Shooting TV Large Sensor

This is an article I wrote for the Australian Cinematographer Magazine which was printed in December 2010.

To date, Australian television drama production has largely resisted the mania surrounding larger sensor cameras like the RED. Rumours around reliability are clearly of concern to producers worried about tight budgets and delivery schedules.

In 2009, the pilot of Offspring was shot off the back of Rush Series 2, utilising many of the Rush crew. On the strength of the pilot, Network Ten went on to commission the series, with the obligatory few ‘tweaks’.

Bruce Young, who’d done a terrific job shooting the pilot, was about to go into Rush Series 3, so an exciting opportunity opened up for me. With my experience on ABC’s Lowdown (the first free-to-air episodic television series in Australia to be shot on RED) behind me, I was given the pilot to watch and asked to pitch my own ‘take’ on how to shoot the series.

Offspring follows obstetrician Nina Proudman and the Proudman family’s adventures searching for love, fulfilment and balance in the chaos of modern life. Offspring mixes conventional narrative drama with flashbacks, graphic animation and fantasy sequences, profiling the vibrant world of Fitzroy, Melbourne, where Nina and the extended Proudman family go about their unpredictable daily lives.

With elements of comedy and drama, Offspring is both quirky and offbeat in flavour. Producers John Edwards and Imogen Banks wanted the series to have an aspirational feel, but not be too polished or affected. Stylistically it was to be accessible, but not over-done or self-conscious.

After commissioning the series, Network Ten reiterated that they wanted the series to have a colourful, vibrant look and feel. Although the series would be set in and showcase Fitzroy they were concerned about it looking grey and feeling cold – definitely a challenge given we would be shooting right through the middle of a Melbourne winter. John Edwards was also very keen on locations with a view, to sell the built up, inner-urban environment.

After meeting with the setup director, Kate Dennis (who’d also directed the pilot), we came up with a plan to push the show towards a big screen experience, to try and choreograph camera staging in a more filmic way. We’d look to stage with depth, and to try and have objects to shoot through for depth. Lighting would be naturalistic and relatively high key, and although there was a temptation to glamorise our mainly female protagonists, we tried to keep it very simple (while still being kind!). Aiming for a sense of fun and liveliness, we decided to try and stage longer, one shot scenes as well, especially for the hospital location. We realised early on that Steadicam would be a crucial part of our camera staging.

Production designer Penny Southgate came up with an eye-popping colour scheme, particularly for the new hospital location that would be constructed as the show’s only true set; this featured huge swathes of bright colour, principally orange and teal.

Imogen, Kate and John were all great at communicating what they didn’t want the show to be….it wasn’t a hospital drama, it wasn’t comedy and it wasn’t Sex in the City, though the story is principally told through the eyes of a single protagonist whose inner mental dialogue the audience can hear. There would be many fantasy sequences, where the lead character Nina Proudman, played by Asher Keddie, would take brief diversions through to other imagined scenarios.

We discussed how we could treat these fantasies visually to set them apart. As we work-shopped the visual approach, we agreed that the comedy in these scenes would have far more impact if we had them play out without signposting them to the audience. In other words, aside from a flash to white which would signify a return to the ‘real’, the segue wouldn’t be marked at all visually, unless it was relevant to the material. A fantasy sequence in a late episode had Nina imagining a retired male stripper performing in the hospital corridor, which demanded a certain amount of theatric lighting license!

As touched on above, I shot an ABC comedy series Lowdown in late 2009 – the first Australian free to air episodic series originated using the RED one camera system. For me, a large part of getting a big screen feel for Offspring would be shooting with a larger sensor. After shooting RED for Lowdown, I felt very confident about taking it into TV series.

Offspring’s producers weren’t so sure, and it took some convincing. They were naturally hesitant to use a system that they felt was still unproven. Would RED’s shallow depth of field take too long for focus pullers to get right? We needed to average more than 35 setups and 8-10 minutes of screen time a day. Network Ten were quite late in commissioning the show, and we had to deliver the episodes very quickly, literally within weeks of the cameras rolling.  There would be no room for error if the workflow was swamped with data management bottlenecks, and it just took too long on set to get the shots in the can.

