Thursday, September 22, 2011

An In Depth Look at the Production of ESPN’s Year of the Quarterback Series, "Depth Chart: Oklahoma State"

The Director of Photography's Role on the ESPN Television Series, "Depth Chart"

Director of Photography, Brent Ramsey, discusses the challenges of shooting the Oklahoma State University segment of ESPN's Year of the Quarterback TV series, "Depth Chart."

I was one of the Unit Director of Photography's selected by ESPN Content Development and DLP Entertainment for ESPN's "Year of the Quarterback" television series called Depth Chart. The hour long program was originally presented to me as kind of a NCAA Hard Knocks, and it was similar to the hugely popular HBO series in that it focused on players in a football training camp leading up to a game. The biggest difference was that each episode of Depth Chart focused on the lives and training regiments of competing NCAA quarterbacks, and not the entire squad attempting to make a professional football team. Four universities in all were selected to be featured on the initial season of Depth Chart -- Auburn, Oklahoma State, Wisconsin, and Arkansas -- each with a unique story to tell about competing for the quarterback position in NCAA football. I graduated from a Big 12 school, The University of Texas, and felt an allegiance to that region, so I volunteered for the segment featuring Oklahoma State University.

Our crew, consisting of five people arrived in Stillwater, Oklahoma, thirty-five days before their first game. We were embedded within the Oklahoma State University football program and given "full access" to the facility and the players; their personal lives, team meetings, practices -- just about anything or anywhere we needed. The coaches and the players were great. They absolutely cooperated with us throughout the entire shoot and never backed away from their committment to our program despite our intrusions. While we were there, the temperatures soared daily above the 100°F mark as Oklahoma endured one of the worst heat waves in the history of the state. Stillwater, Oklahoma broke a previous record of 50 straight days over 100° during our shoot. This not only influenced how these college athletes trained, but became the backdrop of the program, and also presented us as filmmakers with the added challenge of physical endurance in the extreme heat.

Stillwater, OK daytime temps in August 2011 were always above 100°

As soon as we arrived, we were informed of Coach Mike Gundy's decision to begin practices at 5:40 AM to give his team a chance to work out before the blazing sun got too high. This meant we had to begin shooting in the dark, shoot through the morning sun, and move inside the team's facilities for midday and afternoon position meetings. Once two-a-day practices began, we would also shoot the afternoon practice and occasionally storyline elements into the night. It was not unusual for the shoot day to extend from twelve to seventeen hours a day during this time. When the team scrimmaged, it would generally take place on the artificial field turf of T. Boone Pickens Stadium. This is when the heat became most noticeable. A thermometer held at waist level above the green turf once reached 168°. Under these conditions, the camera bodies would burn your hand to the touch. Media cards from the HDSLR and Sony F3 cameras occasionally stopped operating, requiring us to remove them and blow across their surfaces to cool them in order to continue recording.  Everything related to production became much harder under these conditions and we had to take extra care to protect not only ourselves, but our equipment from prolonged exposure from the extreme heat.

A trailer for ESPN's "Depth Chart: Oklahoma State". Practice footage was shot with the HDX900 and Sony F3, interviews with the Sony F3 combined with the Key Pro Mini, and B-Roll was shot with the Sony F3, Canon EOS 5DMKII and a Canon EOS 7D.

The Equipment Game Plan

The equipment choices had been made prior to me joining the shoot. The plan was to shoot Depth Chart with several different cameras including the Sony PMW F3, the Panasonic HDX 900, Canon EOS 7D w/PL mount, and the Canon EOS 5D MKII. We would use the Contour and Go Pro for specialized shots. Each camera had it's own role on the shoot and those roles were pre-determined during the pre-production process by Series Director of Photography, Matt Peterson. He had tested the cameras and had developed a shooting "Bible", complete with camera settings, suggested shooting principles, and photo boards. Each crew would follow this written plan as a template to make the four separate crews' visual look be as similar as possible while we were working simultaneously in different parts of the country on the four episodes.

