A Play-by-Play, with Exclusive BTS Video, on Season 4's Handheld Style, Extreme Sports Shots and One Very Sweet Ride

It may seem like a long way from documentaries to the high-octane glitz of HBO’s Ballers. But for DP Anthony Hardwick, a veteran of comedy ensemble hits like Entourage, Shameless and genre-bashing cultural touchstones like Borat, that early training shooting nonfiction makes the up-close, handheld style of Ballers, which he has shot for the past two seasons, a perfect fit.

With Emmy nominations this year for sound editing and cinematography, Ballers is an unlikely vehicle for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and his comic foil Rob Corddry. Russell Brand, playing an eccentric extreme-sports empresario, joined regulars John David Washington and Omar Benson Miller in the nominated season-premiere episode, “Rough Ride.” We talked to Hardwick about the many cameras and rigs that help make this single-camera comedy work so well and why he prefers to think on his feet on location rather than in the studio.

DP Anthony Hardwick filming skateboarding legend Tony Hawk (on his phone) with the Alexa Mini.

StudioDaily: When Ballers began four years ago, the filmmakers established a documentary-style production that gave the show its kinetic, improvised feel. By Season 4, would you say that style has evolved? And how would you describe your own approach?

Anthony Hardwick: A number of years ago I shot Entourage for two seasons, and Stephen Levinson, the Executive Producer of Ballers, was one of the EPs of that show. There are certain stylistic similarities in the sense that both shows really want the audience to feel a part of the entourage and action and move through what the characters are dealing with in their lives and in the arena that they are inhabiting. In the case of Entourage, the entertainment industry, and on Ballers, it’s professional sports and behind-the-scenes management. To that end, I think handheld really worked well for a primary mode of shooting. We tend to not shoot too many long-lens shots, though we do occasionally for certain scenes, but the bulk of it is handheld and close-in to the actors.

Extreme Sports specialist Aaron Hooper, brought in by Hardwick to help film this season’s action, grabs a shot with a DJI Ronin-rigged DLSR atop a Onewheel electric skateboard.

You’re also no stranger to cranes, drones, arms and even underwater housing and have used a wide range throughout this season. What specifically did you use in “Rough Ride?”

Season 4 in particular involved the shift to dealing with extreme sports, in addition to football and the management that surrounds it. So we shot skateboarding and surfing and other high-energy sports. For the different sequences that highlighted those effects, we of course did different things. In one of the skateboarding sequences, for example, we had what was kind of like a commercial being shot within the action of the show. So you see the behind the scenes of this commercial being made. The story point is that Russell Brand’s character, Lance Klians, is spending a lot of Spencer Strasmore and Joe Krutel’s money that they’ve recently infused into his company. It’s like a million dollar skateboarding commercial, so we wanted it to feel really big. So we had a Technocrane, and we had some big HMIs outside the skate park. I also brought in a guy from Colorado who is a sports specialist on one-wheeled electric skateboards, used with a [DJI] Ronin stabilized gimbal head. He rides and shoots simultaneously, so he came in and did some featured shots but also was in our footage of the making of this commercial. And we also had a bullet-time rig made up of some 40 or 50 DSLRs to capture a frozen moment in time of a skateboarding trick. All of those elements went into just that one scene of that episode. For other skateboarding scenes, we would sometimes rig GoPros to the actual skateboards, so when they would do kickflips, you would get some interesting shots. For the surf scenes, we had underwater housing and surf specialists who came in to do that, as well as underwater operators and some drone photography. Rounding it out was a Russian Arm for some driving sequences here and there, which we tend to do every season.

Ballers DP Anthony Hardwick, captured with the show’s bullet-time rig, on location in L.A.

Did you use the Russian Arm with the lovely ’67 Jaguar MK II? And were you inside it? 

Yes, we did. That’s such a beautiful car, but I wasn’t inside. I did a lot of handheld operating myself earlier in my career, but these days I have operators who work with me so I can watch both cameras if we’re shooting two at the same time and I always know what’s going on. I prefer to be next to the director because, if there’s a problem, I’m seeing it firsthand, rather than having to hear about, say, the B-camera shot that I’m not operating. This way, I see everything, and if you’re right next to the director, just through their body language you can see what they’re reacting to, and oftentimes I know what the problem is before the director even has to say anything. However, having said that, I tend to still operate remote heads and cranes and Russian Arms, just because I’m there with the director and it’s easier for me to do it. It also keeps me fresh and sharp, so I like doing those types of shots.

Rob Corddry (left) as Joe Krutel and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Spencer Strasmore with the other star of “Rough Ride,” a 1967 Jaguar MK II.
Jeff Daly/HBO

It would have been too perfect if you shot inside the Jaguar MK II with a 5D MK II. Did that happen?

