Shooting Quarry For Cinemax — Mayhem In Memphis

Mayhem In Memphis

Based on a long-running series of hard-boiled novels by Max Allan Collins (The Road to Perdition), the new Cinemax series Quarry follows Vietnam vet Mac Conway, played by Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus), through his tough re-entry into low society in the heart of Memphis, Tennessee. Haunted by memories of his war experiences, Conway’s homecoming is far from a welcoming one. An ungrateful public and lack of employment lead the disillusioned vet directly into a criminal organization operating along the Mississippi River, ultimately becoming enmeshed in bloodshed and mayhem.

Produced by NightSky Productions and Anonymous Content, the show was created for TV by Graham Gordy and Michael D. Fuller, the same team responsible for writing Rectify. The pair also scribed a number of Quarry episodes, with Collins himself contributing one teleplay.

Each installment of the eight-episode first season was directed by executive producer Greg Yaitanes. A veteran showrunner, Yaitanes served in a similar capacity for the premium cable station’s Banshee (see HDVideoPro, April 2015), a show that recently wrapped its four-season run.

The series pilot originally went before the cameras back in 2013. Due to a delay in getting the order to go to series, its three lead actors were lost to other commitments. This necessitated a reshoot, and Yaitanes approached cinematographer Pepe Avila del Pino to serve as director of photography.

“Greg and I had a long conversation about the new approach he and Max wanted to try out for the show,” del Pino recalls. “To a very slight degree, it was based on what Soderbergh was doing on The Knick—that is to say, relying on less coverage and getting a bigger page count with fewer setups and longer takes. When I came onboard, we started working out specifics to evolve a style that meshed with that workflow.”

When del Pino speaks of longer takes he’s not exaggerating. “We’re very dialogue-heavy, so two actors might have a seven-page scene that we cover with just one, or occasionally two, setups. When shooting action, there were times when we used additional setups, but even in those cases our shots were designed to be dynamic and roving, covering more than just one character and taking in the whole situation.

As an example, the DP cites Quarry’s innovative take on the most familiar of action conventions, the car chase. “Instead of cutting outside to second unit stunt drivers, we designed ours with one camera shooting the whole length of the chase from inside the vehicle,” he explains. “You still see all the action, looking ahead down the road or behind at who was in pursuit, but you experience the crashes from a single perspective right alongside the driver. By breaking from the usual cutting pattern, we were very consciously trying to defy convention and audience expectations while keeping it focused on both character and situation.”

Cinemax's Quarry

The show’s schedule also defied convention, shooting “across borders,” meaning accomplishing setups for different episodes at the same time. “It was very much like shooting a movie,” reveals del Pino. “Since we had the same DP and director, attacking it this way made a lot of sense logistically.”

Production shot principally in Louisiana, with New Orleans substituting for Memphis, augmented by just a single week in Tennessee.

That ’70s Show

As was the case with Banshee, ARRI ALEXA was the camera of choice throughout the Quarry shoot. “We used XT mostly, and then towards the end we picked up a Mini, which really helped with the weight issue when it came to very long handheld takes,” del Pino explains. “Ninety percent of the show is shot handheld, so it was very rare that we were on dollies to move. I can only recall two crane shots because we try to stay down on the ground with the characters in the show for a more intimate approach.”

While Del Pino selected Cooke S4 glass for most of the shoot, he also employed Panavision PVintage lenses for the show’s Vietnam flashbacks. PVintage lenses use the glass from older Ultra Speed Primes, repackaged in more modern, user-friendly housings.

“Those scenes were day exteriors, and the amount of green foliage in frame was overwhelming, so the older lenses gave them a nicer texture while differentiating the character’s memories from the ‘modern’ 1970s scenes in Memphis,” del Pino explains.

Acquiring in 2K RAW onto cards, del Pino and his director spent the early part of the shoot defining a suitable visual feel to fit the series. “We started to get a solid idea of how the images should look after the first month of what became a very long shoot,” he notes. “Initially, we went a little too desaturated, but then we began to like seeing silhouetted figures in the frame and embraced the darkness we saw, shifting our original LUT after seeing color-corrected dailies. [Dailies came courtesy of Light Iron Outpost Mobile, with color correction by The Foundation.] That, along with more color saturation, became a key part of our storytelling technique.”

Communicating that technique via voice notes and emails, however, was initially ineffective. “Greg and I started receiving dailies where facial detail had been extracted from the darkness. We had to inform them not to ‘fix’ it, and that this was actually an intentional look on our part,” says the DP.

Cinemax's Quarry

Both Yaitanes and del Pino were also in agreement to not use camerawork that mimicked ’70s cinematic stylings. “We wanted the image to convey the time period through production design, hair, wardrobe and the music the characters listened to, not through a camera that references a particular film or methodology of the era,” states the DP. “Working with today’s lighter cameras allowed us to shoot handheld and develop our own style, one that was neither manicured or overly stylized. The word I keep thinking of is ‘pulpy’—there’s energy and ‘punch’ to the imagery that Quarry demanded.”

