It’s no small thing to tackle one of the greatest literary works of all time, but that’s exactly what The Beautiful Lie attempts to do.
Those familiar with Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the epic and sweeping original text that The Beautiful Lie is inspired by, might wonder how a story set in the last days of pre-revolutionary Russian aristocracy could be adapted to suit a contemporary Australian setting, but writer Alice Bell and producers John Edwards and Imogen Banks set out to do precisely that.
Tolstoy’s original book is considered by many to be the greatest novel ever written with many fervent fans. The Beautiful Lie is a contemporary re-imagining of that text commissioned by the ABC as a six by one hour episode series. It was a heck of a responsibility to do it justice and there are also many fans of the book who would be fairly skeptical of an Aussie TV series adaptation as well !
The Beautiful Lie is at it’s heart, a story of the heart, a story about love and all the many messy flavours it can take. And love is what makes this story as relevant today as it ever was.
This is a very long and detailed post ! I’ll cover a lot of ground but I really wanted to explore in depth and with as much detail as I could for this production. It’s going to take you some time to get through it all. Where appropriate I’ve also tried to include original script pages for the scenes I’m talking about as well as other reference material as well clips with specific examples.
A note on the embedded clips here. Please do them justice by making them full screen when you watch them and click on the arrows on the bottom right of each clip.
PLOT SPOILERS TO FOLLOW
It’s perhaps worth noting that I’m about to do a complete and utter plot spoil. Maybe you’ve already read the book ? So read on and be informed…or watch the series first before you go on !
Skeet – Played By Benedict Samuels
Producers John Edwards and Imogen Banks once again put an outstanding production team together to bring this story to the screen beginning with writer Alice Bell.
Imogen had already approached me to shoot TBL but it wasn’t until setup director Glendyn Ivin signed up that I really started getting excited. After designer Elizabeth Mary Moore joined the production, we now had the same crew that worked on the AACTA award winning series Puberty Blues together and that was already some of the work I’ve been most proud of. The Beautiful Lie would put the band back together, so to speak.
Replacing the ignominy of a fallen aristocrat, Alice took the genius step of substituting what many Australians consider to be our version of royalty, the sporting celebrity. And so we have Anna and Xander, both retired grand slam winning champion tennis players. Public and media sweethearts with a child to complete the picture, Anna seemed to have everything she could dream of, the fairytale life. Until she meets skeet.
Alice then took Vronsky, the original 1878 cavalry officer that Anna falls for, and converted him into the 2015 equivalent, that of music producer and DJ. After meeting Skeet, Anna falls entirely and helplessly in love with him and despite her own best intentions and efforts to save her marriage, she’s compelled to be with Skeet once she realises she’s pregnant with Skeet’s child. She leaves her husband Xander and they move in together. Despite choosing to be together for true love, things get progressively more and more difficult for Anna and Skeet. The arrival of a new child complicates things as does the increasingly acrimonious relationship with Xander and her son Casper.
Interwoven into this story is the story of two other couples and their fortunes in love, Anna’s brother Kingsley and his wife Dolly, along with Dolly’s younger sister Kitty and her rural suitor Peter.
We all had different views of what the title, The Beautiful Lie even meant in pre-production. It was fascinating to sit around the table in very early pre and hear everyone’s version of what it meant to them. For me the title refers to the bitter sweet lie of love, the romantic ideal that we can have a soul mate out there who’s destined for us, fated to be with us. When Anna follows her heart, to be with the one she thinks is her true love, she pays the ultimate price.
The story is timeless because the themes are timeless. The Beautiful Lie looks at the nature of love, the cost of love and it’s betrayal.
Imogen was also keen to throw off the notion that it had to be anything like the original text. We had a chance to re-interpret the story, to create a whole new world and look.
Glendyn really wanted the show to feel very naturalistic and present feel. His instinctive aesthetic is also kind of raw and unfinished. For Glendyn these are the markers of truth in cinema. Truthful storytelling that is. This would mean an aesthetic that wasn’t polished. Scenes shouldn’t feel lit, even though they would be. The staging would be organic and evolving. Spontaneous. Locations also became very important. They would speak to character and background, as the original text also references both rural and urban living. We searched very long and hard for unique locations that would reflect the background and backstory of the characters, and that also looked visually unique. The right location choices can say visually more about the class and privilege of our characters than any words spoken.
