Shooting "A Prairie Home Companion"

Director Robert Altman has been in the heart of St. Paul filming A Prairie Home Companion, which is based on the popular, long-running radio show of the same name. The film's cast includes Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones and Lindsay Lohan, as well as Garrison Keillor (as himself) and some of Keillor's regular radio players.

Filmed in 22 days at the Fitzgerald Theater, where the actual weekly broadcast originates, Altman worked from a script written by Keillor himself.

Altman, whose wife is a big fan of the radio series, was approached several years ago by Keillor about the project when the director was in Chicago shooting his ballet-themed feature The Company. "Garrison and I share a lawyer, and when I was shooting The Company, he came to see me about doing Lake Wobegon," a film about the fictional small American town from which Keillor hails. "We talked about that, and finally I said, 'Why don't we just do your show? Let's just do Prairie Home Companion and fill it up with people.' And that's what we did." The director attended several performances of Prairie in various cities to get a feel for the show's live experience.

Going HD

Altman turned to acclaimed cinematographer Ed Lachman, ASC (Far From Heaven, Erin Brockovich), to shoot the film. Lachman had previously worked with Altman on a number of commercials and had served as the desert unit director of photography on the director's Dr. T and the Women. Altman's son, camera operator Robert Reed ("Bobby") Altman, was also on board. The younger Altman has worked on nearly all of his father's films in one capacity or another since Nashville in 1975.

Having already shot The Company in high definition, the director opted to continue with HD video for this project. "He likes being able to see what he's getting while he's shooting it, particularly with the long takes in this film," says Bobby Altman. "We had a nine-page scene that we shot in a single, 25-minute take, which is pretty crazy."

"It's mainly an economic thing," says the director. "It doesn't cost anything to leave those cameras on all day." He notes the format's problems relative to film that result from shooting in bright, high-contrast situations, but he points out, "We were shooting inside, at night, in one place. We weren't outside shooting horizons and vistas."

While the Altmans had worked with HD equipment previously, Lachman had not. The cinematographer admits the format has some advantages, but he still prefers shooting film. He says, "Film has a greater exposure latitude and depth than digital. Light responds differently to the electronic media than to film. And because I've been brought up on film, I don't respond to digital images the way I do to film."

The cinematographer and camera operator went about the task of exploring available technology for the project, including the Panavision Genesis and Dalsa Origin cameras. While the Genesis units were unavailable (in use, at the time, on Superman Returns), the pair did review Dalsa's Origin. "We loved the 22-megapixel chip," Bobby says, "but the only way to retain that information is on a hard drive. You couldn't see the footage as you were shooting it. You'd have to take a frame of what you shot and put it in Photoshop to look at it."

Lachman agrees. "The Dalsa was an impressive concept, but where do you store all that data?"

On the suggestion of Digital Imaging Technician Ryan Sheridan, the two approached Pace Technologies, which had developed a system based on a modified Sony HDC-F950, but the team finally opted for a system put together by North Hollywood-based Clairmont Camera using modified versions of the older F900.

"I use Clairmont Camera in the film world, so I went to them," explains Lachman. "They've totally reworked the F900s to include a very stable front end that doesn't change between shots. And the way they calibrate the camera is foolproof."

"They really put a lot of time and money into their F900s," adds Bobby Altman. "They put the chips onto a block that's not aluminum, so it doesn't breathe. You don't get back-focus issues when the heat changes."

Lachman and Altman also tested Fujinon's digital cinema zoom lenses and acquired the HAe5x6 (6-30mm) and HAe10-10 (10-100mm) through Clairmont.

Zooms are important on any Altman film, says Bobby Altman. "My dad wants a camera always moving and zooming, so you have to have good zooms."

Recording was handled by four Sony SRW-1 decks tethered to the cameras by 100-ft. fiber optic cables connected to Sheridan's DIT station. Lachman still took advantage of the onboard recorders, however. "We actually recorded onto both," he explains. "The SRW-1 was our master for the film-out, but if we wanted playback on set or to have a backup, we could play back from the onboard deck without risking damaging the master recordings."

Multi-Camera Challenges

Robert Altman regularly uses multi-camera setups in his films, particularly given his emphasis on long dialogue scenes. Prairie features a good deal of live stage performance, which also benefits tremendously from multiple-camera coverage. "I always used two cameras, sometimes three, and occasionally we had four and five on this film. The only challenge is you've got to find a place to put your equipment, and you have to get out of your own way," says Altman.

Lachman handled the challenge easily. "When I work with two or three cameras, I think of it like a Zone system," he explains. "Each one has its own specific job, so everyone isn't trying to capture the same thing at the same time. At some point there will be overlapping, but you're still covering different parts of the action. That's why there's such a flow to the film, how the cutting seems so seamless, particularly with these long, extended takes."

Key to achieving this production coordination is a group of good operators, Lachman says. "With a script and direction that allow improvisation between the actors and the camera, it's important to get operators who can think on their feet," says the cinematographer. "With Mr. Altman, the camera's in constant movement, and not just for movement's sake. It's in the context of the emotion of the scene. Bobby obviously has a great rapport with his dad, but he's also an operator who can tune in to the performance. He listened and he responded." For B camera, Lachman also used operator Peter Biagi, who worked with Altman on The Company. Additionally, Lachman occasionally operated himself.

Most of the two-camera work took place in the downstairs dressing rooms at the theater. In order to be able to provide the camera movement Altman required, the rooms' floors were outfitted with a solid "dance floor" that allowed dollies to move easily within the small rooms. When adding a second camera turned out to be impossible because of space restrictions, the team decided to shoot scenes with a single camera and then go back for coverage.

