Rodney Charters, ASC, CSC Brings Blackmagic to Dallas
CreativeCOW presents Rodney Charters, ASC, CSC Brings Blackmagic to Dallas -- Cinematography Editorial All rights reserved.

Rodney Charters
Rodney Charters, ASC, CSC is probably best known for his work as cinematographer on the groundbreaking international hit 24. He has been plenty busy since then, most recently behind the lens of the TNT drama Dallas, featuring the next generation of the Ewing family from the 1978-1991 TV series.

Hailing from New Zealand, Charters started off his career as a documentary filmmaker, doing a 60 Minutes-style show that shot all over the world for Canadian networks. His pre-24 TV work included Friday the Thirteenth: The Series, Profit, M.A.N.T.I.S., Nash Bridges, The Pretender and Roswell. Since 24 ended its run in 2010, Charters has worked on Shameless, and shot the pilots for Charlie's Angels, Alphas and Nashville.

Since shooting the pilot for Dallas, Charters has shot 36 episodes and directed three. Creative COW Contributing Editor Debra Kaufman chatted with Charters over a lunch break during shooting, about his work on Dallas, especially his use of the Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera to complement the production's ARRI Alexas.


Creative COW: How did you get the gig on Dallas?

Rodney Charters: I did a Skype interview with Cynthia Cidre, the modern show creator /writer, and director/Producer Mike Robin. They were both huge fans of 24, so the interview was mostly me telling stories!

I was tasked with helping to revamp the franchise. It was fun to have Larry, Bobby and Sue Ellen back as characters, as well as a bunch of young actors who were just 8 years old when the series ended. We picked up the story again, and it's all about money, skullduggery and sex -- all the usual things you'd expect from Dallas.

Were you a fan of the original Dallas?

I was certainly aware that the original Dallas was very successful. At the time, I was very involved in documentary work and traveling all the time, and not really watching TV. I remember being in Britain when the nation was seized with JR fever. There are very few shows that have had such a huge audience. It happened at a time when viewing options were limited. It's very different today.

Hood mount done in 5 mins! Danny on the right takes a celebratory snap.

Now, the Internet is playing a big role in the success of the revamp, as we had finally made it to Netflix. I think there are close to four hundred episodes now. This and the hundreds of countries all over the world who buy the show will help it to endure. The Nielsen ratings are less and less important to the show's success. Close to 70% of earnings for both TV and film come from the rest of the world now, so American viewing habits are not as significant as they once were.

Julie Gonzalo as Pamela Rebecca Ewing
Julie Gonzalo as Pamela Rebecca Ewing. The Panavise 809 sucker kit attached the camera to the limo.

Is Dallas quite popular elsewhere in the world?

I don't know the actual figures, but yes, the show is popular worldwide, probably in as many countries as 24 was,which was north of 150 countries. It's all about franchise branding, and Dallas is certainly a known franchise.

When you came on for the pilot, what were the conversations with the creators about the look of the show?

They wanted it to feel real. As writers and producers, they sought to achieve believability of these characters. Having lived in Texas now for a while, I'm very aware of the young Texans who have a finely tuned entrepreneurial spirit. They grew up alongside the gas and oil giants, but also banking, Texas Instruments -- there is lots of money in Dallas. It's a wealthy city.

I think the writing on Dallas has kept it honest. They've done a great job in that department. My job is to keep it visually grounded in reality. I try to light for the space be efficient and be as non-intrusive as I can be.

The BMPC: non-intrusive and space efficient. Says Rodney, "Of course we had to do this one."

Tell me about what cameras you picked and why.

We shoot with the ARRI Alexa, and have since the beginning of the show in 2012, for its dependable wide dynamic range, accurate skin tones.

We have actors in their 70s -- including women who are on-going leads in the series -- and we need to take care of them. That's very important. With the Alexa, it is also quite a bit easier to shoot available light. We can create a believable picture working around 1 foot candle, and consequently without a big lighting budget.

I used Canon 5Ds in the beginning (3 years ago) as well as the Canon C300. The Alexas shoot the majority of the show, but often we find that they are just too large. So out come the 5D and its bigger brother, the C300, and more recently, the C500, shooting 12 bit Pro Res.

At last year's IBC, I discovered the Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera. I had not been so positive about their bigger BMCC, because I didn't find it attractive ergonomically. But the Pocket Cinema Camera with a set of Panasonic lenses is a very fine handheld camera that will hide exquisitely almost anywhere because it's so tiny and light, and so easy to secure.

I particularly like the Panasonic Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm F2/8 with its built-in stabilizer, but I also have the Panasonic 7-14 and 14 to 140, and the fixed Pancake 20mm for fitting the camera in really tiny spaces.

I recently used the BMPC while filming my Episode 305, which aired on Monday, March 24. I was shooting a scene in a limo, so I just stuck the camera to the window of the rear door with a small sucker kit: the Panavise 809. The camera just stayed on the inside of the window getting beautiful overs while we were shooting the straight-on angle down the middle of the limo with the Alexa.

The Alexa in the Limo with Julie

We've used the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera on almost every episode this season. I love the idea of a 1920x1080 camera that shoots on a 16mm format and records to Pro Res. I can work at a wider aperture than my normal zooms on the Alexa - I have lenses that go down to f1.7.

I'm recording ProRes, which is the most stable and widely used format in TV. I find it a very satisfying file structure. I haven't shot the Raw format because nobody in post wants to deal with it. So we've stayed with ProRes, because it plugs into post so easily.

The camera isn't perfect. We hate that it can't format cards. The focusing system is a bit of a nightmare, and you need to plug in a bigger monitor to get confident results. But as a tool you can just pick up and shoot with, it's pretty amazing. It has to be reliable and I've found it to be so. I'd make some changes, but that's true with any camera.

