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Around the World With Anthony Bourdain: Production on CNN’s ‘Parts Unknown’

Since 2005, chef and culinary expert Anthony Bourdain has shared his extensive and exotic travels on the Travel Channel series Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. After the conclusion of that show last year, Bourdain signed on with CNN for Parts Unknown, another series of visual essays about places, people and customs produced by Zero Point Zero Production. Parts Unknown is currently in production on its second season.

Filming Anthony Bourdain for

Parts Unknown

. Photo by Josh Ferrell.

Director of photography Zach Zamboni (@zachzamboni) has been a key member of the Parts Unknown team from the beginning. From Myanmar to Colombia and even war-torn Libya, Zamboni and a tiny crew of uniquely talented videographers have traveled to novel locations and created images, with virtually no prep and no rehearsal, that not only capture the essence of these locations and the actions of the series’ kinetic host, but do so in a way that has brought the show a reputation for beautiful imagery. The premiere episode of the new series, “Myanmar,” has been nominated for the 2013 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Cinematography for Nonfiction Programming. (Zamboni shares the nomination with fellow cinematographers Todd Liebler and Morgan Fallon.)

Zamboni monitors developments in the rapidly evolving world of camera and recording technology and never gets so attached to a piece of equipment that he’s unwilling to ditch it when something better comes along. He’s changed camera packages quite a few times. The workhorse camera for Parts Unknown has been Sony’s shoulder-mounted PMW-F3. It’s generally fitted with a Fujifilm 19-90mm Cabrio T2.9 (ZK4.7×19), selected for its light weight and long zoom range. The lens kit is supplemented with older, faster Zeiss Super Speed Mark II primes for light-starved situations.

“The zoom range on the Cabrio is perfect for the kind of work we do,” Zamboni notes. “We used to constantly change between wide and long zooms, and you never want to be slowed down in this line of work. This 19-90 has been revolutionary in that respect. I can live on it for most of the day.”

When Zamboni and the team pack up for their seven- to 12-day shoots, they don’t want to be limited to one camera. They also bring the smaller Sony NEX-FS700 along, almost exclusively for its ability to shoot in full 1080 resolution at speeds up to 480 fps. While the team is also starting to deploy Sony’s PMW-F5 on shoots, the F3 is still very much part of the camera package.

Anthony Bourdain in Colombia for

Parts Unknown

. Photo by Josh Ferrell.

Zamboni and his team have also shot with the Canon EOS C300 on No Reservations, although he does not see it as a replacement for his F3. “It’s a great camera to operate in your hands, but it’s not a shoulder-mount camera,” Zamboni says. “When I see people take a C300 and build it out into a shoulder-mount camera, I think that’s working against the camera’s nature and its best assets: being small and maneuverable.”

The videographers also take advantage of the versatility of GoPro HERO3 cameras, mounting them on everything from DC3 airplanes to bikes, ATVs, cars and even people. “We’ll stick GoPros on all kinds of things, even a grilled pancake—the more creative the POV, the better.” But it’s the F3 that stays attached to Zamboni for the majority of his workday. Aside from the ergonomics, he also likes S-Log as a way of capturing image information and as the centerpiece of a post workflow.

“We shoot S-Log 4:2:0 right to the cards. The extended latitude of S-Log is terrific with the F3 and gets even better with the F5,” he enthuses. “I see log-style recording as a huge asset in documentary work. There are so many lighting situations we don’t have time or resources to control, so we shoot to protect highlight and shadow detail. For me, more dynamic range is always better. We have a great colorist and it all grades beautifully in [Blackmagic Design] DaVinci Resolve.”

Zamboni prefers to shoot with a 5.6-inch TVLogic monitor, using its waveform to judge exposure. “It’s the best way to work if you’ve tested and you know exactly what can be done with the images during grading,” he says. Once the DPs have established a workflow, they can choose where on the IRE scale to place parts of the image while filming S-Log in a variety of lighting scenarios.

L-r: Cinematographers Morgan Fallon, Todd Liebler and Zach Zamboni in Myanmar.

“Sometimes characters should be dark in the shadows, sometimes clearly not. How does it look to bring 10 or 20 IRE up to 30 in the grade, or 40 to 50? What does it look like to bring a really high level back down? It’s about knowing each level between zero and 100 you record on set and where it can eventually be placed in the grade. How much detail will it have and how bright will it be? Brightness, darkness, saturation—it’s all malleable [in post] if you expose it properly in the first place.”

Zamboni cautions that his style of working requires accurate on-camera exposure tools. For this he relies on a combination of his “spot meter”—the F3’s selective brightness meter that allows the user to select a small portion of the frame and ascertains a reading in IRE—and the opaque waveform tool in the TVLogic monitors he prefers. “This allows me to see all the exposure information, from highlight to shadow, as I’m shooting in real time,” he notes. “Histograms just aren’t as accurate as a waveform. I love false colors but you really can’t work with false colors while you’re rolling … and we’re always rolling.”

While the F3 and new F5 allow Zamboni and his fellow DPs to shoot at very low light levels, Zamboni stresses that there’s more to lighting than getting an exposure. “What doesn’t change with the technology is the need to shape light,” he says. “A face is still a face, and you need to shape a face to get the most out of it. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of sitting or standing in the right place; sometimes I’ll hang a silk or sneak an LED fixture in to help out.

“Eye light is so important,” he continues. Despite the beautiful locations and fascinating customs, the show works because of the connection Bourdain forms with those he interviews on camera. “No matter where we are, I always like to see a little spark in a person’s eyes.”

Post Workflow

Filming in Libya. Photo by Josh Ferrell.

The crew for Parts Unknown shoots directly to cards (primarily SxS for the Sony PMW-F3, PMW-F5 and NEX-FS700 material) and they don’t upload anything in the field. “We treat it all like tape,” says Chris Faulkner, director of technology and post operations for Zero Point Zero Productions in New York. “The crews go out with 70 or more SxS cards, and they come back and we ingest it all.”

Since they don’t take a DIT on these shoots, there is no system of ingest or backup in the field. “Eighty or 90 hours of material comes into our [facility] and gets turned around in three days and uploaded to the company’s Avid Unity system so that editing can begin within the week,” Faulkner adds.

Material is shot in 24p in its native format (XDCAM, AVCHD, etc.) and transcoded or rewrapped by the in-house media team as DNX media ready to be cut on any of the company’s 22 Avid Media Composer 6.5 workstations, which are in use nearly all the time. Audio—generally recorded via wireless or boom mics directly to one of the cameras—and footage from multiple cameras are then organized and synched so the editors can begin assembling scenes and episodes.

“After the media team ingests everything, people like me will categorize every scene so an editor can see everything available from each angle and have access to the accompanying audio,” Angie Dix explains.

Dix, who has worked as an assistant editor at many shops in the city, prefers the title that she holds when she works for Zero Point Zero—additional editor—as her editorial duties are expanded to include some cutting, rather than working entirely in the assistant capacity.

“Usually I can use timecode to help sort out the sequences and the appropriate audio, but not always. If they shoot a scene with, say, a Canon 5D or 7D, there’s no timecode, so then I or another assistant will synch those clips by eye.

“We have amazing editors and assistant editors working very long hours,” says Faulkner. “Our approach is kind of old-school in the sense that all this work gets done here, not in the field. But given the places our crews go and how light they have to travel, this is still the most sensible way to work.”