Production designer Elizabeth also worked very hard on creating a restrained palette of tones for each location. We all wanted even the day interiors to have a darker feel. We all became obsessed with lens flares and having practical lights in shot. We toyed briefly with shooting in Anamorphic, but the broadcaster wasn’t so keen on that.
Many of the films we looked at for a visual reference are nothing like tonally what the Beautiful Lie would be, but we all liked No Country For Old Men for its naturalism and darker moodier interiors and I especially liked John Wick for it’s outrageous use of practical lights in shot and mixed colour temperature lighting.
Glendys main visual reference for us was the work of photographer Nan Golding. Nan is known for her vivid and super saturated colour work and that in combination with the access and personal intimacy really spoke the Glendyn. Her work has a lot or emotional power.
Here are a couple of the reference grabs we looked at in pre-production.
No Country For Old Men – Pracs and dark interiors
No Country For Old Men
No Country For Old Men – Pracs
John Wick – Lit with pracs
John Wick – Dark moody daylight mixed colour temp interiors with pracs
John Wick – Visual reference for moody day interiors and pracs in shot
Here’s a link to the lighting gear list. https://johnbrawley.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/gear-list-a-beautiful-lie.pdf
Lighting was would be naturalistic and we strived for raw beauty. Something that “appeared” to be found and lit from within the scene, either using practical lighting or the apparently natural lighting from windows within the scene. Often times we helped the natural lighting along by building either passive bounce from outside the windows or by making them active bounces. By active I mean either lit by a lamp or by a hard mirror bounce.
Lighting naturalistically meant we wanted to try really hard to make it look like we hadn’t tried hard at all !
I’ve been moving towards using larger and larger softer ambient sources of late and then doing accents with harder light. For me I wanted to light the space itself rather than lighting where the actors staged. Then the actors could stage within the space, they could light themselves by moving in and out of those lit spaces. I used very small pracs in a lot on interiors, working with designer Elizabeth to get the best looking ones and then using very large sources, even if there were only small lights into them.
In this simple three hander, Kitty is unwrapping engagement presents from her now failed engagement to Skeet. Peter’s gift seems particularly moving and her parents come in to ask her what she’s going to do with herself. We also used a split eyeline for this triangle coverage to get across the idea that her parents are ganging up on her.
The lighting was simple here. It was a grey Melbourne day, but you’ll notice that using the edge of a 5K tungsten molebeam, we just lightly kissed the “offside” of Kitty, played by Sophie Lowe. The beam is actually focussed onto the table itself and wall opposite Kitty and there’s a nice warmer bounce ambience in the room.
Her parents walk into the Molebeam’s light but on this coverage we softened it somewhat with a 4×4 frame of 250 inside the room. You’ll also notice a second molebeam at play in the hall behind to give some more highlights and shape to the wall.
You only have to freeze on the profile shot of Kitty and take a look out the window to see what a miserable and grey day it was. Now, the lighting isn’t really “right” if you want to be picky to the truth of what was there, but in story terms it was meant to be morning.
Once you start to scruitinse the image you’ll find all sorts of sins, but I hope you don’t end up questioning them too much and that because they support the story you don’t even notice them !
This was the first show I’ve done with Gaffer Steve Price and we had a wonderful time getting to know each other’s lighting likes and dislikes ! I love it when gaffers show me a new trick and Steve has a great eye. Like myself, he’s also a fan of much larger sources.
He introduced me to the 20×12 bounce.
Normally a 20×20 is just too large to use safely as a bounce for a window outside a house for example. It’s large size it takes a lot of rigging and manpower. It’s a big sail and even a small amount of wind makes it really unmanageable, let alone the real estate it consumes. Often we just don’t have the time do that kind of rigging on a TV schedule.
But a 20×12 could be far more easily rigged safely and meant we could have a larger bounce source outside the windows of locations we were using. Sometimes this was what I like to call a PASSIVE bounce. It’s just using the natural bounce of the light that was available or sometimes we made it into an ACTIVE bounce by using a couple of Arri 6K lamps.