Would I commit to shooting A camera with it? Probably not, but around moving vehicles, the camera has a huge pay-off. The ease and speed with which you can drop a body on the hood or rig it inside a car are very attractive and aid in getting that extra shot. We use GoPros, as well, but they do not have controls the way the BMPC does, nor do they offer interchangeable lenses.

Jimmy using the 140mm with the slightly over-sized OConnor

I have a View Factor cage for it now that makes it more substantial and protects the screen. But if I take the lens off, I can put it in my pocket. Philip Bloom was able to go up the London Eye, a heavily secure facility where they won't allow you to take anything that looks like a professional camera. He brought the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera up there and shot.

I love the fact that Blackmagic has made this camera; it's a real credit to Grant Petty. I used to buy all his equipment years ago, and watched their company grow. They even offer the Teranex at an affordable price -- not to mention the power of having Resolve onset to create and manage looks and take care of dailies!

You mentioned that the ARRI Alexa enables you to shoot with available light more frequently. What kind of a lighting kit do you use?

We don't carry any 18K HMI's. I do have a couple of the new ARRI 4K PARs and four of the ARRI 1.8K PARs, and a small package of tungstens -- rarely used these days as LEDs take over, so we have no need for a 40' trailer full of bigger lamps. All we have is a 10-ton lighting truck.

I carry the usual complement of Kino Flos -- particularly the 8' Megas, and 8x battery-operated 1x1 Litepanels, plus 6 of their small Documentary LEDs -- the Sola 3" Fresnel. We love this light for most interior work on location, as this is a very big lamp.

Working off batteries, my gaffer Danny Eccleston and I have reduced our use of interior light to clusters of silicone-enclosed LED strings, small cheap LEDs and Litepanels 1x1s, and the Sola Fresnel lamp. Most everything is on batteries, and with household fixtures taped and dimmed for the scene. Often we find that if we pull out a meter, it tells us we are using only 10 watts and that the light level is hovering around the 1ft Candle range.

If it's a day interior, our small ARRI HMIs take care of most windows. We also use our Luminys (10K SoftSun). These are superior to HMIs -- less color distortions and are completely dimmable down to off.

Dallas at a gun range floating in on a target retrieval track

Also from SoftSun is the 3.5K Parabolic lamp we call the "NASA": a beautiful soft daylight lamp which provides a special quality of light for the women on our show and is also completely dimmable without color shift.

For beauty lighting, we use a complete set of Gaffairs from France. We use the 4K balloon, the 1.8 K balloon and the 400 balloon -- each capable of switching lamps between tungsten, HMI, mercury, and sodium for night exterior street matching. All are kept expanded by a tiny fishtank pump.

We carry PAR 38s and ETC focusing Ellipsoidals, the Source Four in both the ETC and HMI 800 watt version, and finally, some 800 and 400 watt K5600 Jokers.

We do have stages, with backings lit by multiple Image 80s from Kino Flo, and a bunch of 5 K Mole Richardson PARs, but almost everything we do is on location. We go into a variety of locations and hide the fixtures to make you believe that we're in that space.

Because the Alexa chip speed is so high, I often work at 1600 ISO. We're usually working below 5-foot candles on an interior location set. You'd probably find a higher light level if you went into that space and just switched the existing lamps on.

[Editors note: Here is an email that Rodney Charters forwarded us as we were working on this article.]

From: Bryan Raber
To: Rodney Charters
Subject: Blackmagic Pocket Cam Online/CC Test

Hi Rodney,

We have put the Blackmagic camera though some extensive testing - online and color correction. All in all, it held up extremely well. It is a little soft especially in motion blur with vibrations, probably due to its size, though fixable by sharpening the image and/or dulling down the surrounding shots if mixed media with Alexa & BM in the same scene. It does not hold up as well as Alexa in the dark, and the range of color in the ultra bright (like fire) is mostly white -- but all that said, it is a great little camera for those angles you just can't fit an Alexa.
— B

Bryan J. Raber
Co-Producer – "DALLAS"

What are the chief challenges in shooting Dallas?

The usual efficiencies needing to be done at the end of the 12-hour days -- this isn't going to go away. I'm blessed with a great crew and we have an enormous amount of fun shooting the show. It makes it so much more enjoyable when everyone is happy. The cast is also thrilled to be here. They couldn't be happier that after a 30-year absence, they've been reunited.

Where do you do post production?

The post is done through MTI Film in Los Angeles. I have an onset DIT, Jimmy Cobb, who creates the LUTs and manages the files, working with me on an hourly basis to track the look as I light the scene.

In-house here in Dallas, we have a colorist, Ian McNeny, who takes care of exporting the files down a fast pipe to LA using their in-house Cortex digital dailies system. We started cutting with Final Cut Pro 7 way back on the pilot and until FCPX provides the equivalent experience, we will probably not change systems: ProRes proxies offline, then online from the 4:4:4:4 ProRes masters at MTI.

I see that you've directed Dallas, which isn't the first show you've directed for.

Yes, I just finished directing my second episode this season. I love that. That's been going on for a few years. Every once in awhile I get a chance to direct and I'm happy to do it.

There isn't a better place than being on a set and saying, What do we do next? I hand over the reins of the cinematography to my B camera operator, Brown Cooper. He takes over and I ignore the process and just tell him where I want the lens and how the shot should execute -- but we do consult on matters of mood, etc. That way, I can just concentrate on the script and the actors. I love the actors. It takes me on another journey; there is nothing more exhilarating.