Show Director of Photography, Matt Peterson,  shooting story interviews with the Red Mysterium
The eight DP's had a joint conference call with Matt about his formula for shooting Depth Chart and we discussed in detail this basic plan: The Sony F3 would be used for most of the documentary/reality work and also some practice footage to make use of it's low light capabilities, easily accessed slo-motion switch, and variable shutter angles. The Panasonic HDX 900 with it ENG lens, 2X extender, and easily switched variable shutter was meant exclusively for practices, scrimmages and games. The Canon HDSLR's were to act as second cameras with the F3 in all scenes. All documentary and story sequences were intended to be two camera set-ups whenever possible and we would observe the 180 degree rule in shooting them. The Canon HDSLR's were manned by Co-Unit DP, Chris Vanderwahl, of Los Angeles. Additionally, Matt Peterson shot ten days at each of the four crews' college sites around the country on his Red MX camera system. He generally worked separately from the documentary crew and his work focused on location image shots and player portraits, although occasionally, he shot high speed practice footage.

Brent Ramsey shooting Oklahoma State's scrimmage with the Panasonic HDX 900

Preparing for the Shoot

One of the things that became very apparent while shooting this documentary, was that we were on our own in the middle of nowhere without much help or support. I was very familiar with the Panasonic HDX 900 and the Canon 5D MKII and 7D (I own both cameras myself), but the Sony F3 was a bit of a mystery as I had never worked with it prior to this job. In preparation for this shoot, I downloaded the operating manual from the Sony website and had it printed at Kinko's. This turned out to be a really good move as the rental company didn't provide a manual with the camera and I found myself referring to it on several occasions -- especially in the beginning. I had looked at a couple of videos about it's features on YouTube before I left home, and felt like I could figure it out fairly quickly. When I started prepping it, I was surprised at how similar the menu was to the Sony EX3, so I had a comfort factor with it right away. I also carried Goodman's Guide to the Varicam as reference. Before I arrived in Oklahoma, I didn't know whether I'd be getting the Panasonic HDX 900 or Panasonic Varicam until I opened the packing case at the site. I was familiar with both cameras and they're somewhat similar. I knew that I'd be good with either one that I received.

After traveling from New York to Stillwater, I expected the camera packages to be awaiting us at the hotel when we arrived. However, they were shipped at the last minute and the courier had delays. We didn't receive the 21 cases of gear until almost 9:00 PM the night before our first day of shooting. Fortunately, I had stopped by Manhattan Place Entertainment in New York City the day before I left to just have a look at what all they were sending us in the field. That helped a lot -- just to know what to expect. I took my set of six Optar 35mm super speed prime lenses to the check out, and tried each of them on the camera. They looked great, and considering that they gave me a lot more flexibility of focal length and were all super speeds, I asked to have them shipped to the location. As with any job, the budget was already being taxed and I didn't expect a lot of toys or extra lenses to be on the package. They couldn't pay me rental for my lenses, but I couldn't see any reason they should sit in the closet in Connecticut when I was on a job in Oklahoma and could use them. In this situation, you just do what is right and will ultimately help you as the DP to do your job better. Besides, the two Sony prime lenses that came with the F3 were large, clumsy and not that fast, so I provided  my 14mm, 18mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 75mm super speed prime lenses to the show as a contribution. They worked with both the F3 and the Canon EOS 7D equipped with a permanent PL mount.

As for a lighting package, we also were provided with two Arri light kits consisting of 650 watt and 300 watt instruments, an 800 watt Joker. We had several C-stands, a grip kit, a Pocket Dolly, an Aja Key Pro Mini digital recorder, and a nine inch Panasonic monitor to mention a few items. That first night, we opened every case, inventoried the items and checked for damage. The first thing I did was build the Sony F3 and tweak it's menu settings and picture profile to match the other cameras being used at the other three schools. By the time I finished unpacking and preparing for day one of shooting, it was 2:00 AM and we had a call the next morning at 5:00 AM, so I called it a night. It really took me about five days to get everything that was shipped into play on the job.

A trailer for ESPN's "Depth Chart: Oklahoma State". Practice footage was shot with the HDX900 and Sony F3, interviews with the Sony F3 combined with the Key Pro Mini, and B-Roll was shot with the Sony F3, Canon EOS 5DMKII and a Canon EOS 7D.

