Production Insights is a new irregular cinema5D series, highlighting actual paid productions on which modern camera and production gear was used. We are talking about real-world issue-solving on real-world sets with real-world clients.
As a director of photography, there aren’t many chances in the TV world to help shape an entirely new program and start something from scratch. All too often, we have to pick up where others left off, or reiterate the same style or concept repeatedly. TV is hardly a medium of innovation these days, at least in the field of news and reporting. Narrative fiction is a whole different story altogether.
Around eighteen months ago, private TV channel ATV asked me to come aboard a new politics talk show concept in Austria. The show, “Klartext”, roughly translates as “frankly spoken” and is the brainchild of presenter Martin Thür. Martin and director Christoph Woska wanted to try something different and innovative.
Most politics talk shows on TV, whether at home in Austria or abroad, are shot in the same studio location time and again. They are often roundtable formats, meaning you have a bunch of people with massively different viewpoints on any given matter sitting at one table. All too often resulting in a blur of blabber for the viewers at home, as a moderator tries to prevent their guests from talking over each other. As we all know, it’s impossible to understand a word said on TV if people talk over each other. It’s annoying to watch and a major cause of frustration whilst watching political debates on TV.
Here’s one episode from season 2, dealing with jihadists in Europe. Unfortunately the video quality on the ATV website isn’t great, so I embedded one of the individual interviews from Klartext YouTube channel (just not the full episodes). And apologies, the series is in German only:
Martin wanted to switch to a one-to-one format, shot on location – each interview in a different setting, often having three people interviewed in individual locations per twenty-five-minute show. This gives the show a unique touch, as the location can change so that it is related to the interviewee and or interview topic. In fact, Klartext has built constant change of scenery into its format, which fundamentally influences the scope of any given interview.
Martin specifically approached me because of my experience with larger format interchangeable lens cameras and my focus on delivering a higher end “film look” to the projects that I handle. Their typical TV cameras are the classical broadcast ENG shoulder cameras, which we all know deliver the typical “newsy look”. Of course, this is something I never specialized in or was particularly interested in shooting.
Now, realizing a concept like this in a tight TV type budget and under time pressure for a weekly half-hour show wasn’t an easy task. Usually, we have to shoot at least two interviews in one shooting day – sometimes far apart geographically – which makes planning the shoot hard for the production people. Occasionally, the show must be edited and go on air on the same day. This happens quite regularly if there is an election date imminent, like in recent shows for the Vienna election, with the lead candidates for each party.
4 Cameras, 3 different types, external recorders for DNxHD
Due to the tight budget and shooting days that are “all over the place”, I had to go with camera setups that would be available on short notice. They also had to be replaced relatively easily, if other jobs coincided with Klartext shoots where one of my cameras was needed, for example.
In total there are usually four cameras, three of them manned (with the exception of “special” episodes with more or fewer cameras, which I’ll speak more about below). The two close-ups (of the interviewed politician and of presenter Martin Thür) are shot with a Sony FS7 and a Canon C300. There is a “moving” Sony A7s (either on a dolly, a small jib arm, or a Freefly MoVi M5, depending on the location and requirements of each individual interview), and a second unmanned A7s that shoots a static fall-back wide shot.
Why all these different cameras? As mentioned above, a very practical reason: because I own them and have them available at most times. Using multiple cameras also allows us to find a rental at short notice, rather than having to look for one specific model.
Unfortunately, all of the cameras need to record 1080 50i, as this is a technical requirement of the TV channel ATV for their own productions. I would prefer to shoot in 25p simply to get rid of the “newsy” movement that 50i injects into the production, but it’s currently not possible and we have to live with it.
Because of the fast turn-around that is required for the show (the show sometimes airs on the night of the shooting day) and the fact that we can’t shoot “direct to tape” because the interviews are shortened in the edit, we have to deliver in the editing format DNxHD straight from the cameras in order for the editor to ingest all the footage straight into AVID after we wrap.
For this, we are using various external Atomos recorders, among them the Shogun and Ninja Assassin, which can also serve as small preview monitors. We label all of the SSDs with camera names, so the editor knows right away which camera is which when transferring the footage. All the cameras still record internally for backup, and the two main cameras get fed the two audio tracks from the audio recordist’s mixer into their two XLR ports simultaneously. This is another way of having a backup of the audio recording, in case there is a problem on one of the cameras.
