Tag Archives: Netflix

DP Chat: No Activity cinematographer Judd Overton

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!”

No Activity

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.

 

Judd Overton

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.

No Activity

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.

House of Cards showrunners Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese

By Iain Blair

Since it first premiered back in 2013, Netflix’s oh-so-timely political thriller House of Cards has been a big hit, delivering provocative, twisty plot lines peppered with surprises and shocks. It has also racked up dozens of awards, including 33 Primetime Emmys and fistfuls of Golden Globes along the way. But the biggest shocker of all was probably the real-life firing of star Kevin Spacey last year by Netflix, following allegations of sexual misconduct.

Writer Iain Blair (left) with Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese.

With Spacey — and power-hungry Frank Underwood — suddenly MIA, the upside is that girls now rule the world. This is great news for Robin Wright fans as the Golden Globe-winner and Emmy-nominee returns as President of the United States in Season 6, the final season of the series, which is now streaming on Netflix.

The show has added Oscar-nominees Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear to the cast, in addition to American Horror Story-alum Cody Fern. They join existing players Michael Kelly, Jayne Atkinson, Patricia Clarkson, Constance Zimmer, Derek Cecil, Campbell Scott and Boris McGiver.

Behind the scenes, Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese continue as showrunners for Season 6, and serve as executive producers along with Robin Wright, David Fincher, Joshua Donen, Dana Brunetti, Eric Roth, Michael Dobbs and Andrew Davies. Created for television by Beau Willimon, House of Cards is produced by Donen/Fincher/Roth and Trigger Street Productions, in association with Media Rights Capital for Netflix.

I recently spoke with Gibson and Pugliese about making the show and awards season.

When Kevin Spacey was fired, and you lost the show’s star, did you consider ending the series early?
Frank Pugliese: Yes, it was a huge thing, a big shock, and I think it had to be considered.

Melissa James Gibson: Everything was on the table as we wanted to make sure our way forward was the right one. We needed to regroup and carefully go through every possibility.

Pugliese: But pretty quickly we figured out that the best response was to try and tell the story without Francis on screen. So within a day or so, we were back at work, writing out ideas and discussing how to do it.

What can you tell us about the new season? Robin has said that it’ll be “a real shocker.”
Pugliese: Our hope is that it’s shocking but also feels inevitable at the same time, and we’re trying our best to give the show its most satisfying ending that has integrity and also serves a story that’s been told over many years.

Gibson: We tried to forge a brave way forward that would also be a reckoning for all of the characters We both knew that this season “reckoning” would be a key word, along with “complicity.”

Robin’s directed quite a few episodes over the years. Is it true she also directed the big finale?
Pugliese: Yes, and it seemed so appropriate. Remember, Season 5 ended with her saying, “My turn,” so even as we began exploring what to do this season, it seemed unacceptable to not have that examined and dramatized. It just seemed right that she would direct the last one, and the last scene of the whole story was actually done on the last day of shooting. So her as the lead and also directing just seemed right.

Gibson: It kind of all led up to that, and the focus was always going to be on her in Season 6.

Pugliese: So much had been set up at the end of the last season, and we’d talked so much during the planning of that season about how Season 6 would go, and about who really owns the White House. Pile on the power. And Francis says he’ll own the White House by owning her. No matter what, it was going to be all about her and the powers that be trying to own her — one of them being her husband.

Maybe it’s a very prescient arc, and America will elect a woman president next?
Gibson: Wouldn’t that be nice!

Do you like being a showrunners?
Gibson: We both love it. We came on as writers on Season 3 when Beau hired us, worked as writers on Season 4, and then began showrunning last season.

Pugliese: I really like it.

Gibson: It’s because I feel that a lot of the challenges Claire faces this season are the same ones you face as a showrunner (laughs). When you’re making decisions and setting priorities it says a lot about what you value.

What are the big challenges of showrunning?
Gibson: I’d say establishing all the priorities, both micro and macro.

Pugliese: We work very closely, and it probably goes back to our days in theater, but for me it’s establishing a collective communal work atmosphere. Your hope is that you can delegate a lot of the responsibility and then do the best work possible. If you can do that successfully, then the show’s successful. Helping establish all that really helped us with the new season, because in dealing with [the Spacey firing] we all felt that the best way to deal with it was to get to work and focus on telling the best story we could. Everyone agreed on that.

Where do you post?
Pugliese: We shoot in Baltimore, but all the post is done here in LA, and we do remote sessions using Pix.

Is that weird?
Pugliese: It’s weird until it’s not weird. If you think about it, it is, but you quickly get used to it and we can go over sequences in great detail.

Do you like the post process?
Gibson: We love it. It’s the third part of the entire storytelling, and I’ve learned so much dealing with post and editing and visual effects and so on. Our post supervisor, Hameed Shaukat, has been with the show since the very start.

You have several editors, I assume because of the time factor. How does that work?
Gibson: We have about four at any one time, and many have been with the show for years, and they’ll hop-scotch around. We give notes, they’ll re-cut stuff, and we’ll have robust conversations about scenes and the tone and pacing and so on.

Pugliese: Some days we’ll get on the phone right away and they’ll cut some things to see if they’re even working or not. There’s a lot of back and forth.

You have a big cast and a lot of stuff going on in each episode. What are the big editing challenges?
Gibson: It’s always about trying to balance the various competing elements and characters, and then this season we have a number of new characters and cast members, like Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear, so it’s all about calibration and the rhythm.

Pugliese: We work really hard to get the scripts in the best place possible, and we have really intensive and extensive tonal meetings where we go line by line and explain the intent to everyone involved. So if everyone’s on the same page when it comes to tone and intent, then they can go off and just do their jobs. That means less work for us, so we can then just focus on the overall storyline.

Gibson: It helps that there was a rigorous vocabulary established right at the start by David Fincher, so we had a great template to follow.

Pugliese: It also helped us in knowing when it was time to move away from that.

This show has a great score and great sound design. Talk about the importance of sound and music.
Gibson: It’s a vital part, and like Hameed, composer Jeff Beal has been with the show since day one, and he wrote that famous theme. He knows exactly what is needed. We also have a great sound team, with guys like supervising sound editor Jeremy Molod and sound designer Ren Klyce, who’ve also been there since day one. It’s a pretty well-oiled machine by now.

How important are awards to a show like this?
Pugliese: I get so excited when I see people in the show get recognized by their peers. Everyone works so hard.

There’s been a lot of talk about lack of opportunity for women in movies. Are things better in TV?
Gibson: It’s so good that people are now talking openly about the problems, and I think the industry as a whole is trying to make adjustments and make sure there are more women in the room, more people of color. But it’s not just that it’s the right thing to do ethically — it’s also about being good for the work. It needs to change.

Pugliese: Yes, it does need to change, and a correction is long overdue.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

 

Tamara Jenkins talks writing, directing the Netflix film Private Life

By Iain Blair

Writer/director Tamara Jenkins has never been shy about mining her personal life for laughs and tears — or taking her time with a project. Her debut feature film, 1998’s semi-autobiographical dark comedy Slums of Beverly Hills, which she wrote and directed, was partly based on her own childhood growing up poor in the mega-wealthy city. The cult hit went on to score two Independent Spirit Awards nominations. Nearly a decade later, she premiered The Savages at Sundance. The comedy, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as neurotic siblings dealing with their dementia-afflicted father, went on to receive two Oscar noms — a Best Actress nod for Linney and a Best Original Screenplay nod for Jenkins.

Tamara Jenkins

Now, another decade later, Jenkins and her husband’s own real-life struggle to have a child has provided fertile material for her new film, Private Life, which stars Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as a middle-aged married couple who have been repeatedly trying to get pregnant, undergoing multiple fertility treatments while also exploring adoption and other options. Just as the possibilities of conception seem to get further away with each passing attempt, an unexpected Hail Mary arrives in the form of a recent college dropout who might just prove to be the last, unconventional piece of their fertility puzzle.

I talked recently with Jenkins about making the film and her advice for aspiring women directors.

