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Big Love: Season Two


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The DVD finally came out so I can show you some shots.

 

Technical info: 4-perf Super-35, framed for 16x9. Shot mostly on Cooke 20-100mm zooms, some Panavision "Z" series primes (Zeiss). Kodak 5212 100T outdoors, but otherwise, mostly Kodak 5229 (Expression 500T). Later episodes used a mix of light diffusion on closer shots, either #1/2 Black Diffusion-FX, #1 GlimmerGlass, or a fine net. The Expression stock has a somewhat softer, powdery look, a little like Agfa.

 

I'll begin with some frames from the backyard set, shot on a soundstage:

 

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At each end of the soundstage, I have Dinos to create a backlight. Overhead are spacelights. On this last frame, though, I wanted a toppier backlight so I extended a 20K on a small condor with an articulating arm to get over the porch trellace and create that shadow pattern on the side of the house.

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Some other random shots from the series.

 

This first one cuts with a wide shot made at dusk outdoors (this was not on a soundstage) so I had to fake a dusk look when I got to the close-ups at night, throwing soft blue light on the background. I armed a Kinoflo with daylight tubes over the car door to get the soft light on the door sill.

 

biglove5.jpg

 

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biglove9.jpg

 

biglove10.jpg

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Out of the twelve, I shot #2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12.

 

I shot about a fifth of #1 (Jim Glennon's episode), and quite a few little pick-ups in #4 (Haskell Wexler's episode), not really whole scenes. Otherwise, in each of the later episodes starting with #7, once Bill Wages was hired to be the co-DP, there often is one scene shot by the other DP because of scheduling. We try to match each other's approach and ask each other how they would light it.

 

There is one scene in the last episode that I originally shot... but Bill Wages had to reshoot because of a dialogue change, so he matched my original lighting set-up. That creates an odd conflict about whether I can put it on my reel, since I didn't shoot it, but it's almost a perfect match to how I originally shot it...

 

I also shot two out of the three short films on the disk ("Moving Day" and "Meet the Babysitter"), made originally for the internet.

 

Bill's episodes (#7, 9, 11) were shot with his special net filter, which I borrowed for a few scenes in my episodes after that (#8, 10, 12) but I mostly stuck to the #1 GlimmerGlass in my episodes. Before #7, we shot mostly clean except for close-ups where I used the #1/2 Black Diffuson-FX, mainly starting on Episode #3, a few shots before that. Bill also preferred sticking to the Expression stock even for day exteriors, whereas I switched to the 100T stock unless I was going to lose the light.

 

Bill taught me a lot about soft bounce lighting, plus the use of Source-4's for bouncing and to create hot slashes of light. I was doing that effect on all my episodes though, with flags and PAR's mainly, but it was easier to do it with the Source-4's later. Working fast was an important consideration. In this scene, I was able to sneak some Source-4's off-camera in the wide shot to create slashes of hot light falling onto the table, and then use them in the close-ups:

 

biglove11.jpg

 

biglove12.jpg

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Thanks David, I'm looking forward to checking them out (after I get caught up on "30 Rock" ;) ).

 

I've been particularly interested in the issue of multiple DP's on a single show for awhile, and the collaboration or communication and design that goes on between them. I've done a fair amount of 2nd Unit DP work where I take some pride in emulating the DP's style, and I have also replaced DP's for TV shows where I have to inherit a style or technique and slowly evolve it into my own. In both cases I've taken a slow approach and look to the director and producers for feedback. It's always interesting to hear the "unspoken mandates" about how the show should look, especially when you're not given any...

 

I'm curious what your experiences with that have been.

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Well, the "look" of the show is supposed to be natural, not too stylized. On the other hand, it's partly a comedy, and they also want the cast to look good, so the lighting is a bit lower in contrast or more frontal than would always be natural, if I ever have to choose between what is realistic and what looks flattering, depending on the dramatic content of the scene of course.

 

The main bit of stylization is that the home scenes are timed brighter and more saturated than the polygamist's compound in the hills, which is timed to be drab and darker. That's an approach that started with Season One.

 

Trying to find the "art" in this mundane setting without drifting too much into stylization or artsiness is the challenge. The frames I picked are not necessarily typical of the generally straight-forward look in the office scenes, the hardware store, etc., I wanted to pick something that had more of a distinct look. The show is so subtle in some ways in tone and humor, rarely is anything pushed or forced. So the look has to be grounded in naturalism (while being flattering... and while dealing with the fact that half of it is shot on soundstages.) I've been trying to think in terms of the kinder, gentler look of Nester Almendros, Sven Nykvist, David Watkin, people who could create art with a soft gentle light. It's hard to be that subtle.

