Using Sony XDCAM at 30p, and Other Tricks to Make Reality Look Good

Shooting reality TV can be a process of frustration for a director of photography as Jay Hunter, supervising DP for On the Lot, notes, “It’s really easy to shoot a reality show and have it look like garbage. It’s incredibly difficult to make it look so-so. And it’s nearly impossible to shoot it and make it look excellent. Every corner you turn there is another factor waiting destroy your image. It’s extremely frustrating but I think we’ve learned some techniques to keep things consistent. We’re trying to achieve the impossible so every little bit that we can do to strive for that is worth it.”
Shooting Sony XDCAM
The main obstacle to achieving a high-quality look is time (or money, whichever way you want to look at it). Reality shows shoot an enormous amount of footage and have extremely tight turnarounds. For On the Lot there have been shots taken on Monday that air on Tuesday.

Time-saving was one of the key reasons Hunter pushed the production to shoot with the Sony XDCAM SD.

“Using the XDCAM allows our post workflow to save precious minutes here and there,” explains Hunter. “Since the XDCAM isn’t a drag and drop system you still have to take time to (transfer) the footage. It does do it a little faster than digitizing tape but the simple act of being able to find a clip on a disc using the thumbnails is worth it. Those precious minutes add up when you are turning around a show in one week or a matter of a day. That’s the biggest reason I pushed for the XDCAM.”

Where the XDCAM does save post production a ton of time is in shooting time-lapse sequences, because off the true intervolometer.

“Since we shoot a lot of time lapses for these shows and we have limited space in our Unity,” explains Hunter. “In the past you’d shoot DigiBeta and you roll entire tapes on the time-lapse. That takes up tons of storage space and also the time it takes to digitize the entire tape. With XDCAM we roll these true intervolometers and so a ten second time lapse of clouds flying by doesn’t take two hours of storage, it takes 10 seconds.”

Of course functionality doesn’t mean a thing if the camera itself does not capture quality images.

“I’ve been using it for a few years now. It’s stable, it captures nice images and has a nice wide color space. Of course there were some drag-and-drop cameras out there we looked at but that technology is a little too new and a little too experimental to use on a network show. The XDCAM is solid, we know it works, we know it won’t fail. You don’t want to be experimenting too much on the Steven Spielberg reality show.”

30p for Reality TV?
Hunter says his big coup de grace in prepping for On the Lot was to convince production to allow him to shoot 30p for the documentary sections of the show (the stage section of the show is shot at the standard 60i with studio cameras and the actual films the contestant are making during the show are to be shot on film with some flavor of Panavision cameras yet to be determined).

“It is kind of a big deal since I’ve never been able to convince a network to do this until now. There’s the notion that 24p looks too much like film or has an artificial look to it, which I don’t necessarily agree with,” Hunter says. “But my solution to that misconception is to shoot 30p, which has its own look to it. It’s not the film environment of 24p, it’s not the standard ENG look of interlaced video, it’s somewhere in between and I really like the look.”

Hunter sees this as a victory in his overall battle to enhance the look of the genre.

“I’m on a little bit of a crusade to make reality TV look better. It’s been a long slow, glacial process. All you can do is change the perceived landscape out there. Doing this show in 30p allows me to establish this look, people can refer to it and see what it is and not have that fear of it.”

Film Stock for Video
With tight turnarounds and five to 20 cameras shooting simultaneously Hunter seeks to establish the look in-camera.

“I will treat my video camera like a film camera. I create a look, I guess the analogy would be to creating a film stock. I create a series of settings in the camera with user settings. From simple things like what their IREs are set at for zebra bars, what their gain channels are, all the way to what sort of gamma the camera is using, to what the color matrixes are set at. So I go in and create a fairly comprehensive and specific look, sometimes multiple looks for the show – one for interviews, one for documentary coverage, one for stylized title sequence stuff. I’ll do that during my prep period and create several scene files and name them. Since the XDCAM is like a computer in that it has an internal hard drive, I just load the settings onto all the cameras. That way if I have 12 cameras on the shoot I can tell all the cameramen to go into the scene files, activate this file so I know everything is the same. Of course there are little fluctuations just on the nature of NTSC, and with lenses there’s always a little bit of variance. But we get it so close that it’s negligible or we can just tweak it in color correction ion a couple seconds rather than spending hours trying to get them to match.”

Lighting Reality TV
But as any DP knows the camera is of minimal importance compared to the lighting and this is where most often reality shows suffer with flat, bland lighting.

“You are constantly given these locations, like a huge mansion where the cast lives and cameras are going to be shooting 360 degrees for two months in this location, inside outside, day and night. What you see a lot is people hang a thousand Kino Flos and light it like K-Mart. That to me is what’s wrong with reality TV: let’s just flood everything with light. I realize that the shows have huge challenges and a lot of times the producers aren’t interested in making it look interesting, just the bottom line. The shows I’ve picked to work on are the ones where I can have a little more control and model the light. I’ve developed some techniques where I can shoot 360 degrees and still have shadow and some drama in the lighting.”