So just how autobiographical is this new film?
Quite a bit. The experience of dealing with infertility and IVF is something me and my husband went through for years. I’d discuss it all with a friend who kept telling me, “You should write all this stuff down because it’s so hilarious and so heartbreaking. You should make a movie about this.” But I didn’t quite see it that way at the time (laughs). So the emotional core of the story is true, and I felt like quite an expert on the subject and it informed it all, but then the demands of fiction take over and invention comes in and stuff is made up. So it’s a combination of both fact and fiction.

It’s been over a decade since Savages, partly because of your battle to get pregnant. I assume this can’t have been easy to get greenlit?
No kidding! Infertility is a tough sell. I actually had notes for this back in ’08, right on the heels of The Savages, and I remember going back to them years later and wondering why I hadn’t carried on writing it. Then I remembered, “Oh yeah, I had a baby in 2009!” I’d forgotten that little detail. And then deals fell through until Netflix got involved, so it was a long process.

It’s about infertility, but it’s also really about a marriage, right?
Exactly. I always thought of it as a portrait of a marriage, but one that takes place in the land of IVF and doctors. I had this guiding principle: that it’s like a road movie, and these two characters are in a car and they’re off to infertility land. The key thing was, ‘How do they handle it and endure it, and how does it affect the marriage?’ I was also interested in writing about middle-aged marriage, and how they’re almost having a mutual mid-life crisis together — when you find yourself hitting your head up against what your expectations were for your life and dreams, and what the reality actually is. I think everyone can relate to that.

You assembled a great cast that’s so believable. No one’s super-rich or super-beautiful. What did Paul and Kathryn bring to the roles?
I wanted to make a film about a real couple, not a movie couple, set in a New York that also feels real and not like a movie version of it. They’re so great and grounded in the roles, and have such great chemistry. What’s funny is that you assume actors like Paul and Kathryn know each other having been in the business for a long time, but they’d never even met before. So I ended up organizing a dinner for them at Paul’s house, and I cooked, and they did the dishes together and then we had a read-through. Then a couple of months later we had a few days rehearsal when they both got back to town from other projects.

How long was the shoot?
Just 30 days, which wasn’t long enough. We shot in a real apartment and had to work very fast, but it was pretty smooth.

Where did you do the post?
At Sim Post New York, which used to be Post Factory.

Do you like post?
I absolutely love it. I feel like you always learn so much about filmmaking in post. It’s probably the best way to teach people about what a movie really is, and how it comes together and gets cut and made. For me, post is very exciting but also terrifying. Every movie has this plasticity and you’re trying to find your way. Do you have all the pieces you need? Are they the right stuff for it? But then I love when you start to drop music in and work on all the sound design, and things start to emerge. It’s truly amazing how it takes on a life of its own, like some science experiment.

You worked with The Savages editor Brian Kates. What did he bring to the project, and was he on set?
He visited once, just to check it out, but he then began to do his assembly while I shot. He’s a great collaborator. There was one scene we shot in the apartment that I was a bit worried about, so he cut that early on and then showed me so I could get a sense of how it was working, in case I needed to go back to it. That was very helpful.

What were the main editing challenges?
Tone and pacing are always crucial, but I felt like the tone was pretty well established with the writing and the performances. I suppose the big challenge was finding the right takes, the best performances, but there were tonal things. Maybe it was a bit too broad here, it needed to be a bit more subtle there, that sort of thing.

Can you talk about the VFX in this film?
We had a bit of seasonal stuff, adding snow where there wasn’t enough, doing signage, cleanup, and we used a few fluid morphs, which Brian is really good at on the Avid, and I loved those.

What about the DI?
We also did that at Sim, with colorist Alex Bickel, who is this brilliant artist. I love the DI process, and I think he gave it this beautiful look. We were actually the first people to use their brand new DI stage, so that was a thrill.

There’s been a lot of talk about the lack of opportunity for women directors. Are things improving?
I think the idealism for the improvement is there, but it just takes so long for that to translate into real action and bear fruit. There’s a lot of talk and thinking, but it hasn’t hit the ground yet. It’s still tough for women.

Tamara Jenkins on set.

What’s your advice to a woman who wants to direct?
The best thing I can say is you should probably write and learn to make your own material, so you actually have something to bring to the table. You also have to stick to your guns. I remember years ago going to a writing workshop when I was working on Slums of Beverly Hills, and this big Hollywood screenwriter said, “You can’t open a movie with five pages on a girl getting fitted for a bra!” And I felt like an idiot. It took a while for me to reclaim my sense of self. So if someone tells you something like that, just don’t listen to them.

We’re already heading into the awards season. You’ve been nominated for an Oscar. How important are awards to you and your films?
They’re so important for smaller films like mine because they bring attention they probably wouldn’t get otherwise.

What’s next?
I have an idea I’m developing. I just hope people don’t have to wait another decade for it to arrive (laughs).


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

Behind the Camera: Television DPs

By Karen Moltenbrey

Directors of photography on television series have their work cut out for them. Most collaborate early on with the director on a signature “look.” Then they have to make sure that aesthetic is maintained with each episode and through each season, should they continue on the series past the pilot. Like film cinematographers, their job entails a wide range of responsibilities aside from the camera work. Once shooting is done, they are often found collaborating with the colorists to ensure that the chosen look is maintained throughout the post process.

Here we focus on two DPs working on two popular television series — one drama, one sitcom — both facing unique challenges inherent in their current projects as they detail their workflows and equipment choices.

Ben Kutchins: Ozark
Lighting is a vital aspect in the look of the Netflix family crime drama Ozark. Or perhaps more accurate, the lack of lighting.

Ben Kutchins (left) on set with actor/director Jason Bateman.

“I’m going for a really naturalistic feel,” says DP Ben Kutchins. “My hope is that it never feels like there’s a light or any kind of artificial lighting on the actors or lighting the space. Rather, it’s something that feels more organic, like sunlight or a lamp that’s on in the room, but still offers a level of being stylized and really leans into the darkness… mining the shadows for the terror that goes along with Ozark.”

Ozark, which just kicked off its second season, focuses on financial planner Marty Byrde, who relocates his family from the Chicago suburbs to a summer resort area in the Missouri Ozarks. After a money laundering scheme goes awry, he must pay off a debt to a Mexican drug lord by moving millions of the cartel’s money from this seemingly quiet place, or die. But, trouble is waiting for them in the Ozarks, as Marty is not the only criminal operating there, and he soon finds himself in much deeper than he ever imagined.

“It’s a story about a family up against impossible odds, who constantly fear for their safety. There is always this feeling of imminent threat. We’re trying to invoke a heightened sense of terror and fear in the audience, similar to what the characters might be feeling,” explains Kutchins. “That’s why a look that creates a vibe of fear and danger is so important. We want it to feel like there is danger lurking around every corner — in the shadows, in the trees behind the characters, in the dark corners of the room.”

In summary, the look of the show is dark — literally and figuratively.

“It is pretty extreme by typical television standards,” Kutchins concedes. “We’ve embraced an aesthetic and are having fun pushing its boundaries, and we’re thrilled that it stands out from a pretty crowded market.”

According to Kutchins, there are numerous examples where the actor disappears into the shadows and then reappears moments later in a pool of light, falling in and out of shadow. For instance, a character may turn off a light and plunge the room into complete darkness, and you do not see that character again until they reappear, until they’re lit by moonlight coming through a window or silhouetted against a window.

“We’re not spending a lot of time trying to fill in the shadows. In fact, we spend most of our time creating more shadows than exist naturally,” he points out.

Jason Bateman, who plays Marty, is also an executive producer and directed the first two and last two episodes of Season 1. Early on, he, along with Kutchins and Pepe Avila del Pino, who shot the pilot, hashed out the desired look for the show, leaning into a very cyan and dark color palette — and leaning in pretty strongly. “Most people think of [this area as] the South, where it’s warm and bright, sweaty and hot. We just wanted to lean into something more nuanced, like a storm was constantly brewing,” Kutchins explains. “Jason really pushed that aesthetic hard across every department.”

