For those of you watching this BBC ‘not near but on the knuckle’ female angst dramedy, you’ve unwittingly been watching a full blown 4K HDR production from the BBC and Amazon Studios
There has been and still is a sea change in broadcast television. Cinematic Broadcast is what we’ve been calling it. Now the pace has quickened with streaming video giants Amazon, Netflix and HBO rattling the home-grown status quo. Although Fleabag is a BBC production, it is also an Amazon acquisition. However the idea to shoot in 2.39:1 and on anamorphic lenses was suggested by pilot director Tim Kirkby and made by BBC commissioner Chris Sussman before the show was sold to Amazon. The shoot was already HDR, which is part of the standard Amazon deliverable format.
DoP Tony Miller explains that: “Amazon takes these things for granted I think. The one thing that is very exciting working with Amazon is that they are totally positive and said ‘Push this further, we want things more extreme!’ It’s American, left wing, Silicon Valley forward-thinking and I think it’s very exciting that we’ve got people like that and people like Netflix and HBO as well. I think Britain needs to wake up and see what’s going on.”
Shooting for HDR was new for Tony and his trusted DIT Alanna Miejluk. “We did some tests in the beginning, I tested the RED and I tested the Alexa Mini. As we wanted quite a naturalistic look the RED just felt too harsh. It supposedly produces more definition, it’s a true 4K camera, but as we all know bandwidth pixels don’t always translate to pleasing images, so I decided to go with the Alexa Mini, which Amazon Studios approved for the very same reason as most of us (cinematographers) prefer it for, its look.
“But I think there’s a point: you’ve really got to look on extremely good quality gear pushed through a top post chain to be able to see the difference. It’s not night and day and there are so many factors, the quality of the lenses for instance. One point about this is, can you really see the difference? Will your average punter see the difference? I think some will see no difference at all and some will. In the old days of film the stock came in every 18 months or two years and there would be one or two new stocks, you didn’t really have too much to keep up with. Whereas on digital I’m continually firefighting to stay up with what the latest is.
“Often you go into these things like HDR really feeling your way. Would I do anything different? I think the main pressure on shooting especially television, almost regardless of the budget, is that I just don’t have time to go in to a blacked-out tent and look at a 4K monitor. Some DPs get other people to do it for them, I get my DIT Alanna Miejluk to do it, I’ve been with her for about four years now and she’s absolutely brilliant. Prior to Fleabag we’d been down to see FilmLight and various other people about HDR. She’s the geek on the team and I rely very heavily on her in terms of checking bandwidth, checking where there is detail and where there isn’t detail. She’s on-set with me all the time.”
HDR Capture Tech
The whole series was shot on the Arri Alexa in ProRes 4:4:4 at 2880 x2160 with Cooke anamorphic lenses and the entire workflow was maintained at this resolution. Tony explains how he managed the anamorphic capture: “You can get there using any of the latest cameras, all of which effectively shoot 4K images. If you wish to shoot with anamorphic lenses on the Arri Alexa Mini, as we did, you need to use 4x3 (2880x2160) mode. It shoots a full-frame height image. Bearing in mind that 4K UHD frame size is 3840x2160, by un-squeezing your 4x3 image you will get 5760x2160 and you need to scale it down to fit the letterbox of 3840x2160 in post.”
Tony explained how in practice he dealt with the HDR aspect: “There is a scene in one of the later episodes of Fleabag shot on the sixth floor of Tate Modern with floor to ceiling glass to the outside with St Paul’s in the background. I shot it balancing it out as best as I could, shot the rehearsal, rushed it to Alanna’s on-set lab and she came back to me and told me raise it a quarter of a stop and we’ll hold more detail. It was a very sunny day and with the actress Olivia Colman facing the windows, there was only so much light I could pump in to balance it out. Remarkably with HDR I held much more detail. There’s definitely a more ‘silky’ look to the HDR, that’s something else I noticed. We shot again at Tate Modern at night and what amazed me, particularly with the background being quite a long way away, a few hundred metres or more, was the amount of detail it held. That’s an example of more pixels being better. Alanna at that point was checking on an HDR display; she hadn’t been before.
“It’s like film for me with digital, I still use a light meter, I still shoot it profoundly like film, I come from documentaries where things have to be fast. You get your eye in with exposure, you’ve got a little waveform on the camera, within about two tenths of a stop I can be very accurate just through experience, you get into the zone.
“I used a modern set of Cooke Anamorphic lenses, which are very high resolution. For this project which was a comedy/drama I probably lit it brighter than I normally would but I don’t think I did much different with the HDR, whether I would next time I don’t know. It’s an evolving art. I think what is really important is what people are going to see this on, what is the key viewing medium?”
HDR – New For Post
As for the post, Thomas Urbye at The Look was also new to an HDR production but did his research before starting the grade.
“It was rather surprising that this co-production between BBC3 and Amazon of a 6x30min comedy drama by Two Brothers Pictures would require a 4K HDR delivery. When it appeared in the delivery spec I was actually quite excited as there has been a lot of talk, and some pretty poor demos, and I was keen to have a go myself. There is, of course, no question that the vast majority of people will never see the HDR version, so the priority in 2016 for a programme such as this is to make sure the SDR version can look the
best it can.
“Based on this, we proceeded to grade each episode in Rec. 709 and only after each was signed off did I turn my attention to the HDR version. Amazon was clear that we had to use the Sony BVM-X300 for the HDR grade so we got one in. Thankfully the Quantel Rio 4K allows the grade from SDR to HDR to happen fairly simply as it has the transfer curves (not just LUTs) to take you in to the wider colour space of Rec. 2020 PQ, thereby allowing me to keep all my windows and primaries, but adding a trim pass to each scene and shots as necessary.
“For me, on a series such as this, where softer anamorphic lenses have been used by Tony Miller and the look is very much cinematic but natural – there aren’t the big explosions or sparking waterfalls that mean HDR really shows off, by having the SDR version on a Sony Rec. 709 OLED next to the HDR version on the Sony HDR monitor I was adamant I would maintain the intention of DP and director, but of course the highlights, which were formerly lacking in punch, suddenly have a fantastic zing to them.
“As such, the contrast ratio increases greatly, but not by ‘sitting down’ the blacks, but allowing highlights that were formerly outside windows and in bulbs to come alive. By this alone the image has a natural vibrancy, more than the SDR version ever can.
“There is no question that if you have bright highlights from explosions and specular highlights in your next project HDR is great fun for all involved, but for drama and the like it’s a great addition that no one should be too worried about. Certainly the panic of lighting differently and the confusing messages from manufacturers should be ignored, just make sure you stick with a colourist who understands the physicality of the lighting and uses HDR to make the image even more beautiful – not just whack up the contrast and saturation!”