. Belsey is also aware of the importance of the series’ setting. “The city of Los Angles is a major character in Bosch, so we shoot on location a great deal. Part of what is so wonderful about Bosch is the absolute dedication to realism, so we shoot in some really interesting neighborhoods. It’s fantastic from a visual standpoint, but challenging for the sound department and they are amazing. I was surprised at how good the sound ended up being considering how incredible noisy some of our locations were. I learned that Pacoima has very, very loud cars! Especially on a Friday night…”

Given the series’ visual style, it’s no surprise that both directors work from storyboards (illustrations of the various camera compositions, not unlike a comic book page), albeit with different approaches to the technique. Dickerson, for example, draws his storyboards in pencil. He majored in architecture in college and I asked if that had any influence on his use of storyboards. “I’m sure it does,” he responded. “It’s my visual script that I create with my storyboards that help choreograph how I will use the camera in telling the story.”

Belsey, on the other hand, uses software for storyboarding. “I do my own version of digital storyboards,” Belsey explained. “I take lots of pictures with the app Artemis, where you can choose the lens and design the frame, and then import the pictures into Scriptation, the script annotation app. I’m a huge fan of Scriptation—it’s a game changer for me. My scripts end up having a visual parallel universe of the show, with most of the shots mapped out but with crew people standing in for the actors on the scouts! It’s hilarious.”

The Season Five episode Belsey directed “Raise the Dead” introduced an interesting stylized visual element in the form of flashbacks to one of Bosch’s early murder cases. (The case was being reopened with claims of police misconduct and planted evidence.) The flashbacks, which depicted a younger Bosch investigating the crime, were shown in black-and-white with isolated elements in color. The episode concluded with a final black-and-white flashback that started inside the suburban house of the victim’s family and, as the camera panned from left to right across the house’s front lawn, the image transitioned to color, with the pan stopping on a close-up of Bosch sitting in his car parked on the street. (See photo above.) “The idea of the flashbacks being in black-and-white was already in the script, written by the talented Tom Bernardo,” said Belsey. “That last shot came from discussions I had with Michael McDonough, our DP [director of photography]. I wanted to link the past to the present, and thought it would be cool to shift back into color in one shot and connect younger Bosch with present-day Bosch.”

McDonough (whose interview will appear in the second installment of this series) elaborated on the technical details of these flashbacks. “We tested both color and monochrome sensors at Red Studios in prep and decided that, after studying both at Warner Brothers Imaging with our colorist Scott Klein, what the monochrome gave is more of a sense of genuine black-and-white, adding a quality akin to the old ‘silver’ heavy FP4 and HP5 Ilford negative. So we went with the RED Helium Monochrome for those flashback scenes.”

McDonough explained that the transitioning of the flashbacks from black-and-white to color “were done with our regular Weapon Monstro 8K cameras and the transitions were done in post to match the other black-and-white look as closely as possible.” Regarding the episode’s final shot, McDonough remembered that “standing on location in prep it just felt right to do it in one elegant move. We used an 80 foot Hydroscope and luckily the remote head just fit in through the open windows of the house without having to do any carpentry… So we pull back from the scene with a stand-in for Harry, replace the windows with CG, and the color dials in as we pan past the garden hedge and before we land on Harry in the car. I thought it was a neat and elegant way to do it.”

The season’s final episode “Creep Signed His Kill” presented Dickerson with an unusual visual challenge as well. The episode’s climax finds Bosch in his house under siege by a trio of criminals seeking revenge for Bosch busting their illegal “pill mill” racket. Shooting at night always presents difficulties, but, on the evening the scene was scheduled for, a fog bank settled in on the outdoor location. “It was a problem in how to use the dark of night to our advantage,” Dickerson told me. “The Bosch house has a magnificent view of nighttime LA, so it was possible to silhouette the characters against the city lights. Today’s digital cameras are so sensitive I was able to silhouette the actors against the mist over the city.”

Both directors have fond memories of working with the Bosch cast and crew. “We have been working together so long we’re like a family,” Dickerson said. “It was an absolute joy, through and through,” Belsey remembered. “A dream cast and one of the best teams I’ve ever worked with.”

Writer at Broadcast Beat
Doug Krentzlin is an actor, writer, and film & TV historian who lives in Silver Spring, MD with his cats Panther and Miss Kitty.
Doug Krentzlin
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