Alas, that was made even more difficult since the show was mainly shot outdoors in the Atlanta area, and a good deal of work went into reacting to Mother Nature and transforming the locations to reflect the show’s Ozark mountain setting. “I spent an immense amount of time and effort killing direct sunlight, using a lot of negative fill and huge overheads, and trying to get rid of that direct, harsh sun,” says Kutchins. “Also, there are so many windows inside the Byrde house that it’s essentially like shooting an exterior location; there’s not a lot of controlled light, so you again are reacting and adapting.”

Kutchins shoots the series on a Panasonic VariCam, which he typically underexposes by a stop or two, mining the darker part of the sensor, “the toe of the exposure curve.” And by doing so, he is able to bring out the dirtier, more naturalistic, grimy parts of the image, rather than something that looks clean and polished. “Something that has a little bit of texture to it, some grit and grain, something that’s evocative of a memory, rather than something that looks like an advertisement,” he says.

To further achieve the look, Kutchins uses an in-camera LUT that mimics old Fuji film stock. “Then we take that into post,” he says, giving kudos to his colorist, Company 3’s Tim Stipan, who he says has been invaluable in helping to develop the “vibe” of the show. “As we moved along through Season 1 and into Season 2, he’s been instrumental in enhancing the footage.”

A lot of Kutchins’ work occurs in post, as the raw images captured on set are so different from the finals. Insofar as the digital intermediate is concerned, significant time is spent darkening parts of the frame, brightening small sections of the frame and working to draw the viewer into the frame. “I want people to be leaning on the edge of their seat, kind of wanting to look inside of the screen and poke their head in for a look around,” Kutchins says. “So I do a lot of vignetting and darkening of the edges, and darkening specific things that I think are distracting.”

Nevertheless, there is a delicate balance he must maintain. “I talk about the darkness of Ozark, but I am trying to ride that fine line of how dark it can be but still be something that’s pleasant to watch. You know, where you’re not straining to see the actor’s face, where there’s just enough information there and the frame is just balanced enough so your eyes feel comfortable looking at it,” he explains. “I spend a lot of time creating a focal point in the frame for your eyes to settle on — highlighting certain areas and letting some areas go black, leaving room for mystery in every frame.”

When filming, Kutchins and his crew use Steadicams, cranes, dollies and handheld. He also uses Cooke Optics’ S4 lenses, which he tends to shoot wide open, “to let the flaws and character of the lenses shine through.”

Before selecting the Panasonic VariCam, Kutchins and his group tested other cameras. Because of Netflix’s requirement for 4K, that immediately ruled out the ARRI Alexa, which is Kutchins’ preferred camera. “But the Panasonic ended up shining,” he adds.

In Ozark, the urban family is pitted against nature, and thus, the natural elements around them need to feel dangerous, Kutchins points out. “There’s a line in the first season about how people drown in the lake all the time. The audience should always feel that; when we are at the water’s edge, that someone could just slip in and disappear forever,” he says. “So, the natural elements play a huge role in the inspiration for the lighting and the feel of the show.”

Jason Blount:The Goldbergs
A polar opposite to Ozark in almost every way, The Goldbergs is a single-camera comedy sitcom set in the ’80s about a caring but grumpy dad, an overbearing mother and three teens — the oldest, a popular girl; the middle one, who fancies himself a gifted athlete and strives to be popular; and the youngest, a geek who is obsessed with filmmaking, as he chronicles his life and that of his family on film. The series is created and executive-produced by Adam F. Goldberg and is based on his own life and childhood, which he indeed captured on film while growing up.

The series is filmed mostly on stage, with the action taking place within the family home or at the kids’ schools. For the most part, The Goldbergs is an up-lit, broad comedy. The colors are rich, with a definite nod to the vibrant palette of the ’80s. “Our colorist, Scott Ostrowsky [from Level 3], has been grading the show from day one. He knows the look of the show so well that by the time I sit with him, there are very few changes that have to be made,” says Blount.

The Goldbergs began airing in 2013 and is now entering its sixth season. And the series’ current cinematographer, Jason Blount, has been involved since the start, first serving as the A camera/Steadicam operator before assuming the role of DP for the Season 1 finale — for a total of 92 episodes now and counting.

As this was a Sony show for ABC, the plan was to shoot with a Sony PMW-F55 CineAlta 4K digital camera, but at the time, it did not record at a fast enough frame rate for some of the high-speed work the production wanted. So, they ended up using the ARRI Alexa for Season 1. Blount took over as DP full time from Season 2 onward, and the decision was made to switch to the F55 for Season 2, as the frame rate issue had been resolved.

“The look of the show had already been established, and I wanted to make sure that the transition between cameras was seamless,” says Blount. “Our show is all about faces and seeing the comedy. From the onset, I was very happy with the Sony F55. The way the camera renders skin tone, the lack of noise in the deep shadows and the overall user-friendly nature of the camera impressed me from the beginning.”

Blount points to one particular episode where the F55 really shined. “The main character was filming a black-and-white noir-style home movie. The F55 handled the contrast beautifully. The blacks were rich and the highlights held onto detail very well,” he says. “We had a lot of smoke, hard light directly into the lens, and really pushed the limits of the sensor. I couldn’t have been happier with the results.”

In fact, the camera has proved its mettle winter, spring, summer and fall. “We’ve used it in the dead of winter, at night in the rain and during day exterior [shots] at the height of summer when it’s been over 100 degrees. It’s never skipped a beat.”

Blount also commends Keslow Camera in Los Angeles, which services The Goldbergs’ cameras. In addition, the rental house has accessorized the F55 camera body with extra bracketry and integrated power ports for more ease of use.

Due to the fast pace at which the show is filmed — often covering 10-plus pages of script a day — Blount uses Angenieux Optimo zoom lenses. “The A camera has a full set of lightweight zooms covering 15mm to 120mm, and the B camera always has the [Optimo] 24-290,” he says. “The Optimo lenses and F55 are a great combination, making it easy to move fast and capture beautiful images.”

Blount points out that he also does all the Steadicam work on the show, and with the F55 being so lightweight, compact and versatile, it makes for a “very comfortable camera in Steadicam mode. It’s perfect to use in all shooting modes.”

The Goldbergs’ DP always shoots with two cameras, sometimes three depending on the scene or action. And, there is never an issue of the cameras not matching, according to Blount. “I’m not a big fan of the GoPro image in the narrative world, and I own a Sony a7S. It’s become my go-to camera for mounts or tight space work on the show, and works perfectly with the F55.”

And, there is something to say for consistency, too. “Having used the same camera and lens package for the past five seasons has made it easy to keep the look consistent for The Goldbergs,” says Blount. “At the beginning of this season, I looked at shooting with the new Sony Venice. It’s a fantastic-looking camera, and I love the options, like the variable ND filters, more color temperature options and the dual ISO, but the limit of 60fps at this stage was a deal-breaker for me; we do a fair amount of 72fps and 120fps.”

“If only the F55 had image stabilization to take out the camera shake when the camera operators are laughing so hard at the actors’ performances during some scenes. Then it would be the perfect camera!” he says with a laugh himself.


Karen Moltenbrey is a longtime writer and editor in the CG and post industries.

Showrunner/EP Robert Carlock talks Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

By Iain Blair

When Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt first premiered back in 2015, the sitcom seemed quite shocking — and not just because NBC sold it off to Netflix so quickly. While at the streaming service, it has been a big hit with audiences and critics alike, racking up dozens of industry awards and nominations, including 18 Primetime Emmy nominations.

Robert Carlock

Created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, the sunny comedy with a dark premise stars Ellie Kemper as the title character. She moves to New York City after being rescued from an underground bunker where she and three other women were held captive for 15 years by a doomsday cult leader (Jon Hamm).

Alone in the Big Apple, and armed only with her unbreakable sense of optimism, Kimmy soon forges a new life that includes her colorful landlady Lillian Kaushtupper (Carol Kane), her struggling actor roommate (Tituss Burgess) and her socialite employer (Jane Krakowski). The strong cast also boasts recurring talent and A-list guests, such as Tina Fey, Martin Short, Fred Armisen, Jeff Goldblum, Amy Sedaris and Lisa Kudrow.

