Changing The TV Rules

cinematic TV
Director of Photography Yves Bélanger, CSC, on camera, on the set of Big Little Lies. The series swept the 2017 Emmy Awards, winning the Outstanding Limited Series award, with Nicole Kidman earning Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series, Laura Dern, Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series, and Alexander Skarsgård, Best Supporting Actor in a Limited Series. Jean-Marc Vallée won for Best Directing for a Limited Series. Photo: HBO/Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

It generally has been acknowledged that the quality of television over the past few years has grown leaps and bounds. The improvements are mostly in a few specific areas: writing, overall production values and, most significantly, cinematography. The sheer number of shows in production is also cited as evidence of a new “Golden Age of Television.” Between 2011 and 2016, the number of scripted television shows on broadcast, cable and digital platforms increased by 71 percent. The growth in the number of shows being produced is largely due to OTT (over the top) services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon investing heavily in original content.

The TV Miniseries Goes Cinematic

Somewhere along the line, not only did the writing evolve and get better, but the concepts became more sophisticated and nuanced, and the look of the shows improved dramatically. Narrowing down our discussion to the look of cinematic television, we spoke with 2017 Emmy® Award nominee for Outstanding Photography for a Limited Series or Movie, Yves Bélanger, CSC. Bélanger was recently nominated for his work on the HBO series Big Little Lies, specifically for the episode “You Get What You Need.” Known for his feature work with director Jean-Marc Vallée on films like Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, Bélanger was the perfect choice for director Vallée to serve as director of photography for the HBO miniseries, a story about the lives of three apparently perfect mothers of first-graders that unravel to the point of murder. It stars Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern, with Shailene Woodley as the newcomer to town.

When asked if the new look of television is a result of technology or mostly of mindset, Bélanger replies, “The request for a more cinematic look and feel doesn’t specifically come from the network or the studio. When they choose you, they trust you to bring your skills to the project to make it look as good as possible. Television used to look cheap compared to movies because small-format video cameras shooting at 30 fps were used, which gave too much depth of field and a video-like hyper-realistic look versus films that were shot at 24 fps on 35mm film, which gave a nice look to the motion, and elegant, shallow depth of field was possible. Now the digital cameras we utilize shoot at 24 frames per second, the imager is the same size as motion picture film, S35, and the digital cameras are as fast (sensitive) to the different lighting conditions—with some cameras, even more so. In short, features and TV series are now made with the same tools—cameras, lenses, lighting and production values—so it’s easier to make them look the same.”

cinematic TV
Bélanger with Big Little Lies director Jean-Marc Vallée. Directors and DPs and their crews are now using gear and workflows that were only found in movies just a few years ago. Photo: HBO/Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

According to Bélanger, one of the technical challenges working on projects with director Vallée is his strong preference for naturalistic, available light. “Big Little Lies was shot with one camera, an ARRI Alexa XT, using Zeiss high-speed T1.3 lenses. Only a polarizer and ND filters were used. Everything was shot handheld, except for special-effects shots. Like all Jean-Marc Vallée projects, it was shot with available light, meaning no lights, reflectors or bounce boards were used, just the natural, ambient light.

Big Little Lies presented me with a new challenge,” says the DP. “Forty percent of the show had to be shot on a soundstage. That meant recreating the ‘available light look’ that we always get with movie lighting on locations on a soundstage. It was tough, but I am very proud of the results, especially the Blue Blues Café exteriors that were completely shot greenscreen on a stage.”

Bélanger utilized the most basic elements at his disposal to create the look of Big Little Lies, his eye and intuition. In terms of crew size and resources, the minimalistic style and small crew actually helped to define a more cinematic visual style.

“The size of my crew was exactly the same as all of Vallée’s projects, one third of the crew size used on a normal feature. The fact that we shot handheld with wide-open lenses with very little depth of field, without any artificial lighting, made the images look very organic and cinematic. Shooting with an ARRI camera contributed to the filmic look, as well. We definitely utilized a ‘less is more’ approach. Except for the studio scenes, there was no time to prep or do any kind of lighting setups, so we changed our thinking to evolve a style.”

Documentaries Becoming More Cinematic, Too

The film Planet Earth II is a 2016 British nature documentary series produced by the BBC as a sequel to Planet Earth, which was broadcast in 2006. Notable for its use of exquisite photography, the first Planet Earth made use of the then-brand-new technology of portable HD video. A notable change between the first and second series was the shift from the camera perspective from observational to placing the camera right into the scenes with the animal subjects, highlighting their experiences with both subtle and dramatic camera movement and location.

Planet Earth II won the 2017 Emmy® for Outstanding Cinematography for a Non-Fiction Program for the episode “Islands.” BAFTA Award-winning wildlife cameraman Rob Drewett was the cinematographer for the episode “Deserts.” The shift in cinematic non-fiction programming has followed a similar path as narrative television.

