'The New Normal:' Digital Capture for Ryan Murphy’s Irreverent Comedy Series

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Ryan Murphy, the creator of Nip/Tuck, Glee and American Horror Story, has brought another series to television viewers. The New Normal follows a happy Los Angeles gay couple who form a friendship with a single Midwestern woman whom they hire as a surrogate mother for their baby. The tone is comedic, but the laughs are interspersed with poignant moments. Critics have compared the show at its best to a Woody Allen comedy for television: humorous, but with surprisingly sweet, gentle grace notes.

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(L-R) Andrew Rannells as Bryan, Justin Bartha as David, Bebe Wood as Shania, Georgia King as Goldie. Photo by Trae Patton/NBC

The cast includes Justin Bartha and Andrew Rannells; Georgia King as Goldie, their surrogate; Bebe Wood as Shania, Goldie’s daughter; and Ellen Barkin as Goldie’s snarky, bigoted grandmother. Michael Goi, ASC, shot the pilot for The New Normal using the Sony F65 camera, and Carlos González has been handling cinematography on the subsequent episodes, most of which he has shot using ARRI Alexa cameras.

Goi had previously worked with Murphy on episodes of Glee and American Horror Story. He is currently shooting the second season of the thriller anthology, titled American Horror Story: Asylum. (Both Glee and American Horror Story are shot on film.)

For the New Normal pilot, Goi was influenced by L.A. Story, the 1991 Steve Martin comedy photographed by Andrew Dunn. “That story takes place in a Los Angeles that anyone who lives here realizes doesn’t exist,” says Goi. “It’s a little too perfect, too colorful, too great. That’s the environment these characters inhabit. The colors are a little amped up and everything is a little more beautiful than you might expect.”

Murphy, who directed the pilot and several other episodes, generally prefers shooting on film—all his previous productions were produced on celluloid, but the studio, 20th Century Fox Television, reportedly wanted a digital format.

“As a result, part of my job as a cinematographer became finding a comfortable way for Ryan to work in digital,” says Goi. “I wanted to make it invisible to him in terms of how he approaches his work as a director.”

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Photo by Trae Patton/NBC

Goi also prefers to shoot in a manner similar in every possible way to shooting film. “I don’t like to live in a black tent,” he says. “I tend to stand behind the operators as the shot is happening. I might glance over at the assistant’s monitor to check a frame, but I don’t want to be rushing back and forth to a tent. I like to work very quickly and very simply and I don’t like to have a lot of technical bugaboo around me. We were able to work in a way that made it virtually imperceptible to Ryan that he was dealing with an entirely different medium than film. I think that made it very comfortable for him.”

The camera was a prototype of Sony’s F65 CineAlta. Around the same time that The New Normal pilot was in production, M. Night Shyamalan and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, ASC, BSC, used the camera on a narrative feature film in Costa Rica titled After Earth. But The New Normal is believed to be the first television pilot production to use the camera, which uses an 8K digital sensor to deliver 16-bit 4K images with 14 stops of dynamic range, according to the manufacturer.

“I had tested the F65 and compared it to film and another digital camera, just for myself, to see what the basic differences were,” says Goi. “Knowing that Ryan really loves the look and the feel of film, I wanted to replicate the feeling that he gets when he looks at a piece of film. I was impressed with the color space, even though we weren’t taking full advantage of the capabilities of the camera because of postproduction, which was not equipped to deal with these huge raw files. We ended up having to work within more of the Rec. 709 HD color space. But the camera images were very clean, and I think the look is right for The New Normal.”

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Bebe Wood as Shania, Georgia King as Goldie, Ellen Barkin as Nana. Photo by Justin Lubin/NBC

The pilot was shot single camera (although the production carried a backup) and was done entirely on locations around Los Angeles, including Barney’s, the high-end Beverly Hills boutique; the Japanese-American Museum downtown; a fertility clinic; and Santa Monica Beach. Goi says Murphy was pleased with the camera’s ability to run for nearly an hour without reloads.

He notes that the F65 worked better than some other digital cameras with certain filtration. “The resolution is very good, and that meant I could use some of my older Mitchell A and B diffusion filters,” Goi says. “These are filters I had previously only used for film because when I used them with various other digital cameras, everything came out looking a little too mushy and unnatural. But with the F65, they work.”