Dressing rooms always have mirrors, of course, which makes shooting tricky because you want to avoid getting cameras, crew or lights in the shot. Avoiding reflections can be even more difficult in a multi-camera situation. The solution for Prairie lay in putting the mirrors on gimbals, which allowed them to be tilted out of camera view as needed.

Fortunately, the crew had already learned some tricks about working with mirrors. "We did a Revlon commercial earlier that year," says Bobby Altman, "and it had a million mirrors. We had the same dolly grip, Jimmy McMillan, who was key grip on this film. We all got really good at hiding the cameras from the mirrors and still being able to keep them fluid."

Lachman adds, "When we were shooting with several cameras, we didn't worry if you briefly saw another camera because we knew we had enough coverage."

Lachman had to make some adjustments to his usual filmic lighting methods, particularly in the low-light dressing room scenes. "I work a lot with color temperature and gels, and the HD system didn't respond the same way film does. So I did a lot of experimentation."

While DIT Ryan Sheridan created lookup tables in preproduction to help Lachman correlate his film experience with the HD results, the DP eventually turned to a tool from the film world for assistance: his spot meter. "I did some tests in HD and filmed them out to find where my latitude was with this camera. I decided it was two stops over and two and a half stops under. By doing this, I wasn't totally dependent on the DIT."

The dressing rooms were typically lit with practicals augmented by Kino Flo lights and strategically hidden 650s. "The look was always motivated by the practicals, but sometimes I would hide lights behind those and keep my lights on low color temperatures using dimmers," Lachman says.

Lachman made no adjustment to the gain setting on the F900s in order to get as clean a capture as possible. "I didn't want to get in trouble in the film-out, not being able to get back what I put in," he says. "I'd rather start out with a 'good negative.'"

Capturing the Show

To capture the live stage performances-all of the music and singing were performed live for the cameras, Altman proudly notes-at least three cameras were typically used, though more were used for the film's stage finale. In the three-camera setup, two cameras were placed on dollies onstage and the third was positioned on a 30-foot SuperTechno 30 telescopic camera crane.

For the most part, the SuperTechno was placed on a steel deck built over a front section of theater seats, which allowed it to work in conjunction with the two onstage cameras. "We designed the dolly track [for the B-camera] to go at an angle, right under where the TechnoCrane was," Bobby Altman explains. "It could come out in front of the performers, then dolly by them and go behind into the backstage area to pick up dialogue back there."

One particularly interesting shot, which occurs toward the beginning of the film, put the TechnoCrane and the camera/grip teams to the test. The shot begins downstairs in a dressing room. The camera observes a parade of actors making their way upstairs to the stage. As they pass, the camera rises, seemingly through the stage floor (actually through an existing scenery door), to catch up with the same actors as they appear on the stage. The camera finally rises 30 feet in the air as the curtains open to start the live show. "That's our Citizen Kane shot," says Lachman.

The move was suggested by Bobby Altman. "We knew from the script that they leave the dressing room, go up the stairs and, with a page and a half of dialogue, walk over to the podium, and then the curtains go up. We were thinking about how to connect the two actions," Lachman says. The team stayed late one night to shoot a test using stand-ins and presented it to Altman the following morning. The director agreed to the particular camera choreography after Bobby arranged with the AD a suitable time in the schedule to perform the shot. "It's a very effective shot," says Altman.

"People generally think of cranes just for up-and-down motion," Lachman says, "but cranes can be used very effectively, particularly this type of crane, to move in a parallel action because the boom is retractable. You can go 30 feet out to six or eight feet and still be in the same place."

Another interesting shot, which takes place toward the end of the film, takes full advantage of the HD camera's sensitivity to shadows and demonstrates some smooth operating by Bobby Altman. The sequence is shot from the vantage point of Tommy Lee Jones' "Axe Man," who watches the show's finale from the glass-enclosed sound booth at the back of the theater. The move starts as a close-up of the performers on stage, pulls back through the darkened theater-where the audience and building interior are gently visible-to a reflection of Jones in the booth's glass and finally pans around to a close-up of his face.

"Altman always wants the camera, not the editing, to connect the two pieces, and you're always forced to figure out a way that the camera can do that," Lachman says.

To accomplish the move, the stage was lit in the typical fashion, while the audience was backlit with some soft lights and Jones was lit with a small Kino Flo tube. The camera was zoomed back in conjunction with a slight dolly move in a tight space while the focus was racked to reveal the reflection. "You have to hide all of those elements to make it work in one flowing shot," Bobby Altman notes.

Color timing began at Technicolor New York and was finalized by Lachman's film timer, Lee Wimer, at Technicolor in Los Angeles, where the digital version was recorded out to film. Lachman, who spent a lot of time with Wimer to finalize the look of the show after the digital color correction had been completed, found the overall color timing process, from the digital tape-to-tape all the way out to film, somewhat challenging.

"It's very much a trial-and-error process," he says, noting that scenes that looked good on tape did not necessarily look the same once they got to film. "Everyone says shooting digital is a time saver. It actually took two or three times longer to get an acceptable answer print than it would have taken if we'd shot on film."

The results are ultimately what matters most, however, and Altman is pleased. "I defy anybody to look at one of our release prints and tell me what this was shot on," the director says proudly.

The film not only captures the look and experience of being in the Fitzgerald Theater for a performance of A Prairie Home Companion but also the character behind it all. "Garrison's a bit of a genius, you know," Altman notes. "He's been doing it for 30 years and doesn't repeat himself. I can't go 30 years without repeating myself. He's quite a performer."