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‘NCIS’ sails to its own tune

‘JAG’ spinoff finds unique style in a sea of TV crime dramas
/ Source: The Associated Press

Three cameras roll simultaneously, capturing different views of a forensic team investigating a crime scene amid huge shipping containers at Los Angeles Harbor.

One camera — mounted high on a stack of the metal crates — surveys a wide expanse of the bustling port, another pans with the actors in a medium shot, and a Steadicam follows and circles the men as they move along the dock.

Three cameras instead of the usual one are relatively rare for location filming — especially in dramatic television. But this is the CBS military crime series “NCIS,” created by veteran TV producer Don Bellisario, who’s known for bringing a cutting-edge look to his shows.

“NCIS” (8 p.m. ET Tuesdays) was spun out of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service characters introduced in the now-concluded military series “JAG,” also created by Bellisario.

Although it’s never attracted the buzz of the network’s top-rated forensic drama “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and its two spinoffs, “NCIS” has been steadily picking up viewers and now, in its third season, is the No. 8 show in prime-time ratings, attracting about 17 million viewers each week.

“I wish I could say it was the cinematography, but I know that’s just icing on the cake,” grins director of photography William Webb, who met Bellisario’s desire to create a “lot more hip, very contemporary” style for “NCIS.”

Webb says the look of the series is influenced by Bellisario’s love of the “cutting patterns” of the 2002 feature “The Bourne Identity,” and “huge wide shots — shots you don’t really see very often on TV.”

Such wide angles can make it difficult for crew members and set visitors to keep out of camera range, and for landscape authenticity. The show is set in Virginia, but filmed in California.

“That palm tree over there has been bugging me all day,” Webb says, laughing.

“Actors who come on this show concerned about where the camera is are in trouble, because you don’t know and you shouldn’t think about it,” says series star Mark Harmon.

“The style is always evolving based on story,” says Dennis Smith, director of this particular episode. “Any time you think you have the style of the show down and anyone else starts copying it, Don Bellisario changes it up and comes up with some wacky thing to make it different.”

'He's a leader'Harmon plays Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, whom the actor notes possesses many traits that “are very close to home” for the show’s creator — “work, work, work, coffee, coffee, coffee ... driving too fast.” But Harmon says his character is also definitely “the one you want in your foxhole ... not the one you want on your trail. He’s like a hunting dog.”

A UCLA quarterback in the ’70s, Harmon is the sort of person who between takes goes to fetch bottled water for others, rather than expecting to be pampered himself.

“He sets the tone for everyone,” Smith says of Harmon. “He’s a leader and he expects everyone else to step up to the plate just like he does.”

“From the very beginning this has been like a team effort,” says the actor, whose previous credits include playing doctors on “St. Elsewhere” and “Chicago Hope.” “We are going to make this work as a team, or we are going to fail as a team. It was always going to be all as one.”

Leon Carroll Jr., a retired NCIS agent with 23 years’ experience, is the technical consultant on the “NCIS” set, making sure “procedural things are very authentic.” But he thinks the show is gaining popularity mainly because, “we add a little comedy. Most of the procedural cop shows are very serious. They are specifically about the crime and our show is more about the characters.”

Behind that comedy is an abundance of work-related conflicts among the show’s characters, which include agents Timothy McGee (Sean Murray), Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) and Ziva David (Cote de Pablo); medical examiner Donald “Ducky” Mallardis (David McCallum); goth-garbed forensic expert Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette), and NCIS Director Jenny Shepard (Lauren Holly).

“I think my wife, Katherine, was the one who hit the nail on the head,” says McCallum, who once played Illya Kuryakin in the ’60s spy series “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” “She said, ‘You know, it’s like watching a really dysfunctional family, but you are all adorable!”’