ART OF THE SHOT: Christian Sebaldt, ASC

Shooting over 100 episodes of Prime-Time TV will sharpen a cinematographer’s mind

In 2010, Christian Sebaldt, ASC, won a Primetime EMMY and an ASC nomination for his work on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Sebaldt was the Director of Photography for “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” from 2008 – 2015 amassing 74 episodes shot and oversaw the transition from shooting CSI on film to digital. More recently you could see his camera work on the TV show “Rush Hour.” When it comes to feature films Sebaldt has compiled 35 credits along with many music videos, network promos, TV movies, and documentaries. Shooting over 100 episodes of Prime-Time TV will sharpen a cinematographer’s mind and I think, and hope, Sebaldt’s learned wisdom will be useful for us to share. One of those things was mixing and matching Arri cameras to the smaller Blackmagic cameras.

HALLETT: Let’s dive in. What Blackmagic equipment do you use?

SEBALDT: Blackmagic was kind enough to let me have a Production Camera 4K and 2.5K Cinema Camera for the Warner Bros series Rush Hour. Which we shot in Los Angeles. I used them in many different ways. We had a lot of action fight scenes. I would just grab one hand-held with a nice wide lens and capture the actors fighting while A and B cameras where on long lenses. We also did car shots where we mounted our two Alexas, which were our main cameras, in addition to the 4K and 2.5K camera for coverage of the driver and passenger all at the same time. So we would get two side angles, as well as two front angles with all four cameras, which saved us a lot of time, all intercut nicely. We had a car action sequence in a parking garage, where either a stunt man or one of our actors was tied to the hood of the car going really fast. So we mounted the Blackmagic’s on the stunt vehicle because they’re fairly light and not that big.

HALLETT: How important is camera selection when you start a project?

SEBALDT: It is always important because all of the production value is captured by the camera. The actors you hire, the sets and locations, set dressing, wardrobe, etc. I like to start with a really high-quality camera because we can always degrade the image later and I need latitude for that. If it needs to be more grainy, noisy, or contrasty we can deal with all that in post. What also helps me personally as a DP is to use camera equipment that I’m familiar with and know how it will react in moody, bright or contrasty situations and how the camera reacts to different skin tones and colors in general. If I know my tools then I can work fast and with confidence, because I know what I’m going to get.

SebaldtHALLETT: Blackmagic has been building cameras for nearly 4 or 5 years now do you think they’ll eventually make a camera that you’ll choose as your main camera for a project?

SEBALDT: I don’t see why not. Blackmagic is getting better and better. One of the key advantages is that their cameras are very small and light. Everybody wants to work faster, be more mobile, be able to achieve easier hand-held work or to put a high-quality camera on a Movi-like rig. That is the direction we all need to go in. So I think Blackmagic is certainly on the right track. The quality of the new cameras is amazing.

HALLETT: If you were to predict what you hope to see in a new camera from them, what would it be?

SEBALDT: It is basically what everyone is trying to achieve. Smaller body, with increased latitude, a larger dynamic range, high-quality color sampling and fast, loss-less compression, as well as a larger capture format. Everybody wants to use a camera with higher quality but not gain weight, that’s the tricky part.

HALLETT: When did you make the switch to mostly shooting digital instead of shooting film?

SebaldtSEBALDT: My first digital feature, shot on the Sony F900, was “Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation” in 2003. It was output to 35mm film and when we screened it for George Lucas, he was quite impressed with the gritty, dark images we achieved. Many more feature films shot on 35mm as well as digital followed. To be honest, I haven’t shot on film for many years now, simply because all the projects that I’ve been on for television just all go digital, it’s cost effective to shoot digitally, especially with the need for a fast turn-around getting the dailies into editorial.  I find there are advantages to shooting digitally, at least in the very fast-paced world of television. For example, if I have a very long lens shot that’s very quite difficult for the focus puller, well maybe I’ll go from four hundred to eight hundred or sixteen hundred ISO to give him or her one or two more stops to make the shot achievable in fewer takes. I’ll just change the ISO real quick – I don’t need to push the film in the lab by one or two stops and create extra costs for production, it just takes seconds and it’s “free.”  What I also really appreciate, is that I can, to a very large degree, adjust the Kelvin on the camera. So if I look at the monitor and I’m thinking, “This would be nice if it had a colder feel over-all”, I just, set the Kelvin on the camera more towards a lower number of degrees (maybe 4,000 instead of 5,600). On CSI I had two brutal flashbacks to shoot for an episode and wanted them to have an “unsettling/unreal” feel. I shot one at 10,000 and one at 2,500 Kelvin with different kinds of light sources and sufficiently changed the impact of the shots.

