Gale Tattersall, Director of Photography, 'House' 'Help Me'
After cinematographer Gale Tattersall read the script for this season's finale of House, he knew he'd have to overcome some unique challenges in his approach to shooting. Much of the drama of the episode, entitled "Help Me," takes place in a small crawlspace beneath a collapsed building, and the feel of the action needed to enhance the sense of the title character's internal isolation from the world around him.
Turns out the solution came in the form of the Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR. Its sensor's large image area (that of an 8-perf 35mm still camera or a VistaVision frame) automatically required longer lenses, hence narrow depth of field to isolate subjects from their out-of-focus surroundings. The tiny footprint of the camera allowed more natural shooting in tight spaces. Its high ISO settings allowed shooting in the crawlspace set with minimal lighting.
How little lighting could you get away with in that tight space?
Tattersall: It changes [over the course of the episode], but at first it's just a real flashlight and a tiny bit of ambience that might have been bouncing off the ceiling. But that's very subtle. Just enough to keep the exposure off the very bottom.
Did you use any of the adapters that are around to shoot with cine-style lenses?
No. We went purist and used Canon still lenses. I think they're magnificent, even though there are enormous problems attached to pulling focus. They weren't designed for that. Barrel movement from minimum focus to infinity is tiny: 1mm on the barrel would shift focus 10 inches in front of the cam.
So how did you pull focus?
Redrock Micro has this wonderful system we used that lets the assistants use an iPhone or iPod to control focus remotely. It's quite an ingenious system that is able to drive the internal focus mechanism within the lens. You have to keep your iPhone in airplane mode, though, so you don't get a call in the middle of your focus!
Did people focus to marks or a visual reference?
We used Redrock's microRemote, which gives you a very accurate reading of how far out your subject is. There is already an incredible number of third-party companies, including Zacuto and Hoodman, who've jumped in to support the 5D MKII system.
What kinds of focal lengths were you using?
All kinds, from 14mm to 600mm. I used Canon's 50mm T1 lens, which is the most ridiculous lens you can imagine! Wide open, the depth of field was almost non-existent, which is what I wanted for certain scenes. I used the 70-200mm zoom a lot, which has the beautiful advantage of being rock steady for handholding because of the built-in image stabilizer.
Were the cameras tethered or did you shoot to the internal cards?
We used the CF cards on the back of the camera. You have to use the expensive cards, but it's quite remarkable that on one 8GB card you can get about 24 minutes of material. The A and B cameras were tethered, though, to send a signal back to the bosses at the video village. That added some bulk to our cameras because you need to have an external monitor on the cameras and loop through the HDMI system.
But we also had [operator] Chris Murphy on a third camera, and he wasn't tethered at all. We called him Ninjacam. He was shooting whatever he could get just using the looped eyepiece by Redrock. He got some great material. I'd say about 18 percent of the final episode came from the Ninjacam.
Were you concerned about all the compression involved with the system?
No. It was the best camera for this particular episode. We don't plan to shoot another entire episode this way, although it could be an incredible tool for car shooting or squeezing into tiny spaces or maybe some visual effects shots or teasers. There seemed to be a lot of concern on the REDUSER site about using such an "imperfect" camera to shoot the most popular show on television, but it suited this story perfectly.
Most importantly, I think cameras like this really have created a great democratization. A lot of talented people have no excuse but to go out and make their dream movie. I think these cameras are as game-changing as anything we've seen in this business in at least the past 30 years.