Lowdown was only a single camera show. Offspring would utilise up to five cameras, shooting across two units. There would be a huge increase in the amount of data created and processed every day. The producers were still reluctant to commit to RED with such a tight deadline and weren’t sure if they were ready to blaze a trail.

It was really only when Peter Millington from Melbourne’s Blue Post threw his weight behind RED, drawing on their successful experience doing post on the telemovie Hawke, that we eventually were able to assure the producers that it could be done. After exhaustive discussions about the pros and cons, John, Imogen and Line producer Ross Allsop to their credit, took the risk and backed my preference to shoot RED.

RED has other great and distinct advantages over the current crop of cameras that are being used in episodic TV in Australia. Off-speed frame rates and in-camera speed ramping was definitely going to come into play, given the requirement for the fantasy sequences. Shooting everything at 4K also makes it relatively easy to do minor reframes or even resizes without the image quality ever taking much of a hit.

Like film, RED’s workflow creates files which are difficult to edit with unless they are processed or transcoded into a more manageable format – just like camera negative. Two editors would be working full time, alternating episodes, cutting using AVID. A single editorial assistant would sync the rushes.

Red Rocket was just literally shipping at that point, but no-one had really used it on a show or even really tested it on a production in Australia. Red Rocket is a card that fits into a desktop computer that dramatically increases the speed at which RED files can be processed or transcoded through a PC into other edit-friendly file formats like AVID MXF. Before Red Rocket, it wasn’t unusual for it to take 4-6 hours to process 1 hour’s worth of rushes…in other words, a slower than real time process. Red Rocket could do it faster than real time in most cases.

After committing to RED, the next step was to work out a lens package. I was keen to keep things as compact and mobile as possible, as most of the Offspring locations would be in real houses – most of them tiny Fitzroy apartments. We chose two sets of Angenieux DP zooms, basically a digital version of their popular Optimo 15-40, and the 28-76 lenses that are optimised for digital sensors.

The DP 16-42 and the 30-80 T2.8 lenses would subsequently perform as my workhorse lenses, though I did end up carrying a set of Ultra Primes as well, mainly for longer focal lengths and the valuable extra stop.

When we commenced shooting, there were only a handful of the upgraded MX bodies in the country – certainly not enough to allow me to shoot the whole of Offspring with MX bodies, as much as I would have liked to. While the MX bodies are notionally 800 iso, the non-upgraded RED’s are realistically rated at about 200 iso – a huge difference!

In fact, Lemac were the only company that really had enough REDs to safely cover the job and accessorise them in the way I was after. I’d had a great experience with their RED package on Lowdown, and they seemed the most knowledgeable with regards to the camera’s quirks.

As I knew we’d be using Steadicam a great deal, I also was able to source a fantastic Century 17-35mm compact zoom. Although only T3, it was about the same size and weight as an ultra prime – this was greatly appreciated by Steadicam operator Richard Wilmot.

We also had two Canon EOS 5Dmk2’s that we used for car interiors, and for the many insert shots of mobile phone screens (a device that now regularly crops up in both film and TV).

The other key component of our workflow was to choose to shoot on hard drives rather than the on-board compact flash cards.

Spinning mechanical hard drives rightly give most DOP’s the willies. Taking a very slight risk, I much prefer to shoot with them at the moment simply for speed and convenience. I developed a system on Lowdown that I expanded going into Offspring, whereby a single drive is used on the camera till lunch, then swapped for another. The 320Gb RED RAID drives offer over two hours of record time and then there’s no requirement to actually have a data wrangler on set.