I can change those things very, very easily and very quickly. Questionable is the trend to not cut anymore between takes since one is recording on a reusable card and not film, and I have to admit that if you start the next take immediately, the set remains quiet and focused and this is quite beneficial to the actors. If everybody makes adjustments while the cameras keep running, the actors’ focus is lost and you just end up with a huge burden on dailies creation and in editorial and probably end up shooting even more takes later.  So I think there are certainly advantages to going digital, in addition to the fact that low-cost cameras enable young filmmakers with tight budgets to express themselves in any way they choose.

HALLETT:  Do you change the way you light with digital or is it pretty much the same?

SEBALDT: I was hired on CSI in season eight and stayed until fifteen. Many DPs before me had set the look of the show and when we switched to digital from one episode to another basically, nobody wanted to change the style and the look of the show the audience was used to. I basically lit exactly the same way and we were able to achieve the exact same look nobody even noticed that we switched. On a different project, where I’m not locked into a style that other people have set before me. I certainly use smaller lights. I use more LED lighting that can be dimmed and color controlled remotely from an Ipad, so I can work faster with smaller lights, thanks to the higher light sensitivity of the digital cameras. Shooting on film, I knew that what I was seeing with my eyes was being captured. Because modern digital cameras can see more than our eyes can, I rely on calibrated state-of-the-art monitors on set to judge my lighting. The calibration is usually done by the final colorist of our post house to match their in-suite monitor, so what I see and capture on set is what the colorist receives and he/she can see my intentions.

HALLETT: Does it allow you to be a little more creative in your shooting process?

SEBALDT: I think it effects the speed at which I can work. When my set-ups are fast, we cannot only get more shots in a day, but we can also allow the director and the actors more time to develop a scene, find the right tone and pace, that’s valuable time I need to give them when I can.

HALLETT: Who succeeds, in your mind, at filmmaking?  Television making?

SEBALDT: I think the key to success for all of us is to be very, very well prepared every day and I’m not saying you have to have all the answers, but by the time you arrive on the set you must know exactly what the scene is about, where  you are in the story, you must have thought about how to approach the scene. Hopefully, you were able to scout your locations and, know where the sun will be so you can choose backlight or sidelight or whatever you prefer. I think the person that succeeds in this pretty tough business is the one that works the hardest, puts the most effort into every detail of a project, especially in prep. Prep is the key to a cinematographer’s success and survival. If you are given the chance to prepare for your challenges in advance, you have worked out most of your problems already and you will be able to answer the producer’s and the crew’s questions.

HALLETT: How do you balance the lifestyle of being away on shoots or long days with having a family?

SEBALDT: I’ve made a conscious switch from shooting feature films in other countries to LA-based television shows and that helped our family, we all benefitted from that. I’ve been home almost every night for nine years. My current job is on the show “Lucifer” and that has taken me to Canada, but our son is now old enough to understand and we do FaceTime and visit each other when possible.

HALLETT:  Do you miss doing features or does television more than whet your appetite?

SebaldtSEBALDT: I miss shooting feature films because you’re telling one big story over a long period of many months and a lot of attention is given to many details in a feature film that you can’t necessarily address on a TV series, simply because you don’t have a week for a scene, you have a day. So I do miss it, but we see more and more feature-film-like quality productions on television or streaming online every year, so TV is a great place to be! But telling a ninety-minute story and seeing it projected in a movie theater is pretty thrilling, so at some point, I will return to feature films.

HALLETT: Are there any types of genres you prefer over others?

SEBALDT: Not really, I like funny just as much as I do like dark. I’ve shot a whole bunch of dark movies that are creepy and scary and have a lot of action, but recently I shot a pilot for Disney which combined kids and comedy with music and that was fantastic, we had so much fun on the set… As long as the script is great and you like everybody involved, it’s very exciting to work in this business. Hopefully, your film gets seen by many people, you don’t want to work on something that nobody will ever enjoy. That can be disappointing.

HALLETT: What would you suggest to those starting out and how to succeed on a level you’ve succeeded on?

