Ironically, what goes on behind the camera on IFC’s Portlandia juxtaposes the vibe the show itself gives off to audiences expertly. Behind the scenes, Portlandia‘s bare-bones crew must be spontaneous and ready for run-and-gun shooting situations, but on the screen it’s all mellow, hippie-dippie stories about Portland, which is the "city where young people go to retire…an alternate universe…where Gore won and the Bush Adminstration never happened."
"It’s the best and weirdest dynamic to work in," says Jonathan Krisel, Portlandia‘s director, co-creator and co-writer, along with the show’s stars, Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen. "Once Carrie and Fred and I have written our outlines and we’ve moved into production, they completely go into actor mode and rely on me to remind them of what we talked about two months ago. We do change a lot in the moment, since it’s all improvised, so I think they still sort of wear a writer’s hat in that sense, but it’s a very casual, fun space to work in."
Along with a crew of mostly locals, Krisel and director of photography Bryce Fortner aimed for a look and feel in Season One that was indicative of the city, as well as Fred and Carrie’s bizarre stories. They wanted a true collaboration of everyone bringing their unique perspectives into the discussions that eventually would mold into the look and feel of the alternate universe of Portlandia.
"It was always really important for us to maintain a naturalistic look," says Fortner. "At the same time, we didn’t want it to feel ‘real.’ I think the natural look helps the absurdity of the show’s storylines—maybe it helps it feel more absurd because it looks so natural. It seems often a default for comedy to be flat and feel lit, but I’m a firm believer that it doesn’t have to be that way, and for our show, shadows and contrast are important to naturalism."
To naturalistically light a space, Fortner relied on a lot of practical and available light, but he also had a few workhorses in what was a minimal lighting package. He often opted for the MacTech 720 Sled, a series of little LED bulbs lined up in a tube that almost looks like a Kino Flo tube, but with either Tungsten or Daylight bulbs. And at 750 watts, it puts out nearly twice the light of an Image 80. Those lit most of the scenes, along with some ARRI M18s and Kino Flo Tegras, but since switching to the Canon EOS C300 for the third season after using the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and 7D and an occasional GoPro, keeping the lighting kit that small wasn’t a problem for Fortner.
"There were a couple reasons for switching," reveals Fortner. "One of the things I really liked about the 5D was the form factor. We’re a small crew—just myself and two other operators, two assistant cameramen and one data manager—and we need to be really portable, allowing my operators and I to be able to run around and to focus ourselves. The C300, with the same petite size, has a lot more latitude because it shoots in a Log format as opposed to the more compressed H.264 with the 5D, and also has a much cleaner look. It was a no-brainer to make the switch."