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Back to School: Capturing the Diverse and Dynamic Visuals of ‘Community’

The return of show creator Dan Harmon as executive producer/showrunner and the exit of actor Chevy Chase are not the only changes on NBC’s Community for 2014, the show’s fifth season. Returning cinematographer Gary Hatfield also changed production formats, switching from shooting the series on the ARRI Alexa to Sony’s F55.

From the season two paintball episode of


“A Fistful of Paintballs.”

Hatfield says his team made the adjustment partially to save money in these times of ever-tightening budgets, but he reports that he also really liked the F55’s imagery when he tested the camera.

Hatfield, who shot this season as ProRes files in S-Log format, notes that during season five production, the F55 was “still being developed to be an everyday workhorse on a film set. There are little features that Sony was still perfecting. For example, it didn’t yet have the firmware update that allows you to shoot over 60 fps, so we knew that if we did need to shoot high speed, we’d have to rent an Alexa. Fortunately that only happened once.”

When Hatfield began shooting Community in 2010, it was a big step in a long career. He had worked primarily as an operator on features (and some series, including Community for previous DPs) and he’d shot some small projects, but he had mixed feelings about taking on the director of photography responsibilities on a series. In fact, he might well have passed had it been a more traditional kind of show. “TV can be the same thing over and over,” he says, “but when I saw the kinds of things that happened on Community, I knew it would be different.”

Since the series can go off in just about any direction, Hatfield is able to keep things fresh each week. He recalls an episode designed to be done in the “found footage” style of Cloverfield and another about paintball wars shot in a style that suggests Quentin Tarantino channeling Sergio Leone (season two’s “A Fistful of Paintballs” and “For A Few Paintballs More”).

From the season three episode “Basic Lupine Urology,” shot in the style of

Law & Order


Hatfield continues, describing the episode “Basic Lupine Urology” from season three: “We did an entire episode like an episode of Law & Order. The producers licensed that musical sting from the Law & Order series and [the department heads] studied episodes of the show and went through stills so we could give our episode a similar look.

“It’s pretty clear that they [Law & Order] use a lot of single-source lighting,” he elaborates. “One of our classrooms that we’d normally light from above and from the window, we just decided the lights are off today and everything came from the window. Sometimes the sky is just completely blown out on Law & Order exteriors, so we lit the same way even though that’s not a look we’d usually have on Community. We didn’t do the standard coverage we normally do and instead we’d frame shots like Law & Order, with a lot of 50/50 shots or just someone in profile or a oner where characters walk and talk.”

It’s a delicate balance, he says, between making a subtle tweak to the normal look that might not even be perceived consciously and the bolder statements that clearly reference other shows or films. “Sometimes we don’t knock it over our viewers’ heads what we’re up to—we just want to give them a different feeling,” he says. “You do a little through lighting and a little through blocking, and then when they throw on music and graphics and the viewers aren’t thinking about what we’re doing, they just go with it.”

From the season three episode “Basic Lupine Urology.”

From a technical standpoint, Hatfield essentially works the same with the F55 as he did with the Alexa, although the F55 is rated at a fixed exposure index of 1250, which isn’t easily adjustable in the way the Alexa’s is. The F55 does have a built-in filter wheel that allows him to dial in up to an ND 1.8 (six stops), and for exteriors he might add as much as an additional two stops of glass ND.

The series is shot on standing sets on the Paramount lot in Hollywood and on locations in the area. Greendale Community College “is supposed to be lit by overhead florescent lighting combined with light motivated by windows wherever we can put them,” Hatfield says. He puts big lights on the grid but always lights the actors with units on the floor.

“We get into lots of cramped spaces with people,” he continues. “For that we have little LED panel lights that go into crevices. I also use the Kino Flo Celeb a lot for faces. That thing is beautiful and you can dial it up to being pretty powerful or down to almost nothing. The Celeb has a precise digital readout so we can have an exact reading of how strong the output is. It helps because we can standardize settings based on the distance from the light to the actor. I can just say we want a 2.2 if the light is here or an 8.4 if it’s over there. You can adjust the color temperature and it works with a nice grid. The Celeb has been a great addition to our set this year.”

With the camera switch this season came a move from the Angenieux Optimo 15-40mm lens he’d been using to the ARRI/Fujinon Alura 15.5-45mm, primarily because he prefers the flatter field look of the image on the extreme wide end of the lens of the Fujinon, which he also finds is “just a little bit sharper.”

Annie (Alison Brie) gets an A- from criminology teacher professor Hickey in


episode “Introduction to Teaching.” Photo by Justin Lubin/NBC.

Hatfield uses a light amount of Schneider Hollywood Black Magic filtration in front of the lens “to take that ‘video look’ off the picture,” and in extreme close-ups, he’s been known to add a small amount of Schneider Classic Soft too, although, he observes, “I rarely found myself grabbing for the Classic Softs once I started using the F55.”

Hatfield doesn’t work with a digital imaging technician. He and his gaffer light with a combination of a meter and a waveform monitor. “I know we’re working in log space, so we have some room in post, but I try to get as close as possible on set so that a colorist could just put the Rec. 709 LUT up and run the footage and ideally it would be very close to what it’s going to look like for air,” he explains. “Whenever we shoot something where I’m going for a specific look, I work with my utility [person] on set and send e-mails with stills and notes to the colorist for every scene.”

For the last episode of last season, “Advanced Introduction to Finality,” in which the characters all graduate from Greendale Community College, the show called back a storyline from the season three involving a “dark timeline,” in which the many ‘versions’ of the Greendale population exist simultaneously. “In this episode, each character had an equivalent evil character,” Hatfield elaborates. “So we would see a character and the camera would spin 180 degrees and we’d see their evil twin, but the twin would be lit in a different style. We referenced the idea that the evil versions of the characters sucked the energy out of the lighting when they were around.”

The part that’s most fun for Hatfield—and most challenging—is making the creative decisions about how far to take the episode-specific stylistic flourishes. “I love having opportunities to showcase different ideas that come up because of the nature of the writing,” he sums up. “We never know what’s coming at us.”