Netflix’s Death Note, MTV’s Siesta Key Utilize Panasonic VariCam Cameras
A pair of high-profile recent productions – Netflix’s Death Note and MTV’s Siesta Key – were recently produced using Panasonic VariCam cameras. DP David Tattersall shot Death Note, a live-action film adaptation of the popular manga series, with VariCam 35s, while DP Gareth Paul Cox shot MTV’s new docu-series, Siesta Key. with VariCam 35s and LTs.
DP David Tattersall Shoots Netflix’s Death Note with VariCam 35s
Based on the manga series of the same name by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, Death Notestars Nat Wolff as Light Turner, a young man who obtains a supernatural notebook that gives him the power to exterminate any living person by writing his or her name in the notebook. Willem Dafoe plays Ryuk, a demonic god of death and the creator of the Death Note. The stylized Netflix feature film was directed by Adam Wingard (V.H.S., You’re Next) and shot by cinematographer David Tattersall, BSC (The Green Mile, Star Wars: Episode I, II, and III) with VariCam 35s in 4K RAW with Codex VRAW recorders.
Tattersall had worked with Wingard on the horror television series, Outcast, and because they had a great collaboration, the DP was asked to work with him again on Death Note. Per Tattersall, he wasn’t aware of the manga series of books but during pre-production, he was able to go through a visual treasure trove of manga material that the art department compiled.
Instead of creating a “cartoony” look, Tattersall and Wingard were more influenced by classic horror films, as well as well-crafted movies by David Fincher and Stanley Kubrick. “Adam is a maestro of the horror genre and he is very familiar with constructing scenes around scary moments and keeping tension,” explains Tattersall. “It wasn’t necessarily whole movies – it was more about taking odd sequences that we thought might be relevant to what we were doing. We had a very cool extended foot chase that we referred to The French Connection (shot by Owen Roizman, ASC) and Se7en (shot by Darius Khondji, ASC), which have a mix of handheld, extreme wides and long lens shots. Also, because of Adam’s love of Kubrick movies, we had compositions with composure and symmetry that are reminiscent of The Shining, or crazy wide-angle stuff from A Clockwork Orange. It sounds like a mish mash but we did have rules.”
Dialogue scenes were covered in a realistic non-flashy way and for Tattersall, one of his biggest challenges was dealing with the demon character, Ryuk, both physically and photographically. The team started with a huge puppet character with puppeteers operating it, but it wasn’t a practical approach since many of the scenes were shot in small spaces such as Light’s bedroom. “Eventually, the practical issue led to us using a mime artist in full costume with the intention of doing face replacement later,” explains Tattersall. “From our testing, the approach of ‘less is more’ became a thing – less light, more shadow and mystery, less visible, more effective. It worked well for this character who is mostly seen hiding in the shadows. It’s similar to the first Jaws movie. The shark is strangely more scary and ominous when you only get a few glimpses in the frame here and there – a suggestion. And that was our approach for the first 75% of the film. You might get a brief lean out of the shadows and a quick lean back in. Often, we would just shoot him out of focus. We’d keep the focus in the foreground for the Light character and Ryuk would be an out of focus blob in the background. It’s not until the very end – the final murder sequence – that you get to see him in full head to toe clarity.”
Tattersall shot the film with two VariCam 35s as his A and B cameras and had a VariCam LT for backup. He shot in 4K DCI (4096 x 2160) capturing VRAW files to Codex VRAW recorders. For lensing, he shot with Zeiss Master primes with a 2:39:1 extraction. “This set has become a favorite of mine for the past few years and I’ve grown to love them,” reveals Tattersall. “They are a bit big and heavy, but they open to a T1.3 and they’re so velvety smooth. With this show having so much nightwork, that extra speed was very useful.”
