As the BBC's Upstairs Downstairs get re-commissioned DoP Adam Suschitzky explains the way he prepared for and shot the first series with Arri’s latest digital camera the Alexa
Although Cinematographer Adam Suschitzky was hired for the new Upstairs Downstairs drama series partly through his work on the BBC’s Emma which aired earlier in 2010, the production didn’t want a re-creation of the look. The feeling was that Adam had handled a family drama in a period setting and so could do so again.
“This (Upstairs Downstairs) was very different to Emma and we didn’t really draw comparisons and references to it. It never formed any basis for the creative choices. The beginning of the process was really discussing what formats we could look to use. Today we’re in a lucky situation in that there are so many choices one can make creatively and financially.
“That also brings with it a fair amount of testing and time on the decision on what way to go. 35mm was not on the table financially, 16mm wasn’t a viable option technically for the BBC. However Arri’s Alexa was there in the background after just being released in the country. Our Head Of Production, Julie Scott at BBC Wales, wrote directly to Arri Munich to request if a camera body could be available to us. We were very fortunate that we got one of the first models in the country. I think Scorsese was first and he had two.
“I’ve photographed a lot with the Arri D21 (See Outcasts in this issue). Everyone agreed that on the production we couldn’t have wanted a better format, it just looked spectacular. So I was very excited to see what the Alexa could do to better that. So we immediately put the two cameras together and shot some very interesting and elaborate tests comparing the dynamic range, the ASA and the sharpness, skin tone and colour. I was immediately blown away and could see straight away that the Alexa was a completely new camera, it wasn’t just a step forward it was a whole new evolution.
“So this meant that I had to re-design the LUTs that I usually work with. I’m very meticulous about working with look up tables which generate an idea of what the contrast might be. So I could see straightaway from those first tests that I would have to start again because this was such a new dynamic range. So I went in with my colourist Gareth Spensley at Molinare in London, he’s very skilful at building LUTs and at the time was grading The King’s Speech but managed to squeeze me in and set up some very simple LUTs which would be the basis for the shoot.
“For me I like to know where my contrast might go, it gives me a very secure feeling that I’m lighting to the right black levels and it also gives the rest of the production team a solid grasp on what the look is when they’re watching their rushes and their assemblies because I then get the LUTs applied to those.
“The editing down in BBC Wales was fantastic for Upstairs Downstairs, they got a really streamlined system going where I would receive hard drives with QuickTimes on, the quality was astounding and was exactly as I was seeing it on set. So everybody fell in love with the look straightaway and in fact when we came to the grade the look had been so clearly established and so precisely established everyone agreed that we didn’t want to change it particularly because it’s was there already. So for the grade it was just a case of enhancing what was already there.”
Upstairs Against Down
The drama was mostly shot on huge sets, the Downstairs set was first to be built. “There were some great models that Production Designer Eve Stewart and her team had produced showing me what was coming but at the time when I had to do my tests and get all the LUTs ready and so on – I had only seen a slither of what was coming. I really only had my own knowledge and experience of working with digital camera systems to produce the kind of look I needed as a tool. I need a range of contrasts and I set very simple parameters for the LUTs. There was a gradual step of contrasts building up and a pleasing skin tone saturation level so I’m not adding any secondaries at all to those LUTs and keeping it quite simple and quite neutral so that I can see what’s going down to the camera and not being distracted or misguided by the LUT.
“Basically I shoot a portrait which might be ‘contrasty’ so I have a good sense of what the blacks and highlights are doing and then I’ll be able to set those ‘wedges’ of contrast accordingly.”
Alexa – learning to look again
Adam’s reaction to use Arri’s Alexa was to re-think how he had to look again! “All of a sudden we are at a point where we can really light by eye where previous digital camera systems I’ve been very nervous about because they always interpreted what was in front of your eye. With film I would work very much with my eye and trust it, now we’re at the same stage. The Alexa really does that.
“It took me a few days to really settle in to this new way of seeing which was incredibly exciting and it just means that one can be very adventurous with the contrast and the texture and know that the camera’s behind you all the way and you can be bold with it now.
“The Downstairs sets were a great environment. We talked a lot about these different world’s of ‘Up and Down’. How should we define them, in the end we felt that the way it’s written there is a great inter-connect between the characters of both ‘Up and Down’. One influences the other, so we wanted to have a way of connecting them rather than dislocating them. It was thought that the more subtle approach would actually unify them photographically. I thought quite strongly that the choice of lens and camera movement should be quite consistent between both worlds to show that they are all part of the same life and family ultimately.
“Downstairs there was definitely a leaning to have more pools of light, it was sculpted so you didn’t feel the glamour of Upstairs where you could have large windows and light pouring in. Downstairs was much more of a sense of the workers scurrying away, coming in and out of the pools of light. It was defined in that way.
“The production design also had a very big effect, Eve Stewart is magnificent and her sense of colour and texture is just extraordinary. She created the world Downstairs which was more sombre, was more pastel versus the Upstairs which had a real resonant beauty. The characters downstairs were not be condescended upon at all so I lit them very carefully and wanted them to look as beautiful as they could.
“The first test we did on the set Downstairs we had the actress Jean Marsh walk in through the back door and we’d pan around 180 degrees with a shot that took in the set. I had a strong back light coming through that door which I kept throughout the show with no fill going back in and yet there she was, I could still see a subtle details of her in those blacks and she came through the door.
“That kind of experience makes me realise we have arrived at a point where movies and television have kind of jostled for position in viewers lives and they’ve also jostled for quality. The movies used to have all the technology which meant they looked that much better but now we’re at a much more level playing field where in TV the quality has just gone sky high with camera systems like Alexa and post production like we have now.
“The ASA of the camera is great as well. As I mentioned I’ve been working on the D21 on Outcasts, anamorphic lenses which require huge amounts of light and the D21 camera is a 200 ASA camera out of the box. We had a huge set in South Africa and it needed huge amounts of light to get the image we wanted. The Alexa on the other hand has such an advantage straight out of the box with a 800 ASA rating. With the pressure to shoot these television productions at the speed we have to and the quality we’re expected to get, you need all the help you can get. To have that speed it means yes you can use less light but also you can use softer lights and still have a great stop.
“Apart from a couple of locations all of Upstairs Downstairs was a set and a huge one at that. So Adam still needed a fair amount of light to deal with a 60 foot set. “But we were able to cut our package down probably to half because of the Alexa and still achieve the same look. That’s a huge advantage to the production.”
Alexa’s Colour Palette
“As you view it on set it’s quite a muted colour palette and for a while I thought ‘I wonder if I will be able to push the colour back in as far as I might need to’.
Now I’ve been through the post production process and we got the saturation where it wanted to be very effortlessly. But it’s a very subtle tool because it then gives you that range, if you want it to be pastel it can be. Other camera systems are a bit more forceful in their colour palette and they send you down a certain route. Here the skin tones are just beautiful, they’re just very sharp and yet they’re not brutal, they’re defined but not harsh. That’s kind of where you want to be. We used a very gentle filter to soften the image a little bit more. But nothing like you had to back in the day of early HD.
“Everyone will have their own feelings about working with Alexa but personally I found that you had to look after the highlights more than the shadows, it had a very graceful fall-off, often in the top end you had to be a little but cautious at times. At 800 ASA it definitely had two more stops of highlight than it did at lower ASAs so that creates certain challenges when you’re outside and you really need that depth in the sky say in July/August. So I was trying to shoot at 800 whenever I could, it just means stacking quite a few NDs up front.”
When the production first got hold of their Alexa the facility to record to SxS cards wasn’t yet realised as they hadn’t finished the beta testing. “Arri diplomatically said we could record on the cards but we can’t guarantee your footage. It’s great now that you can record on cards and free yourself up from cables but for us we’re very used to recording to SR decks so that’s the way we did it. The post production was all done at BBC Wales where they have their own Baselight system where Gareth Spensley from Molinare did the grade.
“It wasn’t a complex piece to grade because we’d done so much in camera, it was really an example of an in-camera piece where you could control the palette so much, you can control the contrast so much through the production design and costumes that we were really tweaking and enhancing rather than re-inventing when it came to the grade. This is nothing to do with burning anything in but what is in front of the lens. I capture the best ‘neg’ I can, I keep it very flat and very well exposed. But in terms of what the lens is capturing we had a very controlled palette.
“It’s an unusual situation for a television production to be able to design that much of a show. Probably more than 90% of the interiors are sets, so you really can get control over the colour palette. Even though it was controlled we could then in post push a lot of saturation into it and keep it looking elegant because it had been so meticulously managed.”
