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How I Shot That: A DP from ‘True Blood’ Explains His Toughest Scenes

How I Shot That: A DP from 'True Blood' Explains His Toughest Scenes

On the eve of the final season of “True Blood”, cinematographer David Klein, ASC — who has shared his bloody duties on the show since 2011 with Evans Brown — gave us an inside look at Bon Temps and its inhabitants: the live ones, dead and even the undead.

For this seventh season, the production switched from tried-and-true Kodak film to almost-as-good-as-film Alexa, which Klein was not originally convinced was the “proper machine to shoot the final season of a show that had been on film since the beginning.”

Once Stephen Beres, Erik Hansen and Suny Behar at HBO developed a grain application that was more than just a simple overlay – the same grain over every part of the image – Klein’s tune began to change. “They took actual film grain and applied it separately to the highlights, mid-tones and shadows separately” says Klein. “It’s the first time I’ve been happy with the Alexa in place of film stocks. And after being introduced to the Canon Zooms on ‘Homeland,’ I brought them to ‘True Blood’ and replaced all zooms in my arsenal. They’re the sharpest I’ve come across and they breathe less than any I’ve used.”

So for some, these five clips-and-descrips will be a look inside the brain of the man that helps bring magic into our living rooms all those many Sunday nights. But for others who prefer to keep the mystery just that — a mystery — I suggest you click on a different article.

(Technical Note: All episodes specified below were shot on Kodak Vision3 500T 5219 and 250D 5207 with Arricam Studio and Arricam LT cameras and Cooke S4 Primes lenses. On occasion, Klein would use an Angeniuex Optimo Zoom lens.)

1) Episode 402 – Sookie walks through cemetery, reveal Bill’s new house

Scott [Winant, the episode’s director] wanted to float very close to the ground and track along with Sookie (Anna Paquin) as she walks through the cemetery, some woods and then into a clearing, revealing Bill’s newly renovated house. I got to go on a big Techno Crane for that.

The fact that it was a new set piece gave me an opportunity to blend the old style of “True Blood’s” lighting with the new story lines. SFX gave me a lot of nice atmosphere to work with and I mainly lit Tungsten corrected with half blue gel for ambient moon-type lighting. It was my first night exterior with Anna on the show, so I went pretty big with the lights — big, soft sources for my lead actress. Probably a couple of 12×20 Chimera rags with at least four 9-light Maxi’s as the key, wrapped with a 6×12 Chimera, all double diffused with full grid or something similar.

I’d been told to use Matthew Jensen’s (ASC) episodes as my guide for the look of the show, and I was really trying to stay true to what he’d created for the show, while still adding my own voice to it.

2) Episode 402 – The Queen is killed

This is the same episode, but a flashback scene where Bill fights with the Queen [Evan Rachel Wood] and enlists humans’ help to kill her in order to make him Vampire King of Louisiana. Again, I was a bit tethered to Jensen’s look for this one. But I had production designer Suzuki Ingerslev’s beautiful, dreadfully run-down set with dark walls and paint falling off to work with — a lot of very rich texture.

We put [Wood] standing on an SFX rig similar to a Chapman Nike stage crane that VFX later digitally erased, so it appeared that she was flying and coming down to the ground. SFX also rigged her with tubes that run up through her wardrobe and shoot blood out of a sprinkler-head type nozzle from her chest and back, creating entry and exit wounds of blood spray. As she falls out of frame, VFX took over and turned her into an explosion of blood on the floor, the elements for which we shot on set directly after we shot the Queen’s death. 

This was my introduction to “True Blood,” and my introduction to how truly hard it was going to be. We had multiple VFX, SFX and make up-FX to deal with and we also had to spray a group of actors, including Stephen Moyer, with blood. You have to do all the coverage for a scene like that, turn around, and then turn around again for the post blood-spray portion of the scene. But once you spray an actor with blood, there’s no going back to clean usually. You only get to do it once, so you have to get it right.  

3) Episode 501 – Limo explosion

In prep for this episode, our executive producer Gregg Fienberg showed me a scene from another show he produced where the camera panned with a motorcycle as it crossed a street and gets pummeled by a semi-truck. Essentially, we did the same thing. We panned with the limo as it makes a 90-degree left turn, and at the end of our pan we locked the camera off and replaced the drivable limo with the limo that was to be exploded and repeated the end of the shot. The SFX team rigged the car with explosives, and also put it on a wire to pull it as it exploded so we could blend the two limo shots, which VFX did seamlessly in post.

This was Long Beach standing in for New Orleans and the difficult part for me was lighting that huge expanse, without Condors, to accommodate flames. When I’m lighting to accommodate flames, I’m doing everything so bright that I have to rely on my light meter and math rather than just my eyes. In order to the have the flames retain all of their exposure and color, I get the ratios down to where I think they ought to be but they’re generally four or five stops brighter than normal, so I put ND filters on the lens to retain my preferred shooting stop, which on film was one-and-a-half.

4) Episode 601 – Sookie rescinds Eric’s invitation

This was done all practically. After Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) gives Sookie back the deed to her house, she politely rescinds his invitation to her home in order to try and maintain some semblance of a ‘normal’ life. As we all know, a vampire can’t enter your home without first being invited. At least humans in Bon Temps have that going for them. 

So we had Alex standing on a metal skid-plate and the SFX guys put some sort of wax on the floor to have it slide easily, and they just pulled him out as I rolled camera. They also had a rig to slam the door once he was on the other side. That was an easy scene for me, even though it looks really cool and complicated — I just had to not have the rig and cable in the shot. 

5) Episode 603 – Bill walks in the sunlight

Here we have Bill thinking he’s become this Vampire god, and therefore can walk in the sunlight. Amazingly, this scene was done almost totally in-camera on location in Malibu. The only VFX by John Massey and his team of wizards was painting in the plains of Louisiana for the Santa Monica Mountains, and putting Moyer’s face over the stuntman’s (Mark Aaron Wagner) as Bill runs into the house on fire. Obviously, Bill’s brilliant idea doesn’t work.

We set this shot up in the middle of the night to have everything ready at the break of dawn. We needed just the right amount of light to accommodate flames, which actually was about 30 minutes later then we’d have needed for a normal dawn shot. Everybody was just staring at me and my light meter so that when I said “go,” they’d put fuel on Wagner as quickly and safely as they could (it took about two minutes), roll the cameras, light him on fire, and run into the house so we could get the shot.

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