ALEXA meets DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

Some changes have come to Wisteria Lane this season. ABC's popular series DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, switched for its eighth season from 35mm film acquisition to working with the ARRI ALEXA. In anticipation of this shift, the show's cinematographers, Lowell Peterson, ASC and David J. Miller, brought an ALEXA to set last spring to thoroughly test the camera.

Peterson, who's been with DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES since season one, has primarily worked with film throughout his career with one foray into HD for a feature a decade ago. His colleagues assured him that digital cinematography had come a long way since then but, of course, it was incumbent upon him and Miller to test the ALEXA for themselves.

The goal for the show, Peterson explains, has always been "to keep the photography interesting and contrasty," while also bringing out the performers' beauty. Many lighting situations combine extremes of bright, hard sunlight in certain portions of the frame with the subtlety of broad and soft sources on the talent. Peterson and the show's other DPs had pushed their film negative to its limits over the previous seven seasons and needed to know if the ALEXA's sensor would cramp their style. "The biggest surprise to me," Peterson says, "was how well it handled day exterior. It didn't 'clip' the way you think of HD doing. I liked the roll-off [to white] very much."

The most high contrast lighting situations on DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES are the result of the way the sets are designed to allow all the characters of Wisteria Lane to look out onto the street and observe everything that goes on in their neighborhood. The cul-de-sac where most of the action is set, says Peterson, "is almost another world. That street itself becomes a 'character' in the show."  The look, the cinematographer elaborates, requires that the street always be visible and sharp -- never blown out or blurry -- through any window facing the cul-de-sac.

"A lot of shots that we do will have someone inside looking out onto the street in full sun and watching another character who might be completely in shadow--maybe in a doorway or under a tree," Peterson says. "There will be white picket fences with full sun on them. Our producers don't want anything like a net that would cut down the sharpness." Peterson and Miller tested these extreme conditions and found that they could essentially work the same way and attain the same results audiences expected with the ALEXA.

Peterson reports that the transition to ALEXA was smooth. The production brought in a digital imaging technician for the first month to set up the new system with LUTs (lookup tables) to show particular "looks" using on-set displays. The cinematographers worked with the DIT and their final colorist initially to create the "looks" and they can now easily manage the monitoring setup on their own. "It's similar to the way we would shoot different film stocks for different locations," Peterson explains.

The cameras record using ALEXA's Log C mode to SxS memory cards. The show is shot  single-camera style with a B-camera added where necessary and there is also a great deal of Steadicam work on the show. The bodies themselves, Peterson notes, are very similar in size and weight to the film cameras they'd previously used.

Otherwise, he reports, the adjustments were minor. "I generally use half a stop less fill to get the same effect," he says, "and when I play a sun highlight, I let it go about a stop hotter."

Peterson and Miller work with the same mild diffusion filters they used shooting with film. "The only change we made," Peterson says of the filtration, "was that we switched from regular ND for day exteriors to a set of IR ND filters. We found that the addition of the infrared to the filters really made a difference for the wardrobes in bright daylight." Overall, Peterson sums up, "I've found the camera simple to use and comfortable to operate. And, most importantly, everyone has been very happy with the results."