Choosing the Shots

Okay, so we got the equipment prepped and the vans loaded, and now comes the thirty-five days of shooting. The Executive Producer, Michael Hughes of DLP Entertainment, had dictated to us all on a conference call that he wanted the show to look "modern" and explained to us what he meant in terms like these: "shallow depth of field," "no lock offs" -- he wanted the camera in motion all the time, "no servo zooms" -- periodic snap zooms, refocusing and reframing the shots with the zoom lens as the scene dictated, and to keep it "cool," "edgy," and "interesting." He wanted us "to shoot for the edit" and explained that the editing would cut "aggressively." He told us he wanted a cinematic feel off the field and for us to seek out "contextual shots."

Having shot a series the year before about football, the Show Director of Photography, Matt Peterson, warned us against shooting practices too tight, but rather to frame to see the play. He asked that we look for pick up's of gestures, and to find long lens conversations where we could use snap zooms and find the focus for editorial moments. One of the big requests was that there was to be no hand held 5D at all, and he asked that we use the sticks on all cameras as much as humanly possible. It was to be shot documentary style through concept to cut.

Our intentions were to always keep the sun or any lights we were using as an edge, and to attempt whenever possible to shoot the dark side of faces. This went for practices, scrimmages, interviews, exteriors and interiors, etc. We would accept sun flares as a style statement and look to back edge everything. This, of course, is not always possible, but a wise mentor of mine would remind me all the time that when in doubt, "side light is the right light". I ended up doing a little of both throughout the shoot, while trying to favor the hard back edge light. That strategy and the position of the subjects dictated camera placement for the A camera, and obeying the 180 degree rule dictated the B camera position. For instance, when we were shooting practices on the East to West field, the A camera would set up on the sideline in side light looking South and follow long lens action and conversations. The B camera would usely work at the back of the end zone shooting East towards the sunrise to capture the extreme (and very hot in many ways) back light.

Thirty-five Days of Shooting with the Sony PMW F3

Sony F3 with all Zacuto accessories and the Aja Key Pro Mini digital recorder as it was being prepped in New York

The Sony F3 was outfitted with a very versatile Zacuto support package. The DP4 kit was mounted to the 15mm support rods with a 6 inch Zmerican Arm. This made it a little flimsy for run and gun work and to make matters worse, the high sun would cause some serious issues with sun spots on the monitor if it would strike the eyepiece directly. We used the Aja Key Pro Mini recorder only for interviews -- the same unit as shown in the picture above -- so, it wasn't always mounted to the camera. We weren't provided with a follow focus, so I brought my own -- an Arriflex 35-3 light weight follow focus from my 35mm film package -- and it worked great. The F3's Zacuto support kit was intended to work mainly on a tripod while giving the option of making a quick handheld shot. That really didn't work out all that great. This camera configuration was not an easy one to switch to handheld or to disconnect, grab and run with. I own many Zacuto products, myself. They are a real game changer and I was happy to have them on this type of job, but this particular camera set up required way too much tweaking and reconfiguring to make chasing a quick shot a practical consideration. We rarely ever used the F3 for handheld shoots, and besides, shooting handheld was something we were trying to avoid as part of our overall style.

Lighting for interviews with the Sony F3 and Aja Key Pro Mini digital recorder

Each crew was provided an Angenieux Primo DP 30-80 lens to go alng with the two Sony prime lenses that were made for the F3 body, a 30mm and a 50mm. The Primo DP 30-80 is a wonderful lens and I really can't say enough about what beautiful images it makes. However, with that zoom focal length, all you'll ever get are medium shots unless you're very close to the subject. When shooting a documentary, there are many times when you want to be a fly on the wall, and the Primo lens was incapable of shooting enough of a variety of focal lengths to mix it up -- like getting tight shots. It's very hard to be that fly on the wall when right in someone's face trying to get tight enough to capture intimate emotion. Using it to cover game footage, only provided wide shots like you were in the "nose bleed" section. Every unit in the nation had had enough after a week and went back to the producers asking for a longer zoom lens for the F3. While most of the crews were shipped Nikon lens adaptors and Nikon zoom lenses to handle the issue, I chose a different route. Back home in Connecticut, I had a couple more cases of lenses for my Arriflex 35mm film cameras that hadn't seen any action in awhile. So, taking advantage of the PL mount on the F3, I called my teenager back home and got him to dig into the back of the closet and ship me my old Angenieux 25-250 3.9 lens and it's 1.4X adaptor. That lens ended up getting the MVP vote on the shoot. We hardly ever took it off the camera except to shoot the interview sequences. It's no way as sharp as the Primo, but that wasn't a bad thing. I liked the overall softer look as it took the edge off the ultra sharp HD video quality, matched the HDX 900 better, and gave us the focal range we needed for the job we were shooting. It drastically changed the way we could use the camera instantly.

