Don Burgess, ASC, RED Camera Owner

“I want to have the cameras that I can really get to know. It gives me more control over the images that I’m delivering.”

JON FAUER: Don, I understand that you own your cameras.

DON BURGESS: Yes, I own 2 RED MONSTRO 8K VV cameras.

Who takes care of them?

I have a good relationship with the rental houses. It depends on where in the world we’re shooting and where we’re getting equipment from. You have to be flexible these days.

I think it’s a great idea to own your own equipment. Please give us some examples.

We recently shot “Sextuplets.” The challenge was the fact that one actor was playing six, and at one time seven, parts in the movie. Ultimately that involved a lot of motion control work to pull off the illusion that in the same scene you’ve got seven different characters. The RED camera with the MONSTRO 8K VV sensor was a perfect choice for the movie because you need to “oversize.” In other words, it’s good to have extra room around the frame to move things and adjust in post when you do all your visual effects work putting the composites together. Having that extra VV frame size really helps in keeping the quality of the image high and also giving you the ability to shoot it like a normal movie. A lot of people were involved. It’s a Netflix film. Light Iron’s does the DI. A few visual effects companies are involved. It’s pretty complex.

What aspect ratio were you shooting in?

We decided on a 2:1 aspect ratio.

I guess you crop in post?

Yes. We we created the frame lines within the frame lines. That gave us wiggle room later to adjust the frame around in post, working ultimately at a 7K extraction inside the 8K frame.

And the native MONSTRO sensor is pretty close to 2:1 anyway?

It’s pretty close to that. It’s a format that I think works well on the television screen. It fills up the Smartphone, iPhone, iPad and the TV screen. But you never know. You might end up doing a 1:85 release, too, in a few theaters. So you kind of have to be ready for all of that.

Why did you decide to shoot FF/VV large format?

Mike Tiddes, the director and I basically had conversations about how this show would be viewed and what Netflix wanted. We wanted to fill up the frame with as big an image on the TV as possible. When we looked at the various ways to approach that idea, this one seemed to be a balance between shooting for the big screen in 2.39:1, which I love. I’m not crazy about 16:9. So 2:1 was something that could work for the director and me.

Agreed. But, I guess someone could ask, why not shoot in Super 35 format? That’s a leading question because I think I know your answer.

Well, what do you think the answer is?

It just looks better in large format because of the more compressed perspectives that you can get in large format. You’re using longer lenses and getting wider shots.

Yes, I think that the bigger format in 8K with these essentially medium format lenses allow you to shoot much wider and still not get distortion. So that’s a wonderful thing. Especially in certain types of films, the wider lenses really put the audience right in there with the characters.

What about depth of field? Was that part of your decision?

Not as much on this one. But I do like the out-of-focus fall-off. I like that you can be wider on the lenses and still still get a fall-off that it gives you more control over the T-stop. Especially at 800 ASA, you have more tools in the toolbox to work with. You know, you can try a lot of different things until it feels right to you. And it’s just a lot more fun.

Do you own your own lenses as well?

No, I don’t. I sold all my lenses when I was worried about where this was all going to end up. All of a sudden your lenses become obsolete because they don’t cover the format that everybody falls in love with. So at the moment, no I don’t own lenses. But maybe the dust will clear and we’ll all settle on a 8K VV (40mm x 20mm). But we’ll see.

Sensor sizes and standards are like the Wild West.

It is pretty wild. But the projects vary so much. On “Aquaman” I had three units shooting all the time and I needed a massive amount of cameras and lenses. You can’t come up with that with a guy building lenses in the garage. You’ve got to be able, on every show, to approach the material and be flexible to go a lot of different directions.

“Aquaman” was shot with what cameras and lenses?

“Aquaman” was a combination of Alexa Open Gate and RED DRAGON 6K sensor with Primo 70 lenses.  

Same lenses as on “Sextuplets?” You must like them.

Yes. Originally I was planning on shooting the DXL for “Aquaman” but the studio wasn’t ready to go there yet. They wanted assurances that the camera had really been used on enough productions for them to feel comfortable going with them. But my original intention was to go with the DXL. I was very happy with the way it looked. But now, the RED WEAPON with the MONSTRO 8K VV sensor is my first choice. It is basically the same RED sensor technology  used in the DXL. The color spaces are a little different and there’s a lot of ways to skin that cat. But with the way my cameras are set up now, I’m very happy with the way they look.

Tell me a little bit about how you have your RED MONSTRO 8K VV cameras outfitted.

I used all Panavision lenses and the latest Panavision accessories. We used their set-up as far as the connectors and the lens mount. I had two of my cameras and one of theirs and we had a second unit for awhile. It was good to keep the system all the same. The lens mount is the Panavision SP-70.

Did the Primo 70s have the internal motors?

No. The assistants were using their own lens motors and wireless lens controls. They all have their own gear. They live and die by that stuff. And so they all prefer to have their stuff tweaked out the way they like it.

I think that’s a good thing. Rental houses may complain about how they’re losing money on kit rentals, but I think for the assistants, it’s their life-blood.

It is. They rely on it so much and it’s all about touch and feel. How do you develop that if you’ve got a different system every time you go out?

You’re absolutely right. So who were your focus pullers on “Sextuplets?”

Don Steinberg on “A” camera. The DIT was Mark Gilmer.

Did you set a look for the show and your DIT kept it, or how did that work?

Pretty much. We found a contrast that we liked in pre-production. It was the first time I used RED’s IPP2 (image processing pipeline) and it worked great. It was comforting to see the look of the film on the monitors as we were shooting. They did a really good job.

Did you tweak anything from shot-to-shot or you just went with it as is?

