Shooting 24P: Chris Bierlein, Steve Cohen Discuss the Panasonic SDX900 & VariCam
For four years, Steve Cohen of Manhattan Place Entertainment and DP Chris Bierlein have been shooting teases and openers for NASCAR races on Fox. Recently, they discussed the project and how shooting 24P with the Panasonic SDX900 and VariCam helped them take their look to a new level.
Can you tell us a bit about Manhattan Place and your involvement in this project?
Steve Cohen: Manhattan Place is a full-service production company that specializes in field production, as well as handling pre- and post-production. We have been shooting projects at the very highest level since 1987, and have handled the NASCAR assignment for the past four years.
Chris Bierlein: I’ve been shooting projects for Steve since 1998, and starting in 2000, he’s hired me to Art Direct, light and shoot elaborate portraits of all the NASCAR Nextel Cup and Busch series drivers. These portraits are used during the opening montages of each race, as well as during the race and over the closing credits.
What were Fox’s stylistic requirements for this assignment?
SC: Fox’s production values—as driven by Producer/VP Special Projects Gary Lang—are very high, and the bar has been raised every year. This past year, we shot 68 drivers over the course of four days prior to the Daytona 500. Not only did we create the entire look, we had to get every set-up in the can during that abbreviated schedule—this was the material that was re-purposed over the course of NASCAR’s 18 weeks of broadcast.
CB: Each week, and for each race series, Gary cuts an opening tease and one or two out bumps from this footage, also mixing in current and historical race footage and other elements. Additionally, he cuts a closing credit package that airs based on available network time. We’re required to capture as many different looks, attitudes etc. with each driver as possible so Gary has as much variety as he can get. In total, there are around 36 races for which he must cut teases, and this way he doesn’t need to re-use as much material.
Essentially, the two days of the shoot were madness. Drivers were showing up constantly between 8am and 7pm, and for 15 minutes we had to get them through four sets and get as much material as possible. On top of this, everything had to look fantastic, exciting and dynamic. As I was also the Art Director, it was up to me to alter the set from time to time so everyone didn’t look the same. We also changed the vintage prop cars two to three times a day, which required a rather involved rearranging of lights, props etc. within a very short amount of time. It’s important to mention the fantastic crew including New York gaffer Scott Levy, camera tech Leo Epstein from Manhattan Place, and our brilliant Miami crew, many of whom have come back to work with us year after year.
How do you manage to capture so many different looks with such a tight schedule?
CB: We built four sets in a large airplane hangar opposite the Daytona International Speedway. One was an automotive garage complete with loads of appropriate props and set dressing, video projection, and various vintage race cars from local fans. Thanks to Scott Levy, this set was lit heavily from an overhead grid using Vari-lites, larger tungsten fresnels and bare practical bulbs. The second set was a black room with a large wooden throne. This also involved video projection and was lit in a simpler portrait style. Third was a set for still photographer Jamie Cohen to shoot sequences of each driver. Gary often strings a series of these shots together to form short animations during his teases. The final set was a simple green screen for more off-the-cuff footage with the drivers. The catch is that we have each driver for around 15 minutes, and the big guys tend to show up in groups – and don’t like to wait around. We have only two days to shoot every driver.
Before the availability of 24P, how did you get the look you wanted?
SC: Prior to this year, we mostly shot DigiBeta, and a film look was added in post.
CB: Right. Until this year, we’ve shot all the moving images in DigiBeta, 16mm and Beta SP, with Steve and myself trading off operating the video cameras, and me handling the film. The DigiBeta tapes are delivered straight from the camera, but we run the film through the telecine at least twice, sometimes three times, each with a significantly different look – fully saturated, desaturated and extra punchy, color washes, etc. The telecine becomes as much an image-making tool as the lighting and filtration.
When and why did the possibility of acquiring in progressive—and in the case of VariCam, HD—arise?
SC: Before this year’s shoot, Chris and I had made a co-purchase of the SDX900, which we feel allows us to achieve a film look on a video budget. Because Lang was stipulating “the best look there is,” we contemplated involving the VariCam, talked to Abel about it, and they graciously loaned us a camera to try out for the shoot.
I understand you have both previously worked with the SDX900 before you decided to own one. Can you describe your initial experiences?