SEBALDT: If you’re starting out in this business as a cinematographer, just shoot as much as you can. If you don’t have any resources, download a free editing program, grab your phone and shoot, put it together, see what works. Experiment with backlight, side light, front light, all of them are valid choices. Learn about different focal lengths and their effect on the shot. Keep in touch with everybody you ever work with and like, they will move up like you, build a database of connections!! If you can choose your jobs, pick good projects that you will not be embarrassed to show, that will advance your career, projects which will look decent on your resume. Put every one of your credits on IMDB, even second unit or addtl. photography. Use social media to let people know you are there, what you are working on, what you just finished – build an online presence and also have your own website. If you can, try to work on different kinds of projects to learn how different subject matters require different visual approaches. You also learn how to manage different crews and get along with UPM’s and producers, a crucial survival necessity. Don’t shy away from challenges on the job, that’s where you advance your skills. Don’t be timid, tell your co-workers to give you their advice on how to accomplish something if you’re not sure. Be financially responsible to those who hire you! Be respectful and decisive as the DP, make sure your crew is prepared, is focused (no playing on iPhones at work), thinks ahead and works fast. Be economical in everything you do, ask only for the gear you really need, look at your watch, compromise a little if you have to to get scenes completed efficiently. Smile on set. Maybe they hire you on their next bigger and better project, maybe they recommend you to others…

HALLETT: Would you suggest if someone wants to take their career further to move to LA or New York or Vancouver?

SEBALDT: I think there’s good work to be found in many, many different places in the United States. I think if you’re in the boondocks, in the woods, then you probably have to get a little closer to a bigger city where stuff is happening. But I think even in a small town in Middle America you can make a good film. If you just chase where the big productions are, you may be facing serious competition, too many people trying to do the same thing you’re doing.

HALLETT: What about education? Did you go to film school?

SEBALDT: I did not, no. I was a trainee at the Bavaria Studios in Munich, Germany for two years. It was hands-on in the lab and the visual effects department. With the help of a former DP, we would shoot our own little scenes, develop the film, print it and edit it, quite exciting. On the side I worked as an AC to make some extra money working on documentaries and for TV, practicing working in the real world. That’s the exciting thing about this business: There are no set rules. You don’t have to follow a certain path to get somewhere. All the DP’s I’ve talked to had different “journeys.” Some of them started as the loader and then worked their way up to focus puller and then operator and spent years and years until they finally became DPs. They have a solid background because they, as assistants and operators worked with some really good DPs and learned from them on how to approach things. That’s a valid way of getting to a DP level. Then there are some guys who never AC’d for anybody, they were working on small projects like documentaries, and just started shooting and figured things out along the way. If you grow up in a Hollywood family where your grandfather was already in the business and you’re going to be in the business too, you follow one path. If you’re starting out fresh, then you follow a different path, so I think all paths are equally valid.

HALLETT:  If there is any genre you would like to shoot what would it be? 

SEBALDT: I would like to shoot a Western.

HALLETT:  Why is that?

SEBALDT: You enter a very cinematic world in visually stunning locations that are far from our daily reality. Just imagine you take your wide screen format and have your camera glide low across the dirt and then find the fast-moving hooves of a horse and then crane up and end up on a close up of a really, really, bad heavily armed guy with a big old black coat and a black hat, all back-lit, with lens flares, that would be such fabulous fun to create… I think you have a lot of freedom in a Western to craft something that’s visually interesting.

HALLETT: When it comes to this job what really excites you?  I’ll give you an example.  To me, having new gear excites me and helps me find more enthusiasm on the job, what is that for you?

SEBALDT: I get the most satisfaction out of the fact that you assemble your favorite artists and technicians, often from very different backgrounds and there’s a script that is the glue that binds everyone together. So you have all these people in so many departments, some of them you don’t even meet. Soon you’re on the set with the actors, everybody involved contributes their ideas of what this project should be like, the director reins them all in and everyone is shaping a magical and thrilling story together. I find that unbelievably exciting and very rewarding. 

HALLETT: Is there anything I’m forgetting?

SEBALDT: I love my job. I love reading a script and seeing images in my head, which I hopefully can later translate into “reality” with light and shadow. I love being surprised when I realize that how we are approaching a scene is completely different than I expected. All that keeps me going, motivates me, and I even get paid for it, I can feed my family and we can own a house. The ultimate solution to happiness at work, where you spend so much of your life, is to follow your dreams, do what you want to do and it should not be an option to give that up.

HALLETT:  Is there anything else I’m forgetting that you’d like the mention?

SEBALDT: I’ve been trying as much as possible to hire crew that I just like spending time with and who also enjoy what they are doing, who support me and save me from embarrassment. When I make mistakes or I pick the wrong equipment, I want them to come to me and say, “Hey you forgot to do this, or there’s another thing that would work better, that would be faster, it’s less expensive, more sophisticated” and I’m going “Yeah, thanks, let’s do that.” Or my crew often finds equipment that’s brand new that I have never heard of where they are saying, “We should try that out to see if it makes life easier on the set.” So surround yourself with crew who look out for you and for each other would be my “final word.”

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Brian Hallett, is an award winning cameraman, editor, and producer. He has shot everything from Network broadcast news, promotional image campaigns, music videos, short films, and documentaries. Check out his reel at hallett-brian.com