Small Camera, Big Picture

For the season finale of House, the production employed Canon EOS 5D Mark II HD DSLRs to shoot the entire episode. For the shoot, they used Canon still lenses and a Marshall LCD monitor to help in evaluating exposure and focus. Although the camera crew enjoyed working with the small HD DSLRs, the cameras aren’t ideal in all situations. ABOVE: DP Gale Tattersall’s Redrock Micro/5D rig based on the Field Cinema Bundle.

Another issue, he notes, relates to the 5D design. “As soon as you take a feed out of the camera, you can’t look through the eyepiece,” he says. “The little LCD monitor on the back goes black. So you have to go out to a small five- to seven-inch monitor that’s mounted on top of the camera for the operator to use. That extra monitor enables you to loop out and send the feed to video village and also a feed to your focus puller.”

Then there were some dynamic range concerns that go with any digital recording. “You lose a little bit of dynamic range, maybe as much as three stops,” explains Tattersall. “Our entire episode took place at night so it was all lighting, and that’s when one has control of the exposure. It wasn’t such a big issue.”

Tattersall received some help by using a Marshall LCD monitor, which employs a color system that shows productions where the levels on exposure gradients are. Calling it a quick and safe way of evaluating exposure and monitoring for peaking, he adds, “[That’s] the big danger that a lot of traditional DPs such as myself have faced. You tend to think, ‘Oh, I’ll just give it a little more exposure and have a nice rich neg,’ which is absolutely fatal in digital because if you overexpose a tiny bit, then you clip everything at the top end and it looks awful.”

Continues Tattersall, “Since we had the 5D assignment thrust on us at the last moment, our first assistant had virtually no time to adapt to a totally new and unfamiliar digital system in two days. Redrock Micro came to Fox Studios with a truck full of accessories, so we constructed workable systems based on the Redrock Field Cinema Bundle. This provided handheld and studio tripod-mounted setups that accommodated the follow focus and the 7-inch Marshall monitor to be incorporated in no time flat. We came out of the gate first thing, first day of shooting, looking professional, and thanks to the help from Redrock, we pulled it off.”

The ability to shoot in very low­-lighting conditions and the camera’s small proportions made it the perfect choice for the “Help Me” episode, which was shot in a collapsed building. House director and coproducer Greg Yaitanes wanted the audience to be right there with actor Hugh Laurie during his long night. “Looking at the episode, my goal as a filmmaker was to create a very realistic environment for [Hugh] to deal with spaces that were truly tight and claustrophobic,” he says.

Shooting the collapsed building sequence in 35mm film, the standard for all House episodes, went out the window because the film cameras were too big for parts of the sets that were only two feet, six inches high. “We spent days on our bellies and days on our hands and knees,” reveals Tattersall. “The idea of shifting around our regular ARRI cameras on gear heads that were taller than the ceilings of the set would have been a living nightmare.”

The Canon EOS 5D Mark II, however, allowed them to roll A and B cameras, plus a self-directed floater in the highly confined space, and fulfilled the production’s aesthetic goal of allowing the audience to enter the head space of lead character Dr. Gregory House and how he’s separated from reality. Taking the background out of focus was the method they chose to show his state of mind; the camera’s physical size and its ability to handle depth of field perfectly matched the story line.