No, unfortunately, it didn’t, but that would have been very cool.

Tell me more about your A camera and kit. 

[Arri] Alexa Mini is the go-to camera, and we also had an Amira as a backup third body and sometimes we’d throw that on Steadicam. I think we used Amiras in Season 3 but we switched over to Minis for Season 4. Certain scenes we would shoot with telephoto lenses but, as a general rule for a show like this and the style we were going for, I like to shoot with a 40mm lens. That’s a common lens that I’d use a lot, but I’d also use wider. I like to use primes a lot in a handheld show. The Alexa Mini is just such a versatile camera size-wise: you can strip it down and put it into a car and fit it into tight corners very easily, but it also can be built out to be a nice, well-balanced handheld camera. For remote heads, if you need to really strip some weight off as well, you can keep it nice and small. But it is kind of well adapted to do anything — it can do studio mode, handheld, can be ready for gimbals or Steadicam or remote heads easily. I like that versatility but, more important than that, I just love the look of the Alexa sensor. Coming from a photochemical film background as I did and many of us did, it’s the first camera that I shot digitally that I really felt came pretty close to emulating a film look, in the way that it deals with highlights and the rolloff — clouds, for example, in a hard daylight situation — but also just the dynamic range in general and the color bit depth. I think it’s a great all-around camera.

Given the show’s infatuation with hot cars, a Russian Arm is in regular rotation.

Let’s talk about your preferred palette. What were you after this season?

Season 4 migrates storywise from Miami, where it started, to Los Angeles. Jim Gloster did the production design, and he’s wonderfully talented and did a great job. The whole SportsX milieu is a very colorful, vibrant and young culture, and we’ve got a lot of glitzy cars, and the costumes are important. I think color, including the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean, was a big part of the season and we really wanted to highlight that with warm tones of California sun juxtaposed with the color of the production design and the wardrobe and cars and props. We wanted a glitzy yet realistic look, although we were always glamorizing it, I guess.

Do you enjoy shooting outside?

I do. I like location-based shows and I don’t like being on shows where you’re mostly on a stage, although of course it’s great for certain things. I prefer the challenge of working on new sets and new practical locations on a daily basis because it just makes you think. It’s a daily puzzle: every set, every lighting situation creates a bit of a puzzle of how you want to do it, what you’re trying to achieve and how you can do it with the physical constraints of each location. I really like it. It makes it more exciting and always keeps it fresh. And I think it adds a realism that’s very hard to get all of the time on stage unless you’ve got an exorbitant budget for every set you’re going to build.

I loved the opening shot in “Rough Ride” following Strasmore (Johnson) through the casino and restaurant, where you’re practically on top of him as he moves through the space and finally arrives at the table with his crew.

That was mostly Steadicam, although we had a couple of dolly shots, the very first one going across a couple of cars, but the rest was all Steadi, ending in a 360 around the table. That was done by BJ McDonnell, who is one of my favorite Steadicam operators.

In this tricky oner from Season 4, Steadicam operator Colin Hudson starts inside a stadium tunnel then hops on a platform crane to pan above a partial Rose Bowl crowd. The capacity crowd seen in the final shot was tiled in later during post.

What was the most difficult rigged shot to pull off in the entire season?

We did a couple of episodes that had a lot of crane work and some pretty challenging shots. One director in particular really loves to use cranes a lot. We had one crane shot where it was kind of an impromptu thing; we didn’t plan on having a crane that day. Then this director came up with this idea for a shot, which we did cobble together with a regular jib arm without a remote head. We managed to do it with three of us executing different parts of the shot. The shot started low, then it booms up, so it had to be passed off from the first operator to me, who was the second, and then in the middle of this pan, where there’s really no way geographically to get around the camera and do the whole thing, I passed it off to a third operator, who did that part. That was a really fun moment and pretty cool. In order to execute that, we had a couple of lighting cues during the shot, so that was fun to do. We had a little bit of a ballet with everybody working together to make it happen. The other one we did was a Steadicam shot through a tunnel at the Rose Bowl, and then the operator steps onto a crane and we crane up and over a whole big crowd and we see the entire Rose Bowl filled with fans. Of course, it wasn’t really filled with fans — it was all tiled in later — but it’s a pretty great shot that’s a oner that involves quite a bit of special effects to make the stadium look completely filled.

Were you surprised when you got the Emmy nomination?

Of course! It’s my first, but it’s never really anything I think about much. I mean, we’re all just always trying to do the best job we can and shoot the best show we can, both from a lighting and compositional standpoint and through visual storytelling but, boy, was it nice to get that sort of surprise. I think the show has a number of amazing, talented people working on it who all come together to create a great, memorable show. I’m just glad to be a part of it.