Can you make a television workflow cinematic?

Film and TV are so different? It’s a trope. I hear it all the time. Hmmm, they say, you’ve only done films, TV is so different. I counter that it is very much a state of mind and, on the whole, producers profess to want their TV drama to look cinematic but at that point their eyes glaze over and the battle is lost. Obviously there is a difference between top budget Hollywood and any TV drama, but I work in Indie film with my average shoot days being 21 for a 100 minute film. This is similar to TV, the crew is similar in size and it is often multi location. However I do think the directors on an Indie feature approach the visual storytelling in a different way and that is what I am alluding to with the ‘state of mind’ gambit. I of course did cut my teeth in TV, shooting kids drama and then comedy drama and finally a shed load of documentaries but that was a long time ago. However, the knowledge I gained from that became very useful when I was recently asked to shoot an ‘escape room’ competition for Netflix. This was to promote the final season of La Casa de Papal or Money Heist as it is known in the UK

The challenge was to light 6 sets with the highly produced, cinematic Money Heist as a visual reference. The aim was to put 6 finalists through a series of escape room challenges to find the biggest Money Heist fan. ‘Not so tricky’ I hear you say but here is the sting – we had to have 360 degree coverage, the contestants could move to any part of each set, we had to use 2/3rds inch sensor broadcast cameras and mix it live from an OB track. The agency, Amplify, were challenged by Netflix to deliver the edit within 10 days of wrapping the shoot which is why there was a live mix. The obvious, and to be fair, sensible solution would be to dilute the look, keep everything safe and focus on getting the deadlines met. Amplify however do not think like that. They were insistent, much to my joy, that the visual style had to mimic film and not TV entertainment. So how did we go about achieving this?

The key was the ‘state of mind’ that I spoke about earlier. Director, Will Kinder, probably one the most experienced live multicamera directors out there, was clear that all decisions to the approach we took had to fore fill two functions. Firstly he had to have the coverage he needed to deliver a compelling edit and secondly the final programme had to have the look of the original show. If any solutions we found did not meet both of these requirements we needed to find a better solution. His approach of committing to delivering a ‘drama style’ visual look was absolutely key to the success of the project.

With this in mind we started by hiring a film gaffer, instead of a studio Lighting Director. Serjges, the gaffer has lit features for me and knows how I like my drama set ups to look so approached the project with this mind set. We decided pretty quickly that practical lighting should justify most of the sources and so I worked with the fabulous production designer, Sam from Endpoint, to find practical lamps that both looked right and would give us the quality of light we wanted.

We also built vents into the walls which we pushed light through to create hot background points of interest. We used all of this as a base light and then filled in as and where needed with small units and tubes. We had a server room as one set and used the LED’s from the servers to create a low level of fill. By underlighting the space to way below what would normally be used in gameplay television you could see the effect these lights had as the contestants moved towards them. Finally we added a low level of haze to help spread the light a little. To ensure that we felt the progression of the contestants each set was lit to have a different feel with some live lighting changes happening throughout.

The bigger challenge was to make the small sensor broadcast cameras have a similar feel to the S35 gate of digital cinema cameras? In addition, how would we cover the gameplay when we were in 4 wall sets and didn’t want any cameras to be in shot? We had in budget 4 operated cameras which consisted of 2 handheld, 1 steadicam and 1 on a jimmy jib. These could move from set to set as the game moved forwards. Within the Money Heist format there is use of CCTV style cameras and we adopted this to cover areas that could not be covered with the broadcast cameras. These were given a post effect to separate them off from the main action coverage.

We then cut holes in the sets where we needed access for the operated cameras. All this is logistics and achieves the first aim of getting the coverage, but what about the second one of keeping the look of the show? After much discussion we decided to keep the servo zooms that the operators were so comfortable with. This was great as it meant they could adapt to the changing action quickly and instinctively. Having looked at the feel of the pictures from these cameras and lenses I felt that we needed to knock-back the hardness of them a little. For this I went to my favourite filter company, Format Hitech, and we tested a bunch of filters to achieve this. I found the ¼ Black Supermist gave great results. These filters are terrific as they just effect very specific parts of the image, in this case the highlight areas. The edge was taken off the detail and the practical lights had a softness that brought the pictures very much in line with the original show.

The other key difference is the depth of field. The small sensor camera allows so much more to be in focus as you are tending to use much wider focal length lenses than you would on a S35 sensor. To combat this we agreed to shoot the entire film on a stop of T1.8, the widest open the lenses went and to pull the cameras back as much as possible so that we were using the longer end of the zoom lens. This was a huge challenge for the operators and a real risk for production. We would not be able to change the light levels to create a deeper stop once gameplay had started so if focus could not be kept then it would be potentially disastrous for the show. It is a real testament of the ambition to keep the visuals in line with Money Heist that we went with this strategy. I am deeply indebted to the creative director, Adam Heyhurst, and of course Will Kinder who were responsible for making the decision to take the risk. Whilst I’m at it I want to mention how brilliant the operating team was, they had a real challenge and they rose to it magnificently.

The final part of the process was what happened in the OB truck. Normally everything is adjusted and balanced live to keep the pictures even and bright, so if a competitor goes into a dark area it is brightened in the truck. This time I lit each set using a meter and asked Emily, the vision technician not to adjust the gain levels once the gameplay had started. This allowed us to have the feeling that the competitors were traveling through lighter and darker areas, much as actors do in Money Heist. Colours would also be normalised in the truck at this point, balanced to make the whites white. However I wanted to use the difference in the Kelvin rating of the lamps to create different feels for each set so I lit knowing that I would set the cameras to a Kelvin rating of 4300. Some sources were very warm at 2800 Kelvin and others nearer 7000 Kelvin, so a huge mix. We added green gels to the opening truck scenes which again normally would have been graded out in the truck.

The results were very effective and I think we found an excellent balance between making sure the content was captured whilst the emotion of the Money Heist format was respected. It was so lovely to be working with a team of people who are completely committed to pushing the boundaries and who are all absolutely top of their game. Many thanks to all of my camera and lighting teams who gave it their all.

If you want to see the final result here is a you tube link https://youtu.be/OK8OlWo9aF8

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