Giving “All Saints” A Facelift

First published in Australian Cinematographer

Over recent years, television drama around the world has been undergoing a quiet revolution.  Although the changes have been happening on a variety of fronts, the worldwide trend has been toward more cinematic production values and more daring visual styles.  Lost, CSI, Desperate Housewives and The West Wing have helped to shift audience expectations for what they see on the box.

While many Australian dramas have suffered fatal wounds at the hands of Reality-TV and their American rivals,  the Seven Network’s All Saints is something of an anomaly.  Now in it’s ninth year the series has spanned the shift from analogue to digital and standard to high definition and weathered the rise of the Reality boom.

As an in-house production of the Seven Network All Saints began life with production methods that were essentially an extension of the live TV model, with rotating crews, studio pedestal cameras and no director of photography.  Through the first eight seasons the show evolved a unique production style which began to borrow some film methods such as using grips and dollies instead of pedestals, while maintaining much of the TV crew structure where camera and lighting departments which were essentially independent.

In 2003 the show made the switch to HD acquisition using the Sony HDW-750 HDCAM cameras.  The HDW-750 is a 50Hz only camcorder, meaning it will operate at 50i or 25p only.  While the 750’s do have slightly less powerful signal processing than the HDW-F900 they also have a smaller and lighter body with built in HD-SDI Outputs and PAL Down-converters.

This first step was to change the settings of the HD cameras from the standard network settings to an extended contrast film style setup.  This was done over a number of test days and then test footage was shot in the main studio set and taken to a colour grade.  This was crucial because after five years of shooting HD, I knew that the best way to get a film like result was to treat HD more like film by not trying to create the final result in camera.

One of the things that negative film had always done very well is capture a tonal and colour range beyond that of the finished picture.  By not trying to create a final result on the neg, film allows for more control in post and a broader palette to work with.  There is a school of thought that HD works best if you get as close as you can in camera and then only do minor tweaks in post.  Experience had shown that the opposite was true because the closer you get to a finished image in camera the less flexibility you have in post and the more difficult it is to create a filmic result.

Because of this, the on-set monitors would now look terrible compared to the fully tweaked pictures the crew were used to seeing.  The broader dynamic range gave the on-set pictures a dark, muddy and flat look.  But in the grade these allowed room to create subtle highlights, great depth and flattering skin tones.

In effect the on-set monitors became just like the video split on a film shoot, simply giving a framing, movement and performance reference.

The next big step was to introduce the role of Director Of Photography to the show.  To readers of Australian Cinematographer this may seem like an obvious and simple step but it lead to countless meetings where I was asked “isn’t a DOP just an expensive cameraman?”  Of course the role of DOP usually involves responsibility for the entire look of a project, working with all of the departments to create a cohesive end result.

While the TV crew structure is essential for the fast turnaround of live or soap TV, the style of All Saints had grown well beyond those requirements and the old crew structure was actually slowing production down and limiting what could be achieved by any of the departments.

The reason was simple.  This semi-film-style required that the cameras usually be set up before the lighting department could light the shots.  By having a DOP who could make decisions about both camera and lighting at the same time, both departments could be setting up simultaneously giving them more working time while maintaining the show’s frantic schedule of one TV hour in five shooting days.

With the series producer MaryAnne Carroll pushing every opportunity to improve the look of the show, I eagerly accepted the role of DOP for the first 4 episodes of the new system and to establish the new visual style before handing over to Mathew Horrex, a former Seven lighting director who had been chosen to take over as the DOP for the rest of the series.

Having the film-style camera settings also allowed us to eliminate the need for the CCU (camera control unit) and allowed us to set lighting and exposure by light meter instead of on the monitors.  Working by meter allows a degree of accuracy, speed and consistency which is hard to match using any other system because it provides a constant, objective measurement and allows a DOP to be making exacting decisions before a camera or monitor is even turned on.

A key component for this is the use of film-style HD lenses because, unlike TV-lenses, they are accurately calibrated for both focus & exposure from the barrel markings.  For All Saints- Season 9 the Cine Zoom lenses from Canon and Fujinon, were provided by Broadcam. These lenses also allowed made it possible to minimise the depth of field and get accurate exposures while retaining the fast working style of  zooms.  They also allowed the camera assistants to pull focus film style rather than the operators focusing through the viewfinder.  This resulted in almost entirely eliminating the need to do retakes for focus, which had been an ongoing headache on the series.

Pools of light on the main set

The next step was to develop a lighting approach to heighten the drama and show the cast to better effect.  To do this we eliminated most of the direct lighting from the overhead studio grid and instead used mostly Kino-Flo’s and small tungsten units on floor stands to create more dramatic lighting.  The Kino’s allowed the studio lighting crew, Chris Follett and Tom Hankinson, to maintain fast set up times while offering beautiful soft light on the actors faces.

We did make use of the lighting grid, but mainly to create ambient light that could be varied to create areas of light and shade for characters to walk through or to add depth to the backgrounds.  With a ceiling covering most of the main set, false fluorescent fittings were built in (essentially a piece of Rosco-216 and a commercial fluoro frame).  From inside the set this looked like a normal fluorescent light but above each of these was a 1k Pup run from the dimmer board.

