Photo: TM & C 2008 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved
Ross Berryman, ASC, ACS photographed the first season of the new Joss Whedon television series Dollhouse. Whedon, the mastermind behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Angel, dreamed up a world where "dolls" - mind-wiped humans with altered DNA - are programmed with new memories and traits, and sent into the world to perform various tasks. Dollhouse premiered on the Fox television network in February.
Berryman says his approach began with the huge set, which takes up all of Stage 19 at the 20th Century Fox studios. The Dollhouse is a secret, futuristic laboratory that is the nucleus of the show and the place where most episodes begin and end.
Berryman collaborated closely with production designer Stuart Blatt on the design of the sets. "Joss values the ability to shoot as fast as possible with minimal lighting," Berryman says. "In essence, that meant that we had to build as much lighting as possible into the set. Stuart's job was to create something that's great-looking but also functional, and that's not easy."
Cinematographer Ross Berryman (R) "Dollhouse" Photo: TM & C 2008 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved
The Dollhouse set is multilevel with many glass walls, giving Berryman many opportunities for interesting framing. But those same traits came with tricky challenges like the need to light bigger spaces and avoid reflections.
"It is very difficult to shade this set," Berryman says. "We found that one way to create contrast was to use very hard backlighting and some edge lighting. I also used firestarter Par cans aimed straight down at the wood floor, which created hot spots and added contrast. We were trying to create texture with lighting."
A Steadicam rig is often used for walk-and-talk shots, allowing Berryman to show off more of the set. He uses wider focal lengths for the same reason. For more conventional situations, he uses two Panavision cameras, sometimes at 45-degree angles. "Because of our multidirectional lighting, cross shooting is not a problem for us," he says. "That also helps with the speed and efficiency."
Berryman photographs the entire show on KODAK VISION2 500T 5260 film in three-perf format, which saves 25 percent in stock and processing costs. "That stock reacts to primary colors in a much bolder way," he says. "We keep the Dollhouse fairly richly exposed and contrasty. If we are shooting exteriors, I use the 5260 with ND filters, if necessary, which helps keep things consistent."
The images were composed in 4:3 aspect ratio but the operators protected for 16:9, and the show is available in HD format via Fox. Post is done at Level 3 in Burbank, California. After completing the first couple episodes, Berryman was able to sit down with colorist Larry Field and post-producer Chris Cheramie and color the images to his liking. During production, Field and Berryman exchange JPEG files, which he views on his computer.
"I just make an observation or a suggestion here and there," Berryman says. "Larry is such a good colorist that I don't really do a lot of fine tuning."
A premium is placed on moving quickly. During one 12-hour shoot, Berryman and his crew did 66 setups. "On a Joss Whedon show, it's never a linear storyline," he says. "It's always multilayered and complex. On the main sets, typically we can flick a switch, do a bit of fine tuning, and then shoot. Of course, you have to be a little more careful with the close-ups. But we can plow through quite a bit of footage when we need to.
"We sometimes go with a completely different look but it was always story driven," says Berryman. "It isn't your straight-up and -down storytelling."