Instead of flooding locations with light, Hunter prefers to leave some areas in shadow to create a dynamic look.

“It’s a documentary situation but you can pre-light. I do leave some areas in shadow and hope no one will go over there. You have to take some risks on things like that. Occasionally you get hosed but what can you do. It’s better to take a risk than not.”

In situations where they cannot pre-light locations, they have to improvise and sometimes even using the dreaded on-camera light.

“Every camera has an LED LightPanels light on top and I’ve built special diffusion boxes to go on top of them, so it’s more of an imperceptible light. I don’t like onboard lights where the camera moves and you can tell the light moves. I allow the cameramen to use them but always with double diffusion. I use them just to light up the face just a little bit.”

Hunter also explains that the Liteplanels 1×1 lights have been invaluable for the run-and-gun shooting.

“We’ve been using this on-board battery on them so it’s a self-contained device. I’ll give the electricians boom poles so they can get the light out to the side and overhead. I try to avoid using that stuff but in a pinch we have them to save us.”

And while they are shooting in standard-def, they are using HD lenses (the Canon HJ22EX7.6B, Canon HJ11X4.7B and Canon HJ40x14B).

“I feel the HD glass is sharper, it renders contrast in a more pleasing way and handles glares a lot better, ” Hunter says. “I remember I was shooting the show for FX, On the Complex, and we had a lot of zooms that were nice lenses but they just couldn’t handle the flares. On that show I switched them out for HD zooms and all of the sudden all the artifacts we had with the SD glass were gone.”

Get It Moving
Hunter also brings some gadgets used mostly on feature films and commercials as well as some quick and dirty grip tools he’s discovered.

“Coming from the film world I like to import a lot of these tools and gadgets from there and most people working on reality have never seen this stuff."

Creating nice smooth camera movements is also key to Hunter but most steadicam rigs are a little cumbersome, difficult to operate and don’t allow a full range of movement vertically. But the Alien Revolution MK-V stabilization system does.

“It’s a self-leveling steadicam so you can invert the sled and the camera always stays perfectly level. No matter what direction it always maintains a perfect horizon. I can walk backwards level with a person’s feet as they are walking and then twist the steadicam around and go up to his head and the shot just looks like I’ve boomed up.”

Hunter will also call in FlyingCam, a remote control helicopter to handle low-flying aerial shots as well using camera sliders to add subtle movements to wide shots or dramatic movements to the macro shots often used in the show.

Of course the mainstay of camera movement is the dolly, but good luck getting a full dolly and crew onto a reality TV set with any consistency. Hunter has been able to bring on the CamTram dolly, which is operator by the cameraman himself and runs along a standard extension ladder.

“It allows us to do these dolly moves off an extension ladder where the operator is pushing the camera as opposed to a dolly grip. Again it’s not an ideal method. Ideally you are always on a dolly being pushed. Sometimes production doesn’t have the money, or you don’t have the time, or both. Sometimes a lot of producers in reality are scared of things like dollies because all they know is that it takes a long time to set up and they are cumbersome and it requires a lot of rehearsal. To me I just want to get the shot so I figure out ways to get the shot no matter what the budget is.”

Shooting Film for Reality
Just when they started shooting the first segments of the show Hunter was also running around with film cameras shooting elements for the show’s title sequence, of which he was the DP and co-director along with Andy Frank, who also serves as the supervising producer.

“We shot Super 16mm and Super 8mm, while the show was going on. With Super 16mmm I’d shoot a lot of high speed footage, 60-, 90-, 120 fps. We shot a lot of Super 8, pretty much every stock out there. We also gave the cameras to the contestants and had them shoot each other, the idea being the Super 8 would give us a playful feel and the Super 16 would give us a very stylized feel, which we ended up also giving a bleach bypass look to give it an otherworldly feel. Then the third element was HD material we shot with a Varicam with Zeiss DigiZooms. Those were a bit more set up shots where we set up faux movie setups. When all three are married together you get a feel for the contestants when they are mugging for the camera, who they are when they are at work and also at play.”

With the efforts needed to convince the production to shoot 30p video even Hunter was amazed that they were allowed to shoot film.

“Film being shot on a reality show is completely unheard of, talk about arguments and struggles with production to get us to be able to do this. But they liked it so much they’ve been using it all over the show for insert moments. Hopefully it will help us on the next show to bring multiple formats to the table. There’s a lot of moaning and groaning about cost and hassle but a couple weeks after the shoot when we have all this diverse and dynamic footage, everyone’s happy.

"It’s baby steps to turn the genre around and make it something we can be proud of.”