Interview by Douglas Bankston
In 2007, the often-surreal HBO comedy series Flight of the Conchords became a breakout comedy hit for its starring musical duo, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement. The two New Zealanders â€” trying to navigate life in New York City as they promote their fledgling rock band and deal with a lone, overzealous, fan â€” are sweetly naive, and often retreat into a creative fantasy realm when confronted by the realities of their Lower East Side existence, giving the show an unpredictable storytelling edge.
For season two of the series, director of photography Patrick Stewart and executive producer-director-Steadicam operator Troy Miller moved up to HD, but the showâ€™s signature style remains the same: raw, realistic visuals punctuated by stylish â€œmusic videoâ€ sequences that pay homage to classic references.
DV: What have you changed from season one to season two?
Patrick Stewart: I convinced the producers not to shoot on the [Panasonic] SDX900 for another season and to shoot HD instead. My first choice was to shoot with the RED ONE camera, but they were not comfortable with its media situation â€” how to store it and how much that would cost. We settled on the AJ-HDX900, the high-definition sibling of the AJ-SDX900. Flight of the Conchords is a 1080 show, but the AJ-HDX900 is a 720-native camera. You have two choices for up-rezzing: in camera or in post. My first reaction was not to let the camera do that, because surely a post house could do it at much higher quality. A DP friend of mine, who is much more technical than I am, heard about my decision and convinced me to let the camera do it. If you donâ€™t let the camera do it on its own, you end up with less information, and more information is always better.
Besides now being in HD, is your shooting approach the same as before?
Stewart: Our lighting budget and the camera department are slightly bigger. That allows us to tackle more complicated scenes and music videos without having to order extra equipment on a daily basis. The style is exactly the same as season one. We approach our style in the same way that Bret and Jemaine approach their lives, which is in a simplistic way.
Troy Miller: We donâ€™t use a DIT. All of our camera assistants and camera operators, myself included, are uniquely responsible and aware of the technology and how to work with it. We donâ€™t spend a lot of time in a tent, and there isnâ€™t a guy â€œcoloringâ€ the footage all the time. Weâ€™re responsible for our shots as we go, and it all matches up great.
Stewart: Troy is a very good Steadicam operator. One of the cool additions we have this year is a Segway that Troy bought, and with that he can do walking or running shots among cars or along sidewalks.
Miller: Itâ€™s created by a company called Handsfree-Transporter in Germany, and it was originally built for Audi factory workers so they could hold things in their hands as they steer with their legs. As a Steadicam operator, Iâ€™m always looking for shots where I can take advantage of the arm, and I had seen this rig at NAB last year. They sell parts for you to convert your own Segway. For our purposes, we do a lot of stuff on the street, car-to-car and dolly. It fits the look that I want Flight of the Conchords to have â€” a Steadicam on a Segway. Primarily, it is for the music videos, not so much for dialogue scenes because the show is a docu-style in which it is more appropriate to go handheld.
What is your shooting schedule like for an episode?
Stewart: We shoot a 30- to 40-page script in five 12-hour days.
With such a short shooting schedule for each episode, how are the music video segments budgeted time-wise, and what are some influences?
Miller: Thatâ€™s the brilliance of Tracey Baird, our co-EP. She does the budgets. Weâ€™re very exacting in how we do our videos and what we allow time-wise and style-wise. Because the songs are already produced, we know what each shot is going to be, unlike in the real music video world where you shoot the whole song in five different locations in five different ways. Weâ€™ll go in and shoot one chorus in the one set we need and move on. Dan Butts, our designer, and I will look at style plates of an existing video with Patrick. Each director is responsible for his own videos. James Bobin, for example, did a video on one-inch tape with old tube cameras to get the [streaky,] â€œtrailing cometâ€ effect to pay homage to that era. Thatâ€™s the way Bret and Jemaineâ€™s music is â€” they cross so many genres.
What has been the most interesting experience while shooting season two?
Stewart: We had a guest director this year, Michel Gondry. Working with him was a little more challenging because there is a slight language difference. Even though he speaks English, it is with a very heavy French accent. When he gets excited, it gets heavier. And judging by his work in the past, you can tell he doesnâ€™t look at something and shoot it straight on. He directed the episode called â€œThe Australian,â€ and we had all the light sources bounce off the floors, walls, kitchen counters and tables to light the people. He didnâ€™t want the normal, realistic approach that I take to lighting. He cares about screen direction, and once you get a lot of business going with people moving here and there, it makes shooting the scene with three cameras more difficult. Almost every scene in that episode is different from the way we normally shoot Conchords.
How do you normally light the two leads?
Stewart: When they are in their apartment, I want to make it look as real as possible. This year, because we have a slightly higher lighting budget, I bring the sun or moon or streetlights â€” depending on what time of day it is â€” a lot deeper into their apartment than before. Just as in season one, I could not have achieved shooting this show in this manner [time frame and budget] without my Litepanels. The four 1'x1' panels I have in my kit, in addition to the two Minis, have been used in basically every scene of the show â€” definitely my most important tool. They are in the first case to arrive at every location and the last to leave. We use Rosco VIEW extensively in the show. It was a time-saver as well as a budget-saver in the long run. It works as a polarizing ND gel. In other words, instead of being locked into a single ND exposure without having to add or subtract to the original layer as the external sunlight fluctuates, you add it to the windows once and dial up or down the corresponding lens polarizing filter to whatever exposure you need. You can make the view beyond the gel and windows almost transparent or almost black. I also use it for effects shots. For instance, we put a 4'x8' sheet of it on a Plexiglas frame behind Jemaine. At a certain point in the scene we needed to segue into a music video where his background needed to go to black in camera. At that point, we simply dialed down the polarizing filter on the lens, and voilÃ .
Troy, you have a unique combination of titles: executive producer, director and Steadicam operator. How did you end up doing all that for this show?
Miller: James Bobin is the show runner-writer and the principal director. My company, Dakota Pictures, produces the show, so Iâ€™m the executive producer kind of by default, overseeing the look from a production company standpoint. I do a lot of comedy, and when I direct, I also do the operating because I can be shooting while Iâ€™m talking to the actors. Iâ€™m pretty aggressive with camera moves, and because Iâ€™m operating, I donâ€™t have to talk to a dolly grip or focus puller and talk to the actor while Iâ€™m doing some improv. With the Segway, I can do a dolly shot while Iâ€™m panning and tilting and talking to an actor right there. Juggling all those balls at once makes me a better director, and I have a direct connection with the visuals of the film while I am shooting it.