In terms of RAW capture, Tattersall tried to keep it simple, using Fotokem’s nextLAB for on-set workflow. “It was almost like using a one light printing process,” says Tattersall. “We had three basic looks – a fairly cool dingy look that sometimes falls back on the saturation or leans in the cold direction. I have a set of rules but I occasionally break them. We tried as much as possible to shoot only in the shade – bringing in butterfly nets or shooting on the shady side of buildings during the day. It was Adam’s wish to keep this heavy, moody atmosphere.”
Tattersall used a few tools to capture unique visuals. To capture low angle shots, he used a P+S Skater Scope that lets you shoot low to the ground. “You can also incorporate floating Dutch angles with its motorized internal prism, so this was something we did throughout,” says Tattersall. “The horizon line would lean over to one side or the other.” He also used a remote rollover rig, which allowed the camera to roll 180-degrees when on a crane, giving Tattersall a dizzying visual.
“We also shot with a Phantom Flex to shoot 500-fps,” continues Tattersall. “We would have low Dutch angles, an 8mm fish eye look, and a Lensbaby to degrade the focus even more. The image could get quite wonky on occasion, which is counterpoint to the more classic coverage of the calmer dialogue moments.”
Although he did a lot of night work, Tattersall did not use the native 5,000 ISO. “I have warmed to a new range of LED lights – the Cineo Maverick, Matchbox and Matchstix. They’re all color balanced and they’re all multi-varied Daylight or Tungsten so it’s quick and easy to change the color temperature without the use of gels. We also made use of ARRI Skypanels. Outside, we used tried and tested old school HMIs or 9-light or 12-light MaxiBrutes. There’s nothing quite like them in terms of powerful source lights.”
Death Note is also a very colorful film and there are several sequences where art direction was based on neon light environments. “[Art Director] Tom Hammock decorated one striking exterior street location with different colored neons,” explains Tattersall. “It had blue and green neon and another cafeteria set where the dominant practical lighting was this quite saturated cobalt neon. We kind of ran with it. There’s one sequence where the Light character and his father have this conversation outside the house amongst a group of police cars and we tried to light the whole thing just using the police car flashing lights.”
Death Note was finished at Technicolor by colorist Skip Kimball. “The grade was mostly about smoothing out the bumps and tweaking the contrast” explains Tattersall. “Since it’s a dark feature, there was an emphasis on a heavy mood – keeping the blacks, with good contrast and saturated colors. But in the end, the photographic stylization came from the camera placement and lens choices working together with the action choreography.
“This is the first time I used the VariCam,” concludes Tattersall. “I went in with a little trepidation but I quickly grew to like the camera and its smooth and naturalistic look.”
To watch Death Note, visit www.netflix.com. (You will need a Netflix membership to view.)
Gareth Paul Cox Shoots MTV’s Siesta Key with VariCam 35s and LTs
Over ten years ago, before the explosion of social media, MTV’s Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County (2004) and its spin-off, The Hills (2006), were huge hits amongst the Generation Y set, aka, millennials. Part reality show, part narrative soap, both series glamorized the lives of the young and beautiful in Southern California. Now, MTV’s new docu-series, Siesta Key, takes the tried and tested concept and moves it to Florida, following a new group of young adults confronting issues of love, heartbreak, betrayal, class, and looming adulthood as they spend the summer together in their beautiful hometown. The series, set on a small barrier island off the coast of Sarasota, was shot by cinematographer Gareth Paul Cox with VariCam 35 and LT cinema cameras.
Cox got involved with the project through one of Siesta Key’s creators, Warren Skeels, whom he had worked on several projects with since his days at the American Film Institute. A big advantages of having Cox on board is that he grew up in Central Florida and knew the geography. “I could predict how we could best structure the camera department because I knew how harsh the environment would be,” says Cox. “The heat and the humidity, and being in and around water – you really have to prepare for that, especially for personnel.”
Since the show has no scripts and the cast are non-actors, Cox and team wanted to shoot in a documentary style with a cinematic look. Having worked in narrative films, commercials, and documentaries, Cox had to pull techniques from all those genres. “Our young cast were not used to having cameras around so there was a learning curve,” reveals Cox. “We knew going in that we needed to be able to follow reality and to understand that we can’t miss certain moments. We wanted to create an infrastructure and a style visually speaking that supported that.”