Last year Netflix renewed the show for a final season, with the first six episodes premiering in May 2018.

I recently spoke with Carlock about making the show, the Emmys and the planned movie version.

When Kimmy Schmidt first came out, its premise seemed bizarre and shocking — a young woman who was kidnapped, abused and held captive in an underground bunker. But looking back today, it seems ahead of its time.
Unfortunately, I think you’re right. At the time we felt strongly it was a way to get people talking about things and issues they didn’t necessarily want to talk about, such as how women are really treated in this society. And with the #MeToo movement it’s more timely than ever. Tina would say, “It keeps happening, it’s in the news all the time, and at this level,” and it’s really sad that it’s true. The last two seasons we’ve been dealing more and more with issues like this, and now people really are talking about sexual harassment in the workplace. But we have the added burden of also trying to make it funny.

Is Season 4 definitely the final one?
I think so, and the second half will stream sometime early next year. In the meantime, we’re talking about the movie deal that Netflix wants and what that will entail. We kind of thought about it as, “Let’s give our characters endings since there’s still so much to talk about,” but you also have to bear in mind the topicality of it all in a year or so. So it gave us the luxury of being able to finish the show in a way that felt right, and Season 5 — the second half of Season 4 — will satisfy fans, I think. We’re also very happy that Netflix is so enthusiastic about doing it this way.

Do you like being a showrunner?
I do, and I love it better than not being in charge. The beauty of TV is that, unlike in movies, and for a variety of reasons, writers get to be in charge. I love the fact that when you’re a showrunner, you get to learn so much about everything, including all the post production. You work with all these really skilled artisans and get to oversee the entire process from start to finish, including picking out what shade of blue the dress should be (laughs). It’s much better than watching other people make all the key decisions.

What are the big challenges of showrunning?
The big one is trying to think outside of the writer’s room. You have all that ambition on the page, but then you have to deal with the reality of actually shooting it and making it work. It’s a lot easier to type it than execute it. Then you have to be really objective about what’s working and what isn’t, because you fall in love with what you write. So you have to realize, “Maybe this needs a little insert, or more jokes here to get the point across,” and you have to put that producer hat on — and that can be really tricky. It’s a challenge for sure, but we’ve also been fortunate in having a great crew that’s been with us a while, so there’s that shorthand, and things move quickly on the set and we get a lot done.

Where do you shoot and post?
We do the shooting at the Broadway Stages in Brooklyn, and have all the editing setup there as well. Then we have Tina’s production offices at Columbus Circle, and we do all the sound at Sync Sound in midtown Manhattan.

Do you like the post process?
I love post and the whole process of seeing a script come alive as you edit.  You find ways of telling the story that you maybe didn’t expect.

You have a big cast and a lot of stuff going on in each episode. What are the big editing challenges?
One of the big creative challenges of a single-camera show — which ultimately also gives you so many more tools in writing, shooting and editing — is that you don’t get to see rehearsals. So one of the reasons our episodes are going into post and often coming out of post so stuffed with story and jokes is that we don’t get so many opportunities to see exactly what’s making the scene tick. We’re hitting the story, hitting the jokes and hitting the characters too many times, and  a lot of the challenge is scraping all those away. Our episodes come in around the mid-30s often, and we think they live and play best around 26 or 27 minutes. That’s where I think the sweet spot is. So you can feel, “Oh, I love that joke,” but the hard reality is that the scene plays so much better without it.

Talk about the importance of sound and music.
I think it’s so important in comedy, and it can totally change the feel of a scene. Jeff Richmond — Tina’s husband and one of our producers — does all the music. He’s also fantastic in the edit. So if I’m not available or Tina isn’t, then he or Sam Means, another producer, can take our edit notes and interpret them. We’ll type up 15 pages on a Director’s Cut, and then we hone the show until it’s a lock for the network, and we go through it all frame by frame.

How important are the Emmys to you and a show like this?
Increasingly now, with all the noise and static out there, and so many other good shows, it’s really important. I think it helps cut through the clutter. When you’re working hard on a show like this, with your head down all the time, you don’t really know where you stand sometimes. So to be nominated by your peers means a lot. (Laughs) I wish it didn’t, but we’re small-minded people who only really care about other people’s opinions.

What’s the latest on talk about a movie? Will it be a theatrical release or just Netflix, or both?
That’s a great question. Who knows? We’re in the middle of trying to figure out the budget. I imagined it would be just streaming, but maybe it will be theatrical as well. One thing’s for sure. We won’t be one of those TV shows that gets a whole new cast for the movie version. Lightning struck with our first cast, and we’re not looking to replace anyone.

There’s been a lot of talk about lack of opportunity for women in movies. Are things better in TV?
I can only speak for us, but we like shows where there’s a lot of diversity and different voices, and sometimes we step in a bear trap we didn’t even know was there because we’re trying to write for so many different voices. For us, it just makes sense to embrace diversity, but it’s such a complicated and thorny issue. I’m just glad we’re talking about it more now. It’s what interests us. When Tina and I first sat down to write this, we didn’t want to do something salacious and exploitive. We were thinking about a really startling way to get people talking about gender and class. It’s been a fun challenge.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

Emmy Season: Audio post for Netflix docu-series Wild Wild Country

By Jennifer Walden

A community based on peace and love, acceptance and non-judgment, where everyone has a job and a purpose. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that, right? Or, is there a part of you that thinks this all sounds a bit utopian and is dubious?

Wild Wild Country, the six-part docu-series created by brothers Chapman and Maclain Way — its executive producers include two more sets of brothers: Mark and Jay Duplass and Josh and Dan Braun — tells the true story of what happened to a small town in Oregon after a religious cult set up their “utopian” city on a nearby ranch. This seven-hour documentary premiered in its entirety at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and is currently available to stream on Netflix. It was also nominated for five Emmy Awards, winning in the category of Outstanding Documentary or Non-Fiction Series.

The Unbridled sound team at Sundance.

Wild Wild Country is a mix of archival news footage from the ‘80s — when the Rajneesh cult’s influence was on the rise in Oregon — and footage shot by the Rajneeshees, particularly in their own camp. It also draws from other documentaries and news specials on the Rajneesh movement that was created over the years. The Way brothers conduct extensive interviews with former Rajneeshees — including Ma Anand Sheela, who was personal secretary to cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. They also interview a list of other interesting characters, from FBI agents who helped to bring down the cult to Oregonians (including the former mayor of Antelope) who lived near the cult’s camp.

The result is a story that’s almost too twisted to be true. “This could’ve been a narrative feature that someone scripted and produced… a film that’s well thought out and well played instead of a story that was stumbled upon,” says Emmy award-winning supervising sound editor Brent Kiser of LA’s Unbridled Sound. He and his sound editing team are recipients of one of the show’s five Emmy noms for their work on Wild Wild Country.

“Creatively, we didn’t see Wild Wild Country as a documentary per se,” explains Kiser. “We wanted it to be cinematic so that, in a way, you couldn’t believe this was real life because it was too crazy. The sound needed to reflect that.”

The Dialog
One way they achieved a feature film feel was by processing the interview dialog so that it didn’t sound like a stereotypical talking-head documentary. “We didn’t want the dialog to have that very dry, close sound you get with lavalier microphones,” says Kiser.

Years ago, while working on a documentary called Tiny: A Story About Living Small (2013), dialog editor Elliot Thompson discovered that stripping all the noise from the production dialog also stripped out all the character and nuances of a location. It made the dialog feel impersonal, as though it was talking at the audience instead of to them.

“That worked well on Tiny because you’re in small, close spaces, but on Wild Wild Country we wanted to do the opposite,” says Kiser. “We wanted to give the interview dialog a little bit of life, so we added in reverb using Audio Ease’s Altiverb. This gave the dialog a smoother, softer feel that helps the audience to feel the room to feel the environment and to feel like they’re there. Subsequently, this polish gave the dialog a cinematic feel. It felt more like a story being told and less like news.”

