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Small Town, Big Sensors: The Digital Cinematography on Cinemax’s 'Banshee'

If the federal Witness Protection Program decided to place all its witnesses in the same town, they need look no further than Banshee, Pa., the fictitious setting for the Cinemax series Banshee. The 10-episode primetime show, which runs on the pay-cabler Fridays through early March, could also place its stand-in for “rural Pennsylvania” into witness protection: Charlotte, N.C. Yet what is clearly no mystery is the decision to go with both RED SCARLET-X and ARRI Alexa digital camera systems as the crew’s handheld weapons of choice for fighting bad guys.

Antony Starr as Sheriff Lucas Hood. Photos by Fred Norris/HBO

Both systems at different times were tasked with tracking master thief Lucas Hood (Antony Starr) after he assumes the identity of Banshee’s sheriff. Pursued by gangsters from his past—led by Ukrainian über-bad guy Mr. Rabbit (Ben Cross, Star Trek and Chariots of Fire)—the aptly named Sheriff Hood and Carrie Hopewell (Ivana Milicevic, Casino Royale), his former partner in crime, are thrust into weekly dealings with an array of colorful Banshee characters.

Series director Greg Yaitanes, an Emmy winner for his directorial work on House, has always preferred shooting digital over film, so using the RED and Alexa systems was a no-brainer for director and crew. “We had shot a full episode of House a few years ago on a Canon EOS 5D, and I always liked the compact nature of the camera. When it came to shooting Banshee, I had those same needs for a compact camera system, and the RED SCARLET-X seemed very appealing,” says Yaitanes.

“In practice, it was a great exercise to put the new RED [SCARLET-X] so aggressively into the field last spring. We took a camera still in its infancy and placed it in real-world conditions and testing,” he adds.

SCARLET-X is often called on to shoot high-res stills for glossy magazine covers and other still photo applications as well as for digital cinematography. RED Digital Cinema Camera Company says the SCARLET-X has the technical chops to capture 5K stills and 4K motion with 5K burst modes generating up to 12 fps, as well as 4K reaching up to 30 fps.

From left, Greg Yaitanes, Antony Starr

But on the Banshee shoot, RED’s results were mixed, says Yaitanes, who co-produced the series with Alan Ball, Peter Macdissi and screenwriters Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler.

“The RED system starts out compact, but when you start putting in your lenses, your focus pulls, the rigging, the extra battery required for an onboard monitor and such, it ends up being not quite as [compact] as when it’s stripped down,” he notes. “The RED, we found, was not going to keep up with us. It was prone to crashing. Maybe the heat and humidity of shooting in North Carolina was wreaking havoc on it. So we wound up shooting three of the 10 episodes on the RED SCARLET-X and switched over to the Alexa for the rest.”

Christopher Faloona, the series’ director of photography, deployed a standard ARRI Alexa with a 16:9 chip. (He tested the ARRI Alexa M but never actually used it in production.) Faloona says he used Cooke S4 prime lenses, and Optimo zooms from Angenieux. The ARRI Alexa is often cited for its film-like look, low noise floor, close-to-natural skin tones, distinct color separation and cinema-like depth of field.

Ivana Milicevic as Carrie Hopewell

Yaitanes is still glad his crew used RED’s SCARLET-X and looks forward to deploying it again later this year, along with the Alexa, if Banshee is renewed for a second season. (Episodes 2, 4 and 5 of season one were shot with RED SCARLET-X and the rest with Alexa.)

“In a way, we were beta testing the RED SCARLET back then—now many months ago—and [its images] were aesthetically beautiful. We loved what we were getting. But the crew had a somewhat better comfort level with the Alexa. I was sort of the last holdout on switching,” Yaitanes explains. “There’s nothing more grueling on equipment and crew than a TV series. There is no margin for error.”

Dailies for the series are produced in-house by colorist Drew Kilcoin using Colorfront software on an Outpost dailies system provided by Light Iron Digital. In post, Ray Miller of Technicolor assembles material on Avid Symphony software, with color correction performed by Technicolor’s Gareth Cook using Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve

The Visual Effects of Banshee
Cinemax's original series Banshee starts off with a bang as lead character Lucas Hood (Anthony Starr) is released from prison, steals a car and heads to New York to settle some old scores. Almost immediately, he finds himself weaving in and out of rush hour traffic on 5th Avenue, pursued by a gun-toting villain, crashing his car and causing a significant pile-up, then dashing over and between cars barely escaping an open-air tour bus knocked on its side by the mayhem. Of course, the filmmakers were no more willing to send Starr through busy traffic than they were to fire real shots at him and this is where Encore’s VFX team in Hollywood came in.

Director Greg Yaitanes has been a longtime client of Encore’s, from his days on Fox's medical thriller House. The VFX piece of the sequence was overseen by Encore’s VFX supervisor Armen Kevorkian, who knew that the first unit and cinematographer Christopher Faloona would have less than a five-hour window to send Starr running through the crowded metropolitan avenue. There would be a minimal number of real cars in the frame and his team would build the remainder of the vehicles and composite them into the final sequence.

Kevorkian mapped out the sequence using toy cars and storyboards so that when the first unit got to the street (covering the action with three ARRI Alexas shooting in ARRIRAW) they could get exactly the angles he'd worked out with Yaitanes. Back at Encore, his team of 3D artists built upwards of 60 cars and the ill-fated tour bus using Autodesk 3ds Max. Then Encore's tracking specialist made use of Andersson Technologies SynthEyes for tracking the 3D cars into the entirely handheld-sequence and the company's 2D group used the Foundry's Nuke for compositing. "This kind of 'invisible' effects work can be more challenging than working on a totally sci-fi kind of show," Kevorkian explains. "You can get some leeway making a space ship but everybody knows what a traffic jam looks like. If you didn't know you were looking at a VFX scene, that means we did our job well."