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DP Chat: Dopesick Nation cinematographer Greg Taylor

By Randi Altman

Dopesick Nation is a documentary series on Vice Media’s Viceland that follows two recovering heroin addicts, Frankie and Allie, in South Florida as they try to help others while taking a look at corruption and exploitation in the rehab industry. The series was inspired by the feature film American Relapse.

Dopesick Nation

As you might imagine, the shoot was challenging, often taking place at night and in dubious locales, but cinematographers Greg Taylor and Mike Goodman were up for the challenge. Both had worked with series co-creator/executive producer Patrick McGee previously and were happy to collaborate once more.

We reached out to DP Taylor to talk about working with McGee and Goodman and the show’s workflow.

Tell us about Dopesick Nation. How early did you get involved in this series, and how did you work with the director?
Pat McGee tapped myself and Mike Goodman to shoot American Relapse. We were just coming off another show and had a finely tuned team ready to spend long nights on this new project. The movie turned out to have a familiar gritty feel you see in the show but in a feature documentary format.

I imagine it was a natural progression to use us again once the TV show was greenlit by Viceland. Pat would keep on our heels to find the best moments for every story and would push us to go out and produce intimate moments with the subjects on the fly. He and producer Adam Linkenhelt (American Relapse) were with us almost every step of the way, offering advice, watching our backs and looking out for incoming storylines. Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about that whole crew.

(L-R) Mike Goodman, supervising producer Adam Linkenhelt and showrunner Pat McGee (Photo by Greg Taylor)

How did you work with fellow DP Mike Goodman? How did you divvy up the shots?
Mike and I have worked long enough together that we have an efficient shorthand. A gesture or look can set up an entire scene sometimes, and I often can’t tell my shots from his. We both put a lot of effort into creativity in our imagery and pushing the bar as much as we can handle. During rare downtimes, we might brainstorm on a new way to shoot b-roll or decide what “gritty” should look and feel like.

Covering the often late and challenging days took a bit of baton-passing back and forth. Some days, we would split up and shoot single camera as well. It was decided at some point that I would cover more of Frankie’s story, while Mike would cover Allie. When the two met up at the end of the day, we would cover them together. Most of the major scenes we shot together, but there were times when too much was happening to cover it all. We were really in the addicts’ world, so some events were completely unexpected.

How would you describe the look of the doc?
I’d say gritty would be the best single word, but that can be nuanced quite a bit. There was an overall aim to keep some frames dirty during dialogue scenes to achieve a slightly voyeuristic feel but still leave lots of room for intimate, in-your-face, bam-type moments when the story dictated. We always paid attention to our backgrounds, and there was a focus on the contrast between beautiful southeast Florida and the dark underbelly lurking just next to it. The show had to be so real that no one would ever question the legitimacy of what we were showing. No-filter, behind-the-veil type thinking in every shot.

Dopesick Nation

How does your process change when shooting a documentary versus a fictional piece? Or does it not?
Story is king, and I’d say character arcs for the feature American Relapse were different from the TV version. In the film, we gave an overview of the treatment industry told through the eyes of our two main characters, Allie and Frank. It is structured somewhat around their typical day and sit-down interviews.

The TV show did not have formal interviews but did allow us to dig deeper into accounts from individuals with addiction, the world they live in and the hosts themselves. The 10 one-hour episodes and three-plus months spent shooting gave us a little more time to build up a library of transition pieces and specialty b-roll.

Where was it shot?
Almost all of the shooting took place in and around southeast Florida. A few short scenes were picked up in Ohio and LA.

How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for this project? Can you talk about camera tests?
It’s funny because Mike and I both independently came up with using the Panasonic VariCam LT after the director came to us asking what we wanted to shoot with. We chatted and decided that we needed solutions for potentially tougher nighttime setups than we had been used to. When we gathered for a meeting and started up the gear list, Mike and I both had the LT on the top of our requests.

Dopesick Nation

I think that signaled to the preproduction team we were unanimous on what the best system was to use and production manager Keith Plant made it happen. I had seen the camera in action at NAB and watched some tests a friend had shot on it a few months before. I was easily sold on its rich blacks and dual native ISO. That camera could see into the dark and wasn’t so heavy we would collapse at the end of the day; it worked out very well.

Can you talk about the lighting and how the camera worked while grabbing shots when you could?
Lighting on this show was minimal, but we did use fills and background illumination to enhance some scenes. Working mostly at night — in dubious surroundings — often meant we couldn’t light scenes. Lights bring unwanted attention to the crew and subjects, and we found it changed the feel of the scene in a negative way.

