Talking HD with DP David Herrington

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Los Angeles-based director of photography David Herrington, whose credits include numerous feature films, television series, mini-series and commercial work, is currently shooting Lifetime Television’s highly-rated cable drama Missing (Saturdays, 10:00 ET/PT) with AJ-HDC27 VariCam® HD Cinema Cameras. The VariCams were chosen over film to shoot the second season of the dramatic series, which stars Viveca A. Fox (“Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2”, “Ella Enchanted”), as FBI Special Agent Nicole Scott (Fox), a specialist in missing person cases. . In each episode, “Missing” profiles a missing person case that is being investigated by Scott (Fox) and her partner Special Agent Jess Mastriani (Caterina Scorsone).

  • Question: What drove the decision to shoot “Missing” in HD?

     

    Herrington: Series producer John Calvert approached me in February 2004 to start researching various HD cameras in order to prepare a budget prior to shooting the next season. The only equipment rental houses then carrying HD equipment in Toronto, where the show is shot, were William F. Whites and Panavision. It was during the period of checking Sony Cameras at Panavision that I was told about an alternative method of capturing an HD image on Panasonic equipment. I attended a seminar for HD equipment in Los Angeles—I had already shot with Sony cameras and wanted to see a comparison between 1080i and 720p to evaluate what the differences might entail. I was very impressed by a clip shot on the VariCam—indeed, it was this clip alone that sold me on the idea of shooting the entire show on HD with VariCam. I would then not have to carry a high-speed film camera on the truck, which would have increased the production’s camera budget.

  • Question: How many cameras do you use on the show?

     

    Herrington: We are currently shooting with two VariCams for most of the seven-day episodes, and our second unit also shoots with its own VariCam. We rent all our camera equipment through Sim Video here in Toronto, whom we chose based on price and Sim’s willingness to help a film crew become HD savvy (the first season was shot with Panavision 3-perf cameras in a Super 35mm format). My crew had never worked with Panasonic cameras before, so there was a steep learning curve at the start, but as the days of prep progressed we all become impressed by what new technologies film techs could learn!

    I myself became more immersed in how I would have to approach lighting HD, and whether or not I would be able to adapt my film style to this technology. Panasonic had given me several instructional DVDs for the VariCam, and what had interested me the most was that I could use three different gamma curves for capturing the images. I decided to use the Film Gamma Curve, which allowed me to then correct all the scene-to-scene corrections at my tape-to-tape sessions.

  • Question: VariCam offers a lot of flexibility in terms of set-up. What features or settings do you typically use?

     

    Herrington: Using the Film Record Gamma Curve allows almost a full tonal range, which then is sweetened during the post process. I have found functions on the camera that have become very valuable tools in shooting the show. The first was a question of trying to achieve a film-style shutter angle that would replicate a moving shutter instead of an electronic shutter. This was achieved during prep by trying various angles that created the look I felt most represented film motion blur. I finally decided that 200 degrees looked best. We also found that in shooting plasma screens and LCD screen that the shutter angle didn’t work at 200 for the plasma screen. We tested at 144 degrees—the plasma screens were great but the LCD screen flickered. Because these tests were judged immediately, I decided to test at 288 degrees, and both the plasma and LCD screen didn’t flicker. There is also gunfire involved during our shoots and we wanted to see the flame from the guns, so we decided to shoot with no shutter and this allowed a full capture of the gunfire.

    Whenever possible I like to shoot at -3db gain; this brings down the effective ASA of the CCD to 400. Because HD has so much depth of field I also liked the idea of shooting with as wide an aperture as possible; therefore I had Harrison and Harrison filters made in Neutral Densities of 1.2, 1.5 and 1.8. This allows me to shoot outside with a stop of 2.8 in full sunlight. I haven’t used the internal filter wheels on the cameras that contain NDs and 85 Wratten corrections, as I’ve found them to be inconsistent from camera to camera. I also wanted the assistants to be very aware of what was in front of the lens. Again, my firm belief was to make this just like a film shoot.

    Initially after I had tested I decided to use a Schneider black frost ¼ as a base because there are two women leads on the shot. Our lead actress Viveca Fox has great skin but there have been occasions when it was necessary to employ the black stretch function on the camera. I have found this function to be invaluable. Generally, I only use this function when I shoot close-ups of Viveca and Caterina. I have used the 3% as a starting point, then stretched to 5% and in extreme circumstances utilized 7%. This also offers the opportunity of not using a second softening filter when the ladies are on camera. My experience has also been that there are unwanted double highlights when combining black frost and classic soft filters in various combinations.

