Shooting with the Canon XL H1 on the new LifeTime sitcom

Think Curb Your Enthusiasm meets The Office and you have a pretty good idea of what one of TV’s newest sitcoms, Lovespring International, is all about. The weekly comedy series, which airs Monday nights on Lifetime, is executive produced by Eric McCormack (Will from NBC’s Will & Grace) and his Big Cattle Productions partner Michael Forman for Lifetime/Lions Gate Films.
Lovespring is innovative, not only because of its improvisational-style, but also that it’s the first show on Lifetime shot multi-camera in HDV, specifically with the Canon XL H1 three 1/3-inch interlaced 16:9 CCD camera. The series is being shot in 1080/24-frame mode and recorded to 60-minute HDV cassettes.
Director of Photography Laura Merians, who works alongside Director Guy Shalem and a dedicated production team, says it took some convincing for the network to agree to use HDV-most shows are produced in either SD or HD-but after several meetings, Lifetime decided to go with the crew’s initial choice of the less established HDV format.
Merians, a graduate of UC Berkeley where she studied Digital Media, is now a resident of Venice, CA and has spent a considerable amount of time working with various digital formats as DP for TLC, The Oxygen Network, MTV, VH1, several pilots for Fox Television and now Lifetime for Lovespring International. Initially, Merians and her crew shot six episodes. At the time of her interview, she had just received the final word for seven more shows. Here, she talks about what it’s been like shooting an improvisational-style series in HDV with a brand new camera.
Why was Lifetime hesitant to let you shoot in HDV?
LM: HDV is a new format, especially for the networks. The production company was behind us, but it was the network that had its concerns. And I don’t really blame them. I would do the same thing if I were in their position. I would want to know what this camera and format was capable of and I would want to see examples. I knew they would want that because I would want that.
How did you convince the network?
LM: I went in with post production supervisor Megan Murphy—who was great in this process, she was crucial in making this happen and in convincing the network-and basically went through the pros and cons of using HDV with them.
What was one of the winning points?
LM: Because the camera offers the uncompressed HD-SDI and SD-SDI output, we can do a high-quality image transfer to HD cam; an archival format that is acceptable by the network.
There are several excellent HDV cameras out there now, what made you decide on the Canon XL H1?
LM: Well, I knew it was coming out. I’m a fan of HDV and digital formats, it’s what I use, and when we were talking about doing the show, I was researching all of the cameras that were out there. And that’s how I came across the Canon. It just happened to come out right when we were prepping for the show.
There were a few cameras I was looking at at the time, but mostly the comparison was between the Canon XL H1 and the Panasonic AG-HVX200, which isn’t HDV but DVCPRO. They are similar in size, which was also a big requirement, but I was drawn to the Canon almost immediately when I was doing some initial tests. It was mostly based on the image quality over anything else. It really gives a great image quality.
As much as we plan, an improvisational setting is just too unpredictable. Given some of the unexpected conditions I found that the image quality of the XL H1 really held up.
Why was the camera size a requirement?
LM: Well, the show is improvisational. It’s about an unconventional dating agency and so we wanted to have a very real look to everything. We’re shooting in an actual office space rather than a set. And, we’re doing hand-held so the actors can have more freedom. We do really long takes so it helps a lot to have a lighter camera. This way, we can move around freely and follow the actors.
There are absolutely performances and moments that we would not have been able to capture if it were not for the low weight and small size of these cameras. Any camera has a presence, especially when three of them are staring at a group of actors. But the smaller size of the XL H1 really helped remove distractions that might have hindered performances from being natural and comfortable.
Besides camera size and image quality, what other features stand out?
LM: I do like the fact that you can dial in the color temperature in the white balance setting. I also like that it has Genlock Synchronization. Because Lovespring is a multi-camera shoot, this is crucial. And other HDV cameras don’t have this.
The XL H1 has all the connectors that have been missing in other low-cost HDTV cameras. It has uncompressed HD-SDI and SD-SDI connectors. The serial digital BNC connectors can transfer both HD and standard definition signals.
Did you have to make any special adjustments or modifications on the camera for this project?
LM: Well, yes, but it does depend on the scene. In general, though, when we’re shooting in the office location, I pretty much let the operators use what they want to use. Of course, we want to keep them as light and as streamlined as possible. Some operators prefer to operate with f/ support rods and a matte box. Others prefer to lose all of that and just operate bare bones.
We did find that the camera is a little front heavy. So, to counterbalance that weight, some of us use an off-the-shelf shoulder mount and fasten small scuba weights to the back of the mount.
What kind of lens are you shooting with?
LM: I’m using the lens that comes with the camera. [A 20x HD video zoom lens with Optical Image Stabilization]
What did you do to give this show its unique look and feel?
LM: I think the three-camera coverage inherently gives it a different look. And then our approach to the production design, the colors, and the lighting all play into the style.
It’s important that we don’t have a sterile office look, so we made it more colorful. Our color palette leans more towards pink and warm tones.
As for the lighting, we definitely try to keep everything off the floor. We want the actors to have more freedom and feel more comfortable. So, I’m hanging everything. Since we’re shooting in a practical location, we have to lift the ceiling panels and rig the lights so they hang.
I’m using a lot more fluorescent lighting than I normally do [since that’s the type of lighting you typically find in offices], Kino Flos, and also some incandescents. But there are also these huge windows, so we have to do some color correction, too. Overall, I feel that it all looks very natural.
How does this project differ from some of the others you’ve worked on?
LM: I’ve done other projects with Guy [Shalem], the director, and he always works in this style. He likes multiple camera coverage and hand-held; that’s completely his style. So, this isn’t totally new for me. But, in terms of the duration, it is. Usually we shoot for about four days here and there. With Lovespring, [the first six episodes] was three weeks of shooting. And, we are also using a new camera and a new format, so that’s different, too.
Your background is almost entirely in digital video, correct?
LM: Yes, digital video is my tool. SD, HD and HDV-I’ve pretty much followed the progression of it. People constantly criticize the use of HDV and that’s just strange to me. When you see the results in your living room, it looks great. If it’s used properly, you don’t see that much of a difference. I mean, you can see a difference, but for television, I don’t think the same rules apply. But it does depend on what you’re shooting. It’s just a different tool that applies itself well to certain jobs.
Anything you want to add?
LM: Yes, that I love my operators. Warren Yeager, Bruce Dickson and Darsey Spires—they are so professional and talented; I couldn't make it happen without them.