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How to shoot anamorphic on a factual budget

When BBC Studios producer/director Stephen Cooter won a Horizon commission for a new factual film about the search for extra-terrestrials, he wanted to match the style of dramas like The Crown, Doctor Foster and the most recent series of Broadchurch that shoot in true anamorphic widescreen.

The trouble was the factual budget. But together with DoP Paul O’Callaghan, the pair found an innovative way of using regular stills primes and specially-sourced adapters to create a true anamorphic image without using expensive and bulky anamorphic lenses. 

He explains how they gave the film a distinctive cinematic feel.


Shooting Anamorphic for BBC Horizon – by Stephen Cooter


In early 2016 I pitched an idea about the scientific search for extra-terrestrial intelligence to the long running BBC 2 science documentary strand Horizon.  As this was to be a film about searching for aliens, I was keen for it to feel like a science fiction movie.  My references at the start were Steven Spielberg’s 80s classic “ET”, Spielberg and JJ Abrams’ “Super 8”, Abrams’ Star Trek re-boot and the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things”.  BBC Studios and Horizon have a long track record of technical innovation and this seemed like a good opportunity to try something new.  



I discussed the project with DoP Paul O’Callaghan who I’d worked with on previous documentary series including Brian Cox’s Human Universe and Forces of Nature.  Paul has shot numerous advertising projects using anamorphic glass – lenses that create the widescreen aspect ratio most commonly seen in feature films - and we talked about the idea of using something similar to give the film a truly cinematic look.  


Anamorphic shooting has already begun to creep into terrestrial drama productions, including the BBC’s award-winning “Doctor Foster” and the latest series of ITV’s “Broadchurch”.  For a BBC2 factual commission, the challenge was to find a cost-effective way of shooting anamorphic given that anamorphic lenses can cost up to £500 a day to hire.  


Paul and I had used an anamorphic adapter combined with regular prime lenses to film the title sequence of Human Universe and Paul had subsequently shot a couple of features and adverts using lenses he had adapted himself.  We decided this was the best approach as it produced a true anamorphic image, but was a fraction of the size/weight and cost of dedicated anamorphic lenses.   


For Horizon we used an uncoated “Iscorama adaptor” - a vintage anamorphic adapter from the late 1960s/70s.  Paul made a custom mount and had the lens adapted, improving the close focus performance and adding a focus gear ring.  We combined this with Zeiss stills primes and an Arri Alexa Mini shooting in 16:9 mode, which when de-squeezed created a 2.39:1 image.  On the road we used DaVinci Resolve to pre-grade and de-squeeze rushes ready for the edit.  



There were some technical challenges shooting with the setup, particularly because although the close focus of the lens had been improved (from 7 to 5ft) it was still quite poor in practice and close diopter filters needed to be used a lot of the time. The adaptor set-up limited us to just 3 focal lengths - 35mm, 50mm and 85m.  We initially thought this might be a hindrance, but in practice, it gives the photography a consistent and considered feel.  Aside from the cinematic aspect radio, the uncoated glass gives the images a softer more organic look, the image is lower contrast and the lens flares more easily. The vintage glass had good resolution but avoided the clinical, over-sharpened look modern lenses can produce on hi-res digital cameras.  


Overall we are both extremely proud of the look we achieved.  While the set-up used is in many ways unique, it demonstrates that this style of shooting is possible on a documentary budget.  And as such, could represent another major crossover from the big screen to factual television.  


Stephen Cooter is a Producer Director at BBC Studios Science Unit.  Paul O’Callaghan is a freelance Director of Photography.  


Horizon: Strange Signals from Outer Space! will be broadcast on BBC 2 at 9pm on 16th May 2017 in 16:9.  In what is a first for a Horizon in its 54 year history, the film will be repeated on BBC2 at 11.15pm on 18th May in its original 2.39:1 anamorphic aspect ratio as well and being exclusively available in widescreen on the BBC iPlayer from 9pm on the 16th May here:

Posted 15 May 2017 by Jon Creamer

How Cinesite conjured up American Gods

Aymeric Perceval, Cinesite’s vfx supervisor on Amazon Prime’s 10 part adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, explains how the story of a battle between old and new gods was brought to the small screen

When did you get involved with the project?
Kevin Tod Haug, the client VFX Supervisor, contacted Cinesite Montreal initially in April 2016 to talk about ‘out of this world’ environments and ‘epic’ set extensions for an afterlife sequence which was going to be imminently filmed in Toronto and in Oklahoma. Very quickly, we also got involved in the look development of the storm, which is a character in itself, alongside other sequences. In total, we worked on 18 different sequences split over 5 episodes (1, 2, 3, 4 and 8). Although Cinesite’s work covered a good range of visual effects, they were predominantly driven by environment work.