In the original text along with Alice Bell’s version it was important to mark the differences between the country living with the urban. We tried to use colour in our night lighting to mark the country and the city. Urban environments would have a sodium or mercury lighting feel. Country night would have a more traditional moonlight feel of Cyan 15 or Cyan 30.
I also asked Steve in pre to make up some actual practical sodium and mercury lights. We carried four lamps, two 300W sodium light fittings and two 300w Mercury fixtures that we could easily dress into shot and they look the part. I wanted it to look like like the council put them there ! There’s something much more authentic about using the actual lights that create those colours rather than trying to match their colours with correction gels on film lights.
I also wanted to really push mixed colour temperature. The Alexa is such a tolerant camera for mixed lighting and I wanted to try and work as much of a mix as I could get away with. So daylight exteriors with tungsten prac and lit interiors were the norm.
Another technique was to use 5K tungsten Molebeams and use them for sunlight accents in a room whilst still letting the daylight ambience float through as well. You saw this in the Kitty clip above.
Skeet’s House – Lit with 2 x Dinettes with Rosco Urban Vapour exterior plus pracs
Kitty – Played by Sophie Lowe and lit by tungsten Molebeams and daylight
Sometimes we’d make our own practicals.
In this scene where we meet Nick Levin for the first time from episode one, Peter goes to see his unwell brother at his down at heel apartment. You’ll notice the lighting here is very simple. There’s two tungsten practical lamps, one in the deep BG and one on the table Nick is sitting at. We then also rigged a single fluro batten in shot very roughly just above the door ! I asked Steve to find me the worst colour tube he could. I wanted the flat and horrible anemic look you get from a stock standard tube. There are some miscellaneous friends that are hanging around outside that are kissed by a bit of urban vapour for an exterior night feel. This scene was actually shot day for night and we built a tent for the exterior of the location to hide the daylight. And that was it !
Staging for lighting.
I like this clip because it’s pretty much lit by pracs, very carefully placed after we’d blocked the scene and with mixed colour temperature as well. And that’s an important note.
When blocking the scene with the actors I always am trying to figure the line. In this case it’s what I call an inside triangle. Peter was the apex, with a majority eyeline to his brother Nick. There was also an eyeline between Peter and Nick’s partner Crystal.
Here’s a mud map. And the scene from the script TBL Ep1 BUFF AMENDMENTS Full Script
So you’ll notice that Peter and Nick do most of the talking and the scene is really between them. We see Nick’s’ girlfriend Crystal in passing but she’s incidental and there’s a reference to some other people just outside the door.
I’ve drawn on the first mud map here the eyeline between the actors. These are the dotted lines. So when an actor talks of looks to each other we can draw an imaginary line between them. With a three hander like this the staging fell in that peter would walk into the room and awkwardly do his lines to Nick who would be sometimes sitting or sometimes standing.
This triangle layout is something you’ll often encounter in the three hander and you have to try and figure out if you want the camera on the inside of the triangle or outside. This time I opted for the INSIDE, and it was probably because of the way the small size of the room falls in. It would be physically harder to get a camera on the outside of Peter and Nick (A and D) and it would also make the Wide shots (E and B) the “wrong” side of the line.
When we first run the lines in the space I try to listen very carefully to the actors and try to figure out what and who is important to the scene. Usually the actors are also trying to figure out the same things ! So you can listen in on the conversation with the director and actors and between them all it’s usually not too hard to figure out what’s happening.
With the eyelines established, which then tells me where to put the camera I can start to think about lighting. With the inside line established between our most important characters for the scene, Peter and Nick, that becomes the most important relationship.
Normally I like to be able to enable a cross shoot, meaning we’d shoot both angles at the same time, but the geography of the room made it physically impossible in this case. So instead we shot “down the line” meaning that both my cameras would shoot angles along the same eyeline. This could be a tighter CU say on Nick from camera D and wider shot like camera E. For sound we try not to do wide and tights so in reality I probably ran the D shot and the F shot at the same time. Notice too that even though we have an eyeline between Nick and his girlfriend Crystal, we haven’t drawn camera positions here, and in fact we didn’t shoot their eyelines to each other.
Because I now know the important eyeline to light for, I ask the art department to dress a prac lamp onto the table that Nick is sitting at. This puts my lightsource on the “outside” of the triangle, which means I get better modelling on both Nick and Peter. If the camera staging was on the outside of the triangle, it’s likely I’d try to put the prac lamp on the inside of the triangle.