CB: We purchased the SDX900 after I’d shot a music video for the singer Adam Green using the camera with the Zeiss Digi Primes. Mission Critical Media, the video’s producers, tried to get a VariCam loaner from Panasonic, and were offered the SDX instead. I was so immediately taken with the quality of the image, especially relative to the cost of the camera, that I brought the idea to Steve, and we bought one. I tell people that meeting the SDX for the first time was the first time I actually got excited about anything to do with video.
SC: Yes, I agree. I must say that after years of shooting, working with the SDX900 has really rejuvenated me professionally. I’m juiced up to go out and shoot, and all of a sudden, I feel like I’m making film-like shots. So, I was really eager to try out the VariCam, too.
Well, the VariCam is even better—you feel like you’re in a different stratosphere. It’s unbelievably sensitive, and sees so much more. The way VariCam holds up during play back is mind-boggling—what you see on the monitor is what you get.
CB: HD24P is great, yes, but still a little much for some of our broadcast and industrial clients. For this type of work, the SDX is the perfect medium. Great image quality, 60i versatility, an amazing 24P look and some fantastic Gamma curves, and very cost effective.
I shot another job with the SDX900 in an all-white bathroom. It was a spot for the Madison Square Garden network, and I was asked to shoot a sports fan attempting to dye his skin red in a bathtub. The room was completely white and the red dye was pretty rich. It was easy to properly expose the fan’s red skin and the colored water while maintaining detail in the whites.
What specifically about these cameras made them right for the NASCAR job?
CB: Since we were mixing formats on this particular job, there was plenty of room for many different cameras. The SDX was an obvious choice since we were such big fans to begin with. Just about everything about it made it perfect for this job. In the HD realm, the VariCam was the perfect choice too. I find it very intuitive and user-friendly, making it easy to adjust the image on the fly. The SDI output was a great benefit as it reduced the amount of cabling running around. Also, since there were more dark areas in the set than light ones, the extended dynamic range of the camera allowed us to see a bit more into the shadows than with the other cameras, on which we tended to let the dark areas go black.
What role, if any, did Abel Cine Tech play in your decision to shoot 24P?
CB: Abel not only facilitated our purchase of the SDX900, but also provided the VariCam for the Daytona shoot. I find that their confidence in the technology increases mine.
SC: When it comes to 24P, Abel is who we want to be in business with. Given the level of support they provide, I wouldn’t go anywhere else. They stand behind products with full-blown, informed technical support. They’re always available, and they’re great.
You have a lot of formats involved on this shoot. How did you choose which camera was right for each set?
SC: Essentially, we used 16mm and the VariCam on the main set, the SDX900 on the smaller throne set, and shot DigiBeta in front of the green screen. We used the two 24P cameras pretty much interchangeably.
CB: Yeah, we really mixed things up a lot. We used the SDX, VariCam and 16mm on the big set. The black room was strictly SDX, and the green screen was just DigiBeta.
Since I only shot film on the larger “Garage” set, the SDX (at 24P) enabled us to get a much more film-like image from the “Throne” set as well as a different look on the “Garage” set. Steve was constantly moving back and forth between these sets with the SDX, and we then used the VariCam on the Garage set for another look. The extended dynamic range allowed us to see more detail in the dark areas of the set (when we wanted to) and also gave Gary a finer image than the other video cameras provided. Of course, the additional resolution was a huge bonus as well. Finally, the film-like appearance of the 24P image was exactly the look we’d been after for a long time.
We only shoot a portion of the job in film because of the cost. With these two cameras, we were able significantly improve the quality of the video image and effectively eliminate the unappealing look of interlaced video.
How did the 24P material go over at Fox, or with others you have shown it to?
SC: On my first outing with the SDX900, I shot a feature on Donavan McNab for The NFL ON FOX Pregame Show. What we heard back was that the president of Fox Sports, David Hill, caught sight of the footage on a monitor and said, “What is that? Is that film? That stuff is amazing?” He couldn’t believe it was video.
Just recently, we were shooting stand-ups with Fox’s premiere broadcaster, James Brown, for a new Fox Sports Net show, “Head to Head.” Usually, talent doesn’t pay that much attention, but Brown did this time. “How did you make it look like that? It looks like film” was his comment.
So, we were convinced that all the 24P footage was going to exceed Lang’s expectations—as it did. Not only is he one of our key clients, he’s one of the most demanding producers going in terms of aesthetics and technology. And on this shoot, when he saw 24P on the monitor, he said, “Wow—this is amazing—it’s great. And it looks like film. You were right.”
