Panasonic VariCam LT, EVA1s Capture No Activity Comedy Series
No Activity, from Funny Or Die and executive producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, is CBS All Access’ first original comedy series. CBS All Access is an over-the-top video on demand service created by CBS Interactive and offers original content, new content from CBS’s broadcast properties, and content from CBS’s classic television library. Set in the high-stakes world of crime sting operations, No Activity celebrates the boring aspects of police work. In Season 2, detectives Cullen (Patrick Brammall) and Tolbeck (Tim Meadows) are two low-level San Diego cops who are staking out ani illegal cockfighting ring while their department is being rocked by a corruption scandal.
The original series was an Australian production for two seasons and the concept of the U.S. version is similar with two characters playing off each other – two detectives on a stakeout, two police dispatchers at the police station and two criminals. The series was shot by cinematographer Judd Overton with a variety of cameras, including VariCam LT and EVA1 cinema cameras. “When the show got pitched over here, one of the first things everyone said was how much they loved the look,” says Overton. “I think for every season and episode, we’ve been able to challenge ourselves to make it bigger and better than the last one. You must do that to keep it organic and interesting.”
Overton and director/executive producer Trent O’Donnell have worked previously on commercials and TV pilots. When No Activity came together, they wanted to create a darker look than a typical comedy series – more like a procedural crime drama. They looked at AMC TV’s hit series, The Killing, which according to Overton, always “has a look as if it had just been raining.” They were also influenced by Gregory Crewdson’s cinematic still photography with its heightened reality. “The one note that I got from Trent was that it couldn’t look too dark,” reveals Overton. “Trent had done a lot of network comedy shows like New Girl, and this was the antithesis of that. In comedy, you’re always being told we need to see both their eyes – we need to see the comedy on their faces.”
The EVA1 was their go-to camera to capture background plates for car stakeout scenes, which Overton shot on sound stages using rear projection. Because the car does not move, Overton found interesting moving backgrounds that he could tie to the location’s establishing shots, which he captures with DJI Zenmuse X7 drones. “I’ll go out with a splinter crew during pre-production, depending on where we find the locations, and shoot those plates,” explains Overton. “That was the main thing about having the higher ISO and having such a small camera was that I could move quickly and capture all those plates with very little need for additional lighting. We found out that shooting in with high ISOs in 4K, even though we’re doing an HD delivery for CBS, the noise almost disappears when you’re squeezing it back down to 1920 x 1080. Suddenly any grain that was there was invisible. That was a real win for us.”
Like British cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s use of multiple camera systems, Overton used cameras that fit each scene’s need, including the ALEXA Mini and Sony A7S. With VariCam and EVA1, Overton captured in V-Log but since he was also capturing with different cameras, he used a K1S1 LUT. “It’s a very simple LUT that is bringing all of the cameras back from a flat look to a Rec.709 look where all of the colors will behave and look similar,” he explains.
With the VariCam LT, Overton captured UHD (3840×2160) 10-bit 422 AVC Intra files on Panavision Primo zooms. The VariCam LT’s high ISO capability helped him out with his use of slower zoom lenses. Overton generally would set his ISO at 5,000 base and dial down to 2,500, which he felt was the sweet spot for low light environments. “With the EVA1, I shot at native 2,500 because I knew it would be squeezed down and the process of resizing back down to HD helped eliminate that noise,” says Overton. “Once you get the projector plate footage on stage, it looks amazing.”
Overton captured most scenes using three cameras, whether they were shooting on stage, or on location. This made lighting a little more challenging since he had to keep the key light out of the shot and avoid flat lighting for wide shots. “My solution was to backlight so everything is backlit, either rigged above them on boom kits, or with bigger sources far back,” says Overton. “Really what I’m doing is bringing in a little bit of eye light and a little bit of fill adjusted to the eye. Because we’re shooting in V-Log, I make sure there’s enough image information there. I had a D.I.T. on set, Dane Brehm, who exported stills, so I had lighting references for the colorist.”
For his car work on stage, Overton ran all his lights through DMX on a dimmer board, so he could change from one lighting set-up to another. By the time the projectionist changed to the rear plate and the characters step out to make a costume change, Overton could hit a button on the dimmer board and change all the colors and values to their next lighting location. Overton lit everything on stage with LEDs and then for exteriors, he used a mix of HMIs, Tungsten, and a bit of LEDs, depending on the location. “If we’re in a funky warehouse environment, I like to use fluorescents because it feels like those type of lights should be there,” reveals Overton. “When you need more of a throw and you’re putting things up on cranes, you need bigger lights like 4Ks, which are as big as you need when working with these high iso cameras.”
Most of the camera movement on No Activity is done on sliders and Overton would typically run two cameras on sliders and then a wide camera on a dolly. Overton also includes handheld work, Steadicam and a “few crazy rigs” his grips have created for the show.
The color grade is performed by Tim Vincent at Technicolor. Overton and Vincent created a handful of base looks which the dailies colorist added to all the footage so that the editor had a look like the final piece to cut with. “Once you get into the grade, you really want to throw that look away and see how it works as a piece,” says Overton. “Tim and I would set up a general look for the three or four main locations we have, and then we work our way through it.”
According to Overton, the EVA1 cuts well with the VariCam LT and he’s not afraid to use it as a second camera for coverage. “It’s fantastic to have a small unit,” reveals Overton on shooting with the EVA1. “I think people get very used to shooting with iPhones,” continues Overton, “so you really can’t tell someone, I can’t get that shot. You really need to be able to put a camera anywhere the mind can wander, which I think is a really big advantage today.”