MAKING BETTER CALL SAUL - SERIES 4
Marshall Adams, ASC is currently in the midst of photographing season four of Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad prequel/spinoff. Fans of Breaking Bad haven’t been disappointed. The fascinating backstory of smarmy but lovable lawyer Saul Goodman, aka Jimmy McGill, delivers the same masterful writing, acting, and direction that made the original show a hugely influential hit.
Breaking Bad was shot mostly on 35 mm film, but Adams is currently shooting a blend of RED cameras and the Panasonic VariCam Pure. The switch from film was made in part because Netflix, which insists on a 4K RAW deliverable, is the exclusive video-on-demand provider for the series. Why the unusual mix of cameras? Just prior to interviewing for the job of director of photography on season three, Adams had done some tests with the then-new VariCam. He had also used it for a night exterior shot on the series Rush Hour.
“I was just blown away by the camera, and really wanted the opportunity to shoot with it some more,” Adams recalls. “I thought Vince and Peter [co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould] seemed like guys who would embrace new technology.”
The first two episodes of the third season were to be directed by Gilligan, who said they included more night work than did the first two seasons combined, as Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) follows a tracking device – the screen of which is sometimes the only light – all around Albuquerque. The VariCam’s astonishing ability in low-light situations come in handy for the extensive night shoots, but the post workflow was set up around the RED. Eventually, a compromise was hammered out, and by episode five, the VariCam was on hand whenever the script called for extensive night or low-light work.
A couple of factors conspired to make the VariCam a commonly used alternative. Chuck, the main character’s brother, suffers from a severe sensitivity to electricity and spends much of his time in a gloomy, darkened house lit only by candles and gas lanterns. Episode five called for a seven-page scene in Chuck’s house lit only by candles. The show’s creatives also planned to make nighttime Albuquerque a more prominent presence in the background of exterior wide shots.
On season four, the Better Call Saul team upgraded to the VariCam Pure, usually paired with Cooke primes or Optimo zooms, or ARRI/Zeiss Master Primes if the extra stop was needed. The Pure, billed as a “co-production” of Panasonic and Codex, combines the existing VariCam 35 camera head with an internal Codex VRAW 2.0 Recorder and offers a 4K RAW solution in a lighter and smaller body, at up to 120 fps. The VariCam Pure boasts dual native sensitivity, with a base ISO of either 800 or 5000. The Codex VRAW 2.0 brings a flexible and reliable uncompressed 4K workflow including VRAW 4K 12-bit and 4K 10-bit options, but with the simplicity of a ProRes workflow. With the Codex Virtual File System, files can be transcoded to other formats including Panasonic VRAW, Apple ProRes, and Avid DNxXR.
The VariCam Pure’s rich image files result in advantages in grading, VFX and archiving, and added protection for future HDR deliverables. But on the set, Adams and his team make use of the camera’s flexibility in low light, which has practical as well as creative benefits. On this season of Better Call Saul, they are carrying three RED cameras and two VariCams full-time.
“Everybody is absolutely sold on the VariCam Pure camera system and the way it works,” says Adams.
On those vast, signature exteriors with the lights of Albuquerque twinkling in the deep background, Adams worries more about controlling light than generating it.
“Wrangling the light can sometimes be as difficult as it used to be to put the big light in,” says Adams. “But at the end of the day, you get a much nicer, more natural-looking image. The Condors and scissor-lifts that used to be a no-brainer for our night exteriors, we don’t use very much at all anymore. It becomes more about working closely with the art department. You’re getting practical light put in, and lighting essentially from within the set. The ability to fall back and do these expansive wide shots at night is just an absolute gift – not to mention the speed with which we seem to be able to move at night because we’re not moving Condors and generators around.”
Adams pushed the VariCam to ISO 10,000 for a scene in which Chuck ventures to a pay phone on a street where the surrounding electro-magnetic energy is torturing him. The neon signs, streetlamps, and bright storefronts burn with an over-the-top intensity that communicates Chuck’s pain.
Another particular night scene finds Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) scrambling over the highway, trying to gather papers as they flutter and scatter in the wind. “We ended up with a 20X20 wind bounce over the top of the scene,” says Adams.
“It’s a giant, expansive shot looking down into Albuquerque, and we started out with a 5K, and what we ended up with was a 650-watt, essentially a tweenie, supplementing the headlights. That was all we needed. It has definitely taken some
getting used to for me and my gaffer, Steve Litecky, in order to know which lights to call!”
I REALLY APPRECIATE THAT PANASONIC AND CODEX GOT TOGETHER AND FIGURED OUT A WAY TO MAKE THE PURE SO USER-FRIENDLY
“The signal that you get out of the camera is just incredible,” Adams adds. “The blacks are so rich and the colours are beautiful. You wouldn’t think that when pointing at the sky in a night exterior with a moon and some lit-up clouds, you would get great blacks, but you do. That camera - when it goes black - is black and it is beautiful. You do get city light pollution, but you have to be willing to embrace that. Sometimes we have to wait until it’s dark enough and shoot a little later than usual. But it’s so worth it. And in the final colour, colourist Ted Brady at FotoKem’s Keep Me Posted (KMP) TV post facility, has plenty of room to move given the big files.”
Adams says that there’s never been a problem with reliability. “I really appreciate that Panasonic and Codex got together and figured out a way to make the Pure so user-friendly,” he says. “I absolutely love that camera, and I count on it – it’s a real game-changer.”
Season four of Better Call Saul will air on AMC in Autumn 2018.
Cameras: Panasonic VariCam Pure
Lenses: Cooke Primes, Optimo Zooms, ARRI/Zeiss Master Primes
Rental House: Panavision
Codex related product and workflows
Images courtesy of their respective owners.