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Guest Stephen Murphy

It looks great David. I particularly like the exterior soundstage grabs in the first post. How many Dinos are you using for the backlight? Have you any units on the floor for close ups etc or are you just working with the spacelights?

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I've been trying to think in terms of the kinder, gentler look of Nester Almendros, Sven Nykvist, David Watkin, people who could create art with a soft gentle light. It's hard to be that subtle.

Some of those shots are veering into Gordon Willis territory! :P Looks great, though. You definitely sell the backyard scenes as real exteriors - since I haven't seen the first season, I'm curious now to see how your approach differs. I think you mentioned before that you wanted to get in those hot slashes of hard light to mimic real uncontrolled sunlight. I think the only thing that might give the game away is the size of the shadows the actors cast on the ground, since I guess in real sunlight they'd be smaller because the sun is a smaller point source than the units you had. I also remember you saying that the ceiling of the stage was rather low, so I guess you were not able to put the lights as far away as you wanted. Were you ultimately happy with how the scenes turned out, or are there things you'd like to change?

 

I'm also curious how much you were allowed to vary your lighting style from the DP shooting the other episodes - what would you say the basic guidelines for the show are, in terms of lighting* and lenses? Have you felt like you've ever gone too far in deviating from the show's look, and if so, when and how?

 

* EDIT: Oops, I guess you answered that part already in the previous post. Never mind. :)

Edited by Satsuki Murashige
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A DP of course can spot the differences in approach, but we try to match each other in general.

 

Bill Wages is better at creating really natural-looking soft light with some contrast, but oddly enough, he was also less likely to stick to the reality of where the windows and sources were, if they were off-camera. He'd hang this big bedsheet and bounce light off of it from wherever it looked good, even if the windows were on the opposite side of the room. I'd be more likely to stick to the logic of the room, so a scene might be front-lit because of where the windows were.

 

I also noticed that the actors' skintones looked better from bouncing tungsten off of this bedsheet than when I was using Kinoflos, so I started using less of the Kinos.

 

I was a little more insistent on using eye lights and/or low fill for the eyes to get rid of some of the imperfections, whereas he tended to just make the key softer. This combined with the net diffusion created a softer gentler look starting on his first episode, #7 (the one where Margene is visited by her mother, played by Bonnie Bedelia.)

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Those just went up on my netflix queue. Since watching the whole first season in a couple days, I've been dying for these discs to come out. It's a very well-written, well shot, fun to watch series. Look for some questions that arise after watching this season :)

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Thanks for the reply David.

 

I imagine that there's greater variation in how the two DPs would suggest covering a scene than in the lighting - do you also try to stick to certain guidelines there as well? I remember you were talking before about setting up a shot with Bill Paxton where there complementary action going on in the background and not being able to shoot it the way you wanted to because Bill wouldn't go for it. How do you figure out the best way to cover each scene and also factor in consistency with the previous episodes?

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Thanks for the reply David.

 

I imagine that there's greater variation in how the two DPs would suggest covering a scene than in the lighting - do you also try to stick to certain guidelines there as well? I remember you were talking before about setting up a shot with Bill Paxton where there complementary action going on in the background and not being able to shoot it the way you wanted to because Bill wouldn't go for it.

 

No, that's not correct -- in that particular case, Bill questioned the naturalness and logic of the staging from a character perspective... but he went for it in the end. Being a talented director, he more than understands what value a certain composition can give to a sequence. But as an actor, he is right to mention when he feels a certain move or staging seems unnatural or forced. Especially on a show that is performance-driven as this one is. But sometimes a certain complex composition of separate foreground and background action simultaneously in the same frame can be more efficient from a storytelling perspective, plus it enhances that somewhat circus-like feeling that is Bill Henrickson's life as he juggles several things at once.

 

Basically the lighting has to feel natural and yet be flattering. That's the main guideline. And the home life is generally "up" and the compound life is generally "down" visually.

 

How the DP's go about that ends up being similar, afterall, we're working with the same crews, same lighting package, same sets, same actors, etc. I think we also steal from each other, or to be more honest, I watched everyone's dailies and stole whatever I liked. :P

 

Where we varied were on things like creating a soft light with a bounce or with our Chimeras or with our Kinos, especially in the kitchen scenes. And to some extent, I kept modifying my solutions to the same set over the season, particularly that darn kitchen set where the windows weren't quite in the right place for the action, forcing me to use top light in the wide shots sometimes, which didn't work so well in the close-ups. That and the big dinner table scenes where soft top light was the only real solution for night interiors where we were covering multiple characters with multiple cameras.

