While industry buzz about digital acquisition often centers around high-profile feature films, such as David Fincher’s The Social Network, television is, of course, where the real digital action happens. That’s because episodic television’s conversion to digital acquisition is almost total at this point. If we call the Finchers, the Lucas’, the Michael Mann’s, and others leaders of the movie world’s digital acquisition movement, then we have to give some credit to Dean Devlin and his team on the TNT drama, Leverage, for elbowing to the front of television’s digital production line.
Devlin is, of course, a longtime movie and television producer, and for the last three years, he has been producing Leverage using a completely tapeless, Red-based workflow that has been increasingly drawing interest around the industry. Leverage, in fact, was the first episodic drama to convert fully to the Red workflow in 2008. Since then, the show has evolved to the point where it’s shot entirely in Portland, with data constantly flowing electronically to Los Angeles, where it’s all put together entirely under one roof at Devlin’s Electric Entertainment in Los Angeles.
In the last couple of years, I’ve been chatting on-and-off with Devlin about his uncompromising evangelism of the digital way, including an interesting conversation that became part of the final cover story ever written for the late, great Millimeter magazine in 2009. More recently, I caught up with him to find out how Leverage’s workflow has progressed as the show pushed through season three and prepared to launch into season four this coming February. Devlin was effusive as ever about the tapeless, soup-to-nuts approach, even going so far as to insist “there is no longer any question about this workflow’s viability—the real question is when is everybody converting. Digital is where it’s all going.”
But Devlin also pointed out that the whole paradigm shift wouldn’t work without an adventurous director of photography along for the ride. That cinematographer is Australian Dave Connell, ACS. Connell hopped on Devlin’s digital roller coaster early on, starting with the Triangle miniseries for Sci-Fi Channel in 2005, which he says was his first digital job after years shooting film. (Triangle was shot using Sony’s HDW-F900.) Next, Devlin hired him to shoot the Leverage pilot—Devlin’s directorial debut, shot in 2008 using Panavision’s Genesis system. Then, while waiting to see if TNT would pick up the show, Connell shot the third installment of the Librarians series of television movies for Devlin. The first two installments were shot using Genesis, but for the third movie, they tried an early version of the Red system, and following that experience, they decided to commit to the Red for Leverage, recording exclusively to solid state hard drives. Season three was shot using Red One cameras configured with 4k Mysterium chips, and now, heading into season four, they are expecting to convert to the new Red Epic system before the season is over.
When he spoke with me, Connell was prepping to shoot yet another pilot for Devlin ahead of season four of Leverage—a pilot called Braintrust, built entirely on the Leverage workflow and infrastructure. Connell marveled at how far the system, the workflow, and his trust of that workflow have come since Leverage commenced. He also marvels at his friend Devlin’s dogged pursuit of an all-digital broadcast production present and future—for Leverage specifically, for his growing business at Electric, and for the larger industry.
“I have a good relationship with Dean—being his DP on [Leverage] and on Braintrust is easier because he has the same team, hires the same people, and we all know how everything works,” says Connell. “[For both], we are doing all shooting in Portland and all post in Los Angeles. I can move the camera a lot using Red. I can virtually color-grade shots in camera, I can view dailies online each day, we can zoom into the image without quality loss with the 4k chip far better than we could a year ago, and I’m [collaborating] with a guy [Devlin] who believes in this workflow, and worked hard to make it happen.”
And the two men are, indeed, simpatico on their preferred way of making television. Devlin eagerly promotes the notion that the tapeless Red format is revolutionary and important for television in terms of cost and flexibility because, as he says, “it is software based, so in a sense, every few weeks, we get a brand new camera for free over the Internet. And these are significant improvements over where we were (when the show started). Now, with the Mysterium chip, it’s a whole new ballgame, and it will keep evolving.”
Connell wholeheartedly agrees. The cinematographer suggests that once the workflow launches, if you stick with it, and know what you are doing, the rapid improvements you can make along the way are startling.
“Back when we started, it was build 10 or 12 of the camera and you needed so much light to use them,” Connell says. “They were rated higher than they said, about 300 ASA, and the viewfinder was way too dark. But, they have come so far—it will continue getting better. The [Mysterium] version we used [for season 3] has an ASA of about 800 to 2,000, and that lets me shoot on locations I couldn’t shoot on just a year earlier.”
The questions of quality and nuance and the loss of a filmic sensibility are hotly being debated around the industry right now, of course. But Devlin argues the imagery is “beautiful.” He suggests the resolution and quality debate in terms of how the imagery shows up on a broadcast screen is largely akin to the debate over the differences between any new entertainment-related technology and what came before—black-and-white to color, vinyl to CD, and so on.
“People often show me tests that are apples to apples, but they are not both apples,” Devlin suggests. “They each have limitations, but if you take the limitations of one and the limitations of the other, digital is a hands-down winner for [broadcast television production].”
Connell agrees, and emphasizes that, regardless of one’s aesthetic preferences, television has, in fact, moved inexorably toward digital acquisition. Therefore, he suggests, broadcast directors of photography keen on keeping up with the changes need to work with bosses like Devlin.
“I think he’s revolutionized the TV industry a little bit,” Connell says. “What’s he’s done to make Electric a one-stop shop is pretty impressive. It’s quite a factory now, and it’s a model other people are looking at. On my end, as the cinematographer, it’s a hard grind, to be sure, but it is also easier in many other ways.”