Shooting television drama is one of the most demanding jobs in the industry. Budgets are tight, equipment is less-than-perfect, and schedules are unrelenting.

While cinematographers typically shoot a demanding 10 – 17 minutes of footage a day, Mark Wareham ACS says the impact of HBO on TV drama has raised local audience expectations.

“Drama dropped back years ago because of reality television… we now have an obligation to not give people ‘over-realism’,” he told a SMPTE session held by the Australian Cinematographers Society yesterday.

“I think that people want to be engaged visually otherwise they’re not going to watch the shows unless there’s something for them. So I think we have a responsibility to push the visuals of television and people are responding.”

Wareham is currently shooting Underbelly Razor, which is set in the 1920-30s. Each episode is shot in just 6.5 days, up to 16 scenes a day. While major scenes are allocated no more than 1.5 hours, Wareham says there are times when that has to be stretched to keep the quality high.

“You might have a scene which they give you an hour to do but it might still take you two-and-a-half hours to do that scene and then you have to spend the rest of the day to catch up.”

Matthew Horrex ACS shoots Home & Away – which is seen by more than 50 million people around the world – and has previously worked on All Saints.

“Shooting TV drama is absolutely what I love because you can influence a generation. I remember in my, probably, early-teens I was watching The Wonder Years … I remember what that show looked like, I remember the way it made me feel – it becomes a very emotional response to that period of your life and you can do the same with series drama more so than, I believe you can, with a feature film.”

He says he has spent the past 12 months attempting to convince Home & Away’s producers to upgrade the “dated technology” they use to shoot – Sony 750P HDCAMs – although they have been able to improve the menus.

Nonetheless, all of the cinematographers on the panel say they have an open mind about the type of cameras they use – recent advances have improved image quality across the industry.

John Stokes ACS (Packed to the Rafters) says he shot a scene a few weeks ago with the Sony F3 and was “absolutely astounded” that a $20,000 camera with a 35mm lenses produced such a beautiful image, while Allan Collins ACS (3 Acts of Murder) says he still prefers film, but has been impressed with the ARRI ALEXA.

Wareham says he shot CLOUDSTREET on the Sony F900 (with Panavision Primo Digital lenses, Harrison Texture Screen filters, as well as some 16mm film) partly because of budget constraints and the Perth location, where the producers wanted to keep the edit.

“I made that choice to get better production values," he says. "Basically, at the end of the day they’re all pretty good [cameras] .. and I prefer to have another light or another crane or a steadicam or something as opposed to spending money on the latest camera because I can manipulate the image.”

He says he has also tested the ARRI ALEXA and couldn’t believe how good the picture was – “talk about catching up with film” – although he has not yet used it on a job with many productions still keen to stick with their entrenched workflows.

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