What was the brief for the look, what were the references?
American Gods was a very interesting creative challenge for the crew. Fuller pitched it as “a cinematically aggressive show with tonal wonkiness”. The challenge was finding the balance between developing realistic effects to support the narrative whilst inviting the audience to believe in other visual possibilities and to be taken on a fantastical journey.

From the set extensions and constellations of the land of the dead to the evolution of the storms, the series allowed us immense freedom to invent, create and interpret concepts for which there was not always specific references we could draw from. Hopefully the end result is both rooted in realism and rife with otherworldly activity!

What were the most complex shots?
I have to be careful here to avoid spoilers! Complexity wise, some of the biggest shots we achieved for American Gods are no different from the ones we’d create for a blockbuster movie. However, a TV schedule and budget constraints forces you to work faster and around a smaller team of generalists. You do not have time to develop a full pipeline; this is where Cinesite’s experience and solutions developed for previous shows came in very handy.
One of the most demanding sequences we delivered was the audience’s introduction to Anubis and the afterlife.

How was this achieved?
The sequence starts with a typical Kevin ‘impossible camera move’ going through multiple apartment plates, each representing a faith, and joined together by CG transitions. This obviously represented quite a challenge as all the cameras needed to be stabilised, retimed and reanimated to give a straight but not continuous movement. CG elements were introduced to help the transitions.

After a few shots of blue screen cat comps, we jump into substantial set extensions where the cast exit a two-storey apartment (built on stage) and climb an infinite wall going back in time. Each shot had to be a continuation of the previous one with the exception of a different geometry containing several ages, construction styles and materials.

Celestin Salomon, our lead modelling and texture artist said: “It was a very interesting job to first match the original building floor, then to build the transition to different construction styles: bricks, old damaged bricks, medieval rock wall, big rock blocks and finally a sculpted cliff. We created finely detailed displacement maps which gave the multiple walls a richer and more realistic look.” This result was then topped up with a layer of matte painting to push the photo-realism further. In lighting and comp, we focused on giving grandeur and openness, avoiding a claustrophobic feeling, even though we were often looking flat at a wall, never getting the perspective points in frame and keeping the on-set lighting.

Finally after completing the climb, the actors enter Anubis’s kingdom: a fantastical desert, halfway in between Earth and another dimension. This part of the sequence was filmed on location in Oklahoma.

The reality of shooting across multiple days and different times of day meant that we initially had to heavily manipulate the scans so they matched each other. This adjustment had to be detailed because a neutral grade was not enough and yet we didn’t want to affect the original material too much.

Then we replaced the sand dunes because they were not as pristine as the showrunners wanted them to be (i.e. too many human footsteps / car tire marks). We completed the dune environment with blowing FX sand passes in order to give the shots a bit more life. For the sky, our lead compositor Remi Martin played with multiple layers of constellations and stars, using space and long exposure night photography as reference. We then added fx passes and other 2d elements to avoid it looking too familiar. Because there was no sun in this universe, we used the constellations as light sources matching the lighting on the actors. In the end, we had to design every angle differently in comp which allowed our compers to experiment and have fun with Remi’s set up, it also helped us fine tune each one of them up to the last minute.

Visual Effects Supervisor: Kevin Tod Haug

Visual Effects Producer: Bernice Howes

Cinesite Visual Effects Supervisor: Aymeric Perceval
VFX Executive Producer: Marc-Antoine Rousseau

VFX Producer: Alexandra Added

VFX Editor: Christopher Hills-Wright
2D Supervisor: Benjamin Ribière

CG Supervisor: Nicolas Dumay

Posted 04 May 2017 by Jon Creamer
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