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Sense8 – A photographers diary

Because of the overwhelming success of the first season, Sense8 is back and shooting season 2!   This show is like no other I’ve ever been involved with. The sheer scope of it is staggering; 8 months of shooting spanning 9 countries, 10 cities, a large international cast, hundreds of extras, a creative team that is committed to pushing boundaries and making art, and a production team that is one of the best in the business.   This was my second season working with my dear friend Karin and the Wachowski’s, who have been my friends for about fifteen years.   They truly have artist’s souls. Their generosity of heart and their artistic vision inspires anyone who works with them to reach deeper into their own creative selves and to create art with them.

My job for the past two seasons has been to work with Karin and the Sense8 team to capture beautiful, iconic footage of San Francisco, both for the opening montage and as establishing shots for the series itself. For ‘spoiler’ and ‘non-disclosure’ reasons I won’t go into the details of where, what and who we shot over the course of three weeks in San Francisco, but I can speak about the process of shooing B-roll footage for a TV series and what it takes to capture those iconic shots which you may have seen in the series.

 

Shooting from the outside looking in:

If you’ve ever paid attention to establishing shots in a film, especially the opening montage of Sense8, you’ll notice that there is an ‘outside to inside’ rhythm to the shots. In the beginning of the montage  you’ll see stunning sunrises and sunsets, time laps shots at night; shots that give you a sense of standing on the outside looking into the location. Once we’ve established where you are we can take you on a journey inside of the locations to capture the heart and soul of each city.

From a distance:

Capturing beautiful outdoor shots and landscapes is all about light, and being at the right place at the right time however, not much is left to chance.   All of the locations I shoot have been scouted, assessed for the best light, the position of the sun, and accessibility.

San Francisco offers unique challenges for those types of shoots due entirely to the unpredictability of the FOG.   We may have planned for a beautiful sunrise shot, only to wake up at 4am and have the city covered in a thick blanket of white. Sunset shots present the same challenges. There are days when the fog works with you and you get really dramatic footage, and other days where it’s pointless to even try. For people shots, portraits and fashion, I love the fog. Photographers call it “natures soft box” because it diffuses the harsh sun and produces a lovely even light. But for wide-view landscape shots it’s definitely a buzz-kill.   On days like that, we pivot to the other shots in our list that we are able to capture. Shooting cityscape shots at night can be tricky. There is a small window after the sun goes down called “blue-hour” or “gloaming” light. It’s that half hour window before the night sky turns completely black where you get your best shots. You’ll see more depth in the buildings and landscapes.

A few tips for shooting landscapes in San Francisco:

  • Summer is cold, let me rephrase, summer can be freezing here. Bring warm clothes and a hat.
  • Always have a tripod if you’re shooting film or if you’re shooting stills in low light.
  • Have a buddy with you, someone who you enjoy hanging out with. Photographers with big expensive cameras roaming the city alone at night are very visible targets for robbers and muggers.
  • Download this app – Sunseeker. It’s super helpful in knowing where the sun rises and sets in the locations you want to shoot.
  • If you’re looking to capture a sunrise shot: Get up early, check the weather and fog report the night before and give yourself plenty of time to get to your location and set up before the sun comes up.

Getting in close:

Capturing the heart of a city for Sense8, is much like capturing the heart of the events I photograph. You look for narratives and energy. For Sense8, we had our narrative in the story so finding people and events that embody the diverse energy of the city was our main goal.

Each neighborhood, especially in a city like San Francisco has it’s own unique community. The Castro is entirely different from North Beach or China Town. This year, we looked at the footage we had captured for last season and tried to cover neighborhoods and events that we didn’t get the year before.   Having a list of all of the events and festivals going on while you’re in town shooting is crucial. You can’t get to all of them but it gives you options when you’re shooting people.

 

 

A few tips for shooting outdoor festivals:

  • Do your research. See if there are any ‘must see’ events or performances happening so you have a rough goal of what you want to film.
  • If possible, time your shots for ‘best light’. Since most festivals begin during the harsh sunlight mid-day hours, try and hold out for the golden light at the end of the day.
  • Ask permission. It’s important that you ask permission to film someone. Yes, if they are participating in an event in a public space then they’re fair game. But, if you talk to them, tell them what you find interesting or captivating about them and ask their permission to film them, you’ll get a willing and eager subject and much better shots.
  • Look for color, movement and the kind of energy you need for your shots.

On a personal note: I’ve been living in San Francisco for over 20 years now. I moved here at a time when the energy of the city was much different than it is now. You could walk through any neighborhood at any time of day and experience diversity and inclusion.   There was an energy to this city that has seemingly faded away. However, while it may not be as evident as it was before, I can tell you that it’s still there; you just have to look for it.   There are *blogs and publications you can subscribe to that will give you a run down of events happening each week.

 

In the end, Karin and I got most of the shots on our very extensive shot list. We traveled the bay area, shot in some amazing locations and had a great time doing it. I think we were successful because, while we were organized, planned and scouted ahead, we also left room to bend with the changing weather and a production schedule that was always in flux.

I also came away with a few insights as it pertains to my work with my clients here in San Francisco. Whether I’m shooting B-roll for a film production or capturing brand and location shots for my corporate clients, the approach and work ethic is the same: Truly understand what your client wants and needs for their project. Approach that project with the eye of an artist. Be organized, plan for all contingencies and if need be, be prepared to get up at 4am to create artful images.   Oh, and dress warm!