In keeping with his predilection for a film-like work method, Goi doesn’t do extensive manipulation of the image on the set. “With digital, I test to see which LUT will work for the entire show, and I treat that LUT as I would treat a film stock,” he says. “I know where it will fall off, and I build into it the range of color saturation and contrast that I want the show to have. Once I establish with my crew and with postproduction the methodology and workflow by which I will be shooting, from that point on it’s like shooting on film, except that I occasionally look at a waveform on the assistant’s monitors. You can dial in a waveform and it shows you where your highs and lows are and where you’re pegging your exposures. This is as opposed to the ‘lab-in-a-box’ approach, where color correction migrates to the set. Instead, I made my traditional 2 a.m. trips to the lab each night to check and set the looks of those sequences with a dailies timer. I prefer having another person looking at these images, someone who doesn’t know what I went through on the set.”

The look of the show was so dialed in that the episode was sent to the network for review without color timing. “Ryan was tremendously happy with the look of the show,” says Goi. “I expected to color time it, but he said, ‘No. I love it. Don’t touch a thing.’ What everybody reacted to, and what they saw when the show got picked up, was basically the dailies submission!”

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Photo by Trae Patton/NBC

González says that after a couple of episodes, the production switched from the Sony F65 to Alexa, in part because of ergonomics—as much as 90 percent of the show is now done handheld. The images are recorded as ProRes log files, which deliver adequate latitude in post for fine-tuning. González works without an on-set DIT—standard procedure for Fox productions, he says. Instead, a data manager handles the files on set, and at night a colorist does a first pass on the images for dailies. Final color is done later at Encore with Kevin Kirwan.

Visually, González took his cues from the style established in the pilot, especially regarding camera movement and composition. He says that handholding allows for a very quick shooting style. Even master shots are sometimes done handheld, but with a very steady frame, as opposed to an overtly handheld, “shaky-cam” feel.

During coverage, operators execute small zooms to accentuate emotion or conflict. Murphy calls these punch-ins “bump-bumps.” The operators make extensive use of Angenieux Optimo lightweight zoom lenses.

Murphy asked González to make things a bit darker and more contrasty, an approach the DP embraced. “The characters are so big,” says González. “We wanted the visuals and tone of the show to be as natural as possible, to help tone the characters down a bit. It’s mostly motivated soft light, with some contrast. We really wanted to stay away from high key lighting and a classic sitcom look, especially on the night scenes. To have an executive producer who understands and wants that in a comedy is a big plus. I think we’ve arrived at a good level of compromise.”

González calls Barkin’s character “the new Archie Bunker.” Her character gets some of the biggest laughs. “Ellen is a beautiful woman,” says González. “It’s important that all the actors feel confident and comfortable about how they are being presented so they can concentrate on acting. We fairly quickly found our way to the angles and lighting techniques that work best for Ellen, without being too flat, and we’re getting some great performances from her. She actually thanked me and told me she was pleased with how she looks on the show.”

González switched to ARRI Ultra Primes to gain an extra half a stop for a candlelight scene. He pushed the Alexa cameras past 1000 ASA, to nearly 1200. “The camera performed incredibly well with very little light,” he says. “I used as much of the natural candlelight as possible to light the actors. I was very pleased with how it turned out.”

Digital cameras are evolving at a very fast pace, and cinematographers are tasked with keeping up with the changes. The danger is that the technical requirements will take attention from the artistic, aesthetic aspects of the job—in the case of The New Normal, finding the right tone that balances humor and poignancy.

Goi says that the experience of shooting The New Normal pilot on the Sony F65 has left him with the impression that digital is starting to become more “friendly” to the way cinematographers actually think and work.

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Photo by Trae Patton/NBC

“I feel like I’m a really low-tech person functioning in a high-tech environment,” he says. “I don’t like to have things more complicated—I like to have things more simple. Initially, when we started going into the digital realm, I felt like so much of the conversation was about pixels and bits and color space, and I got tired of feeling so immersed in the technology that what you’re trying to create with that technology takes a backseat. In my tests for The New Normal, what I surmised is that I can make the technology work within the aesthetics that I want to achieve for this particular show. That’s ultimately what drove the choice of cameras.

“All the science is very important and is being dealt with by very intelligent people,” says Goi. “I need to know enough about that technology so that I can apply it when it’s needed. But at the end of the day the most important thing is that you use the technology in a way that fits what you are trying to do. I think that the manufacturers and the people who create the tools are finally getting in sync with the cinematographers. The heart and the hand have to work together to create. And I think that’s where we’re at right now.

“It’s great to have options, to be able to make a choice,” Goi adds. “The New Normal functions very well in the digital world, but I’m also shooting American Horror Story: Asylum, which functions really well with 35mm film and those techniques. In this rush to make everything digital, I’m hoping that we don’t lose the artistic perspective and the ability to control how our technology choices influence the subjects we’re working on.”