Archive for October, 2011

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.

Goat yoghurt made in heaven

Actually, it was made with my brand new yoghurt-maker machine in my kitchen, but the result is still heavenly. It’s an SCD-legal goat yoghurt, using three strains of “good” bacteria as a starter, and fermenting it for 24 hours so no lactose is left in it. I also evaporate 1/4 of the milk while cooking, by trying to keep it boiling longer at no more than 180 F (this makes it have a less runny consistency later). I serve it with various berries, maybe some tiny grapes, walnuts, and definitely raw & unfiltered honey. Yum!

I used goat milk because its casein and the rest of its chemical ingredients are more tolerable by humans, since goat milk is closer to human’s milk than cow’s or sheep’s. Besides, I grew up with goat/sheep dairy rather than cow. Still, it can’t beat camel milk.

Update: I cooked some kale for the first time ever tonight too. I made kale chips. Recipe easy to find anywhere online.

Update 2: I even made some Paleo jerky for the first time ever (apple cider vinegar instead of soy sauce, honey instead of sugar).

Regarding “Mad Men”

Am I the only one who doesn’t find any particular appeal on the successful cable TV series “Mad Men“? The series has won many awards, including multiple Emmy wins for “best TV show”, and it’s regarded as one of the best examples of scripted TV.

Well, here’s the thing. I fully recognize the amazing production value that went into the series: it really looks and feels like the ’60s. The acting is very good too. Direction is top notch. Editing could be better, but camera work makes up for that. Script is concise and well-written too, with quite some subtext. Overall, one of the best TV shows right now, and possibly the one with the best artistic/production value.

But.

Where I hang up with “Mad Men” is that I’m not interested in its stories. Its premise, that is, cut-throat business, racism & sexism along promiscuous untrustworthy characters, are not my cup of (herbal) tea. I have absolutely nothing in common with these characters or that era in general, or any era before year ~2150. I’m not trying to sound pretentious, but I truly feel that I’m above these kinds of situations. It’s for the same reason I didn’t enjoy “The Wire“, which according to many is the best TV show of all times. I’m above these lowly situations that these shows portray, no matter how accurate are or were.

Mad Men crap

Instead, I want to look into the future, I want to watch TV series that deal with questions that have no easy answer. I learn absolutely nothing by watching about problems arising from socially retarded egomaniacs (as in Mad Men) or corrupted current socio-political systems (as in The Wire). Between the two, “The Wire” is obviously better than “Mad Men”, but I still can’t say that it thrills me, because I feel that it portrays a world that’s old by my standards (even if it’s 100% current). At least on “The Wire” I learned that “when it comes to crime, nothing is as it seems”. There was definitely some value in it by showing everyone things that they might not know about our current society’s organization and machinations. On “Mad Men” instead, the only thing I learned was “don’t work on an office in the ’60s, or you will get f*cked. Oh, and don’t marry anyone from the ’60s either”.

So I ask you, how does “Mad Men” make me a better person? Easy, it doesn’t. And that’s the crux of my problem with it. I already know everything that I need to know about the situations “Mad Men” deals with, so it’s of no use to me. Maybe it’s still a good learning tool for some people, who aren’t sure if cheating or cruelty is good or bad, but I definitely already know the answer to these questions. “Mad Men” is too simplistic for me.

Therefore, I still seek TV series or movies that engage me in an intellectually-advanced way, to make me cogitate even further than I thought possible, to teach me about new things that I didn’t know or I well-understood before. And that’s why I still consider “Star Trek: The Next Generation” the best TV show of all times. Because it was my mother & father in a way that my real parents could never be. I am the person that I am today, because of TNG.

I find “Mad Men” to be the “Dynasty” of today’s television. Well done and impressive to look at, but intellectually shallow. And yes, “Mad Men” is on my top-5 TV series right now. Which says a lot about the sad state of television. These days, the only show that I truly enjoy watching is “Breaking Bad“. The lead anti-heroes of both shows might feel similar, but Breaking Bad’s Walter White slips towards evil one step at a time because of situations that are out out of his control, while Don Draper is already well-situated in hell for years, and he’s more often than not the original cause of any situation depicted. No matter how complex the script would like Draper to feel like, he’s not as engaging to me. Most people are more likely to be like White than Draper: reactionary, rather than natural wrongdoers.

Finally, “Breaking Bad” is a show that it’s asking complex ethical questions at a constant pace, it describes the ways we could all fall of our wagon without even realizing it, and it’s damn funny while it’s doing so. Heck, I even learned some chemistry by watching it!

Scripted cable TV series shot entirely on Canon 7D

A lot of Hollywood movies and TV series now feature Canon dSLRs as “second unit cameras” (e.g. Captain America), or as “crash cams” (e.g. Iron Man), or “one-episode tests” (e.g. House), but it’s rare to find a scripted TV series that it’s shot entirely with one of these cameras.

Enter Wilfred, a comedy on FX. The American adaptation of this originally-Australian show is using the Canon 7D exclusively, and it looks great. Proof that you can shoot great video with these dSLRs as long as you employ a good focus pull.

All 13 episodes are available for free viewing via Hulu or IMDb (possibly only in the US though). Stars Elijah Wood.