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‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’

Recapturing the Spirit of the Cult Classic

From creators and executive producers David Wain (@DavidWain) and Michael Showalter (@MShowalter) comes Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, a Netflix original series that launched on July 31. The eight-episode streaming series is a prequel to Showalter and Wain’s cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, which was filmed at a real camp in Pennsylvania on a shoestring budget with a cast of then-unknown actors and released in theaters in 2001.

Wet Hot American Summer takes place at the fictional Camp Firewood, a summer camp in Maine where friendships are formed, relationships bloom and hormones rage against a backdrop of athletics, arts and crafts, theater, secret identities, sexual discovery and diabolical government conspiracies.

Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper

Photo by Saeed Adyani

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001 and was received poorly at the few theaters at which it screened that year. It wasn’t until its DVD release that niche audiences came to appreciate and even celebrate its quirkiness, especially as many of the then-unknown cast members have become Hollywood household names.

The original cast included Elizabeth Banks, H. Jon Benjamin, Michael Ian Black, Bradley Cooper, Judah Friedlander, Janeane Garofalo, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino, Christopher Meloni, David Hyde Pierce, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd and Molly Shannon. The entire cast from the film is back for the Netflix series, where they are joined by new faces including Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Josh Charles, Jon Hamm, Jordan Peele, Chris Pine, John Slattery, Jason Schwartzman, Michaela Watkins, Kirsten Wiig and Weird Al Yankovic.

Janeane Garofalo
Photo by Saeed Adyani

First Day of Camp was shot in early 2015 in the Santa Monica Mountains outside Los Angeles. As it turned out, this West Coast location—filling in for the East Coast’s Camp Firewood—resulted in a far easier shoot than the rain-soaked initial production 15 years ago.

Director of photography Kevin Atkinson says that during preproduction for First Day of Camp, all agreed on the need to pursue a cinematic look that paid homage to the original but took full advantage of the far more advanced digital tools at their disposal. “The original movie was shot single-camera on 35mm film. Our new production was multicamera and captured digitally, thus requiring careful lighting,” Atkinson says.

David Wain (center) and cast on the set

Serving as DP on all eight episodes in the 34-day shoot, Atkinson chose a pair of Sony PMW-F55s for the new series. “Netflix wants their shows shot in 4K now, and so at the time of production our choices were somewhat limited. We did do a camera test between the RED EPIC Dragon and the F55 and discovered the F55 had about one and a half stops more latitude, it offered a bit more dynamic range, and it was kinder to skin tones,” Atkinson says.

“In the end we went with the Sony F55 and shot 4K raw [uncompressed]—and took advantage of also shooting 1080 proxy files to SxS Pro+ cards to allow for playback and to bake in a color temperature for the dailies colorist,” says Atkinson. “I wanted a warmer appearance because I wanted a nice summertime camp look. So for the majority of the shoot we used coral filters [to add a subtle touch of red] for the Camp Firewood scenes. For scenes at the other campsite [Camp Tiger Claw], we pulled the filters and developed a cooler look. Charlie Tucker at Technicolor was the colorist and did a great job.”

Jon Hamm

As for glass, Atkinson says he chose an assortment of lightweight Angenieux Optimo zoom lenses, along with a “bigger gun,” the Angenieux 12x (24-290mm) zoom. “We also had a set of primes that we used only in dying light when we needed the stop. We were required to shoot between eight and 12 pages a day with multiple cameras and I wanted as much flexibility as possible. They’re all about a T2.8, so I also welcomed their speed,” he says.

There was no pilot, says Atkinson of the lovingly goofy eight-episode season co-written by Michael Showalter and series director David Wain, because “Netflix agreed to greenlight the run of the [entire] season based on the popularity of the 2001 movie.” (During a panel discussion at the Television Critics Association press tour in August, Showalter said he is open to the idea of producing a second season. There has been no word yet from Netflix.)

Paul Rudd and Marguerite Moreau
Photo by Gemma La Mana

Atkinson is quick to credit production designer Ryan Berg and his brother, art director Eric Berg, as well as the rest of the art department for re-creating the sets from the original film and providing “an amazing environment” in which to shoot. “It seems every place we pointed the camera was filled with texture and awesome ‘1981’ detail.”

While the original film took place on the last day of camp in the summer of 1981, the series takes place two months earlier, on the first day of camp. By doing the series as a prequel, Showalter and Wain embraced the absurd idea that while the cast is 15 years older, they would be playing their characters two months younger than the original film.

Gary Kraus, Zak Orth, Marguerite Moreau, Michael Ian Black and Paul Rudd
Photo by Gemma La Mana

The series’ complex shooting schedule reflects the fact that the large ensemble cast is busy these days. Atkinson notes that scenes were shot out of sequence. “We often found ourselves shooting just half of some scenes and just a third of others. We used greenscreens, body doubles and other tricks to make sure it would play as smoothly as possible in the edit.”