Class Is in Session: Learning the P2 Workflow for BETs "Somebodies"

In 2006, executives at BET (Black Entertainment Television) were looking to expand the network's lineup to include scripted programming. When they got a look at the indie comedy feature film Somebodies at that year's Sundance Film Festival, they saw a lot of potential in this brainchild of the writer/director/actor who calls himself Hadjii.

The film is set at the filmmaker's alma mater, the University of Georgia at Athens, and touches on the lives of an eclectic group of people in the area. BET thought the material was so rich that they ordered 10 half-hours of Somebodies as a television show. The series was set up through Executive Producer Pete Aronson, who had also been an EP on The Bernie Mac Show.

Director of Photography Patti Lee (far right)
and the crew watch takes on the set.
Click for Large Image

Aaronson brought on a number of directors and other crew personnel, including Cinematographer Patti Lee, who had shot a number of episodes of Bernie Mac with the Sony HDW-F900. Lee used Panasonic's AJ-HPX3000 to shoot this modestly budgeted single-camera comedy series in great part because Line Producer Tevin Adleman was a proponent of the new 2/3-inch 1080p Panasonic camera and its tapeless P2 workflow.

The show started shooting in Georgia locations this past June 3 and initially had a scheduled premiere date of July 15. Although the premiere was eventually pushed back nearly two months, the post schedule was still quite fast, and the time saved by eliminating tape from the equation—transforming real-time digitizing sessions into much faster file transfers—was not insignificant.

Furthermore, by using the AVC-Intra codec rather than going the DVCPRO HD tape route, Lee understood that there would be more color information and more fine detail in low-contrast situations retained for use during post. "I hadn't used AVC-Intra," Lee reports, "but it was supposed to give us a little bit more leeway during color correction than if we'd laid everything down to tape, and I liked that idea. We would be shooting everything entirely in locations, and a lot of them were pretty small and not so easy to light.

Above, Hadjii stars as Scottie in this coming-of-age
story about facing the pressures of post-college life.
Next to him is Kaira, who plays Diva.
Click for Large Image

"Then I had a variety of skin tones that was off the charts," she adds. "We would have very dark-skinned and very pale people in scenes together all the time. There were always challenges about lighting those situations, and the more [data] we sent to the color correct, the better."

She explains that on a show like Somebodies, technical considerations can't and shouldn't be primary. "The comedy always comes first," she says. "It's about staging—seeing where people are and how they react. We used a Fujinon zoom throughout, but it was usually pretty wide—like at 7 or 8mm—for a lot of the show. Maybe if it's possible, I'll give someone a special or try to get some extra fill on the side of the frame where the darker-skinned actors are, but that's not always possible. Fortunately, this camera was able to retain a lot of information in [underexposed] situations."

The camera has a number of looks, and Lee generally liked to use FilmLike 3 for the portions of the show where she did have some measure of control over the lighting. "I liked the contrast and the level of fine detail that it gave us," she recalls. "Then if we were in a practical location trying to do a night scene without blowing the whole place up with light, we shifted to FilmLike 1. I tried hard to have the production design department paint back walls dark to medium tones to avoid the contrast issues you get with a white wall, but on our budget in practical locations, you don't always get to paint the walls the way you want to."

Lee likes to be able to see into another room where possible. "I'm always trying to provide some depth," she elaborates. "So if the video village has to move further away or auxiliary people have to leave the set or tuck way back, it's something that I think is worth doing. Even if the walls are painted, I think it would be really horrible to just be facing walls all the time.

"You get spoiled on soundstages, where you have control," Lee observes. "Somebodies was shot 100 percent on location. We would often convert locations into other locations when we had to, but you still have the issue of low ceilings, having crooked floors. We spent a lot of time in a duplex that was built in the 1980s. It was small and it smelled like wet dog. It wasn't square. You couldn't get crew or equipment off into a corner because there weren't corners the way it was laid out. And there were skylights that let the sun shine through and bounce a lot of light off a wall that was kind of this salmon color that totally invaded everybody. I flagged off as much of that as possible by throwing up some solids. So we used one tiny window in the front to be our main source of light."

The cinematographer credits A-Camera Operator Jim McKenny and B-Camera/Steadicam Operator Alfeo Dixon with being able to keep the framing and the look of the show lively and give the actors freedom to move within the wide frames she likes to use for comedy.

Lee generally carries two 18Ks, two 6K PARs and two 250s to every location and lights from outside through windows when possible. "Basically," she says, "we have a smattering of every kind of light we can handle with the crew size we have. Ideally, I try to have big sources that wrap around the subjects more and then a little bit more fill than looks good to my eye to give us more leeway in post."

Where circumstances presented difficult contrast situations, Lee would just have to make the best of it, as there was certainly a limit to the amount of silk flying she could ask the very small grip crew to get involved with. Even putting aside equipment and personnel limitations on the shoot, it simply would not be practical in mid-summer Georgia to attempt to bring massive amounts of light inside a location. So she essentially prepared to just let windows clip, though the look wouldn't be her first choice aesthetically.

L-R: Quante Strickland (Six), Nard Holston (Marlo),

Hadjii (Scottie), Corey Redding (Jelly) and
Anthony Hyatt (Tory)
Click for Large Image

"We got these cameras and went right to work," she says, "so it's not like there was a long period of testing. We were learning over the first few days of shooting. At first, if a window was clipping too hard, I would use the camera's knee. It did help a little with the clipping, but it also turned the area kind of yellow, so we turned our knee off to avoid that."

She was prepared to lose all of the highlight detail and was pleasantly surprised when she saw what Colorist D.C. Cardinelli at Crawford Postproduction in Atlanta was able to pull out of those highlights. "He was really able to bring it down to a level where it was presentable," says the cinematographer, crediting the camera's imager. "It was still hot, but not just this painful light without any detail that I was worried about."

“The production started as we were still figuring out the workflow,” Lee says. “Panasonic makes that viewer [P2 Mobile] you can use to download media, and you can also edit on it. When we used it to download the media, it would always try to partition our hard drives and we didn’t want that. We were going to use the P2 Genie, but that became suddenly unavailable for Mac. We used P2 CMS [Content Management Software from Panasonic], which worked out well."

Overall, she was very pleased with the camera and system. "The back focus did go out a lot," she cautions, "but it was very hot where we were shooting and the problem could have come as much from the lens as the mount. The heat and humidity also drained our batteries quickly. The display would say we had 30 percent battery power one minute and then recording would just stop in the middle of the next take. We also had a DIT make some adjustments once every two weeks because it was hard to match the two cameras. But this camera held up as well as the Sony F900, and I think that if you know how to use them, all these cameras can give you similar kinds of images in terms of quality."

Though the CRT monitor is being phased out of a lot of productions, Lee finds a good, calibrated CRT to be just about indispensable on location. "I've used LCDs on stages or warehouses, but out in the field I don't think you can use an LCD to judge blacks at all," she says of hard-to-control environments. "On Somebodies, we would shoot bars at the beginning of every day, set the monitor, and then I'd rely on that [CRT] for lighting."

Despite the few hiccups—finding the right way to transfer data from the P2 card, dealing with back focus and matching the cameras—Lee found the HPX3000 to be an excellent tool for shooting a show like Somebodies. "Next season, knock wood, I hope we can get the gear early enough to prep it, and then I think everything will go easier," she says. "And I think it's got a good shot at a next season because it really is a good show. The characters are really strong and the writing is very good. I've never been on a show where a crew was so enthralled or laughed so much."

Other Panasonic P2 projects: