As far as film and video looks go, once a precedent has been set, it can be tough to break it. In many instances, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though.
For example, once the “film noir” look was established, every film after made use of the lighting techniques and styles for a reason. And, at this point, trying to buck the system might alienate or confuse audiences and their expectations.
That being said, when working in a style or format that’s well-known for a specific look—like a classic TV sitcom, for example—it can be a delicate line to walk, trying to keep audience expectations in check while also challenging and changing the style to a newer, and better, version of itself.
This is the discussion at hand from our interview with two of the DPs behind the Netflix comedy hit Grace and Frankie. In wrapping up their 7th and final season, we chatted with Gale Tattersall and Luke Miller about how they were able to achieve the unique visual aesthetic of the series while utilizing the Canon cinema line cameras, as well as the insights and perspectives they gained that will guide them on future projects.
PremiumBeat: What cameras did you shoot Grace and Frankie on and why?
Gale Tattersall: When we started on Grace and Frankie, there was very little choice in terms of camera platform due to the Netflix mandate to shoot 4K—literally. I believe the RED Dragon and the Sony F35 were our two practical choices.
Even the ARRI ALEXA (being 3.8K) was deemed wanting . . . good enough to create 60ft wide images on theatrical release movies shot by the likes of Roger Deakins and others, but not good enough for a compressed streaming system, squeezed down a tiny tube to be watched on completely unadjusted monitors in homes around the world. I believe it was called “future-proofing” at the time.
Since those days, luckily, cameras have improved leaps and bounds, but there is always a rush to move into a new technology before, in my opinion, it is better than what it replaces—in this case, FILM!
We are forced to go backward in terms of quality because of cost, which takes precedence over the real richness of a great image. I take my hat off to RED for initially pushing the digital boundaries and being the industry flag bearer . . . but that was a period when many experienced DPs felt short-changed . . .
I can say, we managed with the RED Dragon to start our show . . . and by using nets on the rear of all our lenses, we began to approach an acceptable image. And then, in post, we pushed it that little bit further. It even looked like a film, at times!
The trouble with nets is that the effect is too strong on wide lenses, and the image resolution is broken down too much. In the mid-range, it works very well, but on long lenses, the effect is minimal . . . so it’s not a perfect solution.
When the 4K Canon C300 Mk II appeared, it was a gift from heaven. We were able to get the OK from Netflix to use the camera from Season 3 onwards . . . suddenly, we had a real photographic and cinematic-looking sensor!
That is how our journey with Canon began. It wasn’t without difficulty—it was, after all, a documentary orientated, even “prosumer” type of camera, falling far short of the kind of user-friendly aspects, of say, the Alexa, for the assistant cameramen.
What was important to me was one thing—the sensor and the image it produced. That had to come first, even if it was housed in a cardboard carton. This was particularly so in our case. We had the honor of working with four of the most iconic and respected actors in the world in their senior years, and they deserved the respect that any DP should have offered to make them look their best at all times. That was our goal, and it started with the camera.
Luke Miller: We shot Seasons 1 and 2 on the RED Dragon, Seasons 3-5 on the Canon C300 Mk II, Seasons 6 and 7, Part 1 on Canon C700FF, and finally, Season 7’s “Final 12 Episodes” on the Canon C500 Mk II. Gale ultimately drove these choices, but we went through the whole process together. We initially were subject to a strict 4k capture rule by Netflix. When we were preparing to shoot the first season, we tested the few 4K camera systems available. Alexa was not permitted because it was only 3.8K.
We landed on the RED Dragon but found it required using nets on the back of the lenses to give the right image when photographing our cast. We ended up moving to the Canon C300 Mk II. Coming from a photography company, the Canon sensor worked exceptionally well with skin tones and faces. Gale fell in love with the sensor inside it, and I ultimately agreed. The Canon sensor was much more cinematic, with beautiful skin tones and a softer edge that didn’t require sticking nets on the back of the lens.
After we switched to the Canon sensor, the other camera choices were mostly about usability for the camera operators and camera assistants. The sensors were larger in the C700FF and C500 Mk II, but they maintained the same look.
They also gave us the option to shoot full frame, which I utilized for most of the Final 12 Episodes. We also used all Canon lenses for the final episodes, both primes and zooms.
PB: How would you describe the “look” of Grace & Frankie as compared to traditional sitcoms?
GT: I’m afraid even the phrase “sitcom” makes me feel uncomfortable! When you are lighting for multi-camera angle shows, there is a need to use lighting from every direction, that even in the subconscious creates a feeling of unreality which does not help believability, it’s almost a lighting version of “canned laughter.”
Of course, there is a place for this kind of comedy, but I have always striven for realism and believability. If you are in an interior daylight scene . . . for credibility, you need to make something look like the light source. For example, a window. It becomes the motivation for the lighting and then tries as hard as possible to make that work no matter which camera angles you strive for.