We quickly worked out dimmer settings that related directly to certain exposure levels.  For example- a 40% dimmer setting gave me 1½ Stops under base, giving a solid daytime ambience (30% was used for night to get 2 Stops under).  From here we could quickly add areas of light and shade in the background and pools of light for characters to travel through.  This gave a much greater sense of depth and movement around the set.  Anytime a main character stopped, particularly for dialogue, we could instantly cut the lamp directly above them to eliminate unflattering shadows and then add a conventional three-point setup using the Kinos and tungsten units (never bigger than a Pup).

Soft side lighting

This lighting approach also allowed us to create much better separation between the action and the backgrounds.  A flow on effect of this was that it became possible to increase the amount of movement among the extras without intruding on the main action- giving a greater sense of a working hospital with urgent things going on.  While this kept 3rd AD Lauren Wilbow busier than ever, the added sense of a hospital where urgent things were happening in the background added to the sense of the foreground action being that much more important.

In the past the show had tried real fluoros mounted in the ceiling but they flooded the set with flat, top light and could not be dimmed.  A great irony is that once we removed the totally realistic lighting and replaced it with unrealistic film lighting, everybody who saw the test footage commented on how much more realistic the set looked.  Such is the irony of cinematography!

We also made use of one of my pet tools, a China-Ball (paper lantern) filled with Kino-Flo tubes to create an ultra soft light source that could be used to light for cross shooting two close-ups at once, instantly key lighting both people with the same source.  Matt Horrex has since added a variation to this technique with the same bundle of Kino tubes wrapped in Rosco-216 to give a slightly harder but more powerful multi-directional source.

Because the show has at least two cameras available at all times, cross shooting is an essential part of getting the required coverage in the limited time available, particularly with large medical scenes.  Another technique we employed to enable cross shooting of two characters face-to-face was to Key and Backlight from the same side of the actor’s faces.  As well as creating a sense of something just a little less perfect than the traditionally opposite Key & Back, this enabled us to use the Keylight for one face as the Backlight for the other.  Although the incident levels from both lamps were the same, because of the way the light skims off the face at the sharper angle of the Backlight, it still gave a spot reading about a stop over the Key. In this situation a traditional china-ball with a dimmable tungsten lamp inside gives a single Fill source for both faces allowing a two-character cross-shoot with only 3 main lamps.

The series usually spends two days per week on location, averaging six minutes of screen time per day (compared to 11 minutes for studio days).  In daylight conditions the extra latitude of the film style camera settings really pays its way, allowing shooting to continue in most lighting conditions, as the schedule dictates.

The other massive change we made to the series is the move to an in-house colour grade.  Over the last few years I have been seriously exploring the use of Apple’s Final Cut Pro editing software as the basis for a low cost, desktop grading system.  Having already graded a number of commercials, music videos and short dramas using the system, I was confident that we would be able to use it to set up an in-house grading suite for All Saints.  While the idea of high quality, low cost, desktop colour grading is an anachronism to most of the industry, it is likely to be the next big trend.

While colour correction used to be a simple matter of fixing colour problems and matching shot to shot and scene to scene, anyone who has experienced a complex digital grade (either in Telecine or Digital Intermediate) will have realised that it is fast becoming as much a part of the cinematographer’s toolkit as a light meter.  Beyond basic “primary” grading (overall colour, contrast & brightness), one of the main tools is the Window, which allows for areas of the screen to be graded separately.  This creates the potential for walls to be darkened, faces to be lightened or extra depth and shading to be added in a variety of ways that are simply too time consuming to achieve on set with a fast schedule.

In the process of exploring the desktop grade I had developed a set of plugins for Final Cut, which gives it many of these tools as fast, easy to use filters.  These evolved over the last few years and are now working quite effectively. If you’re curious you can check them out at: www.thegradingsweet.com

While these techniques are well established on commercials, music videos and high end US dramas, the extremely tight budgets of Australian dramas have meant that these tricks are generally pulled out only in the most dire of circumstances.

In contrast, the use of a low cost desktop grading system has made it possible for All Saints to have a full time Colourist on staff (former CCU op, John Parsons has been retrained for the role).

This means that instead of 10 hrs for a PAL grade, they now have 50 hrs for a full HD grade on each episode.  The other advantage of having the grading suite in the same building as the studio is that it now makes it possible for DOP, Horrex & Colourist, Parsons to meet once a week to discuss the look of the series and that week’s episode.  This creates a valuable, two-way information flow informing both the shooting and grading of the series and making sure that the two are working in harmony. This flow is virtually impossible when the grading suite is across town- especially on a show that shoots a minimum of 50 hrs per week and 45 weeks of the year!

The new system has been in place for almost a year now and the reaction from critics and audiences has been substantial.  When planning the changes in late 2005, , MaryAnne Carroll agreed that the best-case scenario would be if the audience could not explain what was different about the show and yet reacted more positively to it.  Words like warmer, glossier, bigger and more realistic have been used to describe the look and although none of these is technically an accurate description of what has changed, they are ways of expressing the complex effect of visual style on an audience.

In some ways this is the very heart of cinematography- to be able to lead and influence an audience in ways that are so subtle they are rarely conscious of them.  Because of this, our role as cinematographers is a very powerful one, influencing how the audience perceives every other element of the film or television experience.

The second episode of All Saints to shot with the new style, “Sink Or Swim” won Ben Allan a Silver award in the recent NSW/ACT ACS Awards.

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