“The Heights” is a popular “soap opera” produced by the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) and shot in Perth Western Australia.
Australian Videocamera had the opportunity to have a chat with the Director of Photography (DOP) Jim Frater on how the series is shot, on what, how it is edited and the issues of shooting in a remote city like Perth.
AV: “The Heights” is shot with Panasonic EVA 1s as I understand it. What advantage did the EVA 1 have over any other model or brand?
JF: Both series of “The Heights” where shot with the Panasonic Eva 1. The camera fitted the bill perfectly. It was light, small, 5.7k sensor, good in low light , dual ISO, and stabilised, great on the shoulder. Our show is 90 percent handheld so those things were really important. I also loved the skin tones that the camera produced. All Eva 1 cameras used Zacuto Gradical Eye viewfinders, Tilta Nucleus M Fiz Lens controls.
AV: How many were used on set?
JF: In season 1 we used 4 x Eva 1 cameras 2 X GH5 s. The GH5 s where used as small cameras to be placed where the Eva 1 couldn’t fit. In ovens, shelves above beds and small spaces, and one was also on a small Steadicam. Eva 1 cameras where in handheld setup and one would also swing onto a Steadicam. On a split day ( 2 crews of 2 camera teams) each needing a Steadicam option. Most cameras used in 1 scene was 6. Most scenes we used 4 Eva 1‘s regularity. In Season 2 we lost the GH5s and got a 5 Eva 1.
AV: What lens(es) were used?
JF: Season 1 we used Sigma Cine Lenses EF mount zooms, 18mm-35mm , 50mm-100mm , 14mm Sigma prime,135mm Sigma Prime. Canon USM II 70-200mm.
In Season 2, I switched to PL mount Fujinon lenses 19-90 Cabrio, Fujinon ZK 14-35mm, Fujinon Zk 85-300mm with a Black Satin 1 Filter on them. The Sigma were great, but I need the range and found that we would be around the 50mm mark so the Fuji meant less lens changes and I also like he look of them.
AV: Later, Panasonic GH5s were also used. Was this for a specific purpose or look?
JF: We didn’t use them on Season 2 as we got another Eva 1 to mount on the Steadicam permanently. But in Season 1 they were our get out of jail cameras. I pulled them out as needed and when I needed a extra camera.
AV: Which lenses were used with the GH5s?
JF: Used a Metabones MFT to EF speed booster so we could use the EF lenses. Wanted to keep the lenses the same.
AV: What were the advantages of shooting in Perth?
JF: Advantages where access and crewing, this show was different to any other drama shot before. Firstly 4 camera setup on all scenes, camera operators did their own focus unless on Steadicam. Sets where just camera operators and actors, no boom swingers, and just the first AD. I don’t think this would have happened anywhere else. We had great access to locations that are not often seen on Australian tv drama, and of course the weather. Location wise we stayed within 45 mins from the ABC studios.
AV: Did shooting in Perth cause any logistical issues considering many (except those of us who live here) consider it “remote”
JF: My only concern was if we had gear failure and needing to ship a replacement over, with the time difference and distance, it’s a 2-day turnaround, otherwise no issues.
AV: Over what period was it shot (say series 1).
JF: Series 1 & 2 were shot in 15 weeks. We had a week in the middle to reset but in truth we still shot most of those days, usually establishers and stylistic pickups. And that is 30, half hour episodes for each series. We averaged 11 minutes a day with no overtime, on a 10hr day. In Season 1, our record was 13 min 50 seconds and we finished 45 min early. That was a hard day.
AV: How long is a typical shoot? Do you knock over a full episode before moving on or are there sessions shot of multiple pieces to camera stitched together later in post?
JF: In Season 1 we shot 2eps per week, in Season 2 we shot 4 eps over 2 weeks so on any day we could be covering scenes from 4 eps. Was a lot to take on board sometimes, and these series and eps are across 4 or more directors.
AV: How many on the shooting crew?
