When the CW was looking to create a Web counterpart to their Vampire Diaries series, they approached Retrofit Films in Hollywood, which had already built a reputation in the "Webisode" world for similar online series they'd created for that network's Smallville—the animated Kara & The Chronicles of Krypton—and NBC's Heroes—Going Postal, The Recruit and Nowhere Man.
A Darker Truth was written by the Vampire Diaries staff initially to be shot in the form of camcorder-generated home movies, but Retrofit co-founders Chris Hanada and Tanner Kling soon realized that the scripts required backing off from that POV at times to provide other coverage that had more of the look of the television series.
In conjunction with the Web series' director of photography, Fred Schroeder, the Retrofit team decided to use two different cameras to provide these two different looks, so that viewers would be able to distinguish immediately between what was supposed to be the product of a character's video camera and those shots that were designed to look like objective coverage of the events that transpire.
"The two looks were meant to be very different," says Hanada, who directed the four-episode Web series. "The video camera needs to feel very much like 'video,' and the traditional coverage needs to feel more filmic. We wanted to give them a starkly different look."
"We decided to use the [Canon EOS] 5D Mark II for the more filmic look and the [Panasonic] AG-HVX200 for the 'bad video' look," Schroeder says. "It was interesting because the HVX doesn't really have that 'bad video' look, so we added a [digital] filter to make it look like we wanted. And it was the heavier camera. It would have been easier to use the 5D for the handheld portions, but the look of the HD that came out of the 5D was really so good and the depth of field characteristics were so much more like you'd have shooting 35mm film that we just found the 5D was perfect for the more traditional-looking coverage."
Schroeder had shot a commercial using the 5D in HD mode prior to Canon's release this summer of a significant firmware upgrade. He had been pleasantly surprised by the images, though somewhat frustrated by the camera's inability at the time to override automatic exposure controls in HD mode. "The picture quality was great," he recalls, "and the camera is extremely good in low-light conditions. I can rate the camera at EI 1250 and it takes to the light beautifully without noise.
"When they did the firmware update," he continues, "they opened up the possibilities and made the camera much easier to deal with. Vampire Diaries is shot on the [Sony] F35 camera, sometimes in as little as 8 footcandles of light, and we could really get a similar look with the Canon. And, artistically, I think the more limited depth of field [over smaller-sensor video cameras] gives you more choices to tell your story. It's a technique cinematographers have used with 35mm film and can use with cameras like the RED or F35, where you can isolate something in the frame and have the rest go out of focus. You can increase suspense by isolating a character or draw viewers' attention to something that's about to happen. I used [selective depth of field] a lot in the woods sequence, for example, to help tell the story."
The 5D's size—on the small side of average for a still SLR—made moving around for multiple setups quite simple, the cinematographer adds. "Overall," he says, "it's just a great camera at a low price."
Retrofit, which generally acts as a turnkey operation for these kinds of productions, dealt with editing and post for the material. Footage from the HVX200 came in on P2 cards as 29.97/720 HD video, while the Canon work was in 30/1080 HD. "We brought everything into Final Cut Pro as Apple ProRes 422HQ to make it all work as one cohesive piece," Hanada explains. Episodes were mastered in that format and compressed for the Web. They are high-quality enough, Hanada adds, to hold their own alongside the television series should they be broadcast in HD, released on Blu-ray discs or repurposed for any other market that comes along.
Scripts for A Darker Truth, which run two minutes each (primarily in order to stay within all the guild definitions of "new media") originated from Vampire Diaries staff but underwent some shaping based on Retrofit Films' consultation. "We were essentially production services for A Darker Truth," Kling explains, "and so we would give them notes about what was feasible. When things like this come from people whose experience is primarily network television, sometimes it helps to assist the writers in tailoring ideas for this format.
"It's not so much about what can't be done practically," he elaborates, "but more about working in such a short format. That's the biggest hurdle. You have to tell your story in two minutes and leave people wanting to know what happens next."
For the founders of Retrofit Films, the world of Webisodes and other Internet content is a very exciting place—a place where talented filmmakers can learn and experiment and where the industry as a whole can look for new ideas, talent and production methods. "If you look at the Web series we've done in the past, we've already used many different approaches and styles," Hanada observes. "The [Web series] we did for Gossip Girl [Gossip Girl: Real New York Stories Revealed] was shot on the HVX200 and was based on the look of reality series. For Heroes, we did one season on the HVX200, one on the [Sony] F900 and one on RED. And now we're doing work in 35mm film, too."
The online production world is no longer some small curiosity separate from the mainstream of production, Kling adds. "Writers of our Heroes Web series have gone on to write episodes of the network show. We're seeing the Web as a training ground for talent and ideas. Networks are considering Web series as testing grounds for concepts the way they traditionally used pilots."
The world of online production, Kling sums up, "is a place where talent can really find its wings."