Interview with the dSLR professionals behind the “Wilfred” TV show

Wilfred” is a fun comedy TV show, made for the FX cable TV channel, starring Elijah Wood and Jason Gann. It’s very interesting that the show is using dSLRs almost exclusively, possibly making it the first popular scripted TV show on a major TV channel that’s using such cameras. Naturally, it’d be very interesting interviewing the DP and the camera operator behind the show! So today, Brad Lipson and Kurt Jones respectively, were very kind to answer to some of questions I sent over.

A frame from the “Wilfred” show

1. Who initially decided to use a DSLR on “Wilfred” and why. Why was the 7D picked in particular?

Brad Lipson: The Co-executive Producer/Director Randall Einhorn decided to shoot on the Canon 7D/5D for the pilot. It was a two part decision: The cost of a DSLR package and the look that particular camera brought to the show, especially the 5D. The 7D’s are bit more forgiving when it came to following focus so they were the workhorse cameras. The 5D was used for shots where a real dynamic frame with little depth of field was wanted. We also used the 5D to pick up shots on a long lens, while the other cameras were shooting the two main angles of the scene.

Kurt Jones: Randall the Director of the pilot chose the 5D/7D route. The 7D was used as once modified, it was closest to the normal film frame aspect ratio. The 5D’s FF chip made it actually more critical for focus with much shallower DOF.

2. What kind of rig and accessories were used to shoot the series? Did the 7D cooperate well?

Brad Lipson: Otto Nemenz engineers worked on a system that enabled the camera operators to handhold the cameras in the normal, traditional style that you would hold any larger professional system. They also installed PL mounts as well as a BNC connectors that bypassed the mini HDMI connector, which from past experience we all know seems to be what breaks first on a rigorous shoot. We also had matt boxes, Preston follow focus and remote iris for one camera. Each operator used an on board monitor as opposed to the LCD monitor on the back of the camera. Anton Bauer batteries were used to power the cameras and monitors as well as balance the rig for handheld use. For the PL mounted 7D’s we had a set of Schneider Optics prime lenses, 25mm, 35mm, 50mm, 75mm, 95mm, the primes were what was used almost exclusively. We also had a short zoom. The 5D had the Canon EF mount. We had some old Nikor lenses of which the 50mm was used quite a bit. We also had a 200mm and 300mm that were workhorse lenses as well. The cameras did hold up surprisingly well. There weren’t to many issues and I don’t remember loosing any time to a camera failure.

Kurt Jones: A custom hand held rig was built by the rental house. The 7D performed well but a bit “clunky” from an Operators perspective.

3. Which picture style was used? Will the second season use the now-popular and Canon-endorsed Technicolor Cinestyle? Will the second season even use a dSLR again?

Brad Lipson: We used the standard picture style and pulled the contrast to 0 and color saturation to +1. I spoke with Canon about the Technicolor firmware upgrade and It sounds like something I’d like to implement, however, I haven’t shot any tests at this point, but I look forward to seeing how it enhances the image. At this point the plan is to use the DSLR’s again.

4. What were the challenges shooting with a Canon DSLR? Was rolling shutter a major problem?

Brad Lipson: The biggest challenge was latitude, in the video mode there isn’t a lot of breathing room, so you have to be pretty accurate at the time you’re shooting to achieve the look you want. If you are to far off with your stops there isn’t room to bring the image back. For instance, when we would shoot a day scene at the front door of Ryan’s house, the camera looking out from inside shooting the actor required a great deal of light in order to balance with the exterior, much more so than if it was being shot on an Alexa, F35 etc. Another aspect is you cannot shoot a raw image so there isn’t the same control in color timing that you would have if a flat/raw image was being originated. Every once in a while we had issues with the jello effect, but as long as we didn’t do any real fast pans it seemed to not be much of an issue.

Kurt Jones: The rolling shutter came into play a few times but for the most part was not an issue that I know of. Challenges from my stand point was the poor “eye piece” for my viewing while operating. A small HD monitor can’t not replace an optical viewfinder. Seeing critical focus to help my focus puller is something I’m known for and it’s a lot different than using a Panaflex. Also the small, out of balance camera/rig also doesn’t help doing long lens hand held moves. But, it’s new format and at the end of the day we get the shots we need, no matter how we achieve it.

5. In the last few years with the release of powerful cheap camera hardware there seems to be a democratization of filmmaking online. Do you see the professional and artistic landscape changing because of this?

Brad Lipson: DSLR cameras allow more people to produce a project they may not have been able to do a few years ago. It also allows the novice filmmaker opportunities to shoot a higher quality film that wasn’t possible a few years ago. It gives everyone interested in filmmaking opportunity to practice story telling, which is wonderful. On the other hand, just because you can turn on a camera and have a quality HD image, doesn’t mean you are instantly a filmmaker. There are no shortcuts to learning about good composition, blocking, and certainly lighting, all of which are important to good story telling. Telling a story successfully requires more than just having a camera. I’ve been in the film industry for a long time and every day I am learning something new. The DSLR cameras also are another great tool in a filmmakers toolbox. On other shows we have used them to capture shots where larger cameras cannot fit so easily, or would take to long to rig.

Kurt Jones: Absolutely. It already has. People with great visions have been able to make films and demonstrate their talent and hopefully take it to the next level.

6. Outside of your professional work, do you still play with cameras? What cameras do you own?

Brad Lipson: I own a Canon 5D Mark II, which I purchased for still work. I have yet to shoot a video project on my own with it. I certainly use it to shoot a lot of stills.

Kurt Jones: I do play with cameras. I’m a camera geek. I was a still photographer initially by profession. I’ve shot for clients such as Fuji Film Corp, ESPN Magazine, the Associated Press and dozens more. My work can be seen here and here. I shoot with Canon cameras for over 20 years and switched to Nikon about 2 years ago. I also occasionally shoot with an Olympus M43 camera as well.

1 Comment »

Joshua Lawrence wrote on October 19th, 2011 at 11:02 AM PST:

Thank you so very much for this interview. I was wondering whether or not to use the 7D/5D for my new web/tv show pilot, and this gave me the answer to go ahead and use them.

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