A&E's 'Coma:' New Imaging Tools Bring This Thriller Back to Life
The makers of A&E's two-part medical thriller Coma were charged with creating fast-paced action and a theatrical film-style look, but of course it all had to happen on a TV shooting schedule. Coma stars Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) and features such notables as Ellen Burstyn, James Woods and Richard Dreyfuss, but its schedule and budget were definitely in the made-for-cable realm. "It was like shooting two features in 40 days!" says director Mikael Salomon, who served as cinematographer on such big-budget features as The Abyss and Backdraft before starting his directing career.
Salomon knows as well as anybody the importance of a fast, efficient DP on a project of any scope. For Coma he returned to frequent collaborator Ben Nott to serve in that role. Nott used two ARRI Alexa cameras shooting Log C to SxS cards to cover the action (and a Canon EOS 5D Mk II for one dream sequence).
The production made use of existing locations in Atlanta—carefully scheduled according to geographic proximity—to meet the incredibly ambitious shooting schedule. "All the jobs I've done for Mikael have been location jobs," Nott says. "We visit the [spaces] and get a firm understanding of how each place can play a part in the narrative. Then lighting is about finding what's there and augmenting it in the right way."
Primary locations in the narrative include a hospital, a university and the mysterious Jefferson Institute, which stands at the crux of the conspirators' plot. "A hospital is an incredibly brightly lit space because it has to be, but we're telling quite a dark story," Nott says, "so I would selectively take out some of the fluorescent tubes to create contrast in scenes by darkening the foreground. We have [poetic] license to do that. Viewers aren't going to say, 'Why is the foreground so dark in this hospital?' We do a lot in silhouette, and that can be very effective. You don't have to see every actor's face all the time. Once you've established who they are, it's nice to let them go into the shadows."
He took advantage of the Alexa's ability to save a non-destructive LUT with the image to add whatever color bias he needed rather than having to use corrected light fixtures all the time or adding exposure-robbing correction filters on the lens.
"I would use my color temperature meter as I always would," he says, "and then we could figure out how much green was in the light and the perfect amount of magenta cast to add with the Alexa. Overall, we wanted to leave a hint of an aqua cast rather than correcting completely [to neutral]. With the Alexa, we could dial in exactly the amount of correction we liked. It was much more effective than using glass filters."
They shot in a working hospital, which presented its own issues. "Our shooting was shoehorned between real operations," Nott recalls. "We had a very specific list of do's and don'ts, and you can't cheat! We're in a space where they save people's lives. We can't go lifting ceiling panels and possibly contaminating the environment."
In these cases, Nott made use of another go-to technique for working fast: "Make your own practicals." He explains, "We brought strips of CeeLite, this very thin substance that provides illumination. You can tack it to a wall to create a panel where you can put up some x-rays or just silhouette actors against it. You can very quickly simulate an environment wherever you are and then just as quickly pull it down."
Nott had gaffer Dave McLean build several light banks with fluorescent tubes inside. The handmade units could be easily shaped and hidden behind props to let only a small amount of illumination through.
The Alexa's native 800 EI allowed Nott to work at lower light levels than he ever had previously. He describes a shot where Ambrose's character is climbing through a crawl space above the drop ceiling in the hospital. The space was re-created in a disused Sears building in downtown Atlanta in a reinforced space that really was above a large expanse of fluorescent fixtures.
"We strung some rope light on top of those fixtures that were just below Lauren—normal rope light like you get at the hardware store," Nott explains. "When that comes through crevices in the 'ceiling' she's crawling along, it catches her face nicely. Beyond that I had one bank of four Kino Flos and a flashlight. It was quite a big set and that was all I needed to light the scene quite nicely."
Says Salomon of Nott, "Of course the work is the most important thing, but I also love working with Ben because he's not afraid to make a decision and go with it. When you work on projects like Coma, that's an incredibly important thing."
Digital Sleight of Hand
Colorist Pankaj Bajpai of Encore in Hollywood used his FilmLight Baselight 4 color corrector to subtly layer some "looks" on top of the footage to enhance the drama. "First I added a custom LUT over the entire show that introduced some coolness to the image and had some color vector corrections," Bajpai says.
Then the colorist borrowed a technique from the photochemical days to further augment aspects of the images. "Some filmmakers in the past experimented with bi-packing a black-and-white and color negative together to affect saturation and contrast in ways that weren't possible with traditional film timing. We did the same thing here at Encore but digitally, creating a monochrome layer for every shot and blending it in with the color layer. Altering just midtones in the monochrome layer let me subtly change contrast in just a portion of the overall image. I could also selectively affect saturation by changing the way the two layers were blended together.
"There are a lot of ways colorists can achieve this kind of effect," he concludes, "but I think there's a special, organic feel you get when you're really blending the two images this way."