Cinematographer Judd Overton chats to Australian Cinematographer Magazine about shooting the new ABC series The Letdown.
Winner of a South Australian ACS Gold Award earlier this year for his project En Route, Judd Overton is on a roll. Overton had been working with director Trent O’Donnell on television series as well as commercials for many years when he was approached to shoot the pilot of The Letdown in 2015 for the ABC’s Comedy Showroom.
Few series could boast a more auspicious birth than winning the ‘AACTA Award for Best Screenplay in Television’, for a pilot episode not yet green-lit for a full series. Such was the happy fate of Sarah Scheller and Alison Bell’s The Letdown.
Early meetings with the producers and creators revealed the desire to make a show with a strong local voice, but with the quality and sophistication an international audience expects.
“The series starts with warm colours; there is hope and wonderment about the possibilities of new motherhood,” says Overton. “As the show progresses, some of the warmth and saturation dissipates and the audience gets to see life through a sleep-deprived eye, as the challenging reality of raising a new born baby takes over.”
The key through-line is of course Audrey, Jeremy and Stevie’s story and their rollercoaster of insomnia-fuelled emotional struggles. The situation for each mother in the group becomes the backstory to each subsequent episode.
Whatever persona these new parents show to the world is stripped back to reveal a commonality in the struggles which bonds them all together.
“The moments of warmth are added back in as Audrey and Jeremy’s relationship starts to rebuild,” notes Overton. “In the final parents’ group meeting, situated outside in a park, there is champagne and celebration. The parents’ group have made it this far, forming bonds that mean there is always going to be someone to call – another person to understand what they are going through.”
When preparing for the series, the crew spoke at length about what they liked about the pilot. One of the main things everyone agreed upon was the ‘rock bottom’ moment Audrey has on the bus before the beautiful and teary connection with baby Stevie looking up at her. Each mother’s story tries to find this moment.
“HBO series Girls (2012-2017) and BBC comedy series Fleabag (2016-) were inspiration points, whereas a show like Netflix’s Love (2016-) is more of a what-not-to-do,” says Overton. “Both Bell and Scheller wanted the show to embody real woman, looking and being authentic. The comedy comes from the relate-ability and often it’s the dramatic beats that serve to ground the show, a response we have had from anyone who is a parent.”
That said, the look of The Letdown is not documentary. It shifts to match the changing emotional states and is cooler by degrees with dark inky blacks and desaturated highlights. Overton wanted to keep the faces and skin tones as natural as possible and to have the show look like it is lit by the environment: daylight coming in windows, practical lights in houses and sourced from wherever they could motivate lighting organically.
Director Trent O’Donnell had been shooting in the United States on television shows New Girl (2011-) and Brooklyn Nine Nine (2013-), which always have three cameras rolling. This allows more freedom for the actors to improvise and work off each other. As a result, it was decided most of The Letdown would be shot with two cameras for cross coverage.
The whole project spanned ten weeks; four weeks prep and a six-week shoot. That delivered six episodes, plus a bunch of pickups for the first episode, which has had some cast changes since the 2015 pilot. Green screen work and digital trickery helped to tie the changes together. It was a fast shoot.
Netflix, which streams The Letdown internationally after its ABC release, provided a guidebook on the technical specifications and cameras it required for 4K delivery. For the two main cameras, Overton chose to shoot on the Panasonic Varicam 35LT with Panavision Primo Zooms and Primes.
Having shot two seasons of No Activity (2015-) for Stan, Overton was familiar with the demands of 4K delivery, despite Stan being happy with UHD.
Admiring Cinematographer Andrij Parekh’s work on 13 Reasons Why (2017), Overton discussed the Panasonic with him. Keen to experiment, he tested the Varicam LT on his recent short film, Remembering Agatha, which premiered at the Adelaide Film Festival in October 2017.
Overton loved the look of the Varicam 35LT and its native 5000 ISO sensor. Aside from creating a couple of extra steps for his ACs to get their heads around (such as power cycling between speed changes), the camera proved to be a great 4K option. It was a perfect camera choice for The Letdown.
The motif that ties the show together is the parents’ group meeting that happens in each episode. Overton and his crew had their hands full over four busy days shooting these scenes with the six mothers, babies and Noni Hazlehurst as their Councillor.
They used three cameras for the scenes and gaffer Russell Fewtrell built an overhead soft box with a 20’ Scrim and four Arri Skypanels. It was a large set up that required a rigging team to come in to assess the support beams in the church. Also a big pre-rig, but after talking through all the options with production, it was clear this was the best solution.
The soft box overhead rig allowed the crew to shoot 360 degrees and easily adjust colour temperature and exposure throughout the day. This was the only way they could shoot to such a tight schedule.
“All of our big sequences, such as the parents’ group, the ‘nurse in’ and other large crowd scenes, were covered with three cameras,” says Overton. “Meg White did a great job handling C-camera on our big days, before splintering off to shoot all of the poetic establishers and transition scenes.” These were shot on the Blackmagic Design Ursa Mini 4.6K in RAW.
Rushes were transferred from SSD on a Blackmagic SSD deck and then graded in Resolve at The Gingerbread Man by colourist Billy Wychgel. “On set, the crew loaded up my LUTs to both the Odyssey and Terradeck transmitters, so everyone on set was seeing the same image and so the look was consistent from on-set to editorial to the final show,” says Overton.
“Despite the fact we were shooting an ambitious schedule with the three big no’s – babies, animals and (im)practical locations – the show proved to be absolutely no letdown!”
Meredith Emmanuel works for Emmanuel Bates Communications and is a valued contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.