Satisfying the viewing public year after year requires many things from a television production organization, not the least of which is superior writing and acting talent. These days such efforts also include staying one step ahead of ever-evolving audience expectations. In today’s era of reality television this means providing a “you are there” look that engages viewers as never before and reinforces the believability of the environments depicted onscreen. Guiding Light strategically enhanced its “look” earlier this year by becoming the first series of its kind to be filmed exclusively with small, hand-held, highly portable digital camcorders, which enable the show to be shot inside actual homes and offices, or on location practically anywhere. The camcorder chosen for this new production model was Canon’s XH G1, which is engineered with the technology, features, and durability necessary for producing five daily one-hour shows each and every week for an audience of millions of dedicated viewers.
A New Production Model
“Our Canon XH G1 camcorders work great for us,” noted Guiding Light director of production services Lou Grieci. “We do seven taping days a week over a five-day period; five days here in our Manhattan studio and two days in the field. We use a total of 18 Canon XH G1 camcorders and shoot 10- to 12-hour days, three cameras at a time, or four cameras out in the field. We produce 250 shows per year. We also have one Canon XL H1. We use its wide-angle lens for establishing shots.”
The key to Guiding Light’s new production model of exclusively using compact, hand-held Canon camcorders is what Janet Morrison, the producer of the show’s digital department, described as “Four walls and a ceiling.”
“No one else does that,” she elaborated. “The concept of ‘Four walls and a ceiling’ is part of what we felt the show’s new production model needed to be. Its purpose is to make the show more intimate for the viewer and to really bring them into Springfield, so they can be a part of these characters’ lives in a way they haven’t been before.” Springfield, Guiding Light’s fictional locale, is portrayed by a suburban New Jersey town several miles west of the series’ Manhattan studios.
“We ‘adopted’ that town and everything in it has become ‘Springfield,’” Grieci explained. “Their park is our park. We count it as one of our permanent sets. We also have a ‘show house’ out there, which is a house that we rented and then turned into sets. It’s a regular home and we added furniture and props to make it into our characters’ homes. We can shoot in every space of the house.”
Grieci added that the compact size of Canon XH G1 camcorders isn’t the only reason why they can shoot inside actual enclosed rooms. The Canon XH G1 camcorder’s low-light capabilities add to its portability in that it can capture broadcast-quality images without the need for extensive and cumbersome lighting equipment.
“We need much less lighting,” he said. “Our sets were built with practical lights in them to give us enough illumination. It’s not what people imagine when they think of traditional television studio lighting, but it’s enough with these cameras, and we augment that with a small hand-held ‘punch light.’”
Asked if the use of Canon XH G1 camcorders doesn’t also help the production of Guiding Light achieve some “green” advantages by saving energy on lighting and air conditioning, Grieci added, “It’s a nice by-product of the format, but we didn’t get into this production model from a cost-saving perspective. It’s all about relevance and creative choices.”
Given the Canon XH G1 camcorder’s ability to capture broadcast-quality video in everyday environments, Grieci revealed that even Guiding Light’s Manhattan production offices now double as sets.
“Every one of our offices has a dual purpose,” Grieci reveals. “With a little bit of minor ‘propping’ we transform them into permanent sets and then back to functional office space when we’re done. My office, for instance, also ‘shoots’ as the district attorney’s office. Janet’s office is dressed as an oil magnate’s office. The office next to mine is a nail salon. On a typical production day we may start off in the Manhattan studio, then take three Canon XH G1 camcorders and our mic-boom operators and move into the elevator in the lobby of the building, and then from there we can go to the roof or to Janet’s office or to my office, and while we’re doing that we can have a separate crew also using Canon XH G1 camcorders out in the street or anywhere in the tri-state area.”
“In our old production model [using pedestal-style cameras to shoot actors performing in traditional three-sided sets] our two studios in Manhattan had room for seven sets at a time.” Morrison added. “In the studio we have 30 permanent sets, plus the office sets, plus the sets in New Jersey. This has opened up our ‘canvas’ in ways we weren’t able to imagine before. Our writers have so many more places where scenes can happen. They can write people in the park, or at the municipal building, or using cars that actually drive, as opposed to cars that just sit on a studio floor. This new production model has completely changed the way the show looks and the way stories can be told.”
Several factors influenced Grieci, Morrison, engineer in charge Tom Guadarrama, and others on the Guiding Light team to choose Canon’s XH G1 camcorders over competing models and brands.