CB: To date, I’ve shot two music videos, a Phat Farm commercial and a number of beauty pieces for L’Oreal using the SDX and everyone who’s seen it is blown away. Watching the monitor on set, clients and directors know what they’re seeing looks great, but I’ve found that it’s when they’re watching the final cut that they really react. They can’t believe they’re watching video.
Both cameras offer a lot of flexibility in terms of setup. What features or settings did you use?
CB: On the SDX, we used the black stretch (in the negative range) to squeeze down the dark areas of the set. We also did some across the board matrix adjustments to increase and decrease the overall saturation. In previous years, we’ve also used the white balance presets to store a few different looks, and paint boxes to radically alter color on the fly. This year’s set relied more on the Vari-lites and their color changers to alter this aspect of the image.
We kept the VariCam in the Video Rec mode for a little more contrast since there was no chance of printing to film. I also knocked the blacks down a bit more to actually limit the enormous dynamic range. Beyond that, the setup as provided by Abel was terrific.
Do you have any thoughts about using these cameras relative to film?
CB: It’s hard to make the comparison on this job. As far as approach goes, we treated the SDX and VariCam as video cameras, using video lenses, pulling our own focus, etc. They’re both easy to handle with no assistant, and of course we only had to reload after rolling 30 minutes or so unlike film. We didn’t treat the cameras any differently, though, to our treatment of the DigiBeta in years previous. This is one reason why we’re so excited by these two cameras. The final image is so superior to what we’ve been able to get in the past, and very little transitioning is needed to operate them.
What about lenses and the rest of the equipment package?
CB: The HD lens provided by Abel was great. I think it was a long Canon 21 x 7.5. Great. The SDX used a Fujinon 15 X 8 SD broadcast zoom. Everything else was pretty standard.
How did the cameras fit into your post or editorial path?
CB: For this particular job, everything is dubbed/transferred/downconverted to DigiBeta for tape based editing in LA. It is also broadcast in SD. This is likely to change soon, though.
SC: For Fox, utilizing our DVCPRO50 deck’s (the SD930) SDI capability, we’re able to dub the SDX material to DigiBeta and make digital clones. We transferred the HD footage to DigiBeta at Abel Cine Tech. Fox then takes it through post, using color drains, changing color temperatures, etc.
A key factor with Fox is that within six months the network will be HD. And we’ll be ready with SDX900 in concert with the VariCam we intend to purchase pretty soon.
Are there cost-efficiencies realized by using the respective cameras?
SC: Previously we have shot full blown 16mm for Gary Lang for Fox’s MLB Baseball Portraits. In fact, he would always want to shoot film but in most cases was limited budgetarily. So, in comparison to film, both the VariCam and the SDX save a tremendous amount of money; they also allow you to shoot much more footage because you are not worried about the film/developing costs associated with rolling a lot of film. There are no film-to tape transfer costs, and the turnaround time is instantaneous. The producer can take the footage home to LA immediately, as opposed to sending film out to be prepped for post-production. We save two days in turnaround time (or one day with rush charges) so there is no contest between the two mediums in this regard. And with the look of the VariCam in 24P, I would say we have surpassed the look of 16mm. So, it’s a no brainer. I would also say that if all things were equal, and we had the additional money to shoot film on these projects, I would still recommend shooting with the 24P video cameras because they are hands down better- suited for this type of assignment.
Do you have plans to use either camera on future projects?
CB: I’d tell my peers that these are by far the best, most versatile and most user friendly cameras on the market today, hands down, and I’ve used them all.
I’ve used the SDX for all manner of shoots, and have no plans to stop. I’ve shot everything from commercials to music videos to industrial films with this little beauty, and am currently shooting a documentary about William Morris, the acclaimed glass artist, using the VariCam.
SC: I’ve owned cameras since 1987—at least 13 cameras, and I’ve been through all the format changes. I’ve never had such an easy decision as purchasing the SDX900 and planning a VariCam purchase. 24P is where we want to be.
Keep this in mind—I’d make more money shooting with my interlace equipment, but I shoot with the SDX900 95% of the time. I just want to use the camera. When we have both cameras what I plan to do is promote the best—VariCam—first, but be ready with the SDX900 if that’s a better budgetary fit for the client. I expect we’ll have plenty of work for both cameras.
For more information, contact Manhattan Place Entertainment.