For the news footage from the ‘80s, which includes segments by former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, Kiser went for an unpolished approach. “The material hadn’t been maintained, and there were these weird VHS bleeds; the audio had a huge hum. Initially, we tried to clean it up a bit, but in the end we decided to just let it roll because that’s how it is,” he says.

Replacing Some Sound
The sound of the news footage set the tone for the rest of the archival material. Kiser and his team replaced all the sound for the B-roll shots that didn’t have someone talking on-camera. They did the same for footage from the Rajneeshees, who shot tons of footage for their promotional videos. “Every footstep, every gunshot, we covered all that. We basically replaced it all.”

For example, there’s footage of the Rajneeshees all dressed in red, walking through the town of Antelope, Oregon. Kiser and his team replaced all the sound there, adding in wind, footsteps and other elements you’d expect to hear. “We wanted to keep those moments feeling very real and very voyeuristic,” says Kiser. “By ‘real,’ I mean our idea of what archival material should sound like.”

In order for the sound to feel “real” it had to sound dirty, just like the archival news footage. Sound effects editors Jacob Flack and Danielle Price mined the libraries at Unbridled Sound in search of effects that were old, noisy and poorly recorded — effects that wouldn’t normally be useful today. Kiser says, “The old Hollywood Edge and BBC libraries were perfect! The wind sounds that are rumbly and distorted — those were just perfect.”

They also recorded new sounds when needed, but those fresh, clean recordings had to match the gritty archival material. Kiser tried adding futz processing via Audio Ease’s Speakerphone, but ultimately it wasn’t giving him the desired result. “So we tried cranking the Pro Tools SansAmp PSA-1 plug-in on it, and we also used the Waves Cobalt Saphira harmonic shaper plug-in. This helped the new recordings to feel warm and analog in the right way. We would bus all the ‘archival’ sound through an AUX channel with those two plug-ins for overall processing.

Some sounds couldn’t be replaced, specifically the Rajneeshee chants and singing. Those were pulled from already-published sources, like other documentaries, due to rights issues. Kiser explains, “That was important because the Rajneeshees, a.k.a. sannyasins, are still around. You can still go to India and find them. And Osho (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) is the yoga guy. If you dive into any hardcore yoga philosophy or theology, he’s written all about it and he’s quoted all the time.”

Knowing Wild Wild Country was going to play theatrically at Sundance, Kiser and his team were able to work with the 5.1 surround field — a rare opportunity in the documentary world. They chose to keep the sound on the front wall to maintain that archival feel, but when they wanted to kick up the excitement — for example, during the helicopter flyovers of Rajneeshpuram — they pulled the sound into the surrounds. “We used whooshes and sound design elements to make that feel bigger, more cinematic than the other archival material.”

The Music
Another prominent feature in the soundtrack was the music, composed by musician Brocker Way (brother to the filmmakers). “It’s basically wall-to-wall, and it’s amazing. You can watch all seven hours and not be annoyed by the music,” says Kiser. Interestingly, the music wasn’t composed to picture. Brocker Way wrote four- to five-minute cues that were later edited to picture. “We’d get the edited music tracks and make some adjustments, too. The result was a soundtrack that was perfect for this project.”

The biggest thing Kiser was worried about (knowing the film festival audience was going to watch a seven-hour documentary in its entirety) was boredom. That turned out to be a non-issue. The story itself is exciting. “And as far as the sound goes, the dialog feels warm and accessible through the whole film, so it feels like a story. A lot of times you’ll hear the sound design and music ramping up towards the end of each part, so that it would tease and build into the next one. It worked. At Sundance, they kept the theater at 40 to 50 people for all seven hours,” reports Kiser.

What’s most amazing about the post sound process on Wild Wild Country is that Unbridled Sound had just three weeks to get it all done, from edit to final mix. “We’re only a five-person crew here,” says Kiser. “Not only were we working on Wild Wild Country, but we had another Sundance film too, called An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn. And we were working on a series for Adult Swim called Dream Corp, LLC. So, it was intense.”


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.

DP Patrick Stewart’s path and workflow on Netflix’s Arrested Development

With its handheld doc-style camerawork, voiceover narration and quirky humor, Arrested Development helped revolutionize the look of TV sitcoms. Created by Mitchell Hurwitz, with Ron Howard serving as one of its executive producers, the half-hour comedy series follows the once-rich Bluth family, that continues to live beyond their means in Southern California. At the center of the family is the mostly sane Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), who does his best to keep his dysfunctional family intact.

Patrick Stewart

The series first aired for three seasons on the Fox TV network (2003-2006) but was canceled due to low ratings. Because the series was so beloved, in 2013, Netflix brought it back to life with its original cast in place. In May 2018, the fifth season began streaming, shot by cinematographer Patrick Stewart (Curb Your Enthusiasm, The League, Flight of the Conchords). He called on VariCam LT cinema cameras.

Stewart’s path to becoming a cinematographer wasn’t traditional. Growing up in Los Angeles and graduating with a degree in finance from the University of Santa Clara, he got his start in the industry when a friend called him up and asked if he’d work on a commercial as a dolly grip. “I did it well enough where they called me for more and more jobs,” explains Stewart. “I started as a dolly grip but then I did sound, worked as a tape op and then started in the camera department. I also worked with the best gaffers in San Francisco, who showed me how to look at the light, understand it and either augment it or recreate it. It was the best practical film school I could have ever attended.”

Not wanting to stay “in a small pond with big fish” Stewart decided to move back to LA and started working for MTV, which brought him into the low-budget handheld world. It also introduced him to “interview lighting” where he lit celebrities like Barbara Streisand, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney. “At that point I got to light every single amazing musician, actor, famous person you could imagine,” he says. “This practice afforded me the opportunity to understand how to light people who were getting older, and how to make them look their best on camera.”

In 1999, Stewart received an offer to shoot Mike Figgis’ film Time Code (2000), which was one of the landmark films of the DV/film revolution. “It was groundbreaking not only in the digital realm but the fact that Time Code was shot with four cameras from beginning to end, 93 minutes, without stopping, shown in a quad split with no edits — all handheld,” explains Stewart. “It was an amazingly difficult project, because having no edits meant you couldn’t make mistakes. I was very fortunate to work with a brilliant renegade director like Mike Figgis.”

Triple Coverage
When hired for Arrested Development, the first request Stewart approached Hurwitz with was to add a third camera. Shooting with three cameras with multiple characters can be a logistical challenge, but Stewart felt he could get through scenes more quickly and effectively, in order to get the actors out on time. “I call the C camera the center camera and the A and the B are screen left and screen right,” Stewart explains. “C covers the center POV, while A and B cover the scene from their left and right side POV, which usually starts with overs. As we continue to shoot the scene, each camera will get tighter and tighter. If there are three or more actors in the scene, C will get tighter on whoever is in the center. After that, C camera might cover the scene following the dialogue with ‘swinging’ singles. If no swinging singles are appropriate, then the center camera can move over and help out coverage on the right or left side.

“I’m on a walkie — either adjusting the shots during a scene for either of their framing or exposure, or I’m planning ahead,” he continues. “You give me three cameras and I’ll shoot a show really well for you and get it done efficiently, and with cinematic style.”

Because it is primarily a handheld show, Stewart needed lenses that would not weigh down his operators during long takes. He employed Fujinon Cabrio zooms (15-35mm, 19-90mm, and 85-300mm), which are all f/2.8 lenses.

For camera settings, Stewart captures 10-bit 422 UHD (3840×2160) AVC Intra files at 23.98-fps. He also captures in V-Log but uses the V-709 LUT. “To me, you can create all the LUTs you want,” he says, “but more than likely you get to color correction and end up changing things. I think the basic 709 LUT is really nice and gentle on all the colors.”

Light from Above
Much of Arrested Development is shot on a stage, so lighting can get complicated, especially when there are multiple characters in a scene. To makes things less complicated, Stewart provided a gentle soft light from softboxes covering the top of each stage set, using 4-by-8 wooden frames with Tungsten-balanced Quasar tubes dimmed down to 50%. His motivated lighting explanation is that the unseen source could basically be a skylight. If characters are close to windows, he uses HMIs creating “natural sunlight” punching through to light the scene. “The nice thing about the VariCam is that you don’t need as many photons, and I did pretty extensive tests during pre-production on how to do it.”