One of the biggest influences for the look of Siesta Key was director Harmony Korine’s 2012 film Spring Breakers (shot by Benoît Debie). “We really liked the film’s saturation of scenes and how Florida became a character,” explains Cox. “For Siesta Key, we wanted to showcase Siesta Key and the surrounding area as a character so we incorporated a lot of high-speed and off-speed photography. A lot of our additional footage of the show was shot at 48-fps, or up to 120-fps. If a storm was coming in with lightning and rain, we would try and break one camera away to get that footage. We really wanted to capture the natural beauty of Florida.”
Cox shot with four VariCam 35s and two VariCam LTs, capturing full HD (1920 x 1080) ProRes files. “We weren’t asked to deliver in 4K so we wanted our workflow to run smoother with less data management,” he explains. Although most of the show is captured handheld, Cox did use a [DJI] Ronin with an Easyrig Vario 5 outfitted with a FLOWCINE Serene to eliminate some of the vertical bounce.
For lenses, Cox employed Fujinon Cabrio zooms lenses, which included 19-90mms (T2.9) and an 85-300mm (T2.9-4.0). “One of the reasons I chose the VariCams as the foundation of the camera department was because I knew that native 5,000 ISO was going to give us a lot,” says Cox. “We were going to be shooting a lot of scenes in clubs or dimly lit areas where we wouldn’t be able to add lighting or control the environment. We wanted zooms with a nice range and we really didn’t need the extra speed primes provide.”
Cox captured in V-Log and monitored using the camera’s default Rec 709 viewing LUT but also sometimes monitored in V-Log. “I didn’t design any LUTs this time around because our workflow was so quick since we were essentially following the real lives of these people,” he explains. “We just didn’t have the time to be switching LUTs and I didn’t want the process to get overly complicated for my operators.”
Instead of dialing in his ISO setting, Cox kept it at either native 800 or 5,000. “It wasn’t because I didn’t want to lose control, but it was more about consistency for the image,” he explains. “I knew if we started shifting it around, it would get chaotic because of our workflow, timeline and turnaround. I knew post would need us to go through color grading very quickly and I didn’t want our colorist to deal with different exposure luminance values.”
For lighting, Cox’s go-to lighting instrument was the LITEGEAR LiteMat. “We had the advantage of having Hisham Abed as a director on our show,” explains Cox. “He is also a director of photography and he was one of the original guys who worked on Laguna Beach and The Hills. Hisham had an entire set of LiteMats that were custom built – T1s and T2s – that are bi-color. We also had a small lighting package and made good use of 1.2K HMIs, 200 HMI Pars, Source Fours, and small Tungsten Fresnels.”
Because of the harsh Florida sun, Cox used polarizers to control specular highlights. “The big advantage of shooting on the beach at Siesta Key is that the sand is so white and pure that it actually gives you a nice bounce, a relatively balanced exposure when dealing with skin tones,” explains Cox. “During shooting, it was turtle season and due to our permits, we couldn’t put anything on the ground when shooting on the beach. We had to ‘Hollywood’ in a bit of negative fill.”
The series was finished at Geiger Post in Hollywood by colorist Nathan Morgan. “The look did change from the Rec 709 look we had on set,” explains Cox. “I’ve worked with these cameras for a few years now so I feel confident on where I can push its limits and the latitude. If we had a solid negative, we can really go in a lot of directions. We’re accentuating the highlights but we’re also shifting where skin tones are. A lot of times, we’re pulling information out of the negative where some of the saturation might have fallen flat because we shot on overcast days. We were still able to pull the color information out, as well as accentuate it.
“With every project, there are always high ambitions on where you want it to end up,” says Cox. “You always have to make certain sacrifices and compromises to make the reality happen, which was very literal on this project.”