This greatly reduced on set interruptions to re-load CF cards and meant we never lost a take due to the media being filled, something that’s happened to me previously with the smaller capacity CF cards. It also reduced the amount of physical media to be dealt with on-set and the camera being handled for reloads, freeing the loader for other tasks on set. Rather than potentially a dozen or more CF cards from each half day plus paperwork and managing that physical media, it was two drives for each camera. The rushes were then sent to the ‘lab’ to be ‘processed’, backed up, then transcoded for editorial.

Over 75 days of production, we produced 12,800 minutes and 20,036 Gb or 20 Tb of data.

That 20 Tb of data was transcoded by Blue Post’s Cail Young into AVID friendly rushes (DNX-36HD) and backed up onto additional hard-drives and LTO data tape. A first for Southern Star, the show was cut using HD rushes at the production office’s editorial facility provided by Blue Post, where five AVIDs used a Unity shared storage system.

The EDL’s were then returned to Blue Post after they were signed off, and they were re-conformed from the original RED files, much like a film style ‘neg select’.  This is the real advantage of the RED workflow as you get a chance to eke out as much information as you can from the RAW files. Blue Post then rendered 2K DPX files from the native RED files and the show was graded in Colour by Blue Post’s Marcus Smith. Any re-frames or enlargements were also done in the conform from the RED 4K files.

The first block was especially difficult as we needed to re-shoot about 20% of the pilot, mainly due to a recasting of one of the characters and the rewriting of another character’s story arc.  This meant using F900Rs for these sequences and then swapping back to RED for the first episode of the season. I’d spoken to Bruce in pre and he’d advised me of his approach to setting up the F900Rs so I could get them to match – as we’d be shooting shots to cut within scenes that had been shot twelve months earlier!

Each block was shot over two weeks for main unit and then an additional four days of second unit (which was shooting concurrently with main unit while main unit went on to the next block). This was done chiefly to speed up the turnaround. The second or ‘green’ unit, as they were known, would not be doing anything less important than main unit – and in fact they often had the plum scenes. Green unit DOP Jaems Grant ACS often had to do more with less!

Jaems did a brilliant job and some of the best work in the show is his. It was also a privilege to have most of the Victorian ACS committee working on Offspring, between Jaems Grant (green unit DOP), Peter Falk ACS (camera operator – green unit) and Richard Wilmot (A-camera /Steadicam – main unit).

Against convention, both John Edwards and Imogen Banks really encouraged me to embrace each director’s own visual style for individual blocks, rather than trying to force an Offpsring ‘house’ style onto them. Arguably a cause for disruptive visual discontinuity between each episode, it in fact lead to a greater and I feel very positive visual distinction for each block.

Directed by Kate Dennis…

Director Glendyn Ivin initially refused outright to do any dolly shots and we had to twist his arm to get him to use the Steadicam. By the end he was trying on the steadicam for himself and a few dolly shots did sneak their way in.

From Glendyn’s block

Immediately after his block, Shirley Barrett was always looking to track and dolly and we did our first crane shot of the series. While both directors were seemingly opposite in their visual approach, the episodes don’t feel in any way less cohesive to watch.

From Shirley’s block

Second block director Darren Ashton started an informal competition amongst the directors, coming up with a trophy in the shape of a gauntlet. Points were awarded for finishing the day early, picking up scenes and for any single shot that went for longer than 30 seconds that made it into the cut. Points were also deducted for every minute of overtime or scenes that were dropped. It certainly brought out a competitive spirit amongst some of the directors!

Offspring has a very naturalistic lighting approach, out of both choice and necessity. The hospital set was in fact a disused floor of the former Panch hospital in Preston. The walls were repainted, as mentioned, with a far more colourful scheme, and we installed dimmable tungsten practicals in the corridors and some of the rooms. Half way through production we also installed an extra row of fluorescent pracs in the ceiling of the main corridor. We also swapped out the practical fluros for Tld 95’s, about 4500K-5000K, which closely matched the RED’s native colour temp. Knowing that we’d have many caesarian operations to shoot, we opted to simply use the original operating theatre lighting that was still in place. As well as extra practicals that were changed for Tld 95’s, I used the amazing Hanolux operating theatre light in shot, simply bouncing off some unbleached muslin on the patient’s tummy.