Adam ended up using Arri Master Prime lenses after testing against the Cooke S4 Series, “I had thought about going down the road of using some very old glass and maybe capturing a period piece with some period lenses but I felt the strength of the script actually came from the very topical issues that the characters faced. Although it’s set in 1936 it’s a very relevant piece, so I didn’t want it to feel passé and actually felt inclined to go for modern glass. I felt that the modern glass would give that modern connection. I’ve never used the Master Primes before and the focus puller was concerned when he heard I wanted to use them because they open to 1.3. But I wasn’t interested in the shallow depth as much as the resolution and the overall colour palette. They’re very sharp but not brutal so you get this really rich, crisp image that seems to compliment the Alexa beautifully.
“The main hall in the piece was like walking on to the set of Great Expectations. When our couple first arrive at night and the house has been shut up and there are cobwebs everywhere, it really is like a classic Hollywood movie. We didn’t want to portray the characters by thrusting the camera in to their faces but maybe be a bit more filmic about it and allow the group shots to play out. I knew that the piece wouldn’t be a handheld, fast cut style. I felt that it could be a one camera shoot with wider than normal lenses to achieve the developing shots and realise the kind of poetry and precision that we wanted, an approach very much shared by the director, Euros Lyn.
“These things develop as you shoot, I had an initial idea downstairs that one of the things we might try in separating the two worlds in a very subtle way was to use wider lenses closer to people downstairs and slightly longer focal lengths upstairs, but as the shoot progressed we realised even that felt wrong to separate those worlds in that way.
“I realised that one could be very poetic in a very silent way in Upstairs Downstairs, that really excited me to build a portrait of a family and extended family that audiences could discover along the way. You photograph it in such a way to enhance in the most subtle way possible the world they embody.
“Downstairs is slightly claustrophobic, the ceilings are lower, there isn’t any direct sunlight coming in so to give that feeling that they are below the house, at the very bottom of the house we could define it in that more shadowy way. Upstairs I wanted streaming sunlight coming through the windows and have a sense of loftiness so there’s room above their heads as well.
“My initial thought on a project is ‘how can we achieve the most poetic, elegant piece within the means that we have’? Finally we have a camera that will now provide such beautiful images on tight budgets. That’s a really exciting moment to be part of.”
There is no confirmation of more episodes of Upstairs Downstairs but to have such a lush series following the equally beautiful Downton Abbey will encourage producers to look to digital camera systems to provide the look while keeping to the budget.
HANDLING ARRI’S ALEXA - JEREMY HILES CAMERA OPERATOR UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS
The Arri Alexa represent a significant step forward in the development of digital cameras, compared to its predecessor, the D21, it is lighter, narrower with the best and most versatile viewfinder system I have used. Being able to see an area outside the frame lines has been the main problem for operators using video viewfinders. Not being able to see track or microphones before they appear in shot means that you either have to play safe with the framing and boom operator, compromising the picture and the sound, or be prepared to go again. Many of the camera moves in Upstairs Downstairs would not have been possible without the extra viewing area.
The camera in its ‘out of the box’ state appears very compact and lightweight, however, by the time you have added all the usual accessories, lens control system, monitor, down converter, cinetape and recorder/monitor cables etc, it looks like an explosion in a spaghetti factory. It seems a shame that some of these accessories control boxes could not have been included within the body of the camera. The most time consuming and frustrating part of working with the camera was undoubtedly having to use the loom, although I hope that the size of this will now be reduced if the onboard recording system is proved to be reliable.
Using the camera in Steadicam mode was hampered by the use of cables from camera to the recorder and the lack of flexibility and precise control of the rig that they caused. Balancing the rig was achieved without too many problems, although because the camera was so light and the Master Prime lenses relatively heavy, it took some fiddling to get it just right.
In handheld mode, again, the loom was the most restrictive element, the camera was a definite improvement on the D21, being much narrower and consequently sitting much better on the shoulder, it was easy to maintain a level horizon and it wasn’t too tough using it for long periods.
All in all the camera gets a thumbs up from me, I know that the pictures that it produces are outstanding, it is currently the best that we have. The problem with the design of digital cameras so far, seems to be that the priority is given to the quality of their output and not to their ergonomics and user friendliness, sadly film cameras had just reached the pinnacle of both these elements just as their decline began. I guess that digital will get there it may just take some time.