On stage, Stewart sets his ISO to 5000 base and dials down to 2500 and generally shoots at an f/2.8 and ½. He even uses one level of ND on top of that. “You can imagine 27-foot candles at one level of ND at a 2.8 and 1/2 — that’s a pretty sensitive camera, and I noticed very little noise. My biggest concern was mid-tones, so I did a lot of testing — shooting at 5000, shooting at 2500, 800, 800 pushed up to 1600 and 2500.

“Sometimes with certain cameras, you can develop this mid-tone noise that you don’t really notice until you’re in post. I felt like shooting at 5000 knocked down to 2500 was giving me the benefit of lighting the stage at these beautifully low-lit levels where we would never be hot. I could also easily put 5Ks outside the windows to have enough sunlight to make it look like it’s overexposed a bit. I felt that the 5000 base knocked down to 2500, the noise level was negligible. At native 5000 ISO, there was a little bit more mid-tone noise, even though it was still acceptable. For daytime exteriors, we usually shot at ISO 800, dialing down to 500 or below.”

Stewart and Arrested Development director Troy Miller have known each other for many years since working together on the HBO’s Flight of the Conchords. “There was a shorthand between director and DP that really came in handy,” says Stewart. “Troy knows that I know what I’m doing, and I know on his end that he’s trying to figure out this really complicated script and have us shoot it. Hand in hand, we were really able to support Mitch.”

Netflix’s Lost in Space: mastering for Dolby Vision HDR, Rec.709

There is a world of difference between Netflix’s ambitious science-fiction series Lost in Space (recently renewed for another 10 episodes) and the beloved but rather low-tech, tongue-in-cheek 1960s show most fondly remembered for the repartee between persnickety Dr. Smith and the rather tinny-looking Robot. This series, starring Molly Parker, Toby Stevens and Parker Posey (in a very different take on Dr. Smith), is a very modern, VFX-intensive adventure show with more deeply wrought characters and elaborate action sequences.

Siggy Ferstl

Colorist Siggy Ferstl of Company 3 devoted a significant amount of his time and creative energy to the 10-episode release over the five-and-a-half-month period the group of 10 episodes was in the facility. While Netflix’s approach to dropping all 10 episodes at once, rather than the traditional series schedule of an episode a week, fuels excitement and binge-watching among viewers, it also requires a different kind of workflow, with cross-boarded shoots across multiple episodes and different parts of episodes coming out of editorial for color grading throughout the story arc. “We started on episode one,” Ferstl explains, “but then we’d get three and portions of six and back to four, and so on.”

Additionally, the series was mastered both for Dolby Vision HDR and Rec.709, which added additional facets to the grading process over shows delivered exclusively for Rec.709.

Ferstl’s grading theater also served as a hub where the filmmakers, including co-producer Scott Schofield, executive producer Zack Estrin and VFX supervisor Jabbar Raisani could see iterations of the many effects sequences as they came in from vendors (Cinesite, Important Looking Pirates and Image Engine, among others).

Ferstl himself made use of some new tools within Resolve to create a number of effects that might once have been sent out of house or completed during the online conform. “The process was layered and very collaborative,” says Ferstl. “That is always a positive thing when it happens but it was particularly important because of this series’ complexity.”

The Look
Shot by Sam McCurdy, the show’s aesthetic was designed, “to have a richness and realness to the look,” Ferstl explains. “It’s a family show but it doesn’t have that vibrant and saturated style you might associate with that. It has a more sophisticated kind of look.”

One significant alteration to the look involves changes to the environment of the planet onto which the characters crash land. The filmmakers wanted the exteriors to look less Earthlike with foliage a bit reddish, less verdant than the actual locations. The visual effects companies handled some of the more pronounced changes, especially as the look becomes more extreme in later episodes, but for a significant amount of this work, Ferstl was able to affect the look in his grading sessions — something that until recently would likely not have been achievable.

Ferstl, who has always sought out and embraced new technology to help him do his job, made use of some features that were then brand new to Resolve 14. In the case of the planet’s foliage, he made use of the Color Compressor tool within the OpenFX tab on the color corrector. “This allowed me take a range of colors and collapse that into a single vector of color,” he explains. “This lets you take your selected range of colors, say yellows and greens in this case, and compress them in terms of hue, saturation and luminance.” Sometimes touted as a tool to give colorists more ability to even out flesh tones, Ferstl applied the tool to the foliage and compressed the many shades of green into a narrower range prior to shifting the resulting colors to the more orange look.

“With foliage you have light greens and darker greens and many different ranges within the color green,” Ferstl explains. “If we’d just isolated those ranges and turned them orange individually, it wouldn’t give us the same feel. But by limiting the range and latitude of those greens in the Color Compressor and then changing the hue we were able to get much more desirable results.” Of course, Ferstl also used multiple keys and windows to isolate the foliage that needed to change from the elements of the scenes that didn’t.

He also made use of the Camera Shake function, which was particularly useful in a scene in the second episode in which an extremely heavy storm of sharp hail-like objects hits the planet, endangering many characters. The storm itself was created at the VFX houses, but the additional effect of camera shake on top of that was introduced and fine-tuned in the grade. “I suggested that we could add the vibration, and it worked very well,” he recalls. By doing the work during color grading sessions, Ferstl and the filmmakers in the session could see that effect as it was being created, in context and on the big screen, and could fine-tune the “camera movement” right then and there.

Fortunately, the colorist notes, the production afforded the time to go back and revise color decisions as more episodes came into Company 3. “The environment of the planet changes throughout. But we weren’t coloring episodes one after the other. It was really like working on a 10-hour feature.

“If we start at episode one and jump to episode six,” Ferstl notes, “exactly how much should the environment have changed in-between? So it was a process of estimating where the look should land but knowing we could go back and refine those decisions if it proved necessary once we had the surrounding episodes for context.”

Dolby Vision Workflow
As most people reading this know, mastering in high dynamic range (Dolby Vision in this case) opens up the possibility of working within a significantly expanded contrast range and wider color gamut over Rec.709 standard for traditional HD. Lost in Space was mastered concurrently for both, which required Ferstl to use Dolby’s workflow. And this involves making all corrections for the HDR version and then allowing the Dolby hardware/software to analyze the images to bring them into the Rec.709 space for the colorist to do a standard-def pass.

Ferstl, who worked with two Sony X-300 monitors, one calibrated for Rec.709 and the other for HDR, explains, “Everyone is used to looking at Rec. 709. Most viewers today will see the show in Rec.709 and that’s really what the clients are most concerned with. At some point, if HDR becomes the dominant way people watch television, then that will probably change. But we had to make corrections in HDR and then wait for the analysis to show us what the revised image looked like for standard dynamic range.”

He elaborates that while the Dolby Vision spec allows the brightest whites to read at 4000 nits, he and the filmmakers preferred to limit that to 1000 nits. “If you let highlights go much further than we did,” he says, “some things can become hard to watch. They become so bright that visual fatigue sets in after too long. So we’d sometimes take the brightest portions of the frame and slightly clamp them,” he says of the technique of holding the brightest areas of the frame to levels below the maximum the spec allows.

“Sometimes HDR can be challenging to work with and sometimes it can be amazing,” he allows. Take the vast vistas and snowcapped mountains we first see when the family starts exploring the planet. “You have so much more detail in the snow and an amazing range in the highlights than you could ever display in Rec.709,” he says.

“In HDR, the show conveys the power and majesty of these vast spaces beyond what viewers are used to seeing. There are quite a few sections that lend themselves to HDR,” he continues. But as with all such tools, it’s not always appropriate to the story to use the extremes of that dynamic range. Some highlights in HDR can pull the viewer’s attention to a portion of the frame in a way that simply can’t be replicated in Rec. 709 and, likewise, a bright highlight from a practical or a reflection in HDR can completely overpower an image that tells the story perfectly in standard dynamic range. “The tools can re-map an image mathematically,” Ferstl notes, “but it still requires artists to interpret an image’s meaning and feel from one space to the other.”

