By Randi Altman
Judd Overton, who grew up in the Australian Outback, knew he wanted to be a DP before he even knew exactly what that was, spending a lot of his time watching and re-watching movies on VHS tapes. When he was young, a documentary film crew came to his town. “I watched as the camera operator was hanging off the side of my motorbike filming as we charged over sand dunes. I thought that was a pretty cool job!”
The rest, as they say, is history. Overton’s recent work includes the Netflix comedy series The Letdown and No Activity, which is a remake of the Australian comedy series of the same name. It stars Patrick Brammall and Tim Meadows and is produced by CBS Television Studios in association with Funny or Die, Jungle and Gary Sanchez Productions. It streams on CBS All Access.
We recently reached out to Overton, who also just completed the documentary Lessons from Joan, about one of the first female British theater directors, Joan Littlewood.
What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology that serves your vision?
What I love about what I do is being able to see things, and show the world to audiences in a way people haven’t seen before. I always keep abreast of technology, but for me the technology really needs to service the story. I choose particular equipment in order to capture the emotion of the piece.
What new technology has changed the way you work (looking back over the past few years?
The greatest change in my world is the high-quality, high-ISO cameras now on the market. This has meant being able to shoot in a much less obtrusive way, shooting and lighting to create footage that is far closer to reality.
The use of great-quality LED lighting is something I’m really enjoying. The ability to create and capture any color and control it from your iPhone opens the floodgates for some really creative lighting.
Can you describe your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project?
Every director is different, it’s a role and relationship I fill as required. Some directors like to operate the camera themselves. In that case, I oversee the lighting. Some directors just want to work with the actors, so my job then involves more responsibilities for coverage, camera movement and selecting locations.
I try to be open to each new experience and make creative guidelines for a project in collaboration with the director and producers, trying to preempt obstacles before they strike.
Tell us about the CBS All Access show No Activity. Can you describe the overall look of the show and what you and the director/producers wanted to achieve?
I shot the pilot for the original No Activity five years ago. Trent O’Donnell (writer/director, co-creator) wanted to make a series out of simple two hander (two actor) scenes.
We decided to use the police procedural drama genre because we knew the audience would fill in gaps with their own knowledge. In a show where very little happens, the mood and style become far more important.
How early did you get involved in the production?
I’ve been involved since the show was conceptualized. We shot the pilot in a parking lot in one of Sydney’s seedier areas. We fought off a lot of rats.
How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for this project?
I had to shoot three cameras, as the show is heavily improvised. Other than my main cameras with zoom lenses, I chose the best cameras for each sequence. We used Blackmagic cameras Ursa Pro and Micro for a lot of our rigged positions. I also used Panasonic cameras for our available light work, and even an Arri 65 for some projection plates.
Were there any scenes that you are particularly proud of?
The scene I had the most fun with was the siege, which plays over the last two episodes of Season 2. We dusted off and fired up two 1930s Arc lights. Carbon Arc lights are what all the old Hollywood films used before HMIs. They are a true 5600 Kelvin, daylight source.
My gaffer’s father actually made these units, and they were refurbished for Quentin Tarantino’s film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. We used them as searchlights for our nighttime siege, and the bright beams and plumes of smoke rising really gave the scene an epic scale.
What’s your go-to gear — things you can’t live without?
Communication is everything, and the latest toy in my toy box is HME headsets. They allow me to have constant communications with my camera operators, grips and electrics, essential when you’re running five cameras across multiple units.