Since the launch of the VariCam 35, DP Charles Papert has been one of biggest proponents of the VariCam system, especially its Dual Native ISO technology. He has shot numerous projects on VariCam, including series Mary + Jane (MTV), Cassandra French’s Finishing School (Audience Network), and Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television* (YouTube Premium). Papert is currently shooting the relaunch of Comedy Central’s Crank Yankers with VariCam LTs.
The first time Papert was introduced to VariCam was at a demo at Abel Cine. He was able to take the VariCam 35 out on the Los Angeles streets at night to shoot test footage. “I was very intrigued by the Dual Native ISO feature because we'd never seen anything like that in a camera,” explains Papert. Capturing his subject in lowlight night exteriors with ambient light was impressive but he was equally impressed at how VariCam captured skin tones in challenging mixed lighting conditions.
He brought a small light with him for close-ups but never used it. “I had my subject walk across the street and down sidewalks where you see her go through normal street lighting – light coming out from windows and light bouncing off car headlights,” he explains. “Normally, there wouldn’t be a lot of tonality in the faces but I was really stunned to see how the footage responded. I was impressed at how beautifully the skin tones came out and how naturalistic they looked. I would be lucky if I had lit the scene to make it look any better.”
The first series he shot on VariCam was Mary + Jane for MTV. The series had a combination of both stage and location work so Papert got to explore Native 5000 ISO for night exteriors. For a traditional night exterior, the crew would have to make extensive cable runs and set instruments up and down the street to illuminate buildings in the background. Based on experience from his tests, Papert decided to only light the foreground and let the background be lit by street lamps. He was impressed that he was still able to see sky detail in the dark background. Initially nervous about using a new camera system, his producers were also impressed, not only with the look but also how quickly the team could work.
“We also shot on soundstages, which I could light to any stop that I wanted, but I still opted to use the high ISO capability,” reveals Papert. “I rated the camera at 2000 down from the 5000 [Base]. What I found was a really rich image with a noise profile that matched the Native 800, but I gained a stop and a third. That allowed us to use smaller fixtures which helped stretch the lighting package budget, with no compromise."
Papert has also shot two seasons of YouTube Premium’s Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television* with VariCam LTs. “What we did do a lot of on Ryan Hansen was changing the settings on the camera for different looks such as a 45-degree shutter for action, which requires two more stops, or over crank into 120-fps, which is two and a third stops,” he explains. “Usually in that situation, you have to anticipate those needs and light to the higher stop using larger instruments dialed or scrimmed down for the 24-fps work, and then blasting it for the specialty bits. With the VariCam, you literally just flip it into the high ISO mode and you have everything you need to be able to capture that scene the same way you were lit for 800 ISO.”
Making Puppets Look Good
Comedy Central’s Crank Yankers originally ran in the mid 2000s and was shot on 2/3” broadcast cameras on pedestals. For the series revamp, the producer's main goal was to make it look more cinematic. The show is shot on two adjacent stages and each stage has a single camera on a Miniscope crane, which is a seven-foot telescoping arm. According to Papert, the VariCam LT was the perfect cameras for the show because they needed a small and lightweight camera body since the Miniscopes have very specific payloads that many professional cinema cameras can’t meet.
“Due to the physical requirements of the puppeteers, all of the sets and furniture are elevated four feet off the stage floor," explains Papert. "This makes the job of our camera operators, Rich Moriarty and Denis Moran, a very complex one - they are always on the hairy edge of shooting off the bottom of the set and have to avoid the puppeteers' heads and arms at the bottom of frame.
"Our production designer, Gary Kordan, creates these very realistic looking environments. Then it's my job to continue that look. If someone was happened across our show randomly, they might expect a human to walk through a door instead of a puppet. We’ll play the windows hot, push sun streaks across the set, see how far we can go with contrast while still making the fleece of the puppets look good. We shoot four to five sets a day, hitting some 280 sets this shooting season, which is kind of insane. My gaffer, Felipe Solares, Key Grip, Paul Fischer, and I have really pushed to keep things looking fresh and different every day.
“Based on my previous experiences working with VariCam, I know I can trust it because of its expanded color science and its accuracy with colors so that the characters and sets look as good as they should. I’m very comfortable with the highlight roll off and tonality of the camera. It always looks great coming out of the box with a VariCam."
Highlights From Crank Yankers
For information on Charles Papert, visit https://charlespapert.com/.
For more information on VariCam, click through here.