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Eben Bolter BSC shoots space comedy for Armando Iannucci

HBO's "Avenue 5" is a new series from British comedy legend Iannucci, shot by Bolter with a multi-camera package of ALEXA Minis and Leica Summicron lenses provided by ARRI Rental. 

London-based cinematographer Eben Bolter is a long-time friend of the team at ARRI Rental UK, who have supported him since some of his earliest projects. Now in high demand for productions all over the world, Bolter is generally known for single-camera dramas and thrillers, but "Avenue 5" required him to oversee up to four camera operators shooting simultaneously. He speaks here about his visual approach to the sci-fi comedy series created by Iannucci, whose previous credits include "The Thick of It" and "Veep."

What drew you to the project?

It was a combination of factors. First of all, working with Armando Iannucci, who I think is a genius, and trying to make a multi-camera comedy work in a science fiction environment--in a way where the actors had absolute freedom--just sounded like a really exciting challenge. And the fact it was for HBO, with these enormous, incredible sets.

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Hugh Laurie plays Captain Ryan Clark

I've predominantly done single-camera work, but this was going to be three to four cameras, pretty much at all times. It wasn't just cross-shooting, it was cross-shooting with four cameras, which was new to me. But I really didn't want to research what I "should" be doing; I just felt if I came at it with my eyes, my instincts, and my logic for lighting, then even if I did things wrong it would be more interesting than trying to copy something.

What did that mean for your lighting?

With Armando, it's all about the actors. Sometimes we didn't do any rehearsals, and we particularly didn't do rehearsals on camera, so you just don't know what's going to happen. On top of that we were cross-shooting on fairly wide angles, with nowhere to hide a light, so I had to integrate my lighting into the sets as much as possible, let people move around, and just be ready for anything. 

We had five kilometers of RGBWW LED strips integrated into the sets. To have a bit of safety, I lit the sets to T5.6 and used ND filters to shoot at T2.8 to T2. Then I would sit with my DIT and gaffer at the monitor, and we could either live grade, or more often we were actually live lighting, so I could introduce contrast by fading something up or down, even during a take, or make color adjustments. It was quite luxurious to be able to fix things in two different ways, and it took seconds on an iPad.

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Photos: Alex Bailey/HBO

How would all the cameras stay out of each other's way?

Generally, we would start with a master wide shot that was very composed and I really liked. Then we'd try and fit in a few more cameras around that, which were a bit more punched in, medium-wide. And maybe we'd throw in a really long lens next to those wide cameras, roving between the actors. 

That would usually be take one. So, you'd have a sense of what's happening by the time you've shot the wide and the mediums, which gives you a head start. When we moved in, we might have A-camera and B-camera cross-shooting on the two main performances. Then C-camera in the middle doing a kind of ping pong, and slot the fourth camera in wherever we could, perhaps profile on somebody.

Was there a lot of handheld camerawork?

When I first met Armando, he wanted the visuals to be cinematic, as opposed to the handheld, pseudo-documentary style he used on "The Thick of It." The exception was scenes back on Earth, where we did do that handheld, zoom lens thing, plus a few very dramatic moments on the spaceship were handheld, but something like 80% or 90% of the show is on a dolly. The sets were vast, so we had space to move the dollies around. We also used Steadicam quite a lot, and we had a MoVI Pro gimbal. 

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You're used to operating yourself, so how was it having to put your faith in a team of camera operators?

It was my first real experience of that, but it was great. We had so many monitors on this show, the video unit really had to work hard. Armando directed episode one, and then he show-ran the series, so he was there for the other episodes. There'd be a director's monitor in the middle, with Armando to one side, and me to the other side. I'd have a 17" monitor split into four, and a headset that was live to all my operators, so I could give them notes, rotating between all four cameras. 

As the directors got into that way of working, they would start telling me where to send the cameras. It was constant little notes and directions on the fly, which was a baptism of fire and I had to learn how to do that very quickly. In a way, it felt a lot like live TV.

Was it challenging, working with seven different directors on the series?

It was fine, actually. Almost all of them had worked with Armando before, and they were all just lovely. There were no egos, nobody came in and tried to change anything, and Armando was always around, show-running the series, so if we were talking about a scene it would be him, me, and the director.

Because I shot every episode, Armando said that he wanted me to be the protector of the look of the show. He really liked what we did in episode one, and it was my job to collaboratively let the other directors know how we do things. Occasionally they'd ask for something and I'd instinctively know it didn't feel like "Avenue 5," but they always took that very well, and it was all for the good of the show. 

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Eben Bolter BSC discussing a shot on set

You've used the ALEXA Mini a lot before; was that an easy choice again for this production?

I've been exclusively using ARRI cameras for something like five years now. For me there's a lot of reasons why I like the ALEXA, and color is probably the biggest. I just think the ARRI color science is incredibly reliable and versatile, and I've got to know it so well. On this show we wanted a rich, filmic, colorful palette, so we were always looking for opportunities to introduce color on our 58 different sets.

The actors are absolutely the most important part of the process on "Avenue 5," and you've just got to stay out of the way. We kept saying we were trying for ninja photography; trying to be completely unnoticed and capture performances without anybody thinking about the camera department at all. The ALEXA Mini is the camera to do that, I think.

Were you well supported by the ARRI Rental UK team?

Absolutely, yes. Simon Surtees and Russell Allen have always been amazingly supportive of my work, and on "Avenue 5" it was the same incredible level of support. We didn't have any issues that I can think of, and if we ever needed anything they were straight on it. They were brilliant, and they always are. 

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