Creating a drama out of 2-perforation

Creating a drama out of 2-perforation

How TV productions can bring exceptional production value to the small screen

Although 2-perforation offers obvious benefits as a widescreen format for feature films, many producers have also taken advantage of its cost savings and image quality to bring exceptional production value to television dramas. ARRI Media spoke to two cinematographers who have used 2-perforation to create visually compelling work for the small screen.

Adam Suschitzky - DoP of the 2-perforation mini-series EMMA (2009), a four-part period drama for the BBC.

ARRI Media: How was 2-perforation chosen as an acquisition format for a 16:9 broadcast?

Adam Suschitzky: The producers were certain that they wanted to shoot on 35 mm film, but they knew they didn’t have the budget to shoot 3-perforation and the technical requirements meant that unfortunately 16 mm was not a viable alternative. There was some heavy snowfall – before I came on board – and the producers took the opportunity to send out a 2-perforation camera for a snow sequence in the script. That was the first thing they got back and they were absolutely amazed by the quality.

AM: Did you test the format yourself before the shoot?

AS: I did. There were some HD quality control guidelines in place stipulating that we could only shoot a quarter of the production on 500 ASA stock. I went away and shot tests on all the different stocks and the 500 ASA passed every single test; the technical department couldn’t believe their eyes at how good it was, even with the zoom in to a 16:9 frame, so at the start of the production they revised their figures and I think in the end there was no restriction at all on the stock. All credit to the BBC for recognising the results and letting us go ahead with it.

AM: And did the tests make you happy as well?

AS: I was delighted that we could keep EMMA on film and it’s such an insignificant loss of quality; you still have the depth, the tonality, the highlights, the colour range and the subtlety of 35 mm, as well as the cameras, accessories and lens ranges. The real beauty for our production was that it was a character piece with long dialogue scenes that could last for several days of the shoot. 2-perforation is an ideal format for that because you get 21 minutes from a 1000-foot mag. It saves time, it saves money and you don’t have to interrupt performances.

AM: You used ARRICAM cameras; did you have the Lite as well as the Studio?

AS: Yes – we had a Studio as the main camera and a Lite as our B-camera, and we did lots of Steadicam with it. Again, many of the Steadicam shots were very long, so getting eight minutes from a 400-foot mag became an extremely practical tool.

AM: What postproduction route was taken and how were dailies handled?

AS: We had it all scanned with a tech-grade; after that everything was in the digital domain, although we went back to the neg for any particular shots where we felt that the tech-grade had not got the best from the neg. We worked to a fairly standard television setup, with a Grade-1 CRT monitor. I assume the workflow was very economical – it was certainly quick, efficient and got the full quality of the neg. The dailies were dealt with by Ascent Media and they would do a one-light, though I was taking stills of every setup, grading them and sending them to the lab as references.

AM: In general is 2-perforation a format you’d recommend to others or use again yourself?

AS: I had people telling me that it would be disastrous and that if we couldn’t afford 3-perforation I should be on a digital format, and how wrong they were - it just performed flawlessly. I think 2-perforation is an absolutely ideal format for TV – it’s fast, economical and has all the quality of the best film format around. I’d use it again tomorrow.

Igor Martinovic – DoP of the 2-perforation production RED RIDING: 1980 (2009), the middle film of a three-part drama serial for Channel 4.

ARRI Media: RED RIDING is a trilogy of films, each of which was shot in a different format. Why was that and how did you come to use 2-perforation for the middle film?

Igor Martinovic: Even though the project started out as a TV series, our approach was to shoot it as a feature film. We wanted to achieve a stylised look that would be reminiscent of thrillers from the 1970s. The producer, Andrew Eaton, was fantastic because he let the directors and DoPs of all three films decide what format they wanted to use. Widescreen was our format of choice from the beginning and 2-perforation fit perfectly because our budget was relatively low and we knew that 35 mm would look better than the Red, which was the other choice. We also didn’t want to go anamorphic because we needed to use less stock and we wanted lightweight equipment.

AM: Was the film transmitted in 2.39:1 on television?

IM: It was transmitted in widescreen and we knew that the 2.39:1 frame was safe even when we were filming, so we could use the edges of the frame in our compositions. I was pleasantly surprised by how much freedom one can get as a DoP in the English television system. The interesting thing is that because each episode was made as a film, the series went on to have a life in film festivals and actually played in cinemas in the U.S.

AM: Was this the first time you had shot 2-perforation and did you make tests?

IM: This was the first time. I was very happy to find that ARRI Media in London had numerous 2-perforation cameras and their support was first class. We filmed tests and projected them because the format was new for everyone involved, including the post house. In some ways 2-perforation is a bridge between 16 mm and 35 mm, and we wanted to see how far we could push the film into underexposure. We were happy to have a bit of grain because of the subject matter and because we were mixing in some grainy archive footage from the 1980s.

AM: What cameras and lenses did you have?

IM: We had only one body - an ARRICAM Lite - and we used ARRI/Zeiss Master Primes. Often we had to shoot wide open on the Master Primes because the combination of the budget and the schedule meant that we weren’t able to have huge lighting setups for the night exteriors. Shooting wide open really helped because we needed every last stop.

AM: Did the longer takes possible with 2-perforation ever prove useful?

IM: We never had a scene with a really long take, but psychologically it makes a big difference for the actors to be able to shoot continuously for long periods of time. Sometimes I would hear an actor say ‘Why haven’t they changed that mag?’ because they’re used to mags being changed all the time! In dialogue scenes especially it really allows the actors to do one take after another, so their concentration doesn’t get broken.

AM: What postproduction route was taken and how did you get dailies?

IM: We were seeing Beta SP dailies on the set, which were done at a lab up in Leeds, where we were shooting. When we went down to London the rushes were scanned in 2K at LipSync Post and we graded on a big screen in a DI suite.

AM: Looking back, was 2-perforation a format that suited a project that has crossed over from television to theatrical release?

IM: Absolutely – I was very happy with the outcome and it was nice to see the film projected on the big screen as well. 2-perforation worked perfectly for both mediums