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The tween sitcom may be a relative newcomer on the television industry scene, but it is no less complex to shoot and light than the more classic sitcoms, according to Mitchell Ness csc, director of photography on season two of Family's hit comedy Really Me. From Cheers to Seinfeld, sitcoms are predominantly shot on a three-walled set, the cinematographer says. "It's like photographing a play on a stage. You never turn around and get the fourth wall. So you've got your proscenium line, which would be the front of the stage, and that's where the cameras tend to stay. The only time you'd turn around is if say the family comes in and sits on the couch and they're watching something on TV, and you shoot over the TV, well, you'd need an insert on the TV. It really pulls you out of the sitcom the minute you turn around and see that fourth wall."
Really Me follows a 15-year-old girl named Maddy (Sydney Imbeau) who wins a contest to be the star of her own reality television show with her best friend Julia (Kiana Madeira). Misadventure and hilarity naturally ensue as Maddy discovers that being a reality star isn't all it's cracked up to be, with her every blunder broadcast nationwide. The sitcom's show-within-a-show conceit calls for an actor playing a cameraman filming the girls in most scenes. Those scenes are shot on four cameras while the cameraman character, named DJ, holds a prop camera. The scenes are then re-shot with a fifth camera from DJ's point of view. Ness elaborates, "He's in a scene shooting away, and the girls are turning and looking into his lens, so we shoot that with four cameras, then we pull the four cameras out and bring the fifth one in, and one of our ped camera operators would operate that and just go handheld and run the scene in its entirety again through the eyes of the DJ cam. DJ would stand behind our camera and he would be giving his lines, and the girls would be looking into the lens, and every so often his hand might have to come into shot to pick something up or whatever the action was in the scene.
On a three-walled sitcom such as Really Me almost all the lighting comes from a grid installed above the set, and the lights on the grid are wired back to a lighting board to control their output. Lighting this way comes with pitfalls that a cinematographer needs to know how to avoid, Ness contends, namely over-lighting, creating flat images, washing out skin tones, and making time-consuming lighting changes. In short, it demands making a show that is lit "look as natural as possible, keeping skin tones nice and not have it look like it's all being lit from the top," Ness says. "Especially interiors, trying to make it look like there's light coming through the windows, like it's a sunny day outside, making it not look washed out and giving it some texture, and not flooding it full of light.”
To set the general ambience, Ness built 4x8 and 4x4 softboxes with 2'-deep sides and mounted them on the grid. The bottom of the boxes were fitted with 216 diffusion, and for some sets he added 1/4 CTS (colour temperature straws) for warmth. Within the 4x8 softboxes he would place three blondes (2K open face light), and in the 4x4 softboxes he would place either a blonde or a redhead. All the front key lights came from a three-quarter front direction, a technique Ness learned from studying older sitcoms, as well as more contemporary ones like The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, and Two and a Half Men. In addition, his backlights would include 1K Fresnel, 2K Fresnel and the odd 2K Zip. He also placed Leko Source 4 lights with break-up patterns in them throughout the set to dress side and back walls, giving some texture to the sets.
"If you over-light it from the front of the set, basically from over top of the cameras, you'll flatten it out really quickly," Ness explains. "So I use 4K tubs and 2K Zips as my three-quarter key lights, so those are coming on from the right and left of the set, and I'll have a series of them hung, so if people are further upstage, then I'll have a couple of Zip lights for them, and if people are further downstage there'll be a couple of Zip lights for them. And if they're right downstage, then the 4K tubs will start to work. So that gives them a little bit of modelling. You can easily have too many lights turned on, and a lot of times if you just start turning lights off, it suddenly looks a lot better. It's important that the softboxes coming from above are not overpowering the whole set. And once you start to pull them down, bring the backlights down from 100% to 80%, now you're getting some modelling on the cheek on the upstage side, and then the three-quarter key lights upstage are starting to make a difference. The odd time I'll fill in with a Kino in between two cameras at eye height so you're not getting big shadows on the eyes because so much of it is coming from the ceiling. "
Although he took lessons from other shows, he stopped short of following them to a T. "I'm not a big fan of the heavy, hot backlight; I like a bit of a backlight, but a bit of a softer texture to backlight, otherwise it looks too old-school sitcom. I always soften my backlights up, and a lot of times will bring them down a bit on the board. Backlights do help by giving a bit of kick on the hair, on the shoulders and a little bit of a side kick on the cheeks and faces, but I'm not a big fan when it's more of a harsh backlight," he says, adding that he also works with the production designer to get darker or contrasting colours on the set walls to help increase the depth and contrast of each set.
