Wilfred: A Sitcom Shot Entirely on DSLRs
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To say FX Networks' TV show Wilfred is a quirky comedy is an under-statement. Based on a critically acclaimed Australian TV show of the same name, Wilfred is a half-hour live-action series about Ryan, a young man with issues, who forms a relationship with his next door neighbor's dog…which only he sees as a surly and irrepressible Australian in a cheap dog suit.
The show is also unusual in that it is shot entirely with DSLR cameras, more specifically, three Nikon D800s. Wilfred Executive Producer/Director Russell Einhorn explains why. "What dictated the camera gear was that I wanted a shallow depth of field that I could not achieve in Super 35mm," he says. "So I went with a Nikon stills camera because I wanted that incredibly shallow depth of field that you can only achieve with a 70 mm format."
To understand Einhorn's choices on Wilfred it's necessary to understand his evolution from cinematographer into producer and director, with a long list of credits in comedy, including The Office, Parks and Recreation, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Shameless, and Nurse Jackie among others.
"I have a very strong cinematographic point of view as a director," Einhorn says. "And while performance is the most important thing, I think the look of the show also sets the tone and feel of the show that the viewer takes away. From being a DP, I understand many facets of what it takes to make a show. I've worked with every single department. Having a base understanding of what everybody does is invaluable and practical, not just theoretical, experience."
He says that being the documentarian on The Office honed his ability to "catch a person at the right moment, punctuating the joke with the camera movement." "That was formative in developing my comedic timing," he says. " A lot of jokes were told with the camera on The Office, and that's how I was able to show that I had a sense of humor, and show I had a strong comedic point of view and good comedic timing, and that's how I ultimately became a director."
Through directing pilots and then staying on those shows, he began to get producer credits, including a supervising producer credit on It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. "On Wilfred, I got a co-EP credit, and on the second season, I got my first EP credit," he says. "Now everything I'm directing and staying with long term will have that EP credit along with it, and that's because I manage a lot of the logistics of the practical elements of running a show. On Wilfred, I became very active in running the show at an affordable cost, and that's how I've managed to move up as a producer."
Shooting Wilfred with the Nikon DSLRs goes a long way to nailing the show's aesthetic, as well as keeping it on time and on budget. But operating Wilfred has its challenges, says Director of Photography Kurt Jones. "DSLRs don't have the best viewing system, which is kind of ironic as the person framing the shot has the worst view in the house," he says. "Also, we cross shoot about 99 percent of the show. So making interesting frames while keeping the other cameras out and not throwing shadows in each other's frames is tricky. Lastly, we shoot between f1.2-f2.5 most of the time so a good relationship with my focus puller was paramount; my 1st AC Matt Brewer is one of the best and we work well together."
WILFRED: Episode 13: Regrets (Aired Thursday, September 5, 10:00 pm e/p). Pictured: (L-R) Jason Gann as Wilfred, Elijah Wood as Ryan Newman. CR: Prashant Gupta/FX
Jones reports that the show has a good system in place for cross shooting. "On our main set, we light mostly from grids above the set, which frees us from seeing stands on the ground," he says. "We would do shots where Camera 1 pans through the set and the other cameras would fall into place to cover the scene. We have it pretty dialed in."
Einhorn points out another piece of gear they use on Wilfred that he learned to use on The Office. "On The Office, we started off with the traditional three-man tripod and head set-up," he says. "It simply took too much time and manpower to set up, so I looked around and realized that the OConnor 1030D with the CF tripod could be the solution."
On Wilfred, he notes, "the set up was even more critical." "The smaller weight and one-man-band set up can handle the heavier long lens work, and still allows the operator to literally pick up the camera package and move to the next shot, without needing to rebalance."
David Linstrom. B-Camera Operator on Wilfred with the OConnor 1030Ds.
Jones agrees. "While Wilfred is primarily a handheld show, we do quite a bit of long lens work which requires a fluid head," he explains. "That's where the OConnor heads come in. When we use the Nikkor lenses for a long 'oner', we need to know the head will be smooth. OConnor's 1030D with the CF tripod system handles the weight with ease and does exactly what we need a head to do." Being able to move quickly results in the production being able to complete anywhere between 30 to 60 setups a day. "The smaller size and ball leveling of the head, along with the lightweight CF sticks makes this easy," he says. "So do the OConnor lightweight matteboxes. They performed perfectly all season."
The OConnor matteboxes have come in handy for another aspect of producing Wilfred: the use of greenscreen. "The house set is completely wrapped in green screen," explains Jones. "We shoot scenes against the windows and VFX comps in our plate shots. When we don't see the green screen we turn off the illumination as to not get green spill in the set. It's a great system for not using a practical location."
Einhorn notes how unusual this is. "The fact that we shoot green screen out of all the windows is very interesting," he says. "I've never seen anyone do that hand held, and then mapping the green screen backgrounds in during post, that's a first on our show. The fact that you can grab the OConnor matte box and hold the camera with it is invaluable, because I want my hands to be what I'm looking through, just like when I'm directing, I'm holding the image in my hand, I'm looking through my hand, and the OConnor gear allows me to do that."
The technologies used on Wilfred – from the Nikkon DSLRs to greenscreen and the OConnor 1030D with the CF tripod system – shows how savvy Executive Producers, in concert with seasoned cinematographers, can make choices that marry aesthetics with practical concerns. The result is visible everywhere on cable TV channels, with a range of great dramas and comedies that might never have gotten made otherwise.
WILFRED: Episode 11: Stagnation (Aired Thursday, August 22, 10:00 pm e/p). Pictured: (L-R) Jason Gann as Wilfred, Elijah Wood as Ryan Newman. CR: Prashant Gupta/FX
Title Graphic: WILFRED: Key Art. L-R: Jason Gann as Wilfred and Elijah Wood as Ryan. CR: FX.