Space blast

Posted on Jan 24, 2020 by Julian Mitchell

When DOP Eben Bolter got the job on Armando Iannuci’s new space comedy, he went from his normal single-camera drama to multicam cinematic improv

Words Julian Mitchell / Pictures HBO

We’ve followed Eben Bolter’s career with interest and it was great to hear of his BSC membership last year. We have interviewed him for The Woman in White and White Dragon, both serious single-camera dramas for the BBC and ITV in the UK. For HBO’s Avenue 5, however, he completely broke the mould and had a cinematic multicam comedy in space to shoot.

Out of all those descriptions, it is probably ‘cinematic’ that is most important to Bolter, as he admits that if Avenue 5 wasn’t shot that way, he probably would have turned the show down – but everything now has that cinematic aesthetic; digital film is the norm. Armando Iannucci likes to keep shooting very loose to catch any improv gold he encourages, so there were other styles to worry about other than the look.

When the sets caught fire in the middle of the production, they went up like a bonfire

Bolter recalls: “A multicam comedy wasn’t something that I was looking to do… but Armando Iannucci, for HBO, in space. How could I resist?”

Space was, in fact, the huge Warner Bros film studio in Leavesden, UK. “He wanted me to forget this was a comedy. He wanted to approach it as if we were doing a big sci-fi drama and make it as cinematic as possible,” Bolter explains.

It is, however, ultimately a fast-worded comedy, so Bolter needed to approach it by cross shooting nearly all the time. “We have to let the actors to react in real time to allow improv and different things. Armando also likes lots of cameras, so it was going to be a three- or four-camera shoot from the start.”

 Above Actor Hugh Laurie as Ryan Clark in Avenue 5. Four cameras were used to cross shoot to try and catch improvisation from the actors Above Actor Hugh Laurie as Ryan Clark in Avenue 5. Four cameras were used to cross shoot to try and catch improvisation from the actors

What is Avenue 5?

Written by Armando Iannucci, Avenue 5 is an HBO/Sky co-production about a doomed space tourism cruise 40 years in the future. If you know Iannucci’s shows, like The Thick of ItThe Death of Stalin and Veep, for instance, you’ll know or guess that improv plays a huge part in them. The show used four big sound stages at Leavesden, where the space cruiser Avenue 5 was laid out for a huge amount of sets – 58 in total.

Bolter says: “Designs for the sets were wonderful and filled the stages at Leavesden. Huge, complicated, but well thought out sets. Production designer Simon Bowles did an amazing job coming up with these crazy ideas. There were no straight lines in the design of the spaceship; every wall was curved. He had this incredible technique of using the steel structuring and then, on top of that, he was 3D printing the set out of polystyrene, so every single surface on the ship has a curve to it. He was 3D printing and painting over the top of that to produce this almost egg-shaped finish that curved everywhere.”

If you lived in the Watford area in the middle of last year, you might remember a news story about a fire at Warner Bros. The fire destroyed part of Avenue 5’s sets and “when the sets caught fire in the middle of the production, they went up like a bonfire”, recalls Bolter. The fire lasted 15 hours and was in the middle of the working week. Amazingly, as seven episodes of the nine had already been shot, it was possible to tweak the script and hardly any days of production were lost.

 Above Frame grabs from Avenue 5 show how beautiful the Leavesden sets were Above Frame grabs from Avenue 5 show how beautiful the Leavesden sets were

 Lighting for infinite space

As the show is set in space, it requires a lot of VFX, but Bolter’s cinematic credo pushed him towards the combination of texture, tone and lighting he used. “I love to light the wide shots and let the actor’s work within that. The challenge was to light a room cinematically in a way that could be cross shot by four cameras. That was a challenge I relished.”

So it became more about integrating lighting into such a huge sets. Bolter explains: “I was using things like RGBWW LED strips – we actually had 5km of LED strips across the spaceship. That gave me complete control and you didn’t have to hide it, you could look straight at it in-shot and it looked integrated into the set. I could live dim it with my gaffer from an iPad, so in a take, I could say that this light needs to come up 10% or add a bit of colour to that – it just gave us complete control.” As such, Bolter was able to incorporate the LED strips over the curved walls of the internals of the spaceship design.

We actually had 5km of LED strips across the spaceship. That gave me complete control

“We looked for these LED strips all over the world and we found these in Japan. In fact, we bought them straight from the manufacturers. It was a pretty massive order, there was no other way really, and some of the stuff that was a bit more off-the-shelf or just cheaper I found had problems. For instance, if you dimmed them down too low you would get a bit of flicker, or there would be a little green spike, or there would be various things that weren’t great. The ones we picked were versatile and had a diffusion option, so it wasn’t just bare-pixel LED – we were able to diffuse it quite nicely so you could just look at it in shot,” he recalls.

