CCDs, Color Calibration & Chris Rock
Cinematographer Mark Doering-Powell was eager from the start to shoot UPN's Chris Rock-created comedy, Everybody Hates Chris, using Grass Valley's Viper in HDStream mode. He'd previously found success in series work shooting HDCAM footage with Sony's HDW-F900 CineAlta but wanted the opportunity to take advantage of what he feels is the Viper's superior imager and its ability to capture a 4:2:2 HD signal in HDStream mode. (In FilmStream mode, Viper captures uncompressed, unprocessed RGB 4:4:4 10-bit log video sequences.)
"It's not that I want to be negative about the F900," he insists. "I've used it a lot, including the F900/3 version. It's a very good camera and they've been making it better and better, but I've found that, right now, the Viper is the better camera head. It also gives me a natural palette and is excellent with skin tones."
Doering-Powell is impressed not only by what the camera can do but what it cannot; Viper does not allow for the kind of in-camera color and contrast adjustments that the F900 does, so he is able to treat the imager more like he would a film emulsion. He sets color and contrast through lighting, secure in the knowledge that he's capturing sufficient information to fine-tune the image in post.
"I don't like doing color correcting on set," he says. "I need to be at the monitor to watch for the things the operator can't see through that little black-and-white viewfinder"—the viewfinder is the subject of numerous complaints by operators using both Viper and F900 technology—"and I have to be able to constantly confer with the director. I'm also lighting on set, so I don't want to have to be doing extensive color correction and other image processing at the same time."
Doering-Powell's digital imaging technician, Joshua Gollish, came to Chris already quite familiar with the Viper. He had worked on two series that used it: The 4400 (before that series switched to F900s) and Terminal City. He expands on the idea that the Viper in HDStream mode offers really no way to bias the image save the selection of either tungsten or daylight white balance preset. "There is no painting on set and no ability to augment color and contrast," he explains. "Different cinematographers like to work differently, and I've been on F900 shows where a lot of that kind of work was done. A lot of it depends on personal preference, but Mark definitely likes to do more through the lighting."
Sometimes, Gollish explains, this kind of control can be necessary in the HDCAM format—the image from a camera like an F900, once it is downconverted to 8-bit to be recorded to HDCAM tape, has limited leeway in terms of how it can be manipulated in post. The HDStream signal contains more information with less compression, which allows for more freedom to fine-tune the pictures in Final Colorist Todd Bochner's suite at Modern VideoFilm.
Some cinematographers on shows using digital technology, Doering-Powell observes, "love to play with the white balance to get a look. The RMB150 [Sony's Paintbox Camera Controller for the F900 and other cameras] has daylight and tungsten settings, and you'll see people use that to give a scene, say, a heavily orange look. I would rather light to achieve color contrast of varying, subtle colors rather than white balance the entire frame to look too warm. You have more control that way and you can be more specific. I don't want to make a scene orange—I want to make it cinnamon or gold. Nothing against cinematographers who work this way, but it makes more sense to me to do that with the lighting on set than with the white balance."
Doering-Powell uses a significant number of gels when he's shooting, in part to get the cinnamon or gold looks he refers to and also to raise the color temperature (more blue) to accommodate what he has found to be a tendency by the Viper's imager to render colors slightly cooler (redder) than they appear to the naked eye. "The Viper loves warm light," he says. "If I would normally use a half CTO or CTS gel, I will go with a full one for this show. Most key lights will have both of those, in addition to some other warm gels, to get specific looks. We have a whole cocktail of gels we use to create a 'sodium vapor look' for night shooting. But most of the time we're working to make the light warmer, except in the school, where we want a colder look."
Though the show was originally budgeted as a traditional multi-camera sitcom, it soon developed—for both practical and artistic reasons—into more of a single-camera show. For a series with children in most every scene, it made sense for the production to be able to break scenes up in a way that wouldn't be possible in a live audience situation. Creatives such as Rock and Executive Producer Ali LeRoi wanted a show that would feel different from the traditional sitcom. "Ali had a lot to say about that," Doering-Powell recalls. "He did not want this to be a comic look at a dysfunctional family. Ali explained, 'The show is about a functional family in a dysfunctional world.'
