Shooting Switcher and Sex Teenagers Live
While introducing the October ‘11 Channel 101 screening, Dan Harmon said there were about five really innovative things going on that night. He was right, all ten shows were fantastic, and about half of them absolutey blew my mind. I was lucky enough to do camera work for two of them - Switcher and Sex Teenagers.
Both shows were very different and challenging in their own ways, but also had a lot in common from a technical point of view. For one thing, both shows were shot in unusual ways because the directors were hoping to cut down on post-production time.
Aaron Moles came up with the idea of Switcher, to be shot entirely from a first-person POV. I wasn’t sure how that would work, and originally thought we should get a steadicam operator to shoot the whole show. We asked Brian King (who worked on September’s episode of Strange Cases) if he could shoot Switcher, but he wasn’t available that weekend. I’ve been shooting everything on DSLRs for the last year, but Aaron wanted to shoot on a Panasonic HVX (the SD card version) to simplify the workflow. This worked out better for many reasons - with XLR inputs we could record audio from our two microphones without having to sync in post. The handheld, whip-pan style would have been warped and jiggly on a DSLR’s sensor, but was fine on the HVX. And shooting with the HVX’s larger body and wide lens made stability and focus less of an issue.
Driving to Aaron’s house the morning of the shoot, I was still wondering how we were going to get a convincing POV effect. Once the actors arrived, it took some trial and error to figure out the best way to operate the camera. For the first shot of the show, actor Sean Cook operated the camera himself as he gets out of the car and walks into the house. I ran behind him and tried to monitor through the viewfinder, but that didn’t work very well. Nobody could see what the camera was doing, so we had to play back each take and check to make sure we got a usable shot.
For the next shot inside the house, I just operated the camera myself while Sean followed behind me. He still said his lines to Willy Roberts, who looked right into the lens as if I were Sean, and Josh Sasson recorded him with a boom mic. We were on a wide lens for the whole show and since most shots were 360 degrees, we had to hide a few small lights to one side of the room and bounce them off the ceiling. The main thing was just getting each shot down with plenty of rehearsal before shooting. We’d block out the shots, then figure out when I should shoot over the actors shoulders to get their hands in the frame and when I should run off by myself, sometimes using my own hand in the shot.
Aaron finished with some color correction, upping the contrast and yellows, along with adding a light vingette to the edges of the picture. He did a lot of work on the sound and visual effects, ending up with a great show that we’re all really proud of. I’m looking forward to episode 2 next month. I really have no idea where the story’s going to go, but Aaron’s scripts are always amazing. If you haven’t seen it, check out his previous show The Sequence, along with his new Atom comedy series The Gate Show with Fred Stoller.
The other show I got to work on this month was Sex Teenagers, directed by Dave Seger and Tom Kauffman. I’ve shot the previous 6 episodes, all on a Canon 7d with a 28mm lens. Mostly because I heard that Wes Anderson shot Bottle Rocket entirely with a 27mm lens, and that seemed like a good visual style to use on this show too (except 1mm better).
Like Aaron Moles, Dave and Tom wanted to cut down on editing time this month. They came up with the idea of doing Channel 101’s first live episode. They told me about the idea at the start of October, and everyone on the crew was really good about keeping the secret.
Tom wrote the whole script to take place in a movie theater - James and Daphne try to sneak into a screening of Rape Action, while Moses is on a date that isn’t going so well.
For this episode, I was less involved in the shooting than usual. Dave and Tom really took care of everything, planning out the choregraphy and technical aspects. They got 3 Panasonic HVXs and a DVX, then ran long BNC cables across the theater connected to a video switcher board, which Dave ran from the back row of the theater. Brian King had the hardest camera job, operating a Glidecam 4000 to get the opening lobby shots, then run upstairs to plug in to a BNC cable already set up in the hallway. Ryan Howard operated a second hallway camera, Josh Sasson was AC, and Jon Hill ran audio.
Inside the theater, I had an HVX hidden under my chair and Paul Isakson had his boom mic. During the show’s opening credits, I switched on a small LED light taped to my seat and Jessica set up another one to the side to illuminate Dominic’s “girlfriend,” an audience member who didn’t know they’d be acting in the show that night. While we were shooting the theater segments, Brain and the second crew had to run downstairs to be ready for the next scene. Dominic also had to rush up and down the theater stairs throughout the show to make it to his parts in time.
The “Rape Action” film-within-a-film was shot by the amazing Mike Manasewitsch (Googy, Honkers 4, Funny or Die). Dave and Tom wanted a quality, professionally-shot style to contrast with the live show. I usually use minimal lighting setups, sometimes to speed up the shoots to meet the tight 101 shooting schedules. But for Rape Action, Mike took his time and shot a beautiful stylized scene, with plenty of smoke and green gels. The Duncan brothers did the flower/flame title graphics. I don’t think they even knew about the live episode when they were making it.
Like Switcher, the show really came down to careful rehersal. We met Thursday night to set up the equipment and cables, then practice a few times with the actors. We recorded the screen with an iphone to watch the playback afterwards, take notes, and time the episode to make sure it didn’t go over the 5 minute time limit (the final episode came out to 4:48, twelve seconds under). We met again that Saturday morning before the screening to run through it more and work out the bugs.
In the end, I think it went amazingly well and got a great reaction from the audience. Everybody on the team did their part perfectly, and I think we pulled off something really special.
That Saturday afternoon, I texted somebody saying “Channel 101 is the best part of life.” It’s true. Just as an audience member, I don’t know where you can go every month to see such an exciting, interactive, quality show (for free). The talent that’s involved in 101 is unbelievable. And as a filmmaker - if you’re not part of Channel 101, I don’t know what your problem is. You’ve got rocks in your head. You’re really missing out on being part of a great community of people, making some of the most awesome stuff on Earth every month.
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