Joe Kessler goes handheld AMIRA on MARON
Since stand-up comedian Marc Maron debuted his twice-weekly podcast WTF in 2009, his interviews with comedians and celebrities quickly became a hit among those who know and love comedy and its practitioners. It was a natural segue to TV, and the IFC series MARON began airing in May 2013. The series is a fictionalized version of MARON's life, tied together by portions of his podcast interview. His recent interview with President Obama has brought even more attention and interest from a broader audience.
Cinematographer Joe Kessler began shooting the show in 2013, and has just wrapped up its third season, which was shot with the AMIRA. The series has gone through an evolution of cameras. For the first season, production company Fox TV dictated a choice of two cameras, and Kessler picked the RED Epic. "The next year I talked them into using the ARRI ALEXA," he says. "The Camera House, which I work with a lot has been very supportive of me over the years, and they helped to make a deal for two ALEXAS and Cooke primes." This season, when the AMIRA became available, Kessler chose it as the ideal match for the series.
Kessler was no stranger to ARRI cameras. When he started his career, he began as a PA (which he jokes stands for "Pay Attention") and worked his way up the ladder. "Camera was where I wanted to be," he says. "I wanted to be in the nuts and bolts of things." He and a friend bought an ARRI SR, to enable him to start shooting promos, commercials and plates. "It gave me the opportunity to work on camera," he says. That led to his first big break: cinematographer on the cable comedic hit RENO 911. Except for the very first week, Kessler shot all of RENO 911's six seasons.
Switching to the AMIRA for the third season of MARON has been a game-changer, says Kessler who also directed an episode. "The AMIRA's new sensor is even more powerful, with 14 stops of dynamic range," he says. MARON has a three-day shooting schedule, which means that quick lighting setups are essential. "Because of the AMIRA's new sensor, you can use very simple lighting setups," he says. "With a three-day shoot, I have to approach lighting a scene rather than a shot. Because it's a quick show, we have three setups or less to get each scene done. I can dial-in a look using color filters, correction filters and color temperature. The AMIRA is a really quick camera, and I like that about it."
Most locations are practical and the show uses no VFX. "We use ARRI HMIs outside and push them through the windows, and then use a bounce-skip or a book-bounce to light the entire scene," he explains. "We can light up to three rooms at a time. It's fun to mix light, matching with the camera's color temperature and augmented lights." Kessler is particularly appreciative of what the AMIRA offers in terms of color temperature. "The AMIRA gives color temperatures in increments of 10, when almost all the other cameras are in increments of 100, " he says. "That really allows me to fine-tune the color. You do have the ability to white-balance but the color temperature is so accurate that I don't need to most of the time."
"If you shoot at a low ASA – the sweet spot is 400 – you can get away with a lot and get a good product," he adds. "The AMIRA is the perfect TV camera."
MARON is a handheld show, and Kessler notes that he gets a very stable image. "Because the AMIRA is handheld and relatively light, we can follow a person from room to room," he says. "A lot of times lighter cameras mean a less stable image, but the AMIRA is really stable because its weight is distributed over a longer body." The interview at the heart of every show, says Kessler, is what sets the show up and brings it resolution. For that portion, the camera is static. "We put it on a slider and gimbal off each person in the interview, which brings movement to it," he says. "The rest of the show, the camera is on the shoulder." Another benefit is that the hard drives are 128 GB, double what Kessler had used before. "We can run longer," he says. "And it saves time for having to change the medium."
Kessler has already used the camera again on BENDERS, another IFC show with a similar three-day shoot. For the upcoming TBS comedic series THE DETOUR, he will rely once more on shooting AMIRA, this time capturing in 4K UHD for visual effects shots with cameras from ARRI Rental in Atlanta. "You've got to move fast," Kessler says. "You can still control light, but you really rely on what the camera gives you and that's where the versatility of the AMIRA comes in."