"The show is funny," Doering-Powell continues, "but serious issues are also addressed. There are touching and poignant moments that augment the humor. Instead of treating it like a straightforward comedy show, we treat each episode as though we're making a family movie. So we want the home to be warm and inviting. In the daytime, we flash some sunlight in through the windows. Even though New York City doesn't really have the kind of sunlight we have here in L.A., we try to get the effect of the sun coming into a day interior whenever we can and find ways to get some soft backlight—a kiss of light—into the scene. I can get that effect to look more natural with the Viper than I would have been able to shooting with the F900."
But the other end of the exposure range is what concerns Doering-Powell the most. Production Designer Michael Okowita, true to LeRoi's ideas about creating a homey, realistic environment for the characters, infused most of the sets with dark, warm colors. The result: the color in the sets and on the lights is often very similar to the skin tones of the African-American cast. "This makes for something of a monochromatic look," says Doering-Powell. "We approach it almost like lighting for black and white in that the contrast comes from the lighting itself rather than from using different colors.
[Gaffer/chief lighting technician] Erik Messerschmidt and I try to use light to add separation as much as we can. I don't want the 'studio lit' back/cross/key effect, but we will use more back light and more lighting contrast to make the actors stand out."
Doering-Powell lights by eye and with a traditional light meter, rating the camera at an EI of 320; he then fine-tunes lighting at Gollish's DIT station using the 24-inch Sony HD monitor and waveform monitor. The dynamic range of the Viper's imager, he notes, allows him to light the set to a more natural looking contrast range than he could shooting with the F900. "If you light a set the way you have to for the F900," he explains, "and then you look at the set straight on or with a contrast filter, it doesn't look good at all. It looks flat. It has less range. You have to light like that, of course, because very small differences between your key and fill lights can make a huge difference on the tape. When I shot Family Affair with the F900, we had every single light on a dimmer. You have to. The light either burns out or it's just right—there's not much in between. On this show [with Viper], I can do a lot more lighting by eye. I know that if it looks good to my eye, it's likely to look good on the monitor."
The cinematographer spends a great deal of time at Gollish's workstation—a rack-mounted kit that includes a Sony 24-inch and a 9-inch 4:2:2 HD monitor, a waveform monitor, a digital alarm to help locate and rectify errors in the production chain, and Sony SRW-1 HDCAM SR portable digital recorders, which are configured to record the 10-bit, 4:2:2 signal from the cameras. The cart, which Gollish designed, can be rolled easily to wherever it needs to go and can be encircled by its built-in black curtain to keep stray light off the monitors.
As with an HDCAM show, the monitor is an extremely important tool for the cinematographer—both to light to and to check issues such as focus and exposure during takes. "As with all of these lightweight electronic cameras," Doering-Powell notes about the Viper, "back focus needs to be adjusted constantly, and the operators can't see if there's a problem in their little black-and-white eyepiece. It's something I have to stay on top of when I'm at the monitor."
The first assistant camera pulls focus using the Canon HD-EC (High Definition-Electronic Cinematography) lenses, but Doering-Powell controls the iris remotely from the monitor.
When the SR tapes are filled, they're sent to Modern VideoFilm, where "printed" takes are put in sync and then downconverted to DV format for Avid editing. After an episode is offlined, the facility conducts an online tape-to-tape mastering session using the original SR tapes and mastering to new SR format tapes. Color correction is completed on a da Vinci 2K Plus. "A lot of the work," says Doering-Powell of the color-correction sessions, "is just crushing the blacks. I'll shoot with the shadow areas a bit more open than I want, just to be safe. Then they'll use the occasional power window to make a face pop more or something like that, and they'll push the dream sequences and flashbacks around more to make them distinct."
Overall, Doering-Powell is extremely pleased with the performance of the Viper on the series. He's very happy with the camera's imager and the HDStream format. He also likes the texture and feel he gets using the camera with the Canon HD-EC zooms—he carries some Zeiss DigiPrimes, but the Canon zooms are almost always mounted on the Viper bodies.
Doering-Powell wants to make sure readers don't underestimate what he and his crew bring to the images on the show. "I'm wary of the whole notion of the 'Viper look,'" he says. "I'm not trying to hog the credit—I love the Viper and I endorse it heavily for its virtues—but, as with any camera, the most important thing of all is what you do with it."