You’ll also notice that once Peter gets inside the door he put’s his weight onto his right foot, meaning the fluro is now more coming over his left shoulder. Again, we’ve put the light on the outside of the triangle.
In the deeper BG behind Peter we placed another prac lamp for depth and also behind Nick we have some extras that are meant to be on the outside of his room. This scene was shot in the middle of the afternoon, and we’re on the first floor so we had to build a tent on the balcony to turn it to night. Nick’s friends were lit by a 1K through some rosco Industrial vapour
So even though this is a simple scene, I hope you get a sense of how it is constructed and is then reactively lit to make it look like it’s only lit by pracs and available light.
Skeets House / Studio
The whole idea of Skeet was to make him into a music producer / DJ. Glendyn really wanted for him to live in the same house he was recording an album in, that he’d moved in their for acoustic reasons !
We ended up in a beautiful old historical mansion in Kew called Villa Alba. No one had really shot there before and those that were trusted with looking after the precious national trust building were naturally worried about letting a smelly old film crew in there ! It look a lot of very careful negotiation on behalf of the production. We had to wear protective booties and we weren’t even allowed to touch the walls. There was a conservator in every single room watching us and making sure we didn’t lean on anything.
It was a difficult location in terms of logistics but it was such an amazing location to shoot in. This sequence is the first time we see it in the series, the first time we Skeet doing “his thing” and also introduce Marlon would would end up singing in each episode as the album is being made.
Interestingly, Glendyn wanted the recording of the album to be authentic, so of course we ended up setting up the real thing ! When you see Marlon singing in The Beautiful Lie, he is always singing live, and not to a click track or playback. We shot him for real and recorded him using the actual equipment you see in the shots. They aren’t just dressing !
Lighting in the main recording space on this scene was a couple of 12K Dinettes, 12 x 1K park64 bulbs that Americans would know as a Maxi Brute that were un-corrected. You can see them playing as harder shadows in the wider Shots. On the other side we had some fill from a 4K HMI ultrabounce. You’ll also notice most of the pracs are on as well.
Peter’s house would try to be the opposite to Skeet’s house. While Skeets would be urban and in the middle of the city, Peter’s house was very much in the country. The thinking was that it was once a grand old estate but it had not fallen behind a little on the up keep.
Peter was now an equine veterinarian. In this hilarious sequence from Ep2 you get a sense of the house as Peter tries to find some reliable wifi. Production Designer Mary had the idea to use lot’s of Mirror in the house to help increase the scale of the location. I always find them painful and fun to shoot in, and in this rather rude clip you’ll see that the mirror was a great way for Peter to realise how ridiculous he was being when he got take a look at himself from the outside. We seeded a lot more prac lamps in here as well, but mostly I lit this sequence with uncorrected 5K tungsten Mole Beams while the camera was set to 5600K. You’ll notice later in the clip when he’s standing against the bay windows you can see the real sun streaming in from the opposite direction to the fake sun direction I’d introduced in the first few shots.
In rural locations I tended to go for the more traditional moonlight feel of cyan 15 through a daylight source. We sometimes also used a more green version of on Dinettes, a 12 x 1K tungsten lamp.
Night is always a problem for me and day for night even more so. We had to do a lot of day for night at Xanders. TV shooting schedules, especially with such a big cast also mean you kind of have to deal with the cards you’re dealt. Usually the schedule is the least flexible time and one that you have the least control over. So that often means you’re asked by the first AD to shoot night scenes in the middle of the day. I always try to accommodate this and sometimes it’s easier to black out one part of the location than others. At Xanders for example, you’ll notice there’s a lot of floor to ceiling windows downstairs and you’re also always expecting to be able to SEE what’s outside those windows as they’ve been established.