“Technology has allowed the storytelling in wildlife filmmaking to feel more like features; smaller form-factor cameras and gimbals allow you to get great-quality images with stabilized movement,” says Drewett. “The end goal is always creating an immersive experience for the viewer.”

cinematic TV
BAFTA Award-winning wildlife cameraman Rob Drewett was the cinematographer for the Planet Earth II episode “Deserts.” Planet Earth II won the 2017 Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography for a Non-Fiction Program for the episode “Islands.” Photo: BBC America/Ed Charles

Wildlife filmmaking also places different needs on the tools used by the filmmakers, who may have different priorities than narrative filmmakers. Drewett utilized smaller and lighter camera systems to be able to more easily provide the movement that the story demanded: “I mainly used the RED WEAPON camera, as having the ability to pre-record and shoot high frame rates is a massive bonus for filming wildlife.”

The RED WEAPON 6K allows for shooting at up to 75 fps in 6K REDCODE and up to 120 fps when recording in REDCODE 4K.

Moving The Camera With The Characters

Drewett, owner of a remote camera movement company called Motion Impossible, really set the camera free for Planet Earth II, adding this motion to 4K slow motion, and you have the perfect tool for filming animals that you can get close to. The direction for the film was all about being immersed with the character. Traveling along with the subject was one of the main goals, giving the viewer the feeling that they were part of the animal’s family.

“I filmed the first sequence for Planet Earth II, which was the locust swarm in Madagascar; this was also filmed during the first Planet Earth, so I did a lot of studying of the original series before I set off. What we captured set the precedent for the style of the show, giving the viewer the feeling that they are the locust or part of the swarm.”

cinematic TV
Photo: BBC America/Ed Charles

Cinematographer Jonathan Jones was one of the contributing DPs on the Emmy®-winning “Islands” episode, as well as all of the other episodes of the seven-part series, except for the “Jungles” episode. When asked his opinion about how television has evolved to become more cinematic, especially in wildlife and nature filmmaking, Jones replies, “The line between television and features has never been closer. This has been driven by the shift in equipment and how a kit is now cheaper and more accessible. The idea of making a TV show with the same technology as a movie only a few years ago would have been crazy. The audience is also changing. In a world of content, we are overwhelmed with what we can see, and our eyesight and the way we view the world is much more akin to film or large-sensor digital capture (50mm T2) than video or smaller sensor depth of field, so we feel very at home watching and consuming cinematic imagery. The drop in price of the kit and its availability to a much wider demographic of filmmakers is what’s so exciting. With online platforms for distribution, the video/film market has changed and can give freedom to so many up-and-coming content producers that have no restrictions from large broadcasters or studios, so they can let their creativity go wild and experiment.”

Form Factor And Camera Movement In Wildlife Filmmaking

Jones also used the RED WEAPON camera on his shoots. “The great thing about shooting the series on RED was being able to view your footage in the field and play with looks. I would often cut sequences together in the evenings with Adobe Premiere on my laptop. The RED is the perfect camera for wildlife. I pushed it to its limits on this series, taking it to Mount Everest and the opposite extremes in the African desert. The form factor is perfect for gimbal and drone work.”

Jones’ experience with moving the camera was similar to Drewett’s, as the mandate for the film was the same for the entire camera team, regardless of the subject. “There were new techniques used in Planet Earth II, mostly on the way the camera moved, adopting a more cinematic approach. Traditionally, wildlife would be captured with a long lens, often in a fixed frame. We were really keen to take the viewer on a journey. In the “Grasslands” episode, I filmed the harvest mouse, and we developed a micro jib that could move between the grasses to give parallax and dynamics to the shots. We also used drones a lot to create amazing perspectives. In the “Islands” episode, I was flying amongst hundreds of seabirds, which wouldn’t have been possible or safe in a helicopter.”

The Whims Of Nature

Unlike narrative filmmaking, where the crew plans for every possibility and the production is often shot on soundstages or in carefully controlled locations, wildlife filmmaking is the very essence of unplanned shooting. Jones notes, “The thing with wildlife is that it’s so unpredictable. You put all your effort into trying to be in the right place at the right time. Then you’re at the mercy of nature. Sometimes you can go weeks without seeing what you want to see; other times you see it on the first day, then not again for a month. On other occasions, the moment can be over in minutes, but your instincts kick in, and, before you know it, you’ve captured the sequence in that short time. You then spend weeks trying to build on what you have. Whatever the situation, you’re trying so hard to capture the best images and you never stop.

“In short, you always want to capture in the best light possible. We’re typically up before sunrise and are still ready to shoot until you lose the light. You then begin organizing the equipment and kit very late into the evening ready for the next day. We spend long times in the field to allow for days when the weather is bad or we don’t see the subject.”

Asked about the special techniques, tools and the entire production workflow that resulted in such a beautifully shot, well-produced project that went on to win the Emmy® award for Outstanding Cinematography for a Non-Fiction Program, Jones is reflective about how such a memorable episode was created.

“I think it’s the combination of lots of things coming together that helps—RED digital cinema, Canon 4K glass, advancement in drones. Gimbal manufacturers pushing the boundaries, 4K high-speed photography, Hans Zimmer creating the score—I’m a massive ‘music for emotion’ person—and David Attenborough narrating. You put all that together with the most magical landscapes on earth, telling compelling animal stories, and it’s hard not to make a project that’s cinematic.”