How I shoot those Amazing Spaces

Chris Smith TV-Bay Magazine
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by Chris Smith
Issue 93 - September 2014

Channel 4 has just finished showing series 3 of its popular ‘Amazing Spaces’, which is all about people building unusual living spaces. Watch it, and even after one viewing it could have you looking at your back garden in a new light, ready to start building that underground family space or cinema, or maybe your new family tree house.

Each episode is the result of a team effort by Plum Productions, but virtually all the camerawork is down to me as DOP, with my camera assistant and sound man helping to get through the very long days of shooting both here in the UK and lately also in the U.S. where we travelled throughout Texas to shoot some more amazing spaces. It’s a fantastic show to work on. I think as a cameraman it’s very rewarding because I have a huge input in terms of what’s seen on screen, and the show really does have a strong visual quality to it. It’s all about architecture, interior design and imagination.

Why me? As in the course of anyone’s career you sometimes get a lucky break, and I thought I was well overdue one. A friend called and said he’d been shooting a series but had to go off on another project and asked if I could step in for a few days - this was series 1 of ‘Amazing Spaces’ in 2012. It was about three quarters of the way through; I jumped in, using his shooting kit, a Canon C300 camera and a Polecam.

I stayed to the end of the series as my friend had now moved on, and for me it was a challenge I really enjoyed. The show is unscripted and kind of evolves organically depending on the build and the contributors, so it’s always different.

I was then asked to stay for the second series, which involved so many days of shooting that I made the decision to source my own kit. For my main camera I chose the Sony PMW F-55, a serious camera. My friend had used a Polecam for the architectural moves and cutaways and I tried that and immediately saw how it raised the production level, so I bought a Polecam Starter Pack PLUS as well and decided I would use my Canon 5D MkIII DSLR on that. I think it’s probably the best stills camera in its class and it shoots extraordinarily good video.

The F-55 is a wonderful camera, 4K capable, producing great broadcast pictures. I use this both on the shoulder and on a tripod for presenter shots, contributor shots and some cutaway shots. The Polecam has proved to be the perfect partner in all this and I use it more and more as we go forward. I always have it with me, and with the help of my sound man and camera assistant they can have it built in 10 minutes while I am shooting with the F-55. I can run across to the Polecam and get all my moves with that, then back to the Sony for some fi nal shots while they break the Polecam kit down then we move on. Even when the Polecam is fully rigged I can pick it up and move to a new position. If there’s a fl at surface I will have it on dolly wheels for quick repositioning.

The Canon 5D MkIII fi ts beautifully on the Polecam and produces great video and I used it on the fi rst three series, but note that it is not without it’s limitations.

Firstly, it’s very hard to record good quality sound on a DSLR like this. You have two choices. You can either use an external mic that plugs into the camera - it has a minijack audio in, but the preamp for the signal processing is very basic, so it is just not great audio.

What most people do is to have a separate recorder that you run your audio to. Then you match up your pictures and your sound afterwards - I use PluralEyes software, which is good. But it’s a bit of a fi ddle for some people and if you’re not used to these little audio recorders - it’s very easy to not press record and at the end of the day you have no audio.

The other limitation is that the camera encodes at 38 Mbps data rate, which falls short of the broadcast requirement of 50 Mbps. So if you were to make a programme for terrestrial television you can only have 20% of your programme shot on such a DLSR because that’s the restriction - everything else must be at 50 Mbps. There are DSLRs now that do shoot at 50 -but the 5D, even the Mk III which I have, has that limitation. There is a further frustrating restriction that after 30 minutes of recording it drops out of record mode. This was done for tax reasons, to avoid the higher video camera tax rate.

So for series 4 which we are shooting now I have upgraded my Polecam camera to the Canon C300 which in a stroke removes all these limitations. It’s not a DLSR, it’s a video camera, but I use the same Canon lenses and I think it’s the perfect camera for Polecam. With that change, and with my increasing skills with Polecam, I fi nd we are using it more and more - even for some of the presenter and contributor shots as it opens up the creativity with the moves I can make while shooting. I’ve also added two more carbon fi bre poles to the rig and added the Wire Strut system for stability on windy days with the larger camera and increased jib length.

We are now shooting series 4 in Italy - demanding days, but satisfying. For the broadcast work I’m doing, I consider I now have the perfect kit to give me the open creativity I want.

Tags: iss093 | Amazing Spaces | Channel 4 | Canon C300 | Sony PMW F-55 | Polecam | Canon 5DMklll DSLR | Chris Smith
Contributing Author Chris Smith

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