DAY FOR NIGHT
Up stairs however at Xanders, the bedroom was a fairly simple day for night treatment as the windows on both sides had balconies that we could tent and props we could dress in so there would still be something outside the window. In this scene from Ep 1, Anna is sneaking home at dawn after having just had sex with Skeet in the front yard of a house adjacent to Kitties engagement party. There are two parts to this sequence that was shot over two days. We tried to shoot at dusk all the interior dusk shots where Anna is skulking about downstairs on a separate day so we could use the natural dusk ambience for dawn. I had the camera WB set to 2800K. Then when she’s upstairs and climbing into bed we were able to time the wide shot for the end of the second day at the same rough time (after shooting a bunch of other non related scenes of course) so we could still see out of the window outside but by the time we flipped the shot over to look at Anna, it was too dark and we had to recreate the dusk ambience. Of course it’s dawn, so it should be getting lighter when in fact while we were shooting it it was getting darker !
Steve built an 8×12 frame (large for an interior bedroom !) with grid and then we used a single 4″ daylight kino tube with Cyan 15 on it bounced into the 8×12 frame. That’s a very large, very soft and very dim light source. On the camera, I’d been using an “ikea” light. These are actually a little USB powered LED light designed for plugging into a keybaord which you can get for about 10 bucks at Ikea ! I’ve been using them for a few years as little eyelights mounted on camera or on the mattebox in closeups. They’re about 3000K. You can see the source reflected in Anna’s eyes here as she looks back towards Xander in the bed. The camera again was probably set to 2800K.
Night for day
Night for day can also be a spanner. We had a major sequence in ep 5 for Kitty and Peter’s wedding (told you I’d plot spoil !) We had a wedding to shoot and it took the entire day to shoot it. From memory there were 40 extras and 8 main cast. Kitty herself, played by Sophie Lowe as a bride took a long time in wardrobe and makeup as you’d expect so we didn’t have enough daylight to shoot the call sheet for the day. We had a small scene to do with Kitty and Dolly after Anna has shown up un-invited to the wedding and almost ruined Kitty’s day ! So it was scheduled last and done night for day. I used the 20×12 with two 6K Pars, plus we used an additional couple of 6K’s to fill in some of the shadows. You can see from the staging we’re trying to avoid shooting outside too much, but you can see on Kitty’s side of the coverage that there is life outside the windows, it’s not just blown to white.
Day scenes also tended to be treated the same way using larger bounced sources, or often a large bounce wedge.
For the final sequence of Episode 4, director Peter Salmon really wanted to show the devastation for Anna who has to leave her marital home with her newborn daughter Vivianne and drive away from her 6 year old son Kasper at the end of the episode. In the big print of the script it was intended for there to be the reflection of Anna’s car as she and Skeet drove away with his new sister. Peter really wanted to honour that in the script but the logistics of shooting in the already established Xander house meant that there would be no way to make the car reflection a practical effect.
Instead we made it a composite. First we shot Kasper looking from his bedroom and asked him to imagine his mother driving away. Seperately we shot two additional plates. One from the same balcony that Kasper’s bedroom was located which had the lights of the suburb and a tree that had been lit. Second plate was actually shot out on the road where Anna’s car could be shot driving away. So the car driving away and the lights and tree reflection where then composited back into the shot of Kasper looking out the window.
Here are the script pages for this scene. Read them first, then watch below.
The very final harrowing sequence in The Beautiful Lie sees a kind of overview of all the characters we’ve met in the series as Anna sinks deeper into despair, finally throwing herself in front of a train.
I’d like to take this moment to direct anyone who’s feeling that they are in a similar state of despair to consider this link.
This scene will take some time to go through, so if you’re interested, carefully read the pages of the script. They’re linked below. It’s a complex intercutting of timelines between present day Anna who’s coming to a decision to do something reckless and end her own life as we see both scenes from the romantic beginning of her affair with Skeet from 2 years ago in story terms as well as contemporary vignettes of the other families and characters we’ve met along the journey of this series.
Perhaps try to imagine yourself as the director or DP pulling this together !
This sequence starts with Anna leaving her new born child Vivianne at the steps of Vivianne’s grandmother, the mother of Skeet with whom she’s had this affair. She then finds herself in a full blown anxiety attack and returns to the same spot we saw early on that Skeet took her to as their romance was beginning. She tries to recreate the magic and understand why her relationship with Skeet has now also failed. She finds herself walking to the nearby train tunnel.
Anna narrates this in the past tense as she has all through the series. As she walks through the tunnel we sense a train starting to approach. Anna moves to kneel and face the oncoming train. One thing we talked about at great deal was if we wanted to have the audience question if she really wanted to go through with this drastic and desperate act. In the last minute would we sense that she actually wanted to live ?
