For Cameron, to come on early in preproduction and have input into set design was exciting, and a crucial difference from other shows.
“When you only get three weeks preproduction, a lot of the production design has already been sorted out with the producers because production designers tend to come on earlier,” he says.
“By coming on early, you get to be really creative about solving the problems because you’re not up against that barrier of time. It was the only way to get the level of production value on screen. Also, because of the way that we were lighting the sets, I needed to work closely with the production designer to make sure that my concepts were integrated into the sets themselves.”
The idea was to light the sets with practical light sources – that is, light from the lights and windows that are part of the set. It’s a simple idea that is hard to pull off without getting the flat look of a sitcom. With the usual lighting hardware cleared out of the set, the cinematographer lacks the fine control of lighting which is such a large part of the job. But once set up, it is faster, gives actors freedom of movement, allows simultaneous camera angles, and with the video village and focus pullers located in another room, it permits a wide shooting arc.
A another big cost-saver was dispensing with photographic backdrops that show exteriors outside windows on set.
“Traditionally, you might see a vista of the ocean, or another house next door, but because we had quite a few sets with really big windows, there is no way we could afford to do that, or to do it well,” says Cameron. “They needed to be really quite big, and they can’t be hard up against the window, so you have to set them back, and they have to be lit with another light source.
“So we decided quite early on that we were going to white out the windows. We looked at some references like Game of Thrones online and they had some really large sort of operatic sets with huge windows, with nothing beyond them but white, but there was some architecture to the windows that broke up that white so it felt like it was integrated into the design.
“It also meant that you had these large areas that were lit with quite soft broad daylight. So it looks flattering straight away,” says Cameron.
If it works, it is like a magician’s misdirection, because in the scene your focus should be on the actors, not the backdrop. After all, this is not a show for long lingering shots.
The final result was a cheaper more compact set, with an occasional CGI backdrop inserted during post if it the visual trick was too blatant to pull off successfully.
The extra preproduction time also allowed them to test this style and look with a full screen test, which given the approach they were taking, was a precautionary measure.
“Running the look by the network before principle photography was better than discovering they didn’t like it during week one,” notes Cameron.
For all that, Zanoski is the first to admit that all the talk of cost savings is following a familiar theme.
“Isn’t money tight on every New Zealand production? It’s the way it is, and I think that once you commit to doing things in a certain way with a certain budget it is about having the clarity of that and sticking with that.
“I think people from the industry might look at us and think ‘what a cheap show’. I don’t think the audience will see that, and if they don’t, that makes me happy.”