Using the available light at each location quickly became fundamentally important to maintain the unfiltered nature of the show. Every bright spot in the darkness was carefully considered, and if we could pull subjects slightly toward a source, even to get 1/3 a stop more, we would take it.

Any challenging scenes that you are particularly proud of or found most challenging?
There were a lot of scenes that were challenging to shoot technically, but that happens on any project. You don’t always want to see what you are standing next to, but the story needs to be told. There are a lot of people out there really struggling with addiction, and it can be really painful to watch. Being present with everyone and being real with them had to be in your mind constantly. I kept thinking the whole time, “Am I doing them justice? What can I do better? How can I help?”

DPs Mike Goodman and Greg Taylor shoot Ally interviewing one of the subjects (Photo by Tara Sarzen)

Let’s move on to more some more general questions. How did you become interested in cinematography?
I’ve always loved working with celluloid and photography and was brought up with a darkroom in the house. I remember taking a filmmaking summer camp when I was 14 in Oxford, Mississippi, and was basically blown away. I’ve been aiming for a career in cinematography ever since.

What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology that serves your vision?
Artistically, I love Dali, Picasso and the works of Caravaggio and Rembrandt. The way light plays in a chiaroscuro painting is really something worth studying and it isn’t easy to replicate.

I like to try and pay homage to the films I enjoy and artworks I’ve visited by incorporating some of their ideas into my own work. With film cameras, things changed slower over the years, and it was often the film stock that became the technological advancement of its day. Granular structure turned to crystal structures, higher ISO/ASA were achieved, color reproduction improved. The same is with the new camera systems coming out. Sensors are the new film stock. You pick what is appropriate to the story.

What new technology has changed the way you work?
I rarely go anywhere nowadays without a drone. The advancements in drone technology have changed the aerial world entirely, and I’m happy to see these new angles open up in an increasingly responsible and licensed way.

DP Greg Taylor shooting in SE Florida. (Photo by Evan Parquette)

Gimbals are a game changer in the way the Steadicam came onto the scene, and I don’t expect them to go anywhere. Also motion-control devices and newer, more sensitive sensors are certainly fitting the bill of ever-evolving and improving tech.

What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
Be aware and attentive of your surroundings and safety. Treat others with respect. Maintain a professional attitude under stress. If you are five minutes early, you’re late.

Explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project.
I love discussing what the heart of the script or concept really means and trying to find the deeper connection with how it can be told visually. Referencing other films/art/ TV we both have experience with and finding a common language that makes sense for the vision.

What’s your go-to gear — things you can’t live without?
I have an old Nikkor 55mm f1.2 lens I love, and I often shoot personal projects on prime vintage glass. The edges aren’t quite as sharp as modern lenses so in the case of the 55mm, you get a lovely yet subtle sharpness vignette along with a warm overall feel.

It’s great for interviews because it softens the digital crispness newer sensors exhibit without the noticeable changes you might see with certain filtration. The Hip Shot belt has been one of my best friends over the past while, and it saves you on the long days and low, long dialogue scenes when handholding seated subjects.


Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years. 

DP and director talk about shooting indie Concrete Kids

Director Lije Sarki’s Concrete Kids tells the story of two nine year old boys from Venice, California, who set off on a mission to cross Los Angeles on skateboards at night to reach the Staples Center by morning for a contest. Now streaming on Amazon Prime, the low-budget feature from The Orchard was shot by cinematographer Daron Keet with VariCam LTs in available light mainly at night.

There were many challenges in shooting Concrete Kids, including working with child actors, who could only shoot for three hours per night. “Seventeen nights at three hours per night, that really only equals like four days of shooting,” explains Sarki. “The only way we could shoot and be that mobile and fast was if we used ambient light with Daron holding the camera and using the occasional sticks for wide shots. I also didn’t want to use kids that didn’t skate because I don’t like to cheat authenticity. I didn’t want to cheat the skateboarding and wanted it to feel real. I really wanted to make everything small — just a camera and someone recording sound.”

“When Lije said he didn’t want to have a crew,” says Keet, “I was a little [surprised] because I’m used to having a full crew, and I like using traditional film tools. I also don’t like making movies as documentaries. But I always like to push myself and have different challenges. One reason I didn’t hesitate in doing the film is that Lije is very organized. The more work you do up front, the easier the shoot will be.”