It’s exceptionally difficult to work anywhere near trains on a film set. They are very dangerous as evidenced by the tragic death of Sarah Jones. There would be no way we could put an actor or even crew near a working train or in an actual live train tunnel.
So we had to improvise ! This was one of the most difficult sequences to visualise because it was not only the very final sequence for this series, it would have to feel as realistic as posisble. But we wouldn’t have a real train or a real train tunnel to work in !
As often happens in television, the final episode wasn’t written when we started shooting the first episode and would have a different director. So while we knew we’d have to shoot some version of this scene it was still a bit up in the air. Glendyn chose the early romantic lookout knowing there was a nearby train tunnel and second block director Peter Salmon then worked with the writers to fit the scene to our location limitations.
We needed to take Anna back to this location, except she now sees it in the cold hard light of day. All the flashbacks were evening so that nicely counterpointed her distance and distress. She sees the nearby train and tunnel and moved towards it down the road.
At this point we had to get our actress Sarah into a train tunnel. And we did this with some careful location fudging and a bit of a combination of art department dressing and digital set extension. Our locations department managed to find a long tunnel at the Caulfield racecourse that was normally used to drive horse floats and mounted horses from the nearby stables into the race course. It had kind of the right curve though was realistically too wide. So we chose to use only the one side and I worked with the art department to calculate where to dress some bunker lights for the walls along with some train signalling lights.
The art department costed building some actual train track we could walk Anna along. Turns out it was really expensive ! We could only afford about 3 meters worth of real train track. This would be used for Anna to walk or stand / kneel on and then for set extension and replication. With some careful framing that cropped the ground out we tried to avoid seeing the “missing” track behind Anna.
Using a large 20×20 grid frame at the end of each side of the tunnel I used that to blow out seeing outside the tunnel. Scott Zero from Blue Post added some CG train tracks in the background as Anna was walking deeper into the tunnel.
All we had to do then was create a train ! Working with gaffer Steve Price we mounted a 2K Blondie to the roll bar of a utility truck and put a small generator in the back. There was about a 75 meter run that the car could drive along so we used that to mimic the oncoming train. By driving the car towards Anna with the light burning above it, we could replicate the light of a train approaching anna. It would get brighter as it got closer and the height would change relative to her as well. This meant we could easily shoot the profile and frontal shot’s of Sarah using this simulated train light to interactively work on her face. By carefully adding some wind that also changed velocity as as the pretend train approached we were able to very realistically mimic the train’s approach.
For the over shoulder shots we firstly shot Sarah against a green screen in the same position, using some smaller tungsten lights to edge her. The preference from the VFX supervisor was for the lighting NOT to change during this as he wanted to add those himself. We then took Sarah out of the locked off shot and then shot a plate of the car with the blondie approaching to give him some reference and to enable him to use the spill on the tunnel walls. Director Peter Salmon really wanted the train to come from around a corner as well, so that meant the whole tunnel would be re-built in 3D. A CG train was also used to finish the illusion. All of the train tunnel sequence was shot using only a single camera, simply because of the amount of set extension work that had to be done.
So here’s your homework ! Read the script pages carefully, look at the storyboards and THEN watch the harrowing final 5 mins of The Beautiful Lie.
Here are the scenes from the final episode, scenes 72-77. And for you nerds that are into formatting rules for scripts, it’s also worth noting the formating of these pages. TV script amendments can get complicated once the script is locked ! You can tell by the colour of script pages that this scene was re-written a few times to take account of the difficulties in visualising it. You’ll notice that this the “lilac” version. Any lilac coloured pages were updated from the last version. If you look at this link you’ll see how this code works and that Lilac means it’s the tenth amendment to this scene ! (Lilac = Lavender).
Here are director Peter Salmon’s storyboards for this sequence.
Glendyn was also very attached to the global shutter of the Alexa Studio. He’d first used the Alexa Studio on Gallipoli, and he really felt he could see the difference onscreen in motion cadence and I’d be hard pressed to argue, especially when we were going to be shooting most of the show hand held. I think this is when the global shutter of the Alexa studio comes into it’s own, because hand held means you’re more likely to see some of the subtle artefacts of a rolling shutter. For an example of the on-screen visual differences between a rolling shutter and global shutter, you can look here.