That brings up another question: How close do you want the HDR and the Rec.709 to look to each other when they can look very different? Overall, the conclusion of all involved on the series was to constrain the levels in the HDR pass a bit in order to keep the two versions in the same ballpark aesthetically. “The more you let the highlights go in HDR,” he explains, “the harder it is to compress all that information for the 100-nit version. If you look at scenes with the characters in space suits, for example, they have these small lights that are part of their helmets and if you just let those go in HDR, those lights become so distracting that it becomes hard to look at the people’s faces.”

Such decisions were made in the grading theater on a case by case basis. “It’s not like we looked at a waveform monitor and just said, ‘let’s clamp everything above this level,’” he explains, “it was ultimately about the feeling we’d get from each shot.”

Creator Justin Simien talks Netflix’s Dear White People

By Iain Blair

The TV graveyard is bursting at the seams with failed adaptations of hit movies. But there are rare exceptions, such as Netflix’s acclaimed hit comedy Dear White People, which creator Justin Simien adapted from his 2014 indie movie of the same name. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. Simien went on to also win Best First Screenplay and a nomination for Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Justin Simien (Photo by Rick Proctor).

Now a series on Netflix and enjoying its second season (it was just picked up for its third!), this college dramedy is set at Winchester University, a fictional, predominantly white Ivy League college, where racial tensions bubble just below the surface. It stars a large, charismatic ensemble cast (most of whom appeared in the film) that includes Logan Browning, Brandon P. Bell, Antoinette Robertson, DeRon Horton, John Patrick Amedori, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Marque Richardson and Giancarlo Esposito (as the narrator), dealing with such timely and timeless issues as racism, inclusion, social injustice, politics, abortion, body image, cultural bias, political correctness (or lack thereof), activism and, of course, romance in the millennial age.

Through an absurdist lens, Dear White People uses sharp, quick-fire dialogue, biting irony, self-deprecation and brutal honesty to hold up a mirror to some of the problems plaguing society today. It also makes the medicine go down easy by leading with big laughs.

The show is also a master class in how to successfully make that tricky transition from the big to small screen, and tellingly it has retained a coveted and rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for both seasons (take note, Emmy voters!).

I recently spoke with Simien about making the show, the changing TV landscape, the Emmys and his next movie.

The TV landscape is full of the corpses of failed movie adaptations. How did you avoid that fate when you adapted your film for TV?
(Laughs) You’re so right. Movies often don’t translate very well to TV, but I felt my film was in the great tradition of multi-protagonist ensemble films I love so much. I also felt that in the confines of 90 minutes or so, you can never really truly get into the hearts of all the characters. By the end, the audience wanted more from them, so it lent itself to the longer format. And I felt it would be much more interesting than the typical show if we [borrowed] a bit of that cinematic tradition — like films by Robert Altman and Spike Lee — where you really get a strong point-of-view and multiple stories are carefully woven together, and then apply it to TV.

It seems that in many ways, the film’s concerns and issues work even better in an extended TV series. What were the big themes you wanted to explore?
As with the film, it’s really a conversation about identity and self, and the roles that you play in society. We all do it in order to navigate society, but for people of color, those identities have been chosen for them, so it often takes us a lot longer to get to the heart of who we really are and what the self is. We’re taught from a very early age to always be aware that you’re different, and that people see you differently. We deal with all that through comedy and satire. It has a lot on its mind.

Where do you shoot?
All in LA. Most of the interiors are done at Tamarack Studios in Sun Valley, and then we shoot our exteriors at UCLA and at a former school in Alhambra.

Do you direct a lot of the episodes?
I direct some. I did three in the first season, and four in the second, but since I run the show along with Yvette Lee Bowser, I’m just too busy to direct them all. So I handpick other directors who come in, such as Barry Jenkins, Charlie McDowell, Tina Mabry and others. But they don’t come into this world to paint by numbers. It’s more a case of them riffing off of what I did, like a jazz musician. It’s a very cohesive and collaborative process, and I’m very involved in all the episodes.

Do you like being a showrunner?
I do, but to be honest I like directing and writing more. The storytelling is the part of the gig that I’m in it for. But it is satisfying to run the larger operation and work closely with all these fantastic writers, directors and actors, and creating this environment where they can all do their best work.

Where do you post?
All at Tamarack, and it’s very convenient since it’s important for me to be able to bounce between the set and the edit bay on each episode. We did all the sound at Warners, and the DI at Universal with colorist Scott Gregory.

Do you like the post process?
I love post because it’s where you figure out if what you shot really works, and it’s your last chance to write the show. It’s the final rewrite, and a chance to fix the things that don’t work, so it’s scary and challenging. Post is also where you get to see the arc of the whole season and see all the episodes as like a five-hour movie. It’s where I get to apply all my final ideas. When I’m writing the show, we’re in a process of discovery, and it’s not until post that you really get a sense of how the beginning fits with the end, and that what you’re trying to say is there and working.

Justin Simien

Can you talk about the editing? You have several editors on the show, yes?
We use two editors per season. Phil Bartell, who cut the film for me, is always one of them. Steve Edwards was the other one on Season 1, and Omar Hassan-Reep was on Season 2. Post schedules are so jammed in TV that using two editors helps speed it all up. We allot a certain amount of time for each episode, so I can spend time with it. Same with the director and the editor.

You have a big cast and a lot of storylines. What are the big editing challenges?
The big one is that none of the show is turnkey. Directors don’t paint by numbers and the scripts are not written to any kind of format or formula — other than we stay with one point of view at a time. So that means that editing each episode is like editing its own mini-movie. One episode is film noir, another’s about mushrooms and hallucinations, so each one requires different styles, techniques, and different approaches work for different points of view. Each time we have to reinvent the wheel.

VFX play a big role in some episodes. Can you talk about working on them?
There’s far more than normal for a show like this, and mostly because social media is such an integral part of the characters’ lives. So we really try and use all that in a cinematic way and give you the feeling of what they’re going through instead of just cutting to the cell phone or computer every time. We really work hard to integrate all that.

Ingenuity does all the overlay VFX and it can take a while to figure it all out and get it right.

Unlike movies, sound in television has arguably always played second fiddle to the images, but this has a great score by Kris Bowers and great sound design. Please talk about the importance of sound and music to you.
Sound in movies has always gotten more attention, but TV’s changing and getting more cinematic. Music is so important to me, and I make sure the score isn’t just filler or interstitial — it has to be able to operate independently of the visuals, like it does with the movies of my favorite filmmakers, like Stanley Kubrick. It’s not just supplemental, and Kris is brilliant — just as adept at jazz as classical — and we have recurring themes and motifs and thematic hooks, and it’s very multi-layered.

How important are the Emmys to a show like this?
Very. We live in a world where there’s so much to watch now, and I don’t think there’s anything like it out there. But it can take effort to get people to watch and give the show and the characters a shot. So the Emmys can really help shine a light.

What’s next?
I’ll be directing my second film, which I wrote and is titled Bad Hair. It’s a horror satire that’s set in the late ‘80s about an ambitious young woman who wants to be a DJ but who doesn’t have the right look, so she gets a weave that may or may not have a mind of its own. I’m casting right now and hope to start shooting this summer.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

Netflix’s Lost in Space: New sounds for a classic series

By Jennifer Walden

Netflix’s Lost in Space series, a remake of the 1965 television show, is a playground for sound. In the first two episodes alone, the series introduces at least five unique environments, including an alien planet, a whole world of new tech — from wristband communication systems to medical analysis devices — new modes of transportation, an organic-based robot lifeform and its correlating technologies, a massive explosion in space and so much more.

It was a mission not easily undertaken, but if anyone could manage it, it was four-time Emmy Award-winning supervising sound editor Benjamin Cook of 424 Post in Culver City. He’s led the sound teams on series like Starz’s Black Sails, Counterpart and Magic City, as well as HBO’s The Pacific, Rome and Deadwood, to name a few.