Really Me, like most teen comedies, calls for a brighter look to reflect the mood and tone of the show, but uncontrolled brightness can be punishing on skin tones. "You always want to protect your skin tones on the actors. That's most important," Ness says. “We've got a 15-year-old girl and an 18-year-old girl who are best friends, who are leads in the show, one has very olive skin and the other's blonde and fair, and the two of them are beside each other. So you've got to be very careful because if you're pumping in too much light then our lead actress' skin tone is going to blow out. Her best friend might look okay, but you've got to protect your lead actress." It's even more important to heed this dictum in the age of HDTV, which picks up everything, Ness says. "After we finish shooting and it finally airs, the picture goes through a lot of compression before it arrives at your digital TV at home. So it gets put through the ringer by the time it arrives at your TV, so if things are a little too bright or a little too blown out, they'll look even worse by the time it reaches your TV. So again, softening stuff, not over-lighting, being really consistent with your skin tones" is the way to go, according to Ness.
According to Ness, the lights in the grid are seldom burning at 100%. "All the lights are numbered, so I walk around with the gaffer and say, 'Those backlights in the living room, take them down to 80%.' A lot of times we'll have the lights burning at only 70%. Being tungsten lights they actually warm up a little bit when you bring them down on the dimmer, that helps with the skin tone too. You don't want to go too orangey, but it helps warm the skin tone up just a little bit. So it's not shocking white light, it's a little bit of a warmer feel on a skin tone."
The Really Me studio comprises multiple sets, which necessitates thinking ahead in order to light efficiently from room to room, Ness says. "I will have three-quarter key lights anticipating people at the couch, and then people by the front door, people coming down the stairs, and then if you move over to the dining room area, again it’ll be people right downstage very close to the front of the set. I've got two key lights there for them, and then 10 feet into the set I'll put two other key lights on three-quarter," he explains. "I won't be using all of them all the time, but I'm ready.
"When you're shooting 18 to 20 pages a day, there's not a lot of time for tweaking on the lights. You've got to have some preset looks," Ness continues. In fact, the first stage of lighting Really Me involved a two-week long installation of the grid. "Before we could even begin hanging lights and putting cables up, we had to put in our own grid. We had to figure out how to position the grid so we have maximum use and we're not going to run out of grid. Above every standing set we had to lower our grid down to the proper height to cover all the way around all the five major sets. It's a lot of labour, but you don't want to get caught. You can't take 15 minutes on lighting setups. You just don’t have the time. So you've got to hang as many lights as possible to anticipate actors being in all little different pockets of the set."
Cost savings being a priority in television, the Sony F900R -- which has a two-thirds inch chip and has been the "workhorse of movies of the week and dramas" before the arrival of the RED and the ALEXA -- has been the camera of choice for Really Me, Ness says. Similarly, the use of pedestal cameras has proven to be cost-effective. "Traditionally you'd have a dolly grip, operator, focus puller and second camera assistant for every camera that you have on set," Ness says. "But on a tween show like Really Me, there's just not the money. The guys on the peds do everything themselves. They move the peds in shot, they arm the peds up and down, they zoom, and they do all their own focus. You could try to squeeze more dollies in there and operators and focus pullers, but financially it's just not feasible. And these guys are fantastic. They'll do walk and talks down the school hallways, they'll do all kinds of stuff on the ped almost to the degree that you could do if you had a dolly."
Ness works almost exclusively with Sim Video, and the rental company has come up with a way that enables him to convert the Sony 900s so they record a raw image. "They got into the electronics on them and converted them so they're able to run a raw format when they're recording, which buys you about two extra stops on your highlights, a bit more latitude on the camera, and also gives you a full colour spectrum so it just makes it a little bit easier when you're colour correcting," Ness says, explaining that with the cameras all in raw mode, he does not do any colour correction on the floor; it's done after each episode has been locked and on-lined.
With all his knowledge it's no surprise that Ness's resume indicates sitcoms have been a staple for him. "The nice thing about these tween comedies is you've got Family Channel and you've got YTV, and by law they have to produce original programming as part of their licensing agreements. And you could have the movie of the week industry dry up, you could have not as many feature films coming to town, you could have not as many adult dramas being shot, but the one thing that's almost guaranteed is that every year we've got a number of these shows going. There's either a second or third season or a pilot for a new show starting," he says. "Also, normally you're looking at a 7:30 a.m. call time and you're walking out of the studio at 6:30 at night because you're dealing with minors. Very seldom do you go on location, and they can't work late hours. You have work, it's consistent and you have a life."