From the get-go, we always strived for a cinematic look, in the same way you might light a film for theatrical release. We did shoot two cameras most of the time; we would never get through our days without that . . . but I always fought for A and B camera to be at least on the same kind of axis. Otherwise, the lighting can become more and more compromised. Don’t get me wrong, there are always exceptions to any rules, and rules are made to be broken.
I believe that lighting should never draw attention to itself. It should be natural, complement the story, and not make a statement of its own. Attention should be on the actors and the script. Again, there are exceptions to this, though, I am talking in general!
LM: Grace and Frankie began its life in a vacuum. When we started production, the idea of an original show airing on a streaming service was relatively new. Netflix had Lillyhammer, House of Cards, and Orange is the New Black, and that was sort of it. So, we weren’t on a network, we weren’t multicam with a live audience and a laugh track, and we weren’t following in the footsteps of other streaming comedies because they didn’t exist yet.
Our legendary cast came mostly from features, the director of the pilot, and our DP Gale Tattersall had a rich history of shooting features and television. I think all these things, together with the goals of our showrunners, lead the show to take its look more from feature comedies than from traditional sitcoms.
The camera is always planted on a dolly or a crane with intentional objective moves. A majority of the show plays in wide, over-the-shoulder shots or two-shots so that you can see the joke and the reaction in the shot.
The lighting is a big part of the look of the show, as well. The aim was to keep the sets feeling as natural as possible, while taking care to light the cast in a flattering way, almost as if they were sitting for a portrait in each scene.
In short, the look is “easy on the eyes.” The camera and the lighting are meant to work together to make a beautifully cinematic image that sort of fades away from the viewer’s mind and lets the wonderful performances and great writing take center stage.
PB: What was your approach to lighting for the show?
GT: First and foremost, the lighting had to be about looking after our actors. We did wrap everything to the edges of the shot in muslin, sometimes passive (unlit) and sometimes active (lit), but always in a subtle way, and if you succeed, it is unnoticeable.
There’s a bonus in this kind of lighting . . . because it becomes directionless to a certain extent as there is often no key light on the actors in the foreground. To create shape and avoid a completely flat image, we tended to amplify the contrast in the background with shafts of light coming through windows, or more contrast than normal in the background of a night scene, to balance the foreground “flatness” and create depth.
I also feel that the key to good lighting is creating contrast and shape within a frame, as much as you can, to draw the audience’s eye to the part of the image that you really want to bring out, and not be distracted and your eye being pulled to unimportant elements, say, in the background. Obviously this “focus” is the actors, most often, but a lot of damage can be caused by bright or distracting images in the background fighting for your attention.
LM: This show’s lighting is a mix between natural lighting, or naturally inspired lighting, on the sets and the backgrounds, and a version of portrait lighting on the actors. We achieved the lighting on the actors by covering every part of the set that wasn’t in the frame in white muslin and bouncing light off of it.
Because light was coming from everywhere, we could easily balance the brightness of different areas of muslin in the same way you would normally adjust a key light or fill light to add or subtract shape. We developed this method of lighting in the early days of the show and refined it over the years. It allowed us to maintain shape and contrasts in the background, while giving us the ability to adjust the actor’s lighting to accentuate their natural beauty.
PB: In general, how many cameras would you use on set?
GT: A and B camera as much as possible, but as Luke says . . . we might often employ a third camera for scenes with many actors and for “poor man’s” car process/green screen work. In our final episode, we did find some wonderful and creative uses for the Canon C70, which is marginally bigger than a DSLR and shoots 4K up to 120fps
LM: The number of cameras used concurrently is a balancing act between time and compromise. Every camera added has the potential to compromise either the eyeline, camera placement, or lighting of each angle.
At the same time, every camera added has the potential to save time by eliminating a setup. For Grace and Frankie, that balance was usually two cameras. Occasionally, we would use a third camera in scenes with many actors, such as a family dinner scene or a poker game. In these scenes, where there are so many different angles needed, the third camera is able to save a lot of time without encroaching on the A and B cameras’ shots.
PB: If you could give any advice to aspiring sitcom DPs or cinematographers, what would it be?
GT: There a very few camera rental houses that will not have the foresight to make camera loans to up-and-coming DP’s . . . Put a crew together . . . get a good script . . . edit it on your computer. These are things that could not be afforded ten to twelve years ago . . . put a reel together . . . shoot anything you can . . . be pushy and confident—you could be making a great little film in Poland right now!
LM: Begin from a position of “Yes.” When you’re just getting started, say “yes” to every opportunity, even if it isn’t your ideal project. When you’re working with a director and they ask if you can accomplish their idea, start with “Yes,” even if you have to work to figure it out.
For more filmmaking advice and interviews, check out these additional articles:
Cover image via Netflix.