Benjamin Cook

Lost in Space was a reunion of sorts for members of the Black Sails post sound team. Making the jump from pirate ships to spaceships were sound effects editors Jeffrey Pitts, Shaughnessy Hare, Charles Maynes, Hector Gika and Trevor Metz; Foley artists Jeffrey Wilhoit and Dylan Tuomy-Wilhoit; Foley mixer Brett Voss; and re-recording mixers Onnalee Blank and Mathew Waters.

“I really enjoyed the crew on Lost in Space. I had great editors and mixers — really super-creative, top-notch people,” says Cook, who also had help from co-supervising sound editor Branden Spencer. “Sound effects-wise there was an enormous amount of elements to create and record. Everyone involved contributed. You’re establishing a lot of sounds in those first two episodes that are carried on throughout the rest of the season.”

Soundscapes
So where does one begin on such a sound-intensive show? The initial focus was on the soundscapes, such as the sound of the alien planet’s different biomes, and the sound of different areas on the ships. “Before I saw any visuals, the showrunners wanted me to send them some ‘alien planet sounds,’ but there is a huge difference between Mars and Dagobah,” explains Cook. “After talking with them for a bit, we narrowed down some areas to focus on, like the glacier, the badlands and the forest area.”

For the forest area, Cook began by finding interesting snippets of animal, bird and insect recordings, like a single chirp or little song phrase that he could treat with pitching or other processing to create something new. Then he took those new sounds and positioned them in the sound field to build up beds of creatures to populate the alien forest. In that initial creation phase, Cook designed several tracks, which he could use for the rest of the season. “The show itself was shot in Canada, so that was one of the things they were fighting against — the showrunners were pretty conscious of not making the crash planet sound too Earthly. They really wanted it to sound alien.”

Another huge aspect of the series’ sound is the communication systems. The characters talk to each other through the headsets in their spacesuit helmets, and through wristband communications. Each family has their own personal ship, called a Jupiter, which can contact other Jupiter ships through shortwave radios. They use the same radios to communicate with their all-terrain vehicles called rovers. Cook notes these ham radios had an intentional retro feel. The Jupiters can send/receive long-distance transmissions from the planet’s surface to the main ship, called Resolute, in space. The families can also communicate with their Jupiters ship’s systems.

Each mode of communication sounds different and was handled differently in post. Some processing was handled by the re-recording mixers, and some was created by the sound editorial team. For example, in Episode 1 Judy Robinson (Taylor Russell) is frozen underwater in a glacial lake. Whenever the shot cuts to Judy’s face inside her helmet, the sound is very close and claustrophobic.

Judy’s voice bounces off the helmet’s face-shield. She hears her sister through the headset and it’s a small, slightly futzed speaker sound. The processing on both Judy’s voice and her sister’s voice sounds very distinct, yet natural. “That was all Onnalee Blank and Mathew Waters,” says Cook. “They mixed this show, and they both bring so much to the table creatively. They’ll do additional futzing and treatments, like on the helmets. That was something that Onna wanted to do, to make it really sound like an ‘inside a helmet’ sound. It has that special quality to it.”

On the flipside, the ship’s voice was a process that Cook created. Co-supervisor Spencer recorded the voice actor’s lines in ADR and then Cook added vocoding, EQ futz and reverb to sell the idea that the voice was coming through the ship’s speakers. “Sometimes we worldized the lines by playing them through a speaker and recording them. I really tried to avoid too much reverb or heavy futzing knowing that on the stage the mixers may do additional processing,” he says.

In Episode 1, Will Robinson (Maxwell Jenkins) finds himself alone in the forest. He tries to call his father, John Robinson (Toby Stephens — a Black Sails alumni as well) via his wristband comm system but the transmission is interrupted by a strange, undulating, vocal-like sound. It’s interference from an alien ship that had crashed nearby. Cook notes that the interference sound required thorough experimentation. “That was a difficult one. The showrunners wanted something organic and very eerie, but it also needed to be jarring. We did quite a few versions of that.”

For the main element in that sound, Cook chose whale sounds for their innate pitchy quality. He manipulated and processed the whale recordings using Symbolic Sound’s Kyma sound design workstation.

The Robot
Another challenging set of sounds were those created for Will Robinson’s Robot (Brian Steele). The Robot makes dying sounds, movement sounds and face-light sounds when it’s processing information. It can transform its body to look more human. It can use its hands to fire energy blasts or as a tool to create heat. It says, “Danger, Will Robinson,” and “Danger, Dr. Smith.” The Robot is sometimes a good guy and sometimes a bad guy, and the sound needed to cover all of that. “The Robot was a job in itself,” says Cook. “One thing we had to do was to sell emotion, especially for his dying sounds and his interactions with Will and the family.”

One of Cook’s trickiest feats was to create the proper sense of weight and movement for the Robot, and to portray the idea that the Robot was alive and organic but still metallic. “It couldn’t be earthly technology. Traditionally for robot movement you will hear people use servo sounds, but I didn’t want to use any kind of servos. So, we had to create a sound with a similar aesthetic to a servo,” says Cook. He turned to the Robot’s Foley sounds, and devised a processing chain to heavily treat those movement tracks. “That generated the basic body movement for the Robot and then we sweetened its feet with heavier sound effects, like heavy metal clanking and deeper impact booms. We had a lot of textures for the different surfaces like rock and foliage that we used for its feet.”

The Robot’s face lights change color to let everyone know if it’s in good-mode or bad-mode. But there isn’t any overt sound to emphasize the lights as they move and change. If the camera is extremely close-up on the lights, then there’s a faint chiming or tinkling sound that accentuates their movement. Overall though, there is a “presence” sound for the Robot, an undulating tone that’s reminiscent of purring when it’s in good-mode. “The showrunners wanted a kind of purring sound, so I used my cat purring as one of the building block elements for that,” says Cook. When the Robot is in bad-mode, the sound is anxious, like a pulsing heartbeat, to set the audience on edge.

It wouldn’t be Lost in Space without the Robot’s iconic line, “Danger, Will Robinson.” Initially, the showrunners wanted that line to sound as close to the original 1960’s delivery as possible. “But then they wanted it to sound unique too,” says Cook. “One comment was that they wanted it to sound like the Robot had metallic vocal cords. So we had to figure out ways to incorporate that into the treatment.” The vocal processing chain used several tools, from EQ, pitching and filtering to modulation plug-ins like Waves Morphoder and Dehumaniser by Krotos. “It was an extensive chain. It wasn’t just one particular tool; there were several of them,” he notes.

There are other sound elements that tie into the original 1960’s series. For example, when Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker) and husband John are exploring the wreckage of the alien ship they discover a virtual map room that lets them see into the solar system where they’ve crashed and into the galaxy beyond. The sound design during that sequence features sound material from the original show. “We treated and processed those original elements until they’re virtually unrecognizable, but they’re in there. We tried to pay tribute to the original when we could, when it was possible,” says Cook.

Other sound highlights include the Resolute exploding in space, which caused massive sections of the ship to break apart and collide. For that, Cook says contact microphones were used to capture the sound of tin cans being ripped apart. “There were so many fun things in the show for sound. From the first episode with the ship crash and it sinking into the glacier to the black hole sequence and the Robot fight in the season finale. The show had a lot of different challenges and a lot of opportunities for sound.”

Lost in Space was mixed in the Anthony Quinn Theater at Sony Pictures in 7.1 surround. Interestingly, the show was delivered in Dolby’s Home Atmos format. Cook explains, “When they booked the stage, the producer’s weren’t sure if we were going to do the show in Atmos or not. That was something they decided to do later so we had to figure out a way to do it.”

They mixed the show in Atmos while referencing the 7.1 mix and then played those mixes back in a Dolby Home Atmos room to check them, making any necessary adjustments and creating the Atmos deliverables. “Between updates for visual effects and music as well as the Atmos mixes, we spent roughly 80 days on the dub stage for the 10 episodes,” concludes Cook.