First broadcast in 1985, Neighbours has become an Australian icon and the longest running drama series in Australian television history, launching the careers of stars like Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Delta Goodrem, Natalie Imbruglia, Guy Pearce and Margot Robbie. Recently the show moved to shooting with Sony PMW-F55 large sensor 4K cameras.
Steve Scoble, Location DoP for production company Fremantle Media on Neighbours since 2006 explained, “The Neighbours location unit had previously been using Sony XDCAMs and they were nearing the end of their lifecycle. A search began for new cameras that needed to satisfy more technical and creative options to facilitate fast moving tightly scheduled drama. Research was conducted on a variety of cameras available.”
The Neighbours team decided to go with a larger sensor format as the current 2/3″ PDW-700 had been around for some time.
Scoble continued, “The F55 is a third generation Super35 sensor. This narrowed our choices. Bearing in mind we had chosen to go with 30-300mm, 30-105mm and 15-47mm cine zoom lenses to cover all our needs, the F55 ticked off all of our requirements for shooting Neighbours. As we see it the main advantages of using an F55 are its Super35 4K sensor for improved contrast ratios, the variable frame rate and the integral ND filters. Our F55s have now been in production for 20 weeks and have performed well beyond our expectations.”
Neighbours use two F55s on location, bringing in an additional camera when required.
One of the improvements Scoble and the crew noticed when using the F55 was in the contrast ratios and the ability of the sensor to handle extreme highlights compared to the XDCAM cameras.
Scoble added, “This was quite appealing for our style of drama shooting. I previously worked with Sony cameras for many years on Blue Heelers and was extremely impressed with their reliability and quality for fast turnaround drama. The cameras were constantly in extreme conditions running long hours with very few technical issues. I have also spoken to other DoPs who own and use the F55 and all are extremely happy. The F55 seemed like the ideal choice as it satisfied all our technical requirements with the 4K Super35 CMOS sensor, global shutter, extra exposure latitude, greatly improved ASA rating (currently able to shoot 4000 ASA without noise), variable frame rate, and the ability to shoot 4K when required. In consultation with the producers we felt the F55 would have a huge impact on the picture quality for both local and overseas sales. Of course, the F55 is capable of shooting 4K, but due to current post-production storage requirements and having to match our studio pictures it was decided to shoot with XAVC HD 1920 x1080 at 25p.”
Gary Scott, 1st Assistant Camera Location Unit, also saw the benefits of the F55 in its design, engineering, build quality and reliability. He added, “We also needed a camera system which was durable, stable and resistant to both heavy use over prolonged periods and the sometimes-extreme Melbourne environmental conditions, especially on exterior locations. The F55 was ideal.”
Television imaging has recently seen rapid development in camera systems featuring the larger Super35 sized sensors. Typically, the latest single CMOS sensors have native resolution around 4K, which can be recorded in a range of formats and resolutions, from the current HDTV 1080 format up to full 4K. The single CMOS Super35 sensors exhibit vastly increased ISO speed, colour resolution and gamma range, when compared to 3 CCD prism systems.
Scott continued, “With this in mind both the increased speed and vastly increased gamma range of 14 photographic stops as opposed to our previous 5 or 6 are huge advantages when using the F55 in terms of technical and aesthetic results.”
To improve the look and quality of the show the Neighbours production team needed to enable a seamless technical and aesthetic imaging match between the studio and location units and provide consistency with current dramatic and artistic practices.
Gary Scott added, “The F55 has a number of specific features that helped us improve the look of the show including, as mentioned previously, integral rotating ND filters, which are extremely useful in the variable lighting conditions routinely experienced on Neighbours locations. Also the familiarity and system compatibility of Sony cameras is very helpful in ensuring a smooth transition for the crew.”
On the post side, retrieving data from the Sony SxS pro memory card into Avid Media Composer has been a far simpler process than the previous year’s post production workflow according to Post Supervisor Caroline Scott and 3rd Assistant Editor Rebecca McPherson as Scott explained, “It is now easy, streamlined and has vastly improved our timeframes, making things much quicker than how we did them last year. We have managed to streamline the process in a number of ways including our ability to Avid AMA link and transcode footage, rather than import from XDCAM. Also, the invaluable use of upgraded Ambient ACL 204 Lockit boxes with a programmable offset has enabled us to auto sync and multi-group audio and vision clips with a synchronised source time-code, as opposed to manually matching each slate.”
McPherson added, “What once took an Assistant Editor approximately 3.5 hours per day to process and distribute rushes, we now manage to do in 1.5 hours. Next year with the addition of the new Avid DNxHD codec hardware upgrade available for the Sony F55 camera we aim to record in a native Avid codec allowing us to vastly improve on our ingest timeframes.”
Looking back over the F55’s success on Neighbours during the last twenty weeks Steve Scoble concluded, “In general the cameras are in use five days a week, with ten shooting hours per day and in weather conditions which are often unstable. The F55 cameras are reliable, sturdy and can take the heat, the cold and rough and tumble of fast turnaround shooting. After six months we are really happy with the Sony F55 cameras and the quality of the image is well beyond expectations.”