Cinematographer Ross Riege and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts put the visual fun back in stand-up in a groundbreaking new series for Comedy Central
“I’ve been watching stand up on television for over 20 years,” says director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. “And it’s always the same boring camera placement. Drive an ENG truck up to a venue, unload, capture the routine, and then roll out. It’s the comedy equivalent of shooting live sports. Working with a group of Chicago-based comedians in the pre-YouTube days, I wanted to find a way to make stand-up more digestible for the Internet generation and I began to add visual elements.”
What Vogt-Roberts created intrigued plenty of eyeballs at Comedy Central. So, the cable network decided to let him run wild with a new series Mash-Up, hosted by comedian T.J. Miller, which centers on jokes, sketches and visualizations. Then Vogt-Roberts brought Guild cinematographer Ross Riege on-board, who was eager to help mash things up, visually speaking.
“Ross and I made a decision to shoot anamorphic 5K on the EPIC and then do a blow-up from the 5K image to create a traditional 16:9 image,” Vogt-Roberts recounts. “On set we framed everything for 16:9 knowing we would be doing the blow up in post.
Most TV doesn’t shoot anamorphic so we were taking a risk and wanted to simplify the process as much as possible for everyone around us.
“All of our dailies came back from the post house with the blow up already applied for easy editing,” he continues. “The goal was to create a TV show with anamorphic lens flares and breathing – qualities that provide a more cinematic and untraditional look to further break the conventions of how people are used to seeing stand-up.”
Mash-Up’s first run was an ambitious shoot. It was two nights back to back of stand-up with comedians Chris Hardwick, Hannibal Buress, Chris D’Elia, Pete Holmes, Nick Varrerott and more. The team captured their “bits” on stage at The El Rey Theater.
“We built from the comedian’s marks outward,” explains Riege. “You never know how much comics are going to move around and we couldn’t use a spotlight because it was going to negatively interact with out LED background, so you light a ‘hero zone’ and try to keep them inside. We used a number of lekos from the grid over the stage as both backlights and keys, and a strip of footlights. Since our handheld cameras were often looking into the wings, we placed additional practicals and Par cans there so we had some lighting texture that would break apart in the deep background.
“Looking into the audience, we wanted to see them, but just enough to read their presence,” Riege adds. “This show is not so much about hard-selling the audience’s reactions to jokes. We splashed more lekos with patterns from a number of points in the ceiling, and supplemented that with a few back edges from the balcony and a long row of PAR cans across this balcony, to add some perspective as we look over the comedian’s shoulders into the audience.”
For the live portion, Vogt-Roberts and Riege counted on the dynamic range and texture they could get from the five RED cameras placed in a non-traditional stand-up manner; two in the back, one on a long lens and one on the side, a wide angle zoom on a Jimmy Jib and one or two hand held, roaming to add punch to the shots. Much of the show plays out in tighter close ups than used in a traditional stand up show.
“A crucial element to the stage design is the LED screen behind the stand-ups,” Riege explains. “This is where the foundation of the 8-bit aesthetic is showcased. All the titles are built in advance of the show and are a practical element during the live show production. There are many screen resolutions available, from HD all the way down.”
Riege says they opted for a low-resolution screen with separate RGB diodes because it complemented the “8-bit” aesthetic of the show’s title and intro sequences. The larger LED elements also provided a look (particularly on close-ups of the comedians) where each of the RGB elements broke apart into their own out of focus color, “which gave us a really nice graphic bokeh in the background when we were on those long lenses and shooting at a shallow stop,” Riege says.
“In addition, the size of the stage also determined the placement of the screen in relation to the ‘hero marks’ for the talent. It was a tight fit, as we had to squeeze in lighting elements in a way that they wouldn’t dilute the screen. For the series, we had the larger stage and needed a larger screen, so the math was a bit different. We ended up with a slightly smaller pixel size but still got the effect we were looking for.”
Soon after, the team went on location to El Mirage, a dry lakebed near Los Angeles, to shoot vignettes to pop between the stand-up and elements to visually portray the bits. “Our locations team really had their work cut out for them and Ross and I were stealing shots left and right,” says Vogt-Roberts.
“We drove to the beach one morning with an actor to get a shot before our official shoot day began. We had to build locations around one another and nothing made sense in terms of proximity by the beach so we had to steal it. The idea was to always create a mash-up of images that would grab someone flipping channels. To make the audience realize we had something different and visual in the comedy space.”