As for practical lamps and other things, they were able to hide them in shot. “There would always be a rig hidden in almost every shot with some of the 180 Skypanels we had on the show,” says Bolter. “The atrium, for instance, was our major set, it had three storeys on either side with an area in the middle with all kinds of rooms going off to the side. It was pretty much like a massive shopping mall. In the atrium, I had two 40x40ft softboxes filled with S60 Skypanels, so that gave me the ability to completely control a soft-top source.”

In space, you still light

One of the challenges that Bolter encountered during prep was that, in space, the time of day doesn’t change, as he explains. “There’s no atmosphere, no weather, outside is infinite black.” That means no daylight, so they had to light every set for three different states: daytime, evening time and night-time. “Daytime was bright, warm and neutral; for evening we increased the contrast a little bit, warmed up some of the practical fixtures, which gave it a bit more of a lounge type of feel and then for night-times, we took it into a sort of moon-lit feel. We gave it a little bit of blue and a little bit of green and just darkened it down again, giving it an ‘after hours’ feel.”

With such huge sets, it became all about the prelight, says Bolter. “I had a two week on-camera prelight to light all of the sets. We’d start with a really big wide and dial in a daily setting, then work our way around the ship with that setting, making sure it didn’t just work for the wide, but did for close-ups and everything else in various areas of the ship. We could get problems, like when there were too many shadows, we found a way to fix that and balance everything out. We repeated that again for evening and then repeat it for night. It was a long process, but meant we could just press a button and the scene lighting was called up. You just tweaked things as a scene developed.”

No rehearsal

With the instruction to shoot in a loose fashion in order to catch golden improvisations, the pressure for the operators was immense. “You had to react on the fly as it was such a performance-led show. The way Armando works with actors is so free,” explains Bolter. “He would always rehearse to an extent, there was always a discussion of what we were going to do, but basically we’d never do a rehearsal on camera. We’d have to just jump straight in on take one and then see what happened. I had really great focus pullers, great operators, really good gaffer and we’d all just have to be alive to what was happening, you had to just react and be in tune with what was happening.”

We’d never do a rehearsal on camera. We’d have to jump straight in on take one and then see what happened

He continues: “I tend to operate and shoot single camera. I love being involved and close to the actors. It’s good to make decisions very quickly without having to run it by anybody. This was unique for me as I decided I couldn’t operate with four cameras shooting at all times – I needed to have eyes on all four. Doug Walsh has been my Steadicam operator for around seven or eight years now. We’ve come up together and he was the first to come aboard as Steadicam/A camera operator.

 Images stills from HBO’s Avenue 5 Images stills from HBO’s Avenue 5

“For the other cameras, I got a bit creative. I was looking for not just operators, but the ones with the ability to think like a DOP at times, about how the light was going to affect things. We were also going to have some breakout shoots, some second unit shoots and some stunt shoots, so I wanted operators on those days to be able to step up and be a second unit DOP,” he explains.

For this, Bolter chose two upcoming DOPs who are friends of his, James Rhodes and Aaron Rogers. They both wanted the experience of being on a big HBO series like Avenue 5 and became the B and C camera operators, although both of them DOP’d parts of the show towards the end of the shoot, as they were shooting full scenes at the same time as Bolter.

The capture

I knew that I was going to shoot on the Alexa, as I wanted absolute reliability

Bolter knew which camera he was going to use early on. He says: “I knew I was going to shoot on the Alexa, as I wanted absolute reliability over anything else as this was high-pressure shooting – it was all about performance and we had to stay out of the way – an expression we kept using was ‘ninja cinematography’. We had to just get in there and do the best cinematography we could without being noticed. We had to operate quietly and not take over the process, the lighting had to be integrated and quick, we had to be ready to shoot straightaway. It all had to be very intuitive.”

Bolter explains he knew he wanted an Alexa sensor, as “it’s pretty much perfect and I knew there wouldn’t be any problems”. He then chose the Alexa Mini, as he knew there would be some handheld, gimbal and Steadicam work involved in the shoot. Plus, slotting four cameras around actors, you need every little bit of space.

“We’re a 4K Dolby Vision HDR show, but HBO is very smart with its understanding of the tech and the advantages of shooting on the Alexa. Even though we shot at 3.2K ProRes, HBO was absolutely happy to upscale that for transmission. HBO was incredible actually, as Arri did have the large format Alexa – the LF – but that was before the Mini LF was available and it was just a bit too big. HBO had a note, which I thought was spot-on, that we had these huge sets, so why would we want even more shallow focus? It wasn’t an advantage on our sets. You wouldn’t be able to see the depth of all this beauty. I thought that was a really good note that I hadn’t thought of before.”

