Australian cinematographer Jason Blount films The Goldbergs in Los Angeles while a pandemic rages outside the studio walls – by Mev Maxon
Jason Blount is an Adelaide boy. It was during high school work experience at Seven Network Adelaide that he found his love for cameras. This passion took him around the world, shooting sports, politics and war before landing in Los Angeles working for Seven Network Australia. After studying at the American Film Institute he bought his own Steadicam and parlayed that into narrative jobs. He was camera operating on the first season of The Goldbergs when he was promoted to cinematographer for the season finale and he has been there ever since, now filming their eighth season.
“The look of the show was established in the pilot and it’s been my job to maintain the warm, saturated 1980s look – think big hair and bright colours – while streamlining the process and shooting as quickly as possible,” explains Blount. “From the start, the look the show-runners wanted was very specific; lots of cross-coverage, seeing full faces of actors, lots of light with bright sets. One of the writers/producers told me that ‘dark is not funny’. Episodes often include an homage to American television shows and films from the 1980s. Most of the time, unless we are matching the lighting of a specific movie, there is a lot of light. Sets don’t tend to fall off into darkness.“
The Goldbergs is based on the life of American television and film producer Adam Goldberg. Growing up he always had a camera with him and filmed his family. Included at the end of every episode is a home video of Goldberg’s that is relevant to that episode’s story. Nearly all of the characters in the show are based on real life family and friends of his. The pilot was filmed in more of a vérité style from Goldberg’s perspective and as the first season progressed, the camera evolved into almost another family member.
When they air, episodes are twenty-two minutes and yet it is not uncommon for Blount to shoot over thirty-five page scripts, which come to about thirty-five minutes. Every episode is filmed over five days with two cameras, mostly on stage at Sony Studios with a few locations around Los Angeles.
With an ensemble cast skilled at improvising, getting the humour and interactions on camera is important. During the first several seasons many of the actors were minors. With limited filming time shooting quickly was and still is critical. Because of this, Blount shoots most rehearsals and uses a full set of Angenieux Optimo lightweight zooms on A-camera and the Optimo 24-290 on B-camera. This way the actors can improvise and the energy isn’t broken by lens changes. He cross-covers a lot for the same reason.
The crew of The Goldbergs was fortunate in that they were almost done with their seventh season when Covid-19 shut things down. They only missed one episode and the producers generously paid everyone for that week. Production on season eight was pushed three weeks due to the pandemic. Sony, the studio lot where The Goldbergs is filmed, sent out a Covid safety video that had to be watched by everyone on the crew. The Los Angeles unions sent out ‘white papers’ with safety guidelines on how to resume filming safely. The production also hired two full time Covid safety compliance officers whose sole responsibility is to ensure that all crew members follow safety protocols. There is zero tolerance for mask removal or protocol breaches.
On set, there are different zones with different rules. Zone A consists of crew needed to set up shots: lighting, set dressing, props, etc. Construction and rigging are Zone B. Prior to Zone A, plus crew needed to physically shoot, and cast can go onto a sound stage, all Zone B crew must be cleared and the stage disinfected and cleaned by a professional cleaning crew. Zone C production office staff are not allowed to come to set at all.
The precautions and safety protocols taken by The Goldbergs are more stringent than what is happening in some outpatient medical facilities and the testing is rigorous. The entire crew is Covid tested three times a week, originally it was once a week but after there were a couple of non-work related Covid positives production increased testing. The actors, who are the only ones ever unmasked, are Covid tested three times per week and rapid tested on the other two days. Everyone must be masked at all times and there are even separate craft services for each zone.
Blount is not allowed to use smoke, haze or ‘atmosphere’ on stage and the air conditioning units now have filters. There is a Covid meeting at crew call outside the stages every morning, which is combined with the safety meeting at call if there are any stunts or non-Covid safety issues.
Originally there were only thirty people allowed on the stage at any one time, including actors. This sounds like a lot until you add up the numbers; camera alone has nine crew and The Goldbergs has an ensemble cast. Once you include the director, script supervisor, background, dialogue coach, hair, makeup and wardrobe it can easily top fifty. As production settled into the new routine and as the world learned more about Covid-19, protocols were adjusted.
First assistants camera now pull focus off set remotely; no more pulling next to the camera. Blount sits away from video village in a tent with only his digital intermediate technician (DIT). As part of the safety measures due to Covid-19, production added in a password protected Wi-Fi video village system so that any department with the password can access the camera feed, including a rehearsal camera to see the blocking of scenes from outside the stage, which can be watched on crew members’ own devices.
Blount’s gaffer and key grip access the wireless camera feed as well, instead of sitting with him and the DIT. Other precautions include having one second assistant slate both cameras on set while filming, the production has two second assistants camera but only one is allowed on set at a time.
The traditional video village with the director, writer, script supervisor, assistants director, props, dialogue coach, varying number of producers, and set guests has been pared down to just the director, writer, and script supervisor, all separated by plexiglass shields.
Another way the production has adapted is restrictions on the number of background extras. The first episode filmed after lockdown is an homage to the film Flying High (1980, cinematography by Joseph Biroc ASC). At first the crew thought it was a joke; a closed airplane set filled with background as their first Covid-era show? Production brainstormed how to make it happen. Jason shot clean plates of the plane interior then shot socially-distanced background actors to be tiled in to fill the seats to make it look like a busy plane. Mannequins and dummies were also used in some deep background seats. Production carries a number of regular background and stand-ins who follow the testing protocols and who don’t work on other shows.
One of the series regulars is Academy Award-nominee George Segal who is 87 and therefore in the high-risk group for Covid. When filming with Segal, production shoots his scenes from several episodes in one day. In order to minimize the time he is around other unmasked actors, Blount will shoot Segal’s side of the coverage and a locked-off master shot followed by split screen as much as possible.
As a season eight broad comedy with an up-lit look, Covid-19 protocols did not require a massive shift in how Blount lights. His crew was already fast and dialled-in to the regular sets. They have decreased off-lot locations and try to film as much on stage as possible as well as on the Sony lot. Blount has built a very versatile camera department that has been beneficial for shooting during a pandemic.
Blount and his crew feel fortunate to be able to work during a global crisis when many have lost their jobs and everyone has been quarantining. To be able to provide new content for those stuck at home, to interact daily with colleagues and to earn a living doing what he loves while feeling physically safe in the Covid-19 hotspot of Los Angeles has been a privilege for Blount.
Shooting an American network television show on the Sony lot, even masked and shielded, is a dream come true for this Adelaide boy.
Jason Blount is an Australian cinematographer based in Los Angeles.
Mev Maxon is an assistant director and former trainee with the Directors Guild of America.