Low Budget Soap

I read in one of the trades that the daytime drama Guiding Light is now shooting much of its episodes on location using small-format, PD-150/DVX-100 class of cameras.

Compared to the traditional everything-in-the-studio daytime drama, it does have a bit more immediate, off the cuff feel, but it also ends up looking, well, cheap.

When you are producing a low-rated program, I understand the need to cut costs. You can outfit a three-camera small-format crew for the cost of one good medium format lens, so the economics make sense. You also gain some amount of increased flexibility with the physically small cameras. A scene could be shot in a stationary car without too many operator contortions.

But there are limitations to the small format gear, also. My experience with them is that their decreased dynamic range limits what you can do in color correction. There is zero depth of field, so while the operator has to hardly touch his focus knob, it is hard to focus attention of the speaker and away from the background. An underexposed image breaks down quickly. In general shots look a little home made.

Part of the problem is the token lighting. Unlike the classic three-point lighting used in the studio, many of the practical locations are lit only enough to register flesh tones and that’s it. Outdoor shots appear to only use a single source to brighten the eyes. There’s a lot of value there, but nobody is going to watch the show because it looks good.

The producers have clearly made a tactical choice: if they are mired as the third-place show in their time slot, profits will have to be driven from having low overhead. Spending dramatically less than your competition on the production side gives you a competitive advantage, or at least increases your margins to an acceptible level.

While it would a certain kind of script for a prime time program to adopt the same workflow, it is good to know it is possible.


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