Shooting DNxHD with ALEXA in paradise
Produced by Red Planet Pictures for the BBC, TV drama series DEATH IN PARADISE follows the professional exploits of Richard Poole (played by Ben Miller), a British detective inspector who is transferred from Scotland Yard to the island of Saint-Marie in the Caribbean; unfortunately, DI Poole dislikes sun, sea and sand. For the second series, the program-makers took advantage of ALEXA's ability to record the open-standard and widely supported Avid DNxHD codec in-camera, thus reducing transcode times and allowing offline editing to be done on location. DP Toby Moore's kit comprised two ALEXA Plus cameras, one standard ALEXA, Cooke S4 primes and the 18-80/T2.6 and 45-250/T2.6 ARRI/FUJINON Alura Zooms. The following is Moore's account of his work on the shoot, which involved hot temperatures, intense humidity and unpleasant spiders.
DEATH IN PARADISE is a BBC TV drama about a British detective inspector who is transferred from London to the island of Saint-Marie in the Caribbean; unfortunately, he dislikes sun, sea and sand. Cinematographer Toby Moore shot season two with the ARRI ALEXA, recording DNxHD to in-camera SxS PRO cards.
Shooting DEATH IN PARADISE series two, there was no requirement in the initial brief to work within the parameters of the first series, but more to build on what had already been done. I think we got the chance to explore things a little more than they did on the first outing, as is often the case with a second series, and I believe we've managed to move the visuals on from series one.
The first series was a French co-production and all the camera and lighting facilities were supplied through the French company Transpalux, which still supplied the lighting package for this series. This time, though, as it was no longer a co-production, I was able to get the camera package through 24/7 Drama in London, and Graham Hawkins was invaluable in providing first class equipment and support over the whole project.
The camera equipment was flown over to Guadeloupe, but the dolly, track and lighting gear was transported from France by container ship and the problems of doing this immediately became apparent: the ship broke down somewhere off northern Spain, which meant we had to find a dolly and some lights locally.
Obviously there is limited film equipment on the island, but through a local outfit we cobbled together a few heads and stands, and a slightly rusty dolly to get us through until the boat arrived two weeks after shooting began. Typically, we had some big night exterior scenes within this period that couldn't be moved in the schedule, so it was an interesting challenge to get these done with gear that should have been in a museum, but Jon Best (1st block gaffer) and his team managed extremely well. The dolly was sadly at the very end of its life, but with oil leaking from every joint, managed to end its days on a high. We welcomed the arrival of the boat with open arms.
One of the major challenges in the tropics is the humidity. From the moment you leave your hotel room you're pretty much wet through until you get back and this obviously necessitated rigorous camera care. The ARRI ALEXA coped very well and during the whole five months of shooting we had no problems or camera faults at all. Undoubtedly we ended up with a certain amount of rustiness on Noga arms and other bits of kit, but the ALEXA seemed to rebuff most of this.
When shooting interiors on location it was important that we didn't lose a sense of the outside world. This took careful management with lighting and the ALEXA managed to handle the wide range of different stops very well, in fact the ALEXA's ability in this area is superb.
At the opposite end of the scale, the camera also coped very well at night. Early on, we had an episode set in the jungle, of which a good percentage took place at night. It was quite a tricky place to get lights where you needed them, due to the terrain and not least the interesting spiders and ants that seemed to like the sparks' legs, and the way ALEXA captured details in the blacks under these circumstances was very impressive.
I had Nick Beeks-Sanders as my operator, who was brilliant as usual, and I would operate the second camera when needed. As the production company's offline system was Avid, we looked into shooting with the DNxHD format, so as to avoid the lengthy transcode times. Although at this point it was generally untried, having looked into the literature and shot tests I felt there was no compromise in picture quality between this format and ProRes, and since DNxHD would be of great advantage to the post workflow, we opted for this route. Recording DNxHD in-camera with the ALEXA worked without a hitch and the results have been great.
In terms of monitoring we had the Panasonic 17" LTLH 1760 for our director and the makeup department (sadly the Sony OLED monitors were not available at this time), as well as the TV Logic 5.6" for on-set monitors and camera on-boards. Dailies came back as DVDs from the offline and the final grade was done at Deluxe 142 with the wonderful colorist Jet Omoshebi, who did a fantastic job of finalizing the images. Obviously it is always better to have 4:4:4 at this stage, but the DNxHD pictures that ALEXA delivered have been second-to-none and I couldn't have chosen a better camera or format for this project.
To be on the far side of the world, on a long-term project, it is essential to have confidence not only in the pictures your camera will deliver, but also in its robustness and reliability, and the ALEXA came through on all counts.
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