  • Question: Overall, how did the transition to HD production go?

     

    Herrington: Our Directors were accustomed to shooting with film, so I had the assistants make up a chart that converted 35mm lenses to their equivalent HD lenses, making the transition much easier for everyone. My major concern at the onset was to have the 14” monitor and my trusted waveform monitor for every shot. These are carried on their own custom cart; a separate cart houses the dual 9” director’s monitors. The assistants move these carts around to every location, then connect the cables so that I can check out my lighting for every scene. I have found over the months that we’ve been shooting HD that I will still light the scene by eye, then check the balance on the waveform and on the HD monitor. The final touches are then made after I survey the shots with the camera team and the second team (stand-ins). The one major issue that I’ve found with HD is that white and windows in particular have a tendency to overexpose much sooner than film. I therefore have to be prepared to apply ND to windows in order to keep a balance between interior and exterior. The beauty of shooting in an HD format is that it’s possible to see results immediately, and not have to wait to see film rushes a day or two later.

  • Question: How often do you shoot off-speed?

     

    Herrington: I have particularly enjoyed explaining to directors that we do not have a high-speed camera with our package, and watch their faces as I explain that the VariCam is able to capture an image at up to 60fps. There is not a week that goes by where we do not use either high speed or low speed method to add punch to the show. We also found that because all the high-speed material needs to go through the Frame Rate Converter, we have separated the tapes for high speed and normal speed material. This allows for a smoother transfer up to 1080 for our post process. The editors then convert a Beta SP to an Avid digital format in order to edit the scenes together. The main issue that our post brethren have had is the upconvert from 720 to 1080. It does take time and has added a cost to the post budget. Toybox is the company that coverts 720 to 1080, and is finding new ways of speeding up the process with the help of Panasonic.

  • Question: What about lenses and the rest of the equipment package?

     

    Herrington: We shoot with two Fujinon HD zoom lenses (10 x 1 and 6 x 1) and a full complement of Fujinon digi-primes. The coating on the wide-angle zoom has a slight green cast and can easily be adjusted during the tape-to-tape correction process. I’d thought that when we shot the dream sequences that are an integral part of the show, we would be using some of the different gamma curves within the camera, but after discussion with the creators of the show and post-production supervisor the decision was made to use the flame and the DaVinci 2K color correction suite to achieve the desired results. This look has been maintained in order to give continuity and style to the flashback and dream sequences.

    The nature of show also requires that we utilize a steadicam for much of the FBI headquarters. This at first posed a few problems because I wanted to be able to look at an HDSDI signal for the waveform monitor and the 14” monitor. I would look at a rehearsal, then release the cable and look at a transmitted signal on the NTSC. I was never satisfied with the result and the breakup of picture as we rounded various areas of poor reception. Ultimately, our solution was to start at the end of the shot and wind the HDSDI cable to the beginning of the shot; assistants pulled the cable and were then able to keep themselves out of the way and still get the shot.

  • Question: What do you say to colleagues about the VariCam?

     

    Herrington: All in all, I am extremely pleased with the results that the VariCam gives. The colorist (Rob Evans) at Toybox has been so enthralled by the whole process that he willingly showed the first weeks of dailies to everyone at Toybox to point out that the show didn’t look like a video shoot and more like film.

    The final proof that the camera was right for the show is that we now have a highly-rated show on cable that many people can’t tell is shot with an HD camera. Our coverage for scenes is greater than it was last year and with the knowledge and help of a terrific camera, lighting and grip team we’ve created a faster-paced show. This was deemed almost impossible according to some skeptics in our industry, who claimed HD wasn’t “ready.” But it is ready—it makes economic sense, and the more we learn about the process and equipment the better the results become. Already, we’re seeing more and more crossovers of HD technology into features. I hope to see a time in the not too distant future that allows me to capture an image on tape that has the full tonal range and contrast ratio of film.

    When one considers that the final result of any image captured for television is on video tape, it makes good economic sense for many shows to be shot using HD technology. The same principles apply--as with all photography, lighting and framing are the essential building blocks to create movement and mood. Actors create characters who coax an audience to believe what they are seeing is real. It is my role as the cinematographer to enhance this process by determining with light, and more importantly, shadow, a style that allows the actors to be comfortable in their environment.