Shooting a low budget sitcom pilot. Achieving a sitcom look on the cheap.

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Last month I had an opportunity to shoot about half of the pilot episode of a new Australian sitcom series called Xandria written and produced by Toni Martelli. It was an almost no budget project but I liked the script and came on board as one of the DOPs. As it turned out most of the outside scenes were shot by another cinematographer but there was a huge chunk of the script left to shoot indoors for me. There were scenes taking place in an office,  house, club, movie set and a couple of outdoor scenes.

Here is what I had in terms of lighting gear: 3x Read Heads 800w each. 3x Dedo lights 150w, 2x day light balanced kinoflo lighs. That’s it, nothing more. I have never visited a real professional sound stage before but seen a few photos from there and have an idea of how the classical sitcom look is achieved. Unfortunately we didn’t have the luxury of the sound stage with the grid lighting overhead, dimmer board and pedestal cameras since we were shooting on actual locations.

I might be criticised that frame grabs don’t look like classic sitcoms 100% and yes they don’t. But I think they are close enough given it was an almost no budget project and I did my best in the circumstances where we didn’t have a single c-stand for example.

Location 1. The House.

One of the first locations we shot was the house where the main characters live.  It was a real apartment modified by our set designer to look a bit weird and eccentric to augment the characters of the show. There is no way we could place lights overhead mimicking the sound stage as we didn’t have any real grip gear and even if we had the owners wouldn’t let us do that anyway. So to my surprise there were kitchen cabinets and cupboards tall enough to put lights on top of it and be able to shoot wide shots not having them in the frame. Here is a lighting diagram for the house along with some frame grabs from the footage. When we were shooting night time I simply lowered the output of kinoflos by switching some tubes off to let much less fill light in the scene.

Location 2. The Party.

To light the club for the party I used a similar approach as I used in the house with Dedo lights serving as rim lights. You can see them at the back. I gelled them with “party” coloured gels – yellow, red and purple. The problem with gelling the dedos was that they’re not very powerful lights and when you gel them it eats at least half the output and there is not much left. if I could I would prefer to have more powerful sources than Dedos. Another difficulty was that there was not any places where I could attach the Dedos so I had to use the light stands, and yes the’re in the frame decorated as party pillars. I gelled a Red Head with half green gel to give a bit dirty look and used it as  side light camera right. Kino flo served as a key.

Location 3. The studio.

Studio was easy to light. There was plenty of room to put the lights. The fake wall (camera left) allowed me to put the light stands with Dedos behind the wall and have the sources to light the scene. In retrospect I would change lighting a bit. I think it would be better to use a ReadHead bounced of a reflector instead of Dedo as it would’ve provided a softer light to the hugging couple in the front.

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