 

Normally every scene would be blocked with the actors and then we'd work out camera coverage from that, so the actors moved around where they felt unless the director had some very specific shots he was trying to achieve. We'd then set marks and the actors would leave while I lit the set. Sometimes I'd use the stand-ins and a lens on a finder and just tweak the actor's marks for different dolly positions. The idea was to cover the scene somewhat fluidly and loosely, then get some coverage, but generally scenes played best in a moving medium shot rather than a bunch of close-ups.

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More backyard info...

 

Here are some photos of the set, before production began while they were finishing up the touch-ups, and then during my first set-up in the backyard. The point is to show you that the Dinos were positioned behind the wings of the two houses at each end of the backyard, on scissor lifts.

 

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The problem was that the Dinos could not get high enough to tilt down into the yard of the nearest house, because of the roof shadow. So here, I added a 5K on a plywood sheet placed on the roof of the porch trellace so I could get the backlight to fall closer to the house and thus hit Barb in this position. I gelled it with 1/4 CTO to warm it up:

 

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Usually I opted to shoot in backlight, but here is a case where I armed a 20K overhead more to get the shadow pattern of the trellace, then threw a 4'x4' frame of diffusion on top of the trellace to soften/shadow the hard light that would be hitting Barb.

 

biglove16.jpg

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...He'd hang this big bedsheet and bounce light off of it from wherever it looked good, even if the windows were on the opposite side of the room.

 

I feel a lot better about my own personal kit now that I heard this. I always carry around a big cotton bedsheet for multi-purpose. Whether it be as a giant "silk" for creating a large diffused source, placing it behind a window and blowing it out, or just hanging it up for bounce. They're very versatile, and cheap ;)

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I think it's a great technique and I've done it myself. Sometimes a crew member will complain that a bedsheet is not OSHA or UAL-approved, whatnot, because it is not fire-redardant -- technically you should be using some treated muslin or something. But we routinely hit furniture and walls with big lights, and beds, so why a bedsheet is not safe for bouncing light off of, I'm not sure. Obviously the lights have to be a safe distance away.

 

What's great about the bedsheet trick is that anything, any area, in the room can become a light source just by draping it with a white bedsheet and reflecting some light off of it. Bill Wages is also fond of taping or stapling pieces of white card around the set and hitting those with the Source-4's. I could always tell when Bill had been shooting on one of the sets by the remnants of white cards here and there, dangling from the ceiling, taped to a wall, on the side of a piece of furniture.

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Another thing I started doing more of was using the Source-4's to get hot spots of light as if from the window, but slightly "misaiming" them so the people would only get hit partially. For example, in this frame, I cut the Source-4 backlight so that it hit Margene's head from the ears down rather than backlight her whole head, which looks a little more natural.

 

The frame is also an example of the work in getting the backyard in the background to be reasonably overexposed. I felt that I had to get the backyard at least three stops brighter than the interior to be believable, which wasn't always possible because of the T/3 limit of the zooms.

 

biglove17.jpg

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I got an T/11-16 out of the Dinos and 20K's generally, and an T/5.6-8 out of the spacelights, when everything was on full.

 

Since I had to shoot at T/3, I generally lit day interiors to a T/2.8, which got the background reasonably overexposed-looking, though the Expression stock actually held everything, even five stops overexposed or more, if you transferred it with the subject "down", which is what happened in dailies, since the colorist was not allowed to let anything get clipped.

 

I spotted the 20K's and whatnot on any tree or fence in the background seen through the windows.

 

Now when I was outside in the backyard, I lowered the intensity of the overhead spacelights down to a T/4 so that the hard light from the 20K's and Dinos would read relatively hotter in comparison -- to match real life outdoors conditions, I needed the sun and the shade to have at least a three-stop difference, more if possible. I could have dropped the overhead grid even lower, but since it was on a dimmer, it would start to get too warm in color temp compared to the Dinos and 20K's.

 

Ideally I could have lit the backyard with the correct balance AND be three-stops brighter than the interior, so I could realistically Steadicam from indoors to outdoors and back again and do a stop-pull on the lens, like in real life. But since I had to lower the spacelights down to an T/4 to balance correctly with the "sun", when the backyard was lit correctly for being outside, it wasn't bright enough compared to the interiors, unless I switched to primes and lit and shot the interiors at T/2 or less to create enough of a difference. When the camera was only inside, then I could just turn on everything outside and blast more indiscriminantly, just to get the intensity up.

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Another trick I used now and then, because gelling all the lights out in the backyard set was too time-consuming, was gelling the windows of the house for warm or cold effects, for all the angles in an interior scene.