JF: The camera crew consisted of myself as DOP, Ian Batt B camera op/Split Crew 2nd DOP, Claire Leach C camera op, Ben Berkhouse D camera op/ 1st AC (Series 1), Meredith Linsday D camera op/1st AC (series 2) Paolo Feliciano 1st AC, David Manners 2nd AC, Hayley Wilson 2nd AC/Video Split
We also had media students in the camera department rotating every week doing work experience. They were from TAFE, Screen Academy and Notre Dame Uni. Think it important for them to gain real experience on a working set with a busy crew.
AV: What system is used for editing (eg AVID, Final Cut X, Adobe Premiere etc)
JF: The show was cut on 2 Avid suites set up at the ABC studios in East Perth a well as our post and grading setup. I would sit with the grader over a couple of lunchtimes during the eps, and get the look started. We shoot in 1920 by 1080 25p Vlog 400 Intra MOV. We created a general Lut for monitoring and went from there.
AV: “The Heights” has been an ABC success story showing there is still room for a thoughtful, well scripted and acted “soap” – especially as it shows a lot of diversity. Is there to be ongoing series’
JF: At the moment there is no series 3 scheduled for production but with both series being bought by BBC and receiving great reviews and building a good daytime audience I can only hope it does continue.
AV: If so, will you continue with the EVA1s? And the GH5s? Will there be any additions to the camera(s) used?
JF: In simple terms, probably not, the bang for buck was to good. And if it ain’t broke then why fix it. Seriously the cameras did everything we asked and more, they never left us wanting.
They held their skin tones in some extreme situations, and no other camera matched them in budget, size and ease of use though the whole process from recording to edit to final delivery. I am still amazed that they don’t get a bigger wrap, they slip in under the radar and just stand up, everyone that has come across them likes them.
We tried the usual suspects and I am so glad Panasonic sent me a camera to test in the beginning, because it stood out as a contender from day 1. Even post liked it.
AV: Anything else to add?
JF: No camera is perfect, and there is not one camera for all occasions, but on The Heights the camera was the Panasonic EVA 1, it was like it was built for that show. Long days handheld, Steadicam 15 weeks. So light, nimble and featured packed. And as I said before it wasn’t perfect, we needed a viewfinder, bigger battery. But the features it had were awesome 422 10 bit, timecode in/out, SD card media to mention a few.
I believe it was the first drama to consistently shoot with 4 handheld cameras all the time, and to also have 2 female operators full time as well. I loved that it was experimental in the way it was shot and crewed and to be done in Perth was a huge bonus and also major reason for its success. It was a pleasure to be the DOP and work with so many amazing creative individuals. It was like family. I am looking forward to the next instalment hopefully soon.
Fujinon Premier Cabrio 13-35mm
The PL 14-35mm Cabrio lens has a detachable digital servo drive. The Cabrio can be used as a self-contained ENG-style lens or cine style lens. Cinematographers will also be right at home with this lens. With the detachable drive removed, the lens is set to accept industry standard cine motors and matte boxes. The 14-35mm lens is lightweight and comfortable to use with today’s smaller 4K cameras. For shooters looking for alightweight zoom that can be used as a handheld, capturing wide angles in tight spaces, it’s ideal.
The PL 14-35 covers 31.5mm sensor size on a digital cinema style camera. While sensors on standard broadcast cameras are all the same size, sensors on digital cine cameras vary greatly. This new zoom ensures the image captured will cover large sensors for optimal, full-frame resolution. A nine-blade iris part of the design as well, creating the most natural-looking imagery possible.
Fujinon Cabrio Premier 85mm-300mm
While the PL 85-300 is similar in size and weight as the PL 19-90, its longer focal length makes it ideal for shooting documentaries, nature and wildlife, and car commercials, among other demanding production scenarios. The PL 85-300 offers a focal length of 85-218mm at T2.9 and 300mm at T4.0, with 200-degree focus rotation.
Designed using the latest optical simulation technology, the PL 85-300 Cabrio not only offers exceptional optical performance in the centre of the image but in the corners of the frame as well. The PL 85-300 is equipped with flange focal distance adjustment, a MOD of 1.2m, a macro function for objects as close as 97cm (38-inches), and covers a 31.5mm diagonal sensor size.