Here's one of  my configurations of the F3 with the DP4 viewfinder and the Angenieux 25-250 3.9 lens

"The PMW-F3 is equipped with a newly developed Exmor Super 35 CMOS image sensor which offers creative shallow depth of field, similar to that of a film camera". That quote is right off the product page and it's true. It creates sharp subject/soft background images much like a HDSLR camera. Like all camera and lens combos, it all comes down to the mathematics of focal length, F-stop, and subject distance. The camera was very good at producing sharp subjects with soft backgrounds. It's ability to shoot in low light was really good, also. The camera adjusts for low light with a switch for adding increments of db like most ENG style video cameras. The increased db is adjustable within the menu settings and correlates in varying ways to ISO values depending on a the overall camera set up. In other words, there is no definitive ISO value for each adjustment of increased or decreased db. Instead of increasing the ISO like a HDSLR camera, you would simply switch to +6db or + 18db in low light situations. Sure, I'd rather it be adjustable in 1/3's of a stop by ISO instead of using 0, +6db or +18db like it was set up to do, but after awhile, I found this to be a non issue and I was able to shoot through every low light situation we found ourselves in without much of a thought about it. The F3's internal menu is easy to access and configure and the picture profile settings that include white balance preset adjustments can be quickly altered to get a shot off in a hurry. Shooting a documentary is mostly on the fly and speed is important.

I also loved the ease of switching into slow motion that the F3 provided. The external button was fast and easy to dial any speed you wanted between 1 and 60fps. There was a short wait while the camera rebooted, but it was negligible. An interval record feature is enabled quickly within the menu settings. I shot several time lapse sequences with the camera and thought that option was easy to access and very straight forward. It also had the added benefit of being able to review the time lapse sequences immediately after shooting them. However, the slow shutter feature that I tried out on a time lapse sequence was not really very successful or attractive -- we mainly used the HDSLR's and Red MX to shoot time lapse sequences.

There were several negatives about the Sony F3. It was a little heavy when built out with it's support. The handheld configuration, even with the Zacuto support tweaked to the max, was really awkward. The white balance was never quite right even if you dialed it in through the picture profile settings. I gave up trying to use the instant 5600K external button as it almost always came up orange or too warm overall. There were times when I could use the auto white balance button and other times that I was forced to adjust the white balance within the picture profile settings. White balance was hardly ever consistent and I knew this would put a heavy burden on the telecine colorists to match sequences. There was never a clear and set way to get the color temperature to come up correctly and in a consistent manner. The LCD flip out viewfinder usually made the scene look underexposed even when setting the exposure with the zebras. I relied on the Small HD monitor in the DP4 kit as a reference 90% of the time for exposure reference. The Sony prime lenses that were manufactured for the camera were massive without any clear reason for being so big. I ended up never using them and instead relied on my Optar 35mm primes that I had shipped. The flip out LCD camera monitor wasn't that great for focus checks, either. However, the internal peaking was very accurate and I found myself trusting it more than taking the time of flipping into the expanded focus feature for a confidence check. To get even more out of it, we changed the internal peaking color to blue. Chris Vanderwahl and I were able to tweak our settings and get the cameras to match better as we went along, but the F3 was always an issue when it came to color balance. The Canon HDSLR's were much better at rendering the scene properly. We attempted to shoot with settings that allowed the color correction process to create the overall look of the show. We would usually take a quick look at each other's monitors and adjust the white balances as best and quickly as we could to the other's camera -- choosing whichever one looked the best and tweaing accordingly. Generally, it was the Canon 5D MKII that would have to adjust to the F3, since the menu and picture profile settings of the F3 were being used across the shoot at each university.

1 comment:

  1. The flip out LCD camera monitor wasn't that great for focus checks, either. However, the internal peaking was very accurate and I found myself trusting it more than taking the time of flipping into the expanded focus feature for a confidence check.

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