Many of the eye-catching bits were often bizarre images shot with the Phantom camera. “Our goal with [the Phantom] was to elicit a very weird mixture of emotions,” explains Vogt-Roberts. “We wanted to create visuals that would make people say: ‘I don’t know if this is funny, or if I should be laughing, but I’ve never seen anything like this and I’m sort of entranced.’ We wanted to use the camera to make a statement and remind people that comedy can have style.”
“I’ve worked with the Phantom in a number of ways,” adds Riege. “And the technical workflow is much the same every time. I find there is a tendency to use super slow motion to enhance the drama in moments. But in our case we were looking to enhance the comedy and if nothing else, heighten a moment that sort of throws the audience for a loop. That was fresh, and more than anything, we had a blast out in this crazy windy desert shooting a bunch of hyper-real nonsensical images.”
Ask Vogt-Roberts and Riege what images epitomize their approach to the new series, and after the intro sequence they point to a Michael Bay they called “Bad Boys II Men in Black.” Shot in an abandoned town, Blue Cloud Ranch, the thread is a melding of Will Smith’s two characters, with the same dialog and plot convention, but in song. “Not a parody, but our version of these movies – including a gun fight,” Vogt-Roberts grins.
“We shot 48 or 60 frames to speed up the song, while we still had the movement,” Riege describes. “We did this with a dolly track on center axis, wanting to pay homage to Bay’s constantly moving camera in action scenes. One way to accomplish that was by shooting long lens while tracking around a subject so the background is in constant motion behind that subject. We lit traditionally, with 6K PARs on the edge of the frame, and a back edge on both sides. We tried to pull flares, which is a visual element we wanted throughout the series.”
The visual enhancements amounted to 300 over a 15-day schedule. “We wanted each comedic bit to have its own feel,” adds Vogt-Roberts. “In Pete Holmes’ dream he talks about dancing in a field with a sexy girl on a white horse. With all of our visualizations, it was about cinematic heightening. So we went to a beautiful field, and shot him dancing with a sexy girl on a white horse but started heightening it with a sweeping jib and then post-graded it into a very dreamy pastel visual palette. The idea is to shoot it with the same techniques that something taking itself more seriously would employ and then push that to a point where you’re acknowledging the conventions.”
“This bit is another example of how shooting this series asks me, as a DP, to let the camera take itself less seriously,” states Riege. “By implementing a jib we are almost throwing in a bit of sarcasm, or a wink, to the way jibs are usually employed to heighten drama. Holmes is imagining himself as the perfect Don Juan, so of course a sweeping jib would make him sexier.”
For another bit by comic Chris D’Elia, about ‘how black guys can wear anything and make it look cool’, the team decided to go portrait style. “The main thing here was to create glossy editorial images that very quickly and cleanly communicate what’s going on in the frame,” says Vogt-Roberts. “We used a lot of hard and unnatural edges to heighten the visuals to the point of looking like an editorial spread so an audience could catch a flash of an image but very quickly understand what’s going on.”
“They’re fun because we could make the portraits feel hyper-real, almost as if they’ve been processed by Photoshop before we even go to color,” explains Riege. “I would give Jordan a couple of options for hard reflected back edges and he would always go for the heavier look. I typically go with bleached muslin for bounce keys but for this it was Ultrabounce up close to the talent.”
The filmmakers were definitely walking a fine line: pushing the envelope without detracting from the bit itself. “It’s adding a layer to the material that didn’t exist,” says Vogt-Roberts. “Creating a joke on a joke.”
At times that involved static camera or heightened movement. Other times, bleeding color out of the shot, or pushing the color to extremes. “We tried a TriColor element,” says Riege. “We would throw turquoise, yellow and red into frame to create an editorial style where things could be more colorful in a stylized way.”
Once all the visual elements were captured, the main challenge was putting the puzzle together. “Blacklist Post was amazing,” Vogt-Roberts recounts. “They knew our parameters and had the blow up applied to converting anamorphic to traditional 16×9. With the live show edited, we then created a hyper-kinetic 8-bit visual effects transition between comedians, commercials and sketches. We had to merge all of these styles into one cohesive mash up that never detracted and always added to the stand up but still allowed us to push our non-traditional visual bits as far as we could stylistically.
“We can’t thank Panavision and Comedy Central enough for helping us do comedy – anamorphic,” the director continues. “Combining RED and Phantom shots [a camera rarely used in comedy] was a big thing. To go out on a limb and make history, so to speak, broadcasting 16:9 in SD instead of blow up and pan and scan, they allowed us to letterbox. It’s a nerdy, big deal. And, we hope, a great new way to present stand-up comedy that will grab and hold an audience’s attention.”
Mash-Up’s first season finale airs Tuesday, December 4th at 12:30 AM ET/PT.
By Pauline Rogers. All photos courtesy of Comedy Central.