External recorders never come without problems. If I had a choice, I would not use them. The problems lie not so much with the recorders themselves, but with the unreliability of HDMI wires and connectors. HDMI is terrible and was never intended as a professional standard, yet cameras like the Sony a7S and many others only have HDMI as a video output – and even HDMI micro. If you think that normal HDMI is bad, HDMI micro truly is the devil. The connectors get loose or break easily and you absolutely NEED to find a way to make the connector more reliable. This is one of the biggest reasons to use a camera cage (click here to read our extensive Sony a7S cage review or here the new Sony a7S II cage review) or something similar.
My preferred solution is the LOCKCIRCLE LockPort a7M2 Kit, which transforms micro HDMI into a proper HDMI port, which is much more reliable. For me, this is an absolute must-have for any user of Sony a7 series cameras (and many other small cameras, such as the GH4 which come with the dreadful micro HDMI connector).
Unfortunately, the Lockport device is incompatible with most cages except for the LOCKCIRCLE Birdcage. It’s a very basic but useful cage which gives you mounting options for things like external recorders.
Convergent Design recently started shipping their Apollo 4-channel video recorder (you’ll find our news post explaining the device here), which is a variety of their popular Odyssey 7Q+ recorder (which we have reviewed here). A paid upgrade is available to get the Apollo functionality. I’m looking into switching the production to using the Apollo recorder to record all four video sources simultaneously into one device, instead of four Atomos recorders. However, we first have to wait for the DNxHD update to be released for the Apollo, plus convert one of the two HDMI signals from the two a7S cameras to SDI, because the Apollo only comes with one HDMI-in (and four SDI-in).
I will review the Convergent Design Apollo as soon as possible on one of our shoots for season 4 of Klartext.
This definitely is an odd mix of two different cameras, but we have figured out a way to make it work – it admittedly took a while and on some episodes we didn’t manage a 100% even look that we were happy with after. There was a lot of trial and error in the beginning. It’s understandable, though, as you don’t always get everything right first-time on fast turnaround TV content.
We have wrapped season 3 of the show in November, where we have used a camera color settings and color grading workflow which are feasible for the fast turnaround that the show requires, with virtually no time for color grading in post-production.
Together with a colorist, we ran a series of color tests on each camera and figured out picture profiles for each camera model that would make them look as close as possible, using DaVinci Resolve and Avid Media Composer. For the fine-tuning, our colorist created LUT presets that could be easily applied to the Avid editing workflow at the channel headquarters where they are editing the show.
In most cases, our lighting setup needs to be as simple as it is effective. We generally shoot daylight (5600K) in 95% of all locations. My gaffer, Bernhard Rieber, uses different sizes of HMI’s with chimeras in front for the two crossed-out key lights, and most of the time we go for a slightly harder HMI as a kicker. Of course, lighting is the one area where I often wish we had more time for refinement, however, this is exactly where the circumstances and turnaround time of a TV shoot simply do not allow us to “go as crazy” as on a corporate, commercial or narrative shoot.
Together with director Christoph Woska, we decided from the beginning that in addition the “special film look” that we figured out, we wanted to create a high production value with the limited resources we have available. We consciously decided to “see the set” every now and then. We didn’t want to pretend that there was nothing going on behind the scenes of these interviews, quite the contrary – being a news-type report program, we want the audience to be aware of the artificial environment that is created – simply by putting cameras up and choosing angles and perspectives carefully.
That is a departure from a film-type look that is immediately associated with narrative fiction because of our viewing habits. While we wanted the film look, the film feeling of “fakeness” wasn’t the intention, which is why we are grounding the audience in reality by showing them the surroundings of the set.
Special episodes – in Part 2:
In part two of this post, I will write about some special episodes that required specific setups to the production and camera setups.
Specifically, I will write about an episode in which we accompanied Syrian refugees across the Serbian-Hungarian border, with XLR audio transmitters recording straight into two Sony a7S cameras. The challenge was to stay undercover and embedded with the refugees without attracting too much attention to us.
A series of other special episodes were the candidates for the Vienna elections in late 2015, shot with even 5 cameras, one of them a C300 on a large crane, plus utilizing a large TableConnect multitouch device for Martin to present the candidates with facts during the discussion.
Another special episode includes the Paris Attacks episode, recorded only days after the terrible terror attacks in Paris in late 2015. On short notice we managed to organize a local team to man the additional cameras.
More about all that (including embedded episodes) in the next part of this series.