Lens-wise, Bolter knew the show would be shot with spherical, as the aspect ratio of it was going to be at 2:1. “We had a lot of characters, so there was going to be a lot of width. Armando likes to see a lot of actors in the shot, he likes to play things like a three-shot or a four-shot – the 2:1 ratio makes perfect sense for that and gave it a little more space and grandeur than 16:9 would have.”

Bolter is a big fan of Leica glass, so chose the Leitz Summicron primes. He explains: “I’ve shot my last three series on Leica now. I decided to go with the Summicrons on this show, the Summicron-C primes. I chose those over the Summilux as they’re a little bit smaller and lighter and just slightly more interesting. The Summilux are completely perfect, flawless lenses, while the Summicrons have a bit of something to them, there’s a tiny bit of vignetting, a tiny bit more interest in the out-of-focus areas, but they still have incredible contrast and beautiful colour rendition. I do love the Leica look.”

He continues: “We had two full sets of Summicrons across four cameras, so I was able to have two 50mm and two 40mm, for example, but there weren’t really rules for which focal length to go for. The way we built it up was that we almost did a wide first, just to give half a chance of learning the blocking, as there were no on-camera rehearsals. Then, around that wide, I slotted in one, two or three more cameras depending on what we thought we’d would get.

“So, a big wide, a medium wide and then potentially a very long lens that went between characters. We then moved in and usually cross shot the two main actors in the scene. They were on mid-shot and then maybe I’d have a camera in the middle, which would ping-pong between them. We called them ‘swingles’: swinging singles, like a tennis match going between the dialogue, which was quite fun. Then the fourth camera slotted in either on another character who was listening or maybe in profile on another character.

“We sort of built it up organically and got in to a rhythm, we were pretty much on a 32mm to a 50mm for the whole show; there were exceptions for longer lenses.”

These lenses contributed to the three distinct looks for the show. “I mentioned the time of day – that all relates to the public areas of the space ship. There’s also the back of the ship and that has more of an industrial look, so for that the references were Alien and similar looks: sodium and green fluorescent light, much more grungy with loads of dark surfaces,” he says. “I contrasted the ship with lighting in terms of those two looks.”

Finally, when it came to operating, it was mostly on dolly or on Steadicam. “Occasionally it was handheld if it was a hectic scene, but it was quite cinematically framed,” he concludes.

Grading Space

Technicolor’s Dan Coles describes his experience colour grading this space comedy epic

Embarking on a large-scale Armando Iannucci multicam comedy show in a spaceship-sized set, with a thousand-strong cast and fully integrated lighting – this was a unique opportunity for Eben Bolter to do something exciting and different. He certainly seemed to enjoy the grading process, and embraced the opportunity to add a layer of polish, and further enhance his lighting and storytelling for the different worlds of Avenue 5.

From the beginning, we always looked at how we keep things visually interesting over the course of the whole series. A lot of sci-fi tends to be sort of desaturated and cold, but we decided to go rich and colourful.

In terms of the shoot, the idea was to create three main looks to give the audience a visual shortcut to where they are, and what the atmosphere is. The first is in space at the front of the ship – rich, luxurious and opulent. The second is the back of the ship, which has a grungier look and, in lighting terms, was more industrial with hard sources. The third look is Earth – around 40 years in the future, this had a more naturalistic feel. In terms of the grade, we enhanced the three different worlds and created a seamlessness across the multicam footage. We essentially embraced the bold filmic image – keeping it all rich in contrast and colour, but in a naturalistic style.

Eben and I got together for pre-production meetings, during which time we discussed lighting, lenses, set design, locations, costume, makeup and the broader concept of the look that he and Armando wanted to achieve. We looked at several cinematic references during this process. With all this in mind, we set about creating him a specific LUT to use on-set and in the dailies pipeline.

The LUT that resulted from this gave Eben a very pleasing starting point from which to view his material. Integrated lighting was built into the sets at Leavesden, and used in conjunction with Skypanels above the set where he could hide them. All the lighting was controlled remotely from an iPad – everything was LED, and completely colour- and level-dimmable. With this high degree of control achievable in the on-set lighting, the show LUT was all that was used in the dailies colour pipeline. When it came to the final grade, our timeline was an exact match of the offline grade, which gave us the perfect starting point in the grade, too! Eben also encouraged me to visit the set, which I did – it truly was a fantastic set and the integrated lighting was incredible – and, of course, extremely helpful to have seen it for real!

Obviously, Eben was mindful of the HDR delivery requirement from pre-production. Our devised colour pipeline was created to make the HDR deliverable requirement seamless – it was just a case of deciding how far we wanted to push the colour, brightness and contrast.

Above Go behind the scenes with Armando Iannucci and members of the cast as they share what viewers can expect from Season 1. 

Avenue 5 is currently on Sky One in the UK and HBO in the US.

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