The Beautiful Lie is almost exclusively a hand held show. This was something we talked a lot about in the beginning. I think there are probably only two locked off shots and they were both VFX requirements. A hand held feel was put on them afterwards.
I didn’t really relish the idea of hand holding an Alexa Studio. In pre, we weighed the camera and fully loaded with a Zeiss superspeed prime it was pushing 17Kgs. Not really lightweight.
I did have a slight help though. I’d just purchased a new handgrip. I was always a fan of the old Aaton walnut handgrip. Wood is such a wonderful material…it doesn’t get slippery as your hand perspires and warms up and it fits so well to the shape of your hand.
Taking that idea to it’s extreme, Shooting Machine have developed a more mature version of that idea. They’ve made the actual grip much fatter. By making a larger fist you actually find it less fatiguing to hold and operate the camera for long periods of time.
The cinegrip also has a lot of customisation options about where you can place it in space relative to the camera. I’ve been experimenting a lot with putting my right hand almost in line UNDERNEATH the lens. By using their clock arm and then tweaking I could get my hand and wrist to the most comfortable position. Basically making a fist and pointing right up vertical into the air with my elbow tucked into my side or resting sometimes on a cinesaddle I strapped on.
And after a few weeks the grip developed a lovely patina and it really felt great in the hand.
Considering how much time one spends cradling and using a handle to literally guide the shot, it occurs to me that any help that can improve that connection to the camera and the way you guide has to be a help. The more easily it becomes and extension of you the better your shot. The cinegrip felt like it made it easier to hold the camera in a more natural way.
I didn’t really bother to explore the features, but you can program the grip. It has 4 buttons and you can even chord them together to get more functions. I think at present tends to work best with Sony cameras where more of those function, but I personally prefer just using it for operating the shot rather than driving camera functions.
Luckily, they make smart and dumb versions.
I should say too at this point that I was lucky enough to have a great amount of support from my Key Grip Craig Dusting. You might think that being all hand held there wouldn’t be much to do for a grip but that of course is far from true ! Craig did a magnificent job with a great deal of blacking especially in some really tricky locations. Always attentive too, you really want to offload the Alexa Studio as soon cut is called so you need someone who’s always there to share the load.
In addition to the Alexa Studio I also had a Sony F55. I’m quite fond of the Sony too, and it was mainly used for any Movi or highspeed shots we had to do. The Alexa Studio would never make it onto the Movi as it’s way to big and heavy and only had a top speed of 75 FPS. The F55 was a good match because it too has a global shutter.
Here’s a Movi / F55 sequence intercut with the Alexa. The Movi is used for the lead and follow down the corridor but also the two shot this sequence resolves into at the end. The shots at the top and the CU’s at the end are Alexa studio. The little push into Sarah’s face when she hears her baby’s heartbeat is also F55.
Also note the two 5K tungsten uncorrected mole beams for the sunlight in the bedroom with the daylight bounce ambience and the tungsten “cube” light half way down the corridor before we move back into daylight and pracs in the recording studio room.
(The Cube light is a bunch of ES tungsten 100 w globes in a simple frame made of grid cloth and ultrabounce.)
Alongside the Alexa Studio and Sony F55 we also used another small camera for especially tricky and intimate shots, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II.
I’ve long been one to practice camera agnosticism, that is, I try to use the right camera for the job. Usually what it means for my long suffering crew is that i carry and use a lot of different cameras.
Size is one of the things that means I will often choose a different camera to get a certain kind of shot or a certain kind of shot intimacy. Sometimes the Alexa is just to big to shove in someone’s face ! And I say that because sometimes you’re called on to shoot scenes that for actros are going to be really difficult. And I see it as part of my role as the DOP, to create the right tone in the room to let the actor’s do what they have to do without fear of judgement or having to worry about what they look like.
So here’s a simple example of a sequence from Episode 1. See if you can pick which shot’s are from the Olmypus when you’re watching. And why ?
