What's the key to shooting TV's highly successful high school musical "Glee"?
Ask Andrew Mitchell. He'll tell you.
Rough 'Rhapsody'Even though Palatine native Andrew Mitchell works hard on TV's "Glee" to get the musical numbers right, 20 takes of a segment can test any photographer's patience. But nothing prepared him for his biggest "Glee" challenge: shooting a lengthy segment to Queen's classic song "Bohemian Rhapsody."
"I think that was the longest song ever, like six minutes and 20 seconds," he said. "I kept thinking, 'Can I survive this?' We even had to reload the film canister."
A regular 400-foot Steadicam film canister holds only five minutes and 50 seconds, he explained. And, yes, he shoots "Glee" with 35 mm celluloid, not digital cameras.
"We're die-hards," he said. "The last of a generation."
"There's a lot of homework involved," he said, "especially when it comes to 'Glee.'"
He should know. He's been shooting episodes of the hit Fox show for three seasons.
The Palatine native won the Television Camera Operator of the Year Award from the Society of Camera Operators in February for his fluid, organic and seamless integration of camera and cast.
Mitchell said he owes his success as a cinematographer to two things.
"First, I love motion," he said. "I love to skateboard. I love to surf. I love to move the camera, to accentuate the stories that we're telling. I'm fortunate to work with music. I love to move to the beat, to the action, to make the camera move to make the story more exciting."
And second? He already mentioned that.
"Doing a lot of homework. I get the songs early to learn the lyrics and timing. Sometimes I get a rehearsal tape sent to me so I can learn the routine, so I know where to be and where to point the camera at what time.
"I push myself to learn all that in advance. So that when we're in production, we're ready."
Mitchell considered the magnitude of producing "Glee" every week.
"We've done like 390 musical performances since we started the pilot. That's a lot of music videos to crank out.
"We spend anywhere from four to six hours on a song. You can't really do the job if you show up cold. I think that contributed to me getting the award and to the success of how the musical numbers look."
To achieve the amazing integration of visuals and sound on "Glee," Mitchell straps a 70-pound 35 mm Steadicam rig to his body.
The small camera enables Mitchell to move with the music and with the actors in the dance and musical numbers, giving "Glee" its signature visuals.
"I put myself in as another dancer, within their dance routine, within their song," Mitchell explained. "I move the camera in such a way that it enhances their performance, whether I'm pushing in, moving around, pushing through them (the dancers) or pulling back. That's what makes 'Glee' different, that style."
Mitchell considers himself a product of the Midwest, even though he moved to Maryland at the age of 5. He credits his parents, who grew up in the Northwest suburbs and went to Prospect High School, coincidentally the alma mater of "Glee" creator Ian Brennan.
"There's a little bit of a Midwest feel in the family, a little bit of pride in where we came from," Mitchell said. "'You try hard. You do your best. You stick to your guns.' I think I got that from my Chicago-area relatives."
He still has memories of his brief time in Palatine.
"We had this house next to a park," he said. "I remember learning to ride a bike there. We planted three trees, one for each of my mother's sons at the time." (A fourth son came later.)
Mitchell has two sons of his own, Bean, 14, and Nicholas, 11, with his wife, his former high school sweetheart Kari. They met at Damascus High School in Maryland.
It was there that Mitchell decided to pursue a career in cinematography. He's shot several Claymation animated films for arts projects.
"That really helped me, knowing what I wanted to do when I entered school," he said. "Because a lot of people come into school and don't know what they want to do."
Mitchell graduated from Brigham Young University where he studied film and cinematography.
After that, he spent six years shooting the popular TV series "Touched by an Angel," followed by a three-year stint shooting episodes of "Everwood." He also refined his musical style while shooting both "High School Musical" sequels before he landed the gig on "Glee."
Mitchell said his interests in skateboarding and surfing are critical for his work on "Glee." The job requires a high degree of physical fitness to keep up the energy.
"Absolutely," he said. "Even though I skate and surf, actually doing the work keeps me in shape. Then a little bit of cross-training, and keeping my core strength up, keeps my back from breaking in half. But after 20 takes on a song, it makes me wonder."
Mitchell has been around the country. After living in Maryland for five years, he bounced over to Topeka, Kan., for 2½ years, then to Colorado for a year, then back to Maryland, then returned to Chicago's suburban Northfield for a while.
Today, even though he lives in California, it's tough for Mitchell to forget his Chicago roots.
"I'm a Bears fan," he said. "The Bears are still my team."
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