From the creative team behind Last Chance U (shot on VariCam LTs), Cheer is a Netflix docuseries that follows the nationally ranked Navarro College Bulldogs Cheer Team from Corsicana, Texas. Coach Monica Aldama prepares the team for the annual National Cheerleading Championship, where they have taken the top prize 14 times in its division for the past two decades. The six-part series focuses on individual cheer team members, but also covers the history of cheerleading and how it has developed into a billion-dollar industry. The show recently won Best Unstructured Series at the second annual Critics Choice Real TV Awards.
Cheer is directed by Greg Whiteley and shot by co-DPs Erynn Patrick and Melissa Langer with two VariCam LTs and two EVA1 cinema cameras. VariCam LTs were the primary cameras with EVA1s being used for tighter spaces such as dorm rooms or on ride-alongs. “There was a lot to cover,” explains Patrick. “40 kids, four months, five-six days a week. Melissa and I functioned independently, but our instincts and aesthetics were well-aligned.”
During pre-production Patrick and Langer shared film references with each other that spoke to them in an aspirational way and tried to strike a balance between maintaining an elevated look and feel without compromising any intimacy with the cheerleaders. “In this way, covering the heart of a scene thoughtfully was as important to us as being consistent with a ‘look’ we were always striving for,” says Langer. “The lens choice was really important to us, as we knew we would be filming primarily on primes. The Cooke Panchro rehoused lenses and the VariCam LT gave a softness and cinematic quality to the image that isn’t’ always feasible for smaller doc productions.”
Watch the official trailer for Netflix's Cheer
The show was captured in 4K capturing 10-bit 422 AVC Intra files in V-Log at 23.98-fps with the VariCam LTs. Along with Cooke Panchro Series 2 prime lenses, Patrick and Langer occasionally employed a Fujinon 19-90mm Cabrio zoom for large events. “The combination of these cameras and lenses produced a beautiful image that leaned into the beauty of the sport,” reveals Patrick. “The LT gave us a true roll-off on highlights and rendering of shadows. We had absolute trust that the camera would perform and yield a natural look. We had chosen the LT as we prized image quality above all, and even though it is somewhat large for a doc camera, we easily found a way to make it work.”
“The combination of the LT and EVA1 truly gave us the combination of flexibility, image quality, light sensitivity and control that we wanted,” says Langer. “We predominantly used the LT, reserving the pared down EVA1 setup for the small spaces of the dorm rooms to be as lean as possible. With our exceptional ACs (Devin Keebler and Tiffany Null), we really got into the groove of easily transitioning from the LT for practices to the EVA1 for living spaces.”
Patrick and Langer also made use of the VariCam LT and EVA1’s dual ISO technology. For lighting, they typically augmented spaces where they knew they would be shooting in frequently with practicals. For many low-light situations in new environments, or if they didn’t want to upset the intimacy or flow of a scene by turning lights on, they switched to higher ISOs. “The LT definitely performed better, but the EVA 1 held up surprisingly well without too much noise,” says Langer.
According to Langer, the combination of the VariCam LT and EVA1 gave the production the combination of flexibility, image quality, light sensitivity and control. “Given the high visual and technical expectations for this production and the list of Netflix-approved cameras, pairing the VariCam LT and EVA1 was the best decision for us,” says Langer. “I was super happy with the cameras and the aesthetic we maintained throughout a series driven by verité moments.”
Unlocking The Negative
Cheer was graded in HDR by colorist Marco Cordero at his post-production company, Cinehues. Cordero is also a Local 600 cinematographer and believes we need to move beyond Rec 709. “You now have cameras that capture 14+ stops of latitude and a wide color gamut, but Rec 709 doesn’t let you see it,” he explains. “For Cheer, we used Dolby Vision, which is a proprietary toolkit for HDR that simplifies the workflow. HDR enables you to basically unlock more of what’s in your ‘negative’ due to its wider dynamic range and color space that doesn’t restrict you the way that SDR does.” Cordero grades in DaVinci Resolve using a 31-inch 4K Sony BVM-HX310 monitor.
Cheer features ‘real people in real locations’ so Cordero’s primary goal is to preserve authenticity and not exaggerate the image just because he’s working in HDR. A good example of how Cordero utilized HDR were scenes shot inside the gymnasium, which were lit with mercury vapor lights that created hotspots on walls, and bright windows that appeared in the background and created glare on the glossy gym floor. The creatives wanted this environment to capture a certain tone and elegance, but also wanted to take advantage of highlights and contrast to allow the space to feel more three-dimensional and realistic.
“We're unlocking the camera ‘negative’ to show us what was recorded,” explains Cordero. “Show us what the room really looked like. How bright was the hotspot on the wall? How bright was the window? Show us how bright these highlights are and then let us decide how much of that we want to show. In Rec 709, the hotspot on the wall and bright window are almost the same tone, so the window doesn’t have the same presence it did on location, where it was actually several stops brighter.”
Shooting For HDR
As a cinematographer and colorist, Cordero offers a few of his shooting tips for DPs who are working toward an HDR grade. Recording at least 10-bit Log files with the best possible codec is his first suggestion. He also recommends protecting highlights. “When you have a shot that's overexposed,” explains Cordero, “and you bring that into HDR and discover bright clouds clipping in your sky, as a colorist, you're going to need to artificially roll it off lower than where it's clipping so that you can kind of disguise the clipping. Highlights have more presence in HDR so loss of highlight detail becomes more obvious.”
He also suggests trusting the latitude of the camera system by committing to an exposure. For a panning shot, Cordero recommends not adjusting the iris just because the camera pans from a bright area to darker area or vice versa. “The last thing you want is to have your highlights clip in a different place in different parts of the same scene,” reveals Cordero. “If you're fidgeting with the exposure, you’re introducing continuity issues. With a camera like the VariCam LT, you have plenty of latitude to set an exposure that protects both shadows and highlights and you should trust that latitude. Once you’re rolling, don’t change your exposure unless you have no choice. Unnecessary iris adjustments are extremely unhelpful.”
For color management, Cordero used ACES (Academy Color Encoding System), using P3-D65 ST 2084 as the Output Display Transform to make it HDR. The Dolby Vision trim tools facilitated generating the SDR Rec 709 Gamma 2.4 version from the HDR grade, rather than requiring a completely separate grade for SDR.
All-in-all, Cordero was very pleased with the end result and felt both the VariCam LTs and EVA1s were great cameras for verité scenarios. Says Cordero, “Cheer has a wide variety of environments and situations, but I never felt restricted by the footage from the Panasonic cameras.”
All episodes of Cheer are available now on Netflix.
For more information on VariCam LT and EVA1 cinema cameras, visit https://na.panasonic.com/us/cinema-cameras.
Thanks to Pat Lamb for also contributing to this story.