Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Cinematographer Hisham Abed goes in search of a Secret Girlfriend for a new Comedy Central reality series

Director Ross Novie needed a uniquely skilled cinematographer for his Comedy Central series Secret Girlfriend. Novie and his co-creator Jay Rondot envisioned the program as a comedic lifestyle show along the lines of HBO’s Entourage, which features young, good-looking people having the time of their lives in exciting locations.

The show’s pilot was shot with Novie’s frequent collaborator, Jim Hawkinson. But due to scheduling conflicts, Hawkinson wasn’t available for the series. So with a limited budget and short shooting schedule, Novie began to search around for a DP who could keep his cast looking beautiful, while still working quickly in practical locations. “We were on a very fast schedule, a little over three days per half-hour episode,” the filmmaker recounts. “Sunny in Philadelphia goes about that fast, but that’s about as fast as you go outside of soap operas.”

Enter Hisham Abed, who began his career shooting independent features and, more recently, created an industry buzz for making the real-world look cinematic on the hit MTV reality programs, Laguna Beach and The Hills, which Novie calls, “the epitome of lifestyle shows – the music is there and the scene is there and you’ve got a sense of that world.” Laguna Beach and The Hills follow the “real” lives of young people in Southern California and are shot with a minimal crew, so Novie knew he could count on Abed to deliver a glamorous look while working on a tight schedule at actual locations.

Teaming up for Secret Girlfriend presented a one-of-a-kind challenge for both men: Secret Girlfriend is shot entirely from the P.O.V. of its main character, an unnamed, single 20-something guy – essentially the show’s target demographic viewer cast as the star! The fast-paced program follows the lives of this unseen bachelor and his two best friends (played by Michael Blaiklock and Derek Miller) as they juggle relationships with multiple girlfriends and try to create the next Web video sensation.

Audience 2.0

Created for a generation raised on immersive, first-person video games and streaming Web video, Secret Girlfriend evolved from a series of shorts developed for mobile phones. “The concept was that it’s supposed to be on your mobile phone and you could pretend these attractive women were leaving you a video voicemail message,” Novie elaborates. “Or you could just lie to other people and say, ‘Look, this is my girlfriend.’ But the idea was that over (the course of) 20 video voicemail messages you would get a storyline, an arc in which inevitably she would either dump you or go crazy, because you certainly weren’t going to marry this girl!”

The experiment took off when Fremantle Media put the show on the Internet as part of their series, where the show generated millions of hits. Comedy Central decided the program was a good fit for their young male demographic and asked Novie, Rondot, and showrunner Ben Wexler to rework the premise for broadcast. “Our big challenge developing out of the mobile series was how do we keep this direct engagement that you have when they’re talking right to a camera with a video voicemail message?” Novie adds. “How do you make a show out of that? And so we expanded the world and added some friends and we made it so that you move through the world in terms of your P.O.V.”

The first-person concept meant that all of the primary footage would be shot handheld, so Abed knew he would need a camera with the ergonomics of an ENG rig. That led him to pick the Panasonic HDX900, a tape-based HD camera that records in the DVCPro HD codec. “My first choice of cameras is usually Panasonic whenever I’m shooting video, because I really enjoy the cine gammas built into their cameras,” Abed remarks. “They sometimes blow out highlights a little more than you might want, but the way that they do it is so smooth and pleasing to the eye, that I’ve gotten accustomed to it and know how these cameras react in most situations.”

Starting with Laguna Beach, Abed began developing custom scene files for Panasonic cameras that help him create a film-like look. The DP worked with video engineer Steve Lucas to alter gamma, pedestal, the knee and the white point, creating separate scene files for day and night shooting. Over the years, Abed has continued to refine and modify these files, which were originally created for the Panasonic SDX900, a standard definition camera. The files had to be adapted to the newer HD cameras, including the HDX900 he uses on Secret Girlfriend. “The scene files don’t match on a one-to-one basis from the SD to HD version, but most of the parameters carried over,” Abed explains.

HD Workflow Squared

The HDX900 was not the only HD tool in Abed’s kit; he also needed an even smaller camera for tight spaces and action sequences, such as one that called for the camera to leap into a swimming pool while being shot at by paintball guns. For this, Abed selected the Sony PMW-EX1 that records directly to SxS flash media in Sony’s XDCAM format.

Abed says the footage from the two camera systems had to match as closely as possible, so he spent precious pre-production time testing and adjusting the EX1. “I spent nearly a full day playing with its menu to try to emulate the Panasonic,” he continues. “But I found out that the EX1, even though it’s 4:2:0, has a little more latitude than the Panasonic in the highlights – it doesn’t actually blow out those highlights in the same way.” [Ultimately, the DP came up with settings for the EX1 that matched the Panasonic very well in terms of chroma and gamma, but felt that the rendering of the Panasonic’s softened highlights was a challenge to emulate on the Sony camera.]

