Television series No Activity takes cinematographer Judd Overton (That Sugar Film) from a dark basement in Sydney to the bright lights of Hollywood.
The germination of recent series No Activity came about when cinematographer Judd Overton was shooting a commercial with a longtime collaborator, director Trent O’Donnell, in Sydney. They held onto their camera kit for an extra day and dragged the crew into an underground carpark inhabited by giant rats and a stench like something had recently died.
The hilarious banter between actors Patrick Brammall and Darren Gilshenan had the whole crew in stitches. Three hours of their improvised banter became the pilot of No Activity. The show has now taken Overton from a basement in Sydney to the bright lights of Hollywood.
“What makes the show work is that it embraces the look and feel of a familiar police procedural drama but is in fact a highbrow comedy,” says Overton. “The setup is simple: two cops on a stakeout, waiting for the action and talking about nothing.”
Like Seinfeld, No Activity is a show about nothing. It focuses on two police officers’ small talk as they wait for an eventual raid. All the action takes place in the title sequence and interstitials, while chyron and voiceover help move the investigation along. It plays on the audiences’ familiarity with the crime genre to fill in the gaps: morning briefings, interviewing suspects, filing reports and answering to the chief.
In reality, it’s a show about hilarious human relationships and interactions. The Los Angeles Times called it “Waiting for Godot as a police procedural”. The tiny pilot in the dank basement went on to become two seasons on streaming platform Stan, before O’Donnell took the show overseas.
“When we sold the format to CBS in late 2016 we had the opportunity to reinterpret the series for an American audience,” Overton explains. “Trent’s challenge to us both was, how can we push everything further and raise the stakes?”
“We had always aimed for an international look and feeling to the project in contrast to much of the Australian skit comedy on TV. We really pushed the look towards the dark and cinematic police dramas we were parodying.”
Overton’s relationship with O’Donnell was key to the production. Having worked together and understanding each other’s process allowed them to seamlessly communicate their needs throughout the whole production.
“I’ve been working with Trent for over five years and we have a relationship where we complement each other’s strengths. Trent gives me a lot of scope to choose locations that will work for the camera as well as suggesting coverage and transition ideas. In return, I make sure he can shoot without stops or interruptions once the actors get on a roll.”
On the Australian series, rather than copy other films, Overton and O’Donnell talked about the photography of Gregory Crewdson as a reference to create a stylised reality. The producers at Funny or Die and CBS were so excited by this look that for the US version, they decided to stick as closely to it as possible.
“The challenge has always been to make each season bigger and better,” says Overton. “Each season has had an escalation and the final payoff to the season is an action scene, the raid.”
“With the American version, CBS specifically asked how could we make the final raid huge,” Overton continues, “We took up the challenge, adding twenty SWAT vehicles, guns firing and a helicopter, all in a one-shot Steadicam move through the Otay Mesa warehouse.”
The Downtown Los Angeles warehouse, where the criminals wait for the eventual raid, has been used extensively in shoots for the last twenty years. However, until Overton came in, it was not possible to shoot continuously day into night.
“The usual way to shoot day for night is to tent the windows. But the best feature of this building is the three-storey glass windows which couldn’t be accessed from the outside,” he says.”
“I had the grips and art department build lightweight gel frames which could be attached to the inside of the three-storey windows. We randomly filled the frames with varying strength neutral density gel as well as colour temperature orange, straw and sodium gels. The scenic artist then aged down the frames and the gel to match the original warehouse windows.”
On the shoot, Overton used two 18K HMIs on a 60-foot Condor to fill the windows so as soon as the sunlight dipped or went behind the building, the lighting team could turn on the lights and keep the look consistent between day and night work.
Overton decided on a neutral cool look for the inside of the warehouse, hanging twenty-four 4-foot Quasar tubes from bars about 80 feet above the floor, which could selectively be switched on or off to maintain the ambience and contrast between day and night shooting. “I lit the action area with two 4K HMI’s with half CTO from up in the gantry to keep the lighting out of all three cameras shots.”
During the raid, O’Donnell wanted to replicate a lighting gag from the finale of the first Australian season. But to achieve it, instead of turning on the house fluorescents, they had to rig their own film lights in the much larger space.
For this, he hung twenty 2K Blondies spotted at the floor. “Once the room was filled with smoke, and at the right time in our one-shot steadicam move, the lights come on in rows filling the space with a warmer light.”
Overton’s preference is always a single camera setup or two cameras down the line, one wide and one tight. But the constraints for this project, such as getting eight episodes’ worth of footage from Will Ferrell in just one day, really dictated the shooting style and coverage for the show.
“The first two seasons we shot with two cameras in cross coverage as our main set up. Then at the end of the day we would bring the two cameras to the front on a two shot and a ‘swingle’ to run through a variety of moments Trent thought he would need in the edit.”
To facilitate working with the tight schedules of big stars like Will Ferrell, J.K Simmons and Mackenzie Davis, Overton decided to run a minimum of three cameras on all sets to ensure there would always be a two shot to cut to, with matching blocking to the cross shooting coverage.
The US production also required considerably more stage work compared to the Australian seasons. A Mexican drug tunnel was built into a 40-foot interior stage, linking up to a fake tunnel entrance in the floor of the Otay Mesa warehouse. The tunnel exit sat in a field in Santa Clarita, which doubled for the Mexican border.
Comprising about a third of the shoot schedule the ‘Sim-no-travel’, rear projection is the signature look of No Activity. Overton shot rear projection plates in pre-production with a splinter crew on a Sony A7s. He then graded the looped footage before the pre-light where the look of the actual locations was recreated with matched lighting onstage.
This setup let the crew seamlessly change between ‘locations’ on shoot day. “As all the looks are programmed into the lighting desk, we could switch the rear projection plates and lighting before the actors have changed their ties.”
But it was a double-edged sword; the three cameras shooting at the same time as cross shooting over the shoulder angles compromised the lighting. The rear projection screens only made it harder.
“The solution for me was to use predominantly backlight, which kept with the look of the Australian seasons. For the in-car studio work, I backlit with two Arri Skypanels and hid small bi-colour LED lights in the dashboard and behind the seat, out of frame.”
“For the wider shots, I used a lot of overhead Kinos fitted with Quasar tubes or Litemats. I then filled with the smaller S30 Skypanels with blackwrap snoot and batwings to reduce the spill on the projection screens.”
Although it was a massive undertaking, Overton loved being a part of a project whose brief was to go as far as possible in an uncensored, no-holds-barred comedy.
“It has been an amazing project to be involved with from the beginning. I love that the networks have embraced a sense of creative and content freedom as we move away from the old broadcast model and that we were encouraged to take the story and look as far ‘as you like’ with the only censorship being, ‘is it funny?’”
Now in the hands of US network CBS and executive produced by comedy legend Will Ferrell, No Activity is available for streaming on CBS All Access and Stan in Australia. No Activity marks CBS All Access’ first original comedy.
Harry Stranger is a photographer and public relations manager based on the NSW East Coast, as well as a current Journalism, Media Arts and Production student at the University of Technology, Sydney.
Judd Overton is an award-winning Australian cinematographer of films, television, commercials and documentaries.