 

In this case, I put 1/2 CTO on the windows:

biglove18.jpg

 

Here I put Full CTB on the windows:

biglove19.jpg

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It looks beautifully subtle, David. Beauty in the every-day-life is just as important to master as stylization, I think. It's all about having range in artistry, which you clearly show. I particularly like the shots of the couple in the living-dining room with gorgeous afternoon light coming in through the windows.

 

Can you please write a bit about the night interior work? You mentioned that you stuck to 500T for both the day interior and night interior/ exteror scenes. Since you were in a controlled environment, I assume it was somewhat easy to achieve the different night/ day look with the same stock. Was it as easy as to just killing the dinos/ spacelights/ 20k's outside the working set to get the results you got for the night scenes? Nothing is as easy as it seems, particularly when it comes to film making, even in a sound stage.

 

Looking at the stills is hard to appreciate much, if any, grain on the night images. The one where I can see some grain is where Chloe Sevigny is in the car, on the dark side of her face. Maybe it is the still, I don't know, but I don't mean this as a put-down at all.

 

So, was grain a concern? I just finished a short where everything happens at night. The director felt 500T was too grainy, so we used 7217 straight-processed throughout, and we still got (some) evident grain. I would have preferred to have 7218 to prevent me from being on the edge of the lens aperture range all the time, but it was a great learning experience. So, we had about two weeks of night work both interior and exterior, and a very limited amount of fixtures to work with, as well as crew to man them. I shot the entire thing at T3.2. It was very challenging to keep the lighting ratios straight, particularly for some master wide angle night exterior shot I had to pull of with just two HMI 575W Arri Suns and a couple of 2k/ 1k fresnels. Hence, I am interested in finding out what you guys thought and dealt with in this night/ day same-stock situation . . .

 

I will post an In Production thread as soon as I get a chance with some stills from this short I write about. In the meantime, I would be interested for you to elaborate on any filtration or processing you might have used to differentiate between the two looks with one stock, if any, or whatever comes to mind about the subject.

 

Thank you,

 

S

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35mm is large enough that using 500T stock more often is not so much of a problem, grain-wise. And actually generally it will look less grainy in a dark night scene, not more. Grain is always most visible in midtones, and there are more midtones in a day scene generally. The only reason you may get more grain at night is if you underexposed overall more, so that the image had to be brightened in post.

 

Lighting the backyard at night was easier in some ways. I left one or two of the half-blue gelled spacelights on for general ambience, and I sometimes added a moonlight edge from one of the towers, like by turning on only one globe from a Maxibrute, or putting a 5K or 2K on a rooftop, gelled half-blue.

 

I usually used the swimming pool as a source of light in the scene too.

 

I had two problems doing night exterior on the backyard set. One was that I wanted the interiors visible through the windows to look overexposed, which would happen in real life if you were outdoors in dim night lighting. But it was hard to get them to look bright enough. I wanted the effect of the bright houses spilling warm light into the night. The other problem was when there was a party or dinner scene set outdoors in creating a realistic light source. There wasn't enough practical sources out there to provide a key light, so often we dressed the scene with table lamps and what not. But the grid of spacelights was too high in the air to use them for lighting from for these scenes, so I had to put lights on rooftops and whatnot.

 

Here are two night "exterior" shots:

 

biglove20.jpg

 

biglove21.jpg

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I generally put 213's in practical lamps because I wanted them to read hot on my T/3 zoom, to really put out some light. Then I augmented from off-camera, sometimes with a Source-4 bounced into a card.

 

biglove22.jpg

 

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In this shot, I had a Chimera poking through a hole in the ceiling (a removable panel in the middle) to put a little light on the couch:

 

biglove24.jpg

 

There is some grain on the 5229, no doubt, but the question is whether a little texture is a bad thing for a realistic show like "Big Love". They actually had more noise problems in Season One because of the 5218 being underexposed too much in dark scenes. So I figured that 5229 overexposed a little (400 ASA), with its greater shadow detail, would minimize that problem.

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I wish "Big Love" was a show I could get more in to - I don't find the basic premise very intriquing. It looks beautiful, it's got a killer cast, etc. but juggling a house full of wives just ain't my idea of paradise. I've had enough trouble figuring out one woman at a time.

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juggling a house full of wives just ain't my idea of paradise.

 

I think that's one of the points to the show... It's all the normal family and career problems multiplied. And you have a sort of subversion of the 1950's version of the nuclear family, a sort of conservative household that is actually way outside the mainstream, far enough to be radical. Obviously they are trying to walk on the razor's edge of a lot of tricky issues. But certainly if domestic conflict isn't something you enjoy watching on TV, this is not going to be your cup of tea...

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