Kitty is having a meltdown because she thinks Anna has stolen her fiancee Skeet at their engagement party ! We move to see peter driving home through the empty streets. Driving is the kind of setup AD’s and production manager hate because it ties up main cast but it’s kind of out of control too, and there’s a whole crew sitting around twiddling their thumbs while a car goes for a drive with the director and maybe a camera assistant and script supervisor and grip following in another vehicle. Because it’s so “small” the first AD naturally schedules for last in the day so other people can be wrapping, but when you’re a bit late to get to it, then you’re really pressed for time ! We only had about 10 mins in the car with Alex to shoot this. So we had Alex driving, Glendyn was in the back seat with the Olympus OM D E-M5 MarkII and the SLR Magic 25mm T0.96 Prime. It meant I could just hand him the camera while I shot with the Alexa Studio profile. THEN, while we were driving, we swapped cameras. Glendyn now had the Alexa Studio in the back and I had the Olympus in the front shooting profile. I was able to lean in and get some super tight shots. The Olympus was great in this scenario because it was so small and light and it has an amazing image stabiliser, perfect for stealing in car shots like this !!
In this next clip I must advise some viewer discretion. It’s a very intimate scene between a couple, but it’s precisely this reason I chose to shoot some of it on the Olympus OM D E M5 Mark II.
Anna is pregnant and she’s now living with Skeet in his house after leaving her husband Xander and her first child Casper. Things aren’t going so well, but they’re trying to be intimate and re-connect with each other. As Sarah would be wearing a fake pregnancy belly to fake her being pregnant we had some wardrobe issued we needed to be mindful of. The big print called for Skeet to be going down on Anna and performing cunnilingus.
Sex scenes are always tricky with actors and I’ve found the best approach is to try to reduce as much as poisble the number of people in the room. For this sequence we had only the director Peter Salmon looking over my shoulder mostly and a boom swinger for sound and the two cast. Everyone else was kicked out.
So we had a few takes where shot the wider shots with the Alexa studio, and we needed to come in closer. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I’d find a little still camera a lot easier to work with compared to a fully rigged Alexa !
And you know the thing is, because the camera was so small I could put it in places where I’d never get an Alexa. I could do this very quickly in the middle of the shot without inturrpting the actors action. This meant they could just perform and I could just react and also get shots that more easily protected the modesty of the actors as well as being visually unique.
Of course the Olympus is never going to stand up against the visual acuity of the Alexa Studio, but that’s not the point ! I was able to out the camera exactly where it needed to be and because it was hand held and has a great stabiliser we got some greats where there would imply just be no other way to get these kinds of shots. We were able to make the actors feel as comfortable as we could at the same time. With scenes like this I think it’s way more important to get the stprytelling informstion delivered while making the actors feel as safe and protected as possible. We can still make it look great but just adapting out approach. I think it worked out great !
“A” Camera operator – Sam Chiplin, wearing his cinesaddle hand held camera support.
My A camera operator was also a potentially unconventional choice. Sam Chiplin is a terrific cinematographer in his own right and has many high profile commercial credits to his name. Glendyn suggested him after we started talking about getting an A camera operator who had less of a traditional drama background and more of a documentary or even sports coverage background.
Sam had mostly done TVC work and hadn’t done much drama, so we threw him into the very deep end as the A camera operator. He did a great job and brought so much energy and enthusiasm to the job and I loved the way he threw himself into it !
Thanks for reading this far.
The Beautiful Lie was such a tremendous shoot and I’m so proud of the great television we made. I couldn’t have done it without my outstanding crew, especially in the camera department. My “A” camera assistant Jessica Clarke-Nash lead a great bunch and put up with me shooting wide open, hand held and moving without a lot of rehearsals, as did my B focus puller Matt Dobson.. My excellent loaders Mirek and Corey also really stepped up, especially when I would have Jess sometimes operate a third camera.
I also want to acknowledge the producers Imogen Banks and John Edwards along with Alice Bell and Glendyn Ivin who really encouraged me to make this the show it is. Second block director Peter SAlmon also did a great job with bringing the show home.
Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments below.
Alexa Studio x 2
Sony F55 (Movi and Highspeed)
Olympus OM D E-M5 Mark II (small intimate and hand held work)
Zeiss Superspeeds 18, 25, 35, 50, 85
Zeiss 20mm standard
Zeiss 16mm standard
Zeiss CP2 Superspeeds (28 35, 50, 85, 100, 135)
Zeiss CP2 50mm Macro