We sat down with cinematographer William Wages, ASC, in Los Angeles, CA, to discuss his experience shooting with the VariCam LT. According to the DP, 5,000 ISO has completely changed his lighting package, which is a tenth of what it used to be. Wages shot CMT Network's Sun Records and indie feature The Forgiven with the VariCam LT.
QUESTION: What was your first introduction to the VariCam?
WILLIAM WAGES, ASC: I was shooting with the Lumix, using it as a crash-cam, and [Panasonic cinema development manager] Barry Russo heard about it and brought a camera down to show me. We shot a test with it, and it just blew me away. It was everything that I had been looking for in a camera for years. The other DP, John Smith, and I had to convince Warner Bros. that the camera was good enough to do the show [Containment], which didn’t take much.
QUESTION: What jumped out at you when you were first using the camera?
WAGES: What jumped out was dynamic range and 5,000 ISO. That's it in a nutshell.
QUESTION: Tell me a little about Sun Records and how the VariCam LT helped you with the production.
WAGES: Sun Records is a show about the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll – Sam Philips and his recording studio in Memphis in the early ‘50s. What the LT brought to the show was its small size since we shot on location, its dynamic range, and the 5,000 ISO. We did a slightly desaturated look for the period look and we were able to use less equipment, so it really became more about the performances than the hardware. I think it really shows in the TV series because it’s very dynamic; the camera is always moving since the LT works wonderfully on the Steadicam. It allows us to do things that would have been much more difficult with another camera. We did a lot of 360s, and to rig lights to do that with an 800-speed camera would take a lot of time, but with a 5,000-speed camera we could do it very quickly – sometimes with just battery lights – so there’s no hiding cables nor heavy rigging.
QUESTION: Can you talk a little about the LT's form factor and how it influenced your shooting style?
WAGES: The size is not a huge part of the formula, but it does come in handy. We do a lot of stuff in cars and small spaces, and when you're shooting on location, sometimes you just can't back up anymore. The back of the camera will hit the wall, so the smaller the camera is, the better off you are. It gives you more flexibility. And to have that capability without losing anything in the camera is pretty remarkable.
QUESTION: Tell us a little about The Forgiven and why you decided to use the LT again.
WAGES: The Forgiven is a movie we shot in South Africa. A big portion of it is filmed in Pollsmoor Prison, which is a real, operating prison. They’ve never let anybody shoot in there before, so without the LT, I don't think we could have made the movie we did. Not only because of the dynamic range and 5,000 ISO, but the size of the camera. Prison cells are very small, and everything's welded – you don't move the bunk because it’s welded to the floor. There were a lot of limitations, and with this camera, the limitations didn't affect us that much.
QUESTION: How do you typically utilize the VariCam’'s Dual Native ISO capability?
WAGES: What I like about the Dual ISO is that 5,000 and 800 have the same dynamic range with no color shift. There’s also very little noise difference. They can be intercut with no problems. As a matter of fact, I’ve never done a show that, on the first day, one of the cameras was in 5,000 and one was in 800, and nobody noticed until I noticed that the F-stops were way different because they had the ND wheel in. I had to get on the radio and call the guys and say check your ISO. In a few minutes, I get a panic call saying, “Oh my God, we're in 5,000,” and I say to him, “Don't worry about it. Don't put it on the camera report. Put it in as 800 and don't say anything and no one will ever notice. This happens every movie I've done with the camera, because they’re not used to having the filter wheel and they’re not used to having the Dual ISO. That’s a huge change in how I work.
QUESTION: How does that have an effect on your lighting technique, as well as your budget?
WAGES: The 5,000 ISO has completely changed my lighting package. It’s now a tenth of what it used to be. That's not because a producer is telling me to do that; it's what I choose to do. Instead of using a 2K, now I can use a 100-watt light. That's huge because when it comes to using HMIs, I can plug everything into the wall. We’re not doing the big cable runs or running big generators. We use putt-putts (generators) a lot when shooting on the streets at night and a lot of battery lights. I use a lot of bounce lights, and I’m bouncing LEDs – and it’s so much faster and it looks more natural. I want my lighting to feel natural. I want it to look completely real, yet every shot is lit. To the level that I'm doing this now, I couldn't do with 800, or even 1280, which is where I would push other cameras. At 5,000 this is not a problem at all, and I'm not shooting at a 1.4, I’m shooting at 2.8 or 2.9.
QUESTION: How would you describe VariCam color?
WAGES: One of the strong points of Panasonic is color space, and this goes back to the original VariCams. Those ⅔" cameras had magnificent color. This camera takes it to the next level with a wider color space. It sees the way my eye sees, not only in sensitivity, but in color, so there's no surprises. Sometimes when you shoot with other cameras and you get into the color timing, it doesn't come together the way you thought it would, but with this camera there's never a surprise – it has such a wide gamut that it's really impressive.