“Stylistically our executive producer decided that the new model would be completely hand-held,” Morrison recalled. “We knew our camera ops [operators] would have to hold these camcorders 10 to 12 hours a day. When we were looking at cameras last year at NAB, there were models manufacturers showed us that we had to rule out based on size and weight alone. And because we planned to do everything as a wireless set-up, we knew that the various attachments we wanted to hook onto the camcorders for wireless remote video monitoring and audio would add even more weight.”
The fact that the Canon XH G1 camcorder weighs only 4.6 lbs. was, however, only one of several reasons why it was chosen. Another was because of its SMPTE time code in/out connectors.
“That was actually one of the things that sold us on this model,” Morrison continued. “We use the Canon XH G1 camcorder’s SMPTE time code connectors to ‘jam-sync’ all the cameras together.”
“A lot of the cameras at this price level from other companies didn’t have that feature,” Grieci added. “We jam-sync everything, usually in the a.m. session and at each one of our breaks throughout the day.”
“Another reason we went with the Canon XH G1 camcorders is that they’re ready to shoot HD with the flick of a switch,” Morrison said. “In fact there’s nothing bought for our new production model in terms of technical purchases that can’t be HD-ready in an instant.”
“We’re currently shooting in SD,” Grieci noted, “but we are ready to switch to HD whenever the network asks for it. Our whole system, front end and back end, is ready to go HD.”
Crafting the Image
With a total of 18 Canon XH G1 camcorders shooting in various locations at any given time, image consistency emerges as an important factor in the production of Guiding Light. Engineer in charge Tom Guadarrama made effective use of the Total Image Control features on all of the show’s Canon camcorders early on to ensure a uniform look.
“We have custom settings saved for the studio and for outside, and for different lighting conditions,” Morrison related. “Tom came in before we were running full-speed and decided what our settings would be. The settings were saved to one Canon XH G1 camcorder’s memory card, and that card was then inserted into each camera to save the settings. Since all of the cameras are now pre-programmed with the same settings, we can quickly pull up the setting we need as soon as we enter a new set or lighting condition. We also do a color-correction process during post.”
“We also used the Canon Console software to initially set custom scene files for the cameras,” Grieci said. “We really haven’t had to change the look too much.”
Given the show’s hand-held production esthetic, when asked if Canon’s Optical Image Stabilization feature is used on their XH G1 camcorders, Grieci replied, “We use it all the time. It’s constantly on.”
A Unique Look
“What’s interesting is that our executive producer had the concept for this new camcorder/wireless production model for several years, and the technology eventually caught up with where we were,” Morrison recalled. “It was a lovely kind of coincidence that all of these technologies came together at the same time because now we are able to offer the audience more of Springfield and more of what they really want to see. There have been many occasions where we’ve had to adapt current technology for our system because things have not necessarily been made to do what we want. We’ve done a lot of customizing, a lot of talking to vendors, all of whom responded.”
“When we’re talking about the technology, all of the components that we have are over-the-counter components that can be bought,” Grieci added. “It was Tom who realized that one needed to work with another in a different perspective, and he was able to adapt them.”
“Canon has been great throughout this process,” Morrison asserted. “We are thrilled with the response we get from them. We have done some tech troubleshooting with them, and they’ve been very helpful – always ready to help us with a solution”
“We did a lot of formal training with the whole production staff, from camera ops to audio, and even directors,” Grieci confided. “We took out full groups at a time and worked with them day in and day out for a five-month period. We all had a learning curve.”
“Now that our new production model is in full swing, the Canon XH G1 camcorders enable us to bring the audience closer to the characters and the town of Springfield,” he concluded. “It’s different from any other daytime drama out there right now. Without these Canon XH G1 camcorders we would not be able to do what we’re doing right now. That’s a given.”
“That’s for sure,” confirmed Guadarrama. “No way.”
About Canon U.S.A., Inc.
Canon U.S.A., Inc. delivers consumer, business-to-business, and industrial imaging solutions. Its parent company, Canon Inc. (NYSE:CAJ), a top patent holder of technology, ranking third overall in the U.S. in 2007†, with global revenues of $39.3 billion, is listed as one of Fortune's Most Admired Companies in America and is on the 2007 BusinessWeek list of "Top 100 Brands." To keep apprised of the latest news from Canon U.S.A., sign up for the Company's RSS news feed by visiting www.usa.canon.com/pressroom.
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†IFI Patent Intelligence Press Release, January 2008