Only when we got into extreme situations where you’re kind of rescuing data being shot really late in the day or with extreme color temperature differences. Then we would go in and make some adjustments. Sometimes we would do a little color correction in the camera to keep it all looking the same and keep it matching.

Did you have dailies?

I looked at dailies on an iPad. It was set-up by Light Iron with their system. Mark would handle that and it would all get delivered to us on the iPad . I’d take it home with me every night and look at it. Pretty great.

How did you and the director come up with a look and a style?

You spend a lot of time early on and you keep talking about what the movie should feel like and how we’re going to make all these motion controlled shots. We decided to use the Technodolly extensively on the film. Then we figured out how to block with it so we could always recreate all the shots day after day depending on how many characters were in the scene. So the technique evolved around that. Then as you’re picking the locations, talking about it and looking at it, you develop a language of what the film should look like. It all gets sorted out as the director spends time with the production designer. Next, you figure out what the lighting should look like and, by the way, how do we keep it consistent from day one to day six in the same scene with the characters interacting with each other.

It becomes a combination of look and technique. It’s very complicated to shoot a scene day after day and have to keep coming back to specific shots and match the lighting. You can’t rehearse every character all the time before we start. So you have take a leap of faith and figure out as best you can how that shot’s going to work days ahead of time. It was a real continuity challenge to shoot all these images and know that they will blend together and look organic and look like it’s all part of the same scene.

I guess RED’s MONSTRO 8K VV sensor was helpful because of its high resolution.

Right. The high resolution really helps because you can shoot wide knowing that you’re going to tighten up the frame later. That way, you’ve left yourself plenty of room for anything that may happen. Because if you think you know you have it all worked out but then the actor gets creative and decides to turn and move a different direction, hopefully you have enough room to accommodate that.

Don Burgess, ASC and Mike Tiddes, Director

Did you shoot everything on the Technodolly?

We used it for all the scenes where we had multiple characters and we needed a motion control head and motion control dolly. It allows you to create camera movement. You want the audience  to forget that it’s one guy playing all these characters. It’s a much more elegant way to tell this story.

When shooting multiple cameras, were they both on Technodollies?

We would shoot one motion control shot but at the same time we may take the B camera and shoot over the shoulder with a double playing one of the characters. We set up the Technodolly and the track in one place and we’re going to get all 18 shots off this particular setup because we can swing the arm around for almost any angle from master to close-up.

What focal lengths did you mostly work with?

Wide Primes. I would the 35mm, 50mm and the 65mm were probably the three lenses we used the most. Occasionally we’d go super-wide with the 14mm or 24mm to create, a different feel for a particular situation. Those very wide lenses focus very close and have a minimal amount of distortion. You can really have a lot of fun with them.

Speaking of focus, are you shooting wide open a lot?

No, because when you have all the different characters and you have to rack-focus to the person who is speaking, it becomes almost impossible to figure out the timing. We had to create more depth of field to keep more things in focus and bring less attention to an actual focus-shift and to make it feel more organic.

With motion control and multiple cameras, were you using wireless video or were you hard-wired to your monitors?

Most of the time we went wireless, not hard-wired.

Do you have your own wireless system with MONSTRO?

I don’t. I find that wireless video improves every job, and that’s a good thing.

So who provides it?

Sometimes it’s the first assistant cameraman who has that gear. Sometimes it’s the DIT. Sometimes it comes from the camera rental company. It’s different on every show. I let the first AC and the DIT duke it out on that. I just want the best equipment going and they do, too. They’re always in search of equipment that not only works great but doesn’t break down and functions well. You never want anybody waiting on you because your stuff is not working.

Who maintains your equipment?

Don Steinberg. Whenever we start a show, usually I’ll contact someone at RED and one of their people will come to the prep and then ensure that the camera is tweaked, up-to-date, performing brilliantly and both cameras are in sync and look the same. RED has been very helpful in sending a technician to come out during prep and get the cameras all tuned up.

What’s the reason that you own your own RED cameras? (As you know, I’m in favor of owning/operating.)

I want to have the cameras that I can really get to know. It used to be that you got to know film stocks. Now we have to get to know these cameras. They change so much and there’s always so much to learn. But with these two cameras, I can keep them up to date. When the next generation is ready, then I can update. It gives me more control over the images that I’m delivering.

I agree. When you say update, does that mean you trade them in and get the new ones?

Sometimes it’s upgrading the camera system. I’ve had these RED DSMC2 camera bodies for quite awhile. I just upgraded them to include the latest sensor technology from RED with the MONSTRO 8K VV sensor before the last film. It’s worked out great. I couldn’t be happier.

In between jobs, which I know is a very short duration of time with you, where does the equipment go?

It goes to a rental house. They look after it. I’m getting ready to go do some commercials in Vancouver next week.

I think that’s a good model for rental houses, to work with owner/operators and DP’s who own their own equipment and have the rental house store, service and even do the billing. I think it’s good for everybody because the rental house doesn’t have to spend all their capital on new gear. And you have the equipment that you need.

That’s something that’s always kind of existed. Otto Nemenz, when he first started and had his little place on Sunset Boulevard, a lot of the equipment was owned by guys like us. He maintained it and rented it out. Then he got bigger and bigger and eventually he didn’t need our equipment. But that’s how it all began. When he first started, Otto was an assistant cameraman who was very busy and then became a cameraman in his own right, and was always involved in equipment.

I remember that narrow, long space of his on Sunset Boulevard. Owning equipment is not for everyone. Why do you?

There’s a certain comfort in knowing that your cameras are only being used by you. You know where they’ve been and you know what they’ve been through. You can rely on them and you have certain people working on them. There’s more comfort in that for me.

Reprinted from Film and Digital Times April 2019 Edition #92-93

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