Most of the series relied on practical locations, including the main character’s house. “I like working with the limitations of the real thing, especially when it comes to lighting,” del Pino offers. “The producers were a little concerned as they weren’t used to working without the option to fly the walls, but Greg and I felt certain this was the best approach for the show. Once you pull a wall and put on a longer lens the feel changes, and on some subconscious level it lets viewers know this is just a movie.”

In general, del Pino enjoys using practical illumination in-frame, augmenting as needed from off-camera sources. “We hid a lot of LED sources in corners, while some practical locations that were equipped with fluorescents and neon as sole sources we shot largely as-is. Once I lit a scene with a silhouetted figure illuminated only by one bare bulb. It was a little blown out, but worked very well with the particular blocking used.”

When it came to night exteriors, the cinematographer admits that contemporary street lighting had nothing in common with the 1970s Memphis period. “As a result, we used a lot of mercury-vapor colors,” del Pino explains. “That was something common at the time in Memphis. We had our units placed on Condors, allowing us to light buildings and cars all down the street.”

Invisible Effects

While Quarry’s pulpy feel is achieved principally in-camera, it took more than an art department to transform modern Louisiana into ’70s Memphis. Enter Zoic Studios, which recently received an Emmy® nomination for Outstanding Special Visual Effects on Amazon’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.
Zoic VFX Supervisor Nathan Overstrom joined the show and continued his association with Yaitanes, a relationship that began on season four of Banshee. “Zoic has worked with Greg on other shows, as well, as has co-producer [in charge of postproduction] Allen Marshall Palmer,” Overstrom remarks. “That successful working relationship led to Quarry coming to our latest office in New York. As we wrapped the Banshee finale, our effects team rolled directly into Quarry.”

The ALEXA-only workflow made for a fairly standard VFX pipeline, with production supplying 10-bit 4:4:4 QuickTime materials.

“There’s just one LUT, and we can do our work in Nuke or After Effects,” Overstrom remarks. “When we do shows that are shot on RED, it can become a lot more elaborate because there are so many options for gamma and Log settings.”

Cinemax's Quarry
Overstrom notes that Aspera was used to facilitate high-speed file transfers, while Scenechronize provided all departments with a paperless trail of data documentation.

Meanwhile, re-creating 1970s Memphis required Zoic to augment the existing geography in frame. This effort required creating and compositing additional buildings, as well as making digital modifications to signage.

“A lot of this was 2D fixes done with matte painting,” Overstrom reveals. “We could repaint building facades to suggest age or create a more period architectural style. We took on a lot of gunshots as well; squibs tend to fall in our plate because of the large library of elements we’ve created, including muzzle flashes and exploding debris.
“When a story point has someone put a gun right up against a victim’s head and fire, they can’t do that practically on set because of safety issues with blanks. At close range, even a quarter- or eighth-load is too dangerous, so it falls to us to add the flash and smoke from the gun.”

Zoic were also tasked with shooting new custom practical elements. “One flashback scene showed an explosion going off in between Conway and a Vietnamese soldier,” Overstrom continues. “I helped line up and shoot explosion elements on bluescreen that would become the majority of the effect, but we’d then augment this with CG elements, tailored to camera and lighting, along with additional library elements.”

Elements created were often recycled in ways that leave little resemblance to their original form. “For fantasy shows we work on like Once Upon a Time and True Blood, fire elements might be used, but not to represent flames,” Overstrom explains. “We’ll combine it with color correction and diffusion instead to make a heat wash of energy being shot out of somebody’s hand. In a nutshell, visual effects consists of creative problem solving. When you work in TV today, you never know what you’re going to be called upon to do, so everybody here at Zoic has a wide range of skill sets.”

Zoic’s weapons of choice for CGI include Maya as primary 3D package. The majority of rendering is handled in V-Ray, with NUKE used for compositing, and After Effects and Flame brought in when necessary. (Final touches on the show were provided by another Banshee vet, Technicolor Hollywood Senior DI Colorist Skip Kimball, who handled digital intermediate duties.)

Nearly all of these tools were employed for a lengthy and elaborate shot featured in the season’s final episode, taking place when a character enters a giant field of poppies.

Cinemax's Quarry

“Since fields like that don’t exist locally, the art and scenic departments built a 50×10-foot section of field on a large bluescreen stage,” Overstrom explains. “This gave us real interaction between performer and the plants against blue. From there, we created a larger CG field with rolling hills, then integrated that with large-scale matte painting that took the visual out to the horizon.

“There were shots preceding ours that were done with the mockup, but out in real sunlight, so we took note of the sun position and time of day,” he adds. “That way the bluescreen shoot could use appropriately colored light mounted on cranes at the proper height to ensure a good match.”

When asked about the hardest shooting days on Quarry, del Pino’s reply is immediate: the swamps. “We were in them for both day and night shoots, and those were tough hours for every department, not just behind camera,” he declares.

“The most challenging was a Vietnam day exterior. Our camera operator had to hold the Mini in his hands for eight minutes while moving out from the middle of this swamp and into an interior before exiting. We had to dim sources at just the right moment while transitioning in and out—that was essential to making the whole thing appear seamless.”

“Pretty much everybody in the camera, grip and electrical departments was involved at one point or other during that shot,” says del Pino, “and we really felt all that effort paid off very well in the end.”

The series premieres on September 9. Visit the website at cinemax.com/quarry.

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