I also had some heavily tinted acrylic sheets cut to fit the window interiors at Panch and many of the other regular locations. Tinted or ND acrylic made it far easier to prevent the windows blowing out in shot and, more importantly, made it possible to actually see the views and remind the audience that these were real locations in fabulous Fitzroy. It also made it a lot easier to do day for night scenes, as it greatly reduced the amount of daylight ambience within the scene. Combined with rating the camera at sub 3000 degK, we got a great moonlight ambiance.

Kinos and especially the terrifically versatile Vista Beams covered many of the situations we ran across. Although we did have a reasonable package available to us, my gaffer Adam Hunter didn’t have a lot of time to bring out any of the bigger toys. The Vistas pack a huge amount of punch for a very small footprint on set. They are a large soft source, by virtue of their size, but they have incredible reach compared with their predecessors, the Wall-O-Light.

Shooting with two cameras, I was often relying heavily on Adam and A-camera operator Richard Wilmot to pick up things I was missing on the B-camera shots. Both Adam and Rich saved me countless times and I really appreciated their proactive approach. Key grip John Smith also saved me numerous times rigging custom mounts for the 5D’s to go into cars and on pushbikes. He also had a great crew with him and was super-fast to build anything I wanted.

Shooting with a larger sensor also meant a higher degree of difficulty for my focus pullers. RED’s shallow depth of field – one of the reasons it shoot great images – can be a potential burden for them. While we were shooting at T2.8 most of the time, I certainly inflicted a few 200mm T1.8 shots on them. The B-camera ‘house’ lens seemed to be the 135mm Ultraprime.

Asher Keddie as Nina had such a phenomenal work load. She almost always seemed to be at her awkward best from on the first take, so we really always tried to get it right straight up.  We tried to get into the habit of religiously marking the actors during blocking. Most of the cast, and especially Asher as awkward Nina, wanted to shoot their rehearsals – so the pressure was really on both of my fantastic focus pullers Cameron Gaze (A-camera) and Geoff Skilbeck (B-camera).  I asked a lot of them and editorial later told me our success rate was very high in terms of sharp takes.

Television seems to have resisted the move to larger sensors for origination. RED certainly makes larger sensor acquisition feasible, and with the right post support it can certainly work as well or faster than tape and most data based camera platforms. This is also a rapidly changing market. Arri will certainly knock on the door with their new Alexa, and Panavision have their new camera due out sometime next year.

Offspring is something of a contradiction – a serious drama with plenty of unexpected, quirky comedy in the mix. I had an outstanding time being involved with such a talented cast and crew. I certainly spent a lot of the show trying to stop myself laughing mid-take! We had such a enjoyable time making Series 1 and there was such a playful atmosphere on set, it literally permeates the show.

Main Unit – Camera Package

2 x RED Bodies ( plus occasional MX body )

Optimo DP 16-42 T2.8

Optimo DP 30-80 T2.8

Century 17-35 T3 (Steadicam)

Ultra Primes – 16, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 100mm, 135mm T1.9

Angenieux 25-250 HR T3.5

Canon 200mm T1.8

RED 300MM T2.8

2 x Canon EOS 5dMK2

Canon 24-105 IS T4

Canon 100mm Macro IS T2.8

Canon 28-70 T2.8

Canon 70-200 T2.8 IS

Green Unit – Camera Package

2 x  RED Bodies

Optimo DP 16-42 T2.8

Optimo DP 30-80 T2.8

Superspeeds – 18, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 100mm, 135mm T1.3

Angenieux 25-250 HR T3.5

RED 300MM T2.8

Canon EOS 5dMK2

Canon 24-105 IS T4

Canon 28-70 T2.8

About johnbrawley

Director Of Photography striving to create compelling images
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One Response to Shooting TV Large Sensor

  1. Pingback: Lighting By Design – Tangle Series 3 | johnbrawley

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