Keet shot the film with the VariCam LT. For Keet, the look was going to be determined by the actual environment, not influenced by his lighting. “We were working at such low light levels,” explains Keet. “We shot in alleys that to your eye, looked black. I would just aim the VariCam down this alley and then you would see something different to what your eye was seeing. It was amazing. We even had experiences where a traffic light would change from green to red and change the illumination from a green ambiance to a red ambiance. For me, it was an incredible challenge and a different way of working where I’m not just looking for opportunities for available light but I’m looking for opportunities where I’m needing the camera to find those opportunities.

DP Daron Keet (in wheelchair) on set

“It’s really nice to have a tool where you can tell the story you want with the tools you have,” he continues. “A lot of people don’t like night shooting, but I actually love it because as a DP you have more control at night because everything is turned off and you can place lights where you want. Concrete Kids was a much different challenge because I was shooting at night, but I didn’t have much control. I had to be able to see things in a different way.”

With the VariCam LT, Keet captured 10-bit 422 4K (4096×2160) AVC-Intra files in V-Log while monitoring his footage with the Panasonic V-709 LUT. Since over 90% of the movie was shot at night in available light, Keet captured at native 5000 ISO. For certain shots he even used the LT’s internal ND for night sequences where he wanted more shallow depth of field.

Although he stuck to mainly available street lights, Keet occasionally used a magnetized one-foot tube light that he kept in his back pocket. “There was one scene that was very well illuminated in the background, but the foreground was dark, so I wanted to balance it out,” explains Keet. “I stuck the light onto a stop sign and it balanced the light perfectly. With digital I’m pretty good at knowing what’s going to overexpose. It’s more about camera angles and always trying to have things backlit because you’re always getting enough light to bounce around.”

For lenses, Keet employed a vintage set of Super Baltar prime lenses, which the production received from Steve Gelb at LensWorksRentals.com. Keet loved how the lenses spread the light throughout the frame. “A lot of the new lights will hold the flares,” explains Keet. “The Super Baltars spreads the flares and makes the image look really creamy and it gives you more of a rounded bokeh. If you look at anamorphic for example, it would you give you an oblong shape. With the Baltars, the iris is smooth and rounded. If you see an out of focus street lamp, the outer edge on newer glass might be sharp but with older glass, it will be much softer. A creamy look is also very forgiving on faces.”

Keet shot wide open most of the time and relied on his skill working as a focus puller years prior. Sarki also had a wireless director’s monitor so he could see check focus for Keet as well.

The film was edited by Pete Lazarus using Adobe Premiere Pro. Studio Unknown in Baltimore did the sound mix remotely. The film was color graded by Asa Fox at The Mill in LA pro bono. Fox gave Sarki a few different options for the look and Keet and Sarki would make adjustments so the film would feel consistent. Because they didn’t have a lot of time for the color grade, Keet relied on a trick he learned to keep things moving. He and Sarki would find their favorite moment that encapsulates a certain scene and work on that color before moving on to the next scene. “When you do that, you can work pretty quickly and then just walk away, leaving the colorist to do his job since we didn’t want to waste any time.”

“So many people helped make this project work because of their contributions without financial benefit,” says Sarki. “I’m super happy with the end result.”

Main Image: Director Lije Sarki

 

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.”

DP John Kelleran shoots Hotel Impossible

Director of photography John Kelleran shot season eight of the Travel Channel’s Hotel Impossible, a reality show in which struggling hotels receive an extensive makeover by veteran hotel operator and hospitality expert Anthony Melchiorri and team.

Kelleran, who has more than two decades experience shooting reality/documentary projects, called on Panasonic VariCam LT 4K cinema camcorders for this series.

eWorking for New York production company Atlas Media, Kelleran shot a dozen Hotel Impossible hour-long episodes in locations that include Palm Springs, Fire Island, Capes May, Cape Hatteras, Sandusky, Ohio, and Albany, New York. The production, which began last April and wrapped in December 2016, spent five days in each location.

Kelleran liked the VariCam LT’s dual native ISOs of 800/5000. “I tested ISO5000 by shooting in my own basement at night, and had my son illuminated only by a lighter and whatever light was coming through the small basement window, one foot candle at best. The footage showed spectacular light on the boy.”

Kelleran regularly deployed ISO5000 on each episode. “The crux of the show is chasing out problems in dark corners and corridors, which we were able to do like never before. The LT’s extreme low light handling allowed us to work in dark rooms with only motivated light sources like lamps and windows, and absolutely keep the honesty of the narrative.”

Atlas Media is handling the edit, using Avid Media Composer. “We gave post such a solid image that they had to spend very little time or money on color correction, but could rather devote resources to graphics, sound design and more,” concludes Kelleran.