Visitors to the set of hit Fox TV series The OC are apt to do a double-take. One of the key locations – a lush Newport Beach house owned by the show’s Cohen family, boasting a swimming pool, Jacuzzi, trees and grass in the back yard – is actually on a Manhattan Beach soundstage, with a large painted backdrop from the Warner Bros. Scenic Department providing the requisite stunning view of the Pacific Ocean. "We’re the proudest when someone walks onto the stage for the first time," says director of photography Jamie Barber. "They say, Ã¢Â€Â˜Oh my god – you actually shoot those scenes here?’”
Location shoots take place every week, and the show has its own library
of scene-setting stock footage from helicopters. But 80 percent of each
episode is photographed on a soundstage, estimates associate producer
Ben Kunde. The show pulls it off through a judicious but savvy
application of post technique. "It was done mainly because of
logistics- which translates to money," says Kunde. "You have a
controlled environment, which makes it easier to keep shooting and get
a consistent look."
Barber says his job on the set is mainly to get the image in the can,
doing whatever he can to avoid committing to a certain look before
handing it off to Rick Dalby, senior colorist at Modern VideoFilm. "One
of the decisions we went with was to make the image as neutral as we
could make it, and then let Rick manipulate it. That way, no matter
which direction we want to travel, Rick has the ability to go wherever
I want to go," Barber says.
Conveying Orange County’s cash-saturated vibe required a slick and
glossy look. Although the pilot was 35mm, episodes are shot in Super 16
using Kodak’s tungsten-balanced 7274 stock, rated at 200 ASA. "I can’t
shoot the 500 ASAs or I’m going to induce grain," explains Barber. "The
producers wanted the image to be beautiful and colorful and look more
like 35, so we stay away from fast films that might induce grain."
When the show moved from 35 to 16, film scanning moved to the Spirit
DataCine. "If we were going to save money and shoot 16, we had to
transfer on the Spirit because the image was that much more crisp and
noise-free," Dalby explains. "It seemed to be a great trade-off." The
show is delivered to Fox on DigiBeta, so Dalby colors the show on a da
Vinci system at SD resolution- any online effects are transferred on
the Spirit- in order to save the network a little more money.
Because of the show’s shooting schedule, it’s impossible for Barber to
oversee Dalby’s work, but the colorist and the DP keep in close touch.
"We met initially and went down to the sets to discuss lighting
concerns, ways to try and get motion into the plant life, to get the
Pacific Ocean to look right," Dalby says. "There’s a number of sets on
a very large stage. For the Cohen house, you can drive into the
driveway, walk into the mansion, and go out the back door to the pool
and Jacuzzi. I was immediately struck-Ã¢Â€Â˜Oh my god, how are we going to
make this work?’"
But so far, so good, Dalby says, ticking off a list of routine coloring
tasks. "The fake Astroturf grass is always a problem," he says. "Mainly
it requires the use of secondary color correction to adjust the greens
of plant life and grass. We adjust the ocean water, the swimming pool
water and the sky to approximate the colors of the pilot. Of course,
the Pacific Ocean and sky are fake, but the swimming pool and Jacuzzi
Since the backdrop isn’t a photographed transparency, but an actual
painting, it creates its own set of issues. "To bring it up to any sort
of exposure level, you get a lot of blue reflected back into the set,"
says Barber. " Rick and I had to make sure we removed all that blue and
replaced it with nice warm summer colors. In dailies, everyone’s pale
and pasty. Everyone panicked the first time they saw the dailies. But
once Rick tweaks it, it looks gorgeous and has a nice warm glow.
"With that large an area, trying to make it look like an exterior, you
can’t be very cautious. You have to over-expose the key side pretty
significantly, as if you were out in the real world. Normally on a
soundstage you can balance the light well and make it look pretty. But
we had to unbalance the light, letting shadows go dark and highlights
Another issue is scenes that take place inside the house itself, where
windows look out onto the phony exterior. "When you’re on location, the
interior is usually somewhat low and the exterior gets very exposed,"
Barber says. "We have to be able to generate enough light on the
exterior part of the set to make it look like it’s really outside."
Similarly challenging is maintaining a separate look for the show’s
Chino, CA, locale- considerably downscale from Orange County, which is
given an almost otherworldly feel. "Anything that’s Orange County or
Newport Beach is high contrast with rich saturated colors," says Dalby.
"Our guideline is money- we just try to make every shot look like a
money shot. But Chino is done using more proprietary adjustments. We
add grain and noise and desaturation, and remove certain colors through
secondary color correction to make it look cooler, grittier, less
attractive, and definitely lacking the rich-vegetation look. The shots
were done this summer and going into the fall, so the rich green trees
and foliage were all toned down drastically."
Advances in post have made Barber’s job a lot less taxing, freeing him
to concentrate on getting exactly the right footage rather than
worrying about the finer details of the image. "One of the things is
ramping speeds," he explains. "We had one episode where we changed
speeds a lot. Before, you would have to hook up very precise
instruments to change the iris and the speed of the camera to get that
ramp. Now, with da Vincis in edit bays, we go ahead and shoot it at 120
frames [per second] and then the editor and director choose exactly the
point where they want to ramp down to normal. It’s really interesting
to watch them play at it, figuring out where they switch. But if I had
done it in camera, they’d be stuck with what I had created."