The delivery of shot material to post was a straightforward process. Tapes shot on the Panasonic HDX900 were sent to post for ingestion into a PC-based Avid Nitris system. As for the footage shot on the EX1, Abed notes, “We had enough SxS cards on hand so that we could send them directly to post to transfer to their drives and create back-ups. Once that was done, they’d return the cards with written confirmation that they could be re-formatted, if they weren’t already, and we’d reuse the cards.” Having a good number of SxS cards made things a little easier on 1st AC Miguel Medina, who rarely had to bother with transferring shot files from the cards in the field, although he did have a PC laptop with portable hard drives available when this became necessary.

Natural History of a DP

Abed got his start shooting acclaimed independent features like The Natural History of Parking Lots, which was an early Sundance favorite and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature in 1991. He says that shooting and operating within the limitations of an indie feature budget, even those done on 35 mm, fostered creativity that impacted equipment and even manpower. “You may be lucky enough to get a large package,” he observes, “but if you don’t have the manpower, it’s either too big a demand on the crew or a drain on your time in order to make use of it.”

Lessons gleaned from those early indies helped Abed’s move into reality television, where crews are small and the tight budgets often mean using house power rather than a generator. “You become really dependent on Kino Flos,” the DP laughs, “because their power draw is small and they’re versatile for both tungsten and daylight. More recently LEDs have started to make their way into my toolkit. I like the (Litepanels) 1×1’s dimming capability, and sometimes even double them up to create a larger unit.”

Since Novie and Rondot were intent on shooting Secret Girlfriend only in real locations, the first-person P.O.V. concept would be captured from mostly standing eye level – a challenge to light as it afforded relatively few places to hide units. “Sometimes I’d want to light through strong windows,” Abed recounts. “But due to the compressed video latitude, I’d have to knock them down, and find creative ways to raise the exposure inside. I would use Jo-Lekos  (Joker 400 HMIs housed in Source 4 ellipsoidals) hidden behind furniture or skipped across the ceiling into a piece of foamcore tacked at an angle.”

Abed says his general approach is to light for the environment and let the actors walk through it, adding that he tries to, “keep any sort of apparent ambient light as non-sourcey as possible or at least motivated by something in the environment. I also try to make sure the actors are lit in as flattering a light as possible at key points in the blocking, and then build that into the environmental lighting.”

Talk To ME!

In many respects, the filmmakers’ biggest challenge was developing a visual grammar for the first-person P.O.V. approach. Novie’s background includes working as an assistant director on a number of television series, including The Office, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Arrested Development. He calls those experiences vital preparation for his latest venture. “I knew it was crucial to establish a set of rules for Secret Girlfriend,” Novie relates, “so it was decided early on that the main character would never speak, only be spoken to. There’s nothing more boring than watching someone listen to you talk. They’re just nodding their head and listening.”

Novie and Rondot also established that the camera would never show the character’s hands or arms, yet also strove to avoid gimmickry. “The things we want people to focus on are the story and the characters, and to just take in what’s going on without thinking about the gimmick itself,” the director insists. “We had to define what we could see, what lens sizes we could go to, and still keep a natural feel of observation. We use cuts to show emphasis of attention, but no zooms.”

From previous experience Abed understood that while the initial impulse when shooting P.O.V.-style footage is to move the camera rapidly using whip pans to move between subjects, a more measured approach usually plays better on-screen. “The real difficulty came in that you want, for comedy’s sake and for general editing, to have coverage,” the DP continues, so they settled upon a fairly conventional approach of shooting wide shots and close shots with cut points motivated by areas of interest within each scene.

As Abed explains, “I’ve read that the way people see things, we are literally only focused on half of one percent of our field of view. Although we register more around that periphery, at any one time, we’re really only focused on a very small amount of what we think we see. And when your attention is drawn to certain things it sort of motivates a cut, which becomes the language of any film or movie.

“Ross had very specific ideas about how to frame and how to react in terms of timing,” Abed adds. “For example, center punching in narrative material is usually something counter intuitive to most framing aesthetics, but it was the norm on our show, and, in fact, reflects the way people see. Also, I always tried to pay attention to focal length and sizes when anybody was close to the camera. I tried to find that happy medium that feels subjective but still enhances the actors’ best qualities.”

The cinematographer praises Novie as being one of the best directors he’s worked with in terms of knowing where actors are at any point of time in the scene. “That’s crucial when you’re talking about so little prep time and the fact that we shot all 12 scripts out of order,” Abed says.

And although he’s gained a reputation for creating a cinematic look with new HD tools, Abed says the notion that the digital era heralds a new ease of shooting is, “a grand misconception, because you really have to light for it. Like anything else,” he concludes, “HD is a very specific medium that has its own nuances that have to be catered to in order to get the best possible looking image.”

 By Andrew Takeuchi