There may not be a more challenging genre to shoot than science fiction. And even more challenging still may be Sci-Fi made for TV. Smaller budgets, tighter schedules, and a more scaled down approach often create unique problems needing unique solutions. All the while hoping your show will satisfy the viewers at home, who have an ever-expanding universe of options at their fingertips.
For veteran cinematographer Jon Joffin, quite a few of these issues had to be answered when he signed up for “Aftermath,” a series with a post-apocalyptic setting running on the Syfy network. Created by Glenn Davis and William Laurin, “Aftermath” follows the Copeland family, headed up by parents Joshua and Karen (James Tupper and Anne Heche) as they try and navigate their new reality surrounded by violence and uncertainty. Rounding out the Copeland clan are Matt (Levi Meaden), Brianna (Taylor Hickson), and Dana (Julia Sarah Stone).
The affable Joffin is most definitely the right choice as director of photography for “Aftermath.” His credits in the industry date back for nearly 30 years, with plenty of Sci-Fi sprinkled throughout a much-varied resume. He worked extensively on “The X-Files” and also served as DP on the acclaimed mini-series “The Andromeda Strain.”
While there were some different opinions on how to achieve the look of “Aftermath,” Joffin and his camera crew did use a variety of Canon cameras and lenses, including the C300 Mark II for certain opportunity shots and Cinema Prime and zoom lenses, particularly Canon CN-E30-300mm. Every production starts with the basics, including everybody being on the same page of what they want the show to look like and how best to achieve that goal, and “Aftermath” was no different. The initial conversations that Joffin had with Davis, Laurin, and pilot director Jason Stone centered on what the producers wanted for their show, and what Joffin thought as well. This is where his years of experience as a cinematographer come in handy.
“Their whole idea about shooting the show, they wanted it to feel real, because it definitely has the danger of going to a cheesy place as the series goes on,” Joffin said. “Not necessarily like a documentary but they wanted it to feel like it was all unfolding before you. They wanted it to be very subjective, so they pitched an idea, they said–and this was more the show runners than Jason–they said, ‘We want to use RED cameras and we want to use GoPros and we just want to be loose and we just want to go.”
And while they may have been in agreement about the look and the philosophy of the show, Joffin was thinking about a different way to achieve those results. Over the past decade or so, the use of handheld and smaller cameras has been on the rise. Price, access, and ease of use have all helped put more technology into filmmakers’ hands; and while they may have their place, Joffin felt “Aftermath” may benefit from a smoother, steadier look.
“But the thing for me is that I don’t want it to be handheld, loose and ropey,” he said. “For me that doesn’t work. It doesn’t feel like the right way to do it. I didn’t know what the solution was at the time but we had to come up with some kind of system, some kind of way to shoot it that would be very smooth and elegant. At the same time we had to be able to shoot quickly and react to things that were happening around us. Just not to make it rough, not to make everything shaky and bumpy.”
The solution came in the form of a piece of technology that “Aftermath” camera operator Chris Fisher had bought—The Artemis Maxima. It’s an incredibly versatile stabilizer that Joffin and the show’s crew put to use with amazing results (they ended up buying another). And while Joffin said that 90% of the show was eventually shot with it, at first they weren’t quite sure what they were getting into.
“We weren’t sure it was going to work but it showed up—we tested it two days before shooting and we said, ‘You know what? They didn’t want to set up a dolly, they pitched the idea to the network that it was going to be a show without a dolly or track–it was going to be this groundbreaking show (laughs)!”
Using the Maxima paid off for Joffin because in a show like “Aftermath” there’s a lot of movement–this is a post-apocalyptic show about survival after all. And it could be used in most any situation.
“We just kept coming up with new uses for it which was the great thing,” he said. “We didn’t have a big budget. We didn’t have a lot of money for the toys and the camera cars; we’d just rig it on the front of a pickup low to the ground. Those shots in the pilot right near the beginning where we’re tracking behind his car, and it’s remotely operated so you can pan and tilt it and move it around. So you can just put it there. Usually when you rig a camera to a car it’s just there and you can’t move it. So we could do moving shots with that.”
And while the main benefits of the Maxima seemed to be for moving shots, the camera crew also found that it proved extremely effective in other places as well.
“We shot inside the RV obviously which was super-tight,” Joffin said. “I don’t know how we would have done it without this little Maxima because the camera operators, the camera crew didn’t even need to be inside. You could just kind of plunk it down and they could be outside on their monitors doing the focus and panning and tilting it. We could run around with it…it was just endless.”
Not only did the Maxima impress itself on the overall look and the feel of the show, but two of the main issues which go into shooting a TV show—money and time—seemed to be addressed as well. The crew was able to save both in a variety of ways: not having to lay dolly track, rent cranes and other pieces of equipment, or just the simple fact that the actors had more freedom to do different things because the unobtrusive Maxima could allow for more movement and expression.
“We could do crazy things,” Joffin said. “We did this shot…it’s a big empty swimming pool and we did this scene where we start in the empty pool and two people are walking around talking, walking around the pool. So we started in the pool and we were able to move along the floor of the pool and up the side and hand it off to two other people. I don’t even think you can do that with a Technocrane, I don’t even think it would be possible. Just to be able to do those shots that you haven’t seen before.”
Ultimately, for Joffin, shooting “Aftermath” in this way, and especially in using the Maxima to such a high degree, it may influence other filmmakers to ease away from constantly using handheld camera, especially in scenes that don’t necessarily warrant it. After all, quick, jerking camera moves and shakiness don’t automatically equate to realism and tension. Sometimes it becomes a crutch and quite distracting.
“I think that it’s really cool to be able to keep it really smooth and elegant and not over melodramatic because you tend to see a lot of that handheld stuff all the time,” he said. “It’s a blanket more than a tool or punctuation. It’s like an effect—we’ll just hose it all down with handheld. Everything’s going to move. I won’t name shows, but there are shows—shows that I really like too—but you’re so distracted because the camera is never still. Like bobbing around a little bit. And I’ve done shows like that. I did another show where they wanted to do that; they just want their cameras long lens, handheld on a dolly. They don’t ever want it steady and…it’s just like a blanket, it’s the best way I can describe it. It’s an overall kind of thing rather than using it in the appropriate place.”