Hillary: a mountainous challenge Landmark NZ TV drama shot with Sony PMW-F55
Faced with capturing on screen the essence of venerated Kiwi climber and adventurer Sir Edmund Hillary, New Zealand cinematographer David Paul NZCS knew he would be asking a lot of his camera. For the six-part, prestige drama he needed a camera to capture feature-quality images, but he would need to carry that same camera up high snowy mountain slopes where the progress would be no more than three steps up, two steps back.
After one such climb, Paul found himself straddling a pitch-black crevasse as the climbers popped over the top of a sheer face, recreating the moment when Sir Ed and his climbing partner Tenzing Norgay conquered the chimney now known as the Hillary Step. Crossing this final hurdle put Hillary and Norgay within a few steps of being the first men ever to reach the top of Mount Everest.
Paul remembers that the thought flashed through his mind that this would be impossible had he chosen any other camera.
‘The choice of a Sony F55 camera for this production was a no-brainer,’ he says, ‘I can just grab it and I am ready to go. I have used all the main cameras, and so sometimes people wonder out loud why it is now my camera of choice, but when they see the pictures they go quiet.’
For Hillary he shot with the Sony PMW-F55 CineAlta 4K digital camera for nine weeks in Auckland, two weeks in Mount Cook, and two weeks in Nepal. The challenge for Paul was to visually retell Sir Ed’s life up to the Everest climb, his Antarctic and New Zealand adventures, and his turmoil after the death of his wife in Nepal. With six hours of flagship television to shoot, the schedule left no room for superfluous gear or second chances.
‘I loved the pressure of shooting a six-part series about Sir Ed,’ says Paul. ‘It’s a chance we’ll never get again.
‘Yet so much of it comes back to the images. I think of the Sony F55 like some of the Vision 3 Kodak film stocks – it’s not imposing anything on you. Unlike some digital cameras it is not saying “this is your look”, it is saying “here is your image, you can go and do what you want with it”.’
Another imposition lifted by the Sony F55 is the rolling shutter look normally associated with CMOS imagers.
‘The global shutter is a huge advance,’ says Paul. ‘Suddenly you are not worrying about vertical lines or panning. The motion overall has a much nicer feel to it, even within a static frame – it’s quite subtle, but add these little things together and they count for something.’
Although the Sony F55 has the option of recording true 4K thanks to a native super 35mm 4K sensor, this project was shot in HD. Paul says going HD allowed them to use internal recording cards, minimising the size and weight of the kit. He chose the SR-SQ recording codec and 4:4:4 for the cleanest green screen shots.
‘Also 4:4:4 gives us a little bit more information on the colour channels – we are talking subtle nuances – but we need all we can get because we are planning to manipulate the colour in post,’ he says.
‘We set the camera up with S-Log3/S-Gamut3.Cine and left it. It gives a very gradable image and with the S-Gamut3.Cine, you start to notice the subtlety of colours in the costume design, or the sets and the art direction. I suspect, that outside of the Sony F65, the Sony F55 camera has the best colour rendition in the world at the moment.’
For a second camera, Paul chose an S-Log capable Sony Alpha a7S fitted with a PL mount, forming a kit that he slipped into his backpack when flying to Nepal, just in case the main camera baggage went astray.
Paul and his AC Sam Mathews repacked the camera baggage several times, eventually stripping the Nepal main camera kit down to just five cases.
‘We simply couldn’t have managed this with any other type of camera,’ he says, ‘But we had to fly up into the mountains and the villages, where the planes aren’t very big.’
The cut in weight and space, was partly due to the Sony F55’s economical power consumption.
‘A couple of 230 W V-Lock batteries will run a Sony F55 all day, and that is with a video sender and remote focus on board. It’s a huge part of the usability of the camera,’ says Paul.‘We could only fly with 130 W batteries to Nepal, and we ran the camera all day on four batteries. As soon as you go somewhere remote, I can’t see why you’d take anything else – and the crew love it because the batteries last.’
Smart with the money
For Paul, things like usability and image quality all are all part of a bigger industry context that heralds more flexible, faster and cost effective shooting styles.
‘Budgets are tough, you need to work faster but you can’t drop your standards, every job has to look better and better. Everyone is pushing the boundaries.
‘So the quality of our work is increasing, but the budgets are going down and that is a test of our skills as cinematographers. Part of that skill set is about being smarter with the available money, and that’s why I went with the Sony F55. You’ve got superior colour, 1250 ISO using S-Log, fantastic usability, and it’s in a very compact package.
‘To give you an example, one day we were doing some boat stuff and we urgently needed another zoom,’ recalls Paul, ‘and the line producer happily got it for us because for 13 weeks I’d asked for nothing. And that was because by making a smart decision on equipment, I had the complete, comprehensive camera kit.’
Hillary premieres on New Zealand’s TV One in 2016.