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Behind the Scenes: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

July 02, 2012 //  Commissioned Work Back to posts

The creatives at FX network and the cast/creators of the television series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia hired me to create promotional images for the show and for a DVD cover for their Christmas special. The original job was one day of shooting that included group photographs of the cast, individual cast member portraits, white seamless shots, and additional promotional images. That’s a lot of shooting in one day, but not uncommon. This is normal in the television industry; photo shoots are long, intense, and extremely fast moving. So they tend to allocate more for equipment expenditures and less for time, and they look for photographers who can work quickly in multiple setups at once.

The art directors at FX wanted the group shots to have a rock band style, like an album cover or music promo photograph. One of the plot lines in the show involves the characters forming a band called The Nightman Cometh. So they wanted some moody, serious-looking group images to play off of that plot line. (The band in the show is actually not a serious band, but more ridiculous. However, they did do a live tour with the band, and these images helped promote those appearances.) The comedy in the show is edgy, silly, sometimes raunchy, but never slapstick. It’s a very difficult comedic style to represent photographically. You can’t do goofy, whacky images with them. They prefer to go with a moody, tongue-in-cheek seriousness that mimics the satirical writing in the show.

For a fast-moving shoot like this one, I established three different lighting setups for the individual portraits, plus a white seamless setup for group shots. I assembled these setups prior to the shoot, designed the lighting effects, tested everything, and wrote down the lighting ratios. On the day of the shoot, my crew would build and breakdown the setups on the fly as I photographed each cast member.

While I’m photographing a subject in one setup, the crew is putting together another setup. I pre-light each setup and determine the appropriate settings before the crew puts all the elements together. When we move to that setup, they break down the previous setup and assemble the third setup. This way I can move fluidly from one shooting situation to another, shooting different subjects in a fast-paced, consecutive fashion, all within one set. And we don’t have to bring an enormous amount of gear for three distinct lighting situations. The part of a multi-subject shoot that takes the most time is moving everyone to another location. You have to move talent, crew, catering, equipment, and there are union rules in many locations, so it gets very complicated. It makes sense to do it all in one place, especially when you can craft several different looks out of one location.

Of course, this working style can lead to a long day—12 hours of shooting for this job. I’ve had longer, though. For example, I did an ad shoot for Smirnoff that went past 20 hours of shooting! But it’s all worth it if you produce content that both the client and you love.

My Sunny Camera Bag

Camera: Mamiya /Phase One 645 with P45+ Digital back

Lens: 35mm, 80mm f/2.8 lens

Lights: Mutliple Profoto flash heads & packs (described below in each situation)

Light modifiers: Elinchrom Rotalux Softbox Octa, two silver beauty dishes with grids, strip soft box, CTO Cine filter in 1⁄2 CTO orange

Power source: Multiple Profoto 8a 2400 Air with built-in radio receivers

After a long, intense day of shooting, the image shown below was our final shot. I had pre-lit the scene for night. I set up the cast under the marquee. Charlie Day stuck his foot out over the edge of the curb, which we thought was funny, so we used that pose. I arranged the rest of the cast like a rock band posing for a promotional shoot. In most of Sunny’s advertising, they want the weather to look foul, so I inserted the stormy sky in Photoshop.

1/125 sec. at f/12, ISO 200

For the main light in this image, I set up an Elinchrom Rotalux Octa softbox with a Profoto flash head above the cast and pointed down at a 45-degree angle. I then added two silver beauty dishes, also with Profoto heads, pointing at either side of the sign to light up the marquee and provide background light. I focused both of these lights with 20-degree grids for a spotlight effect. On a boom arm above the marquee, I positioned a strip soft box aiming down on the letters. Its glare is visible on top of the sign’s red letters.

1/125 sec. at f/12, ISO 200

This image has almost an identical setup as the other group shot, except I put the main light on the opposite side, turned the cast in a slightly different direction, and shot from a different angle. Another technical difference is that I placed one additional bare flash bulb on the ground behind the subjects. The subtle gradient effect shows up on the green door behind the actors. (I realize there’s camera stand stuff left in the picture, but here I think it adds to the “home-made” feel of the image.)

1/125 sec. at f/12, ISO 100

Working individually with Glenn Howerton, we’d tried a variety of poses and angles, and then I asked him to lie down and act like a sexy tiger. This is what came out, a pose perfect for his character, Dennis Reynolds.

I wanted a spotlight effect with an area of focused light. To achieve this look, I combined a Profoto flash head with a beauty dish and a 20-degree grid. This combination focuses the strobe light on certain areas, while the surrounding areas fall out of exposure, producing a spotlight on the places I want to highlight. For this image, I wanted to bring full attention to his face and the tiger-claw.

I positioned my main light high and to camera right, aimed down at the subject at roughly a 45-degree angle. I lit the brick wall in the background with another Profoto flash, beauty dish, and a 20-degree grid placed below the roof on which the subject is posing, aimed up at the brick wall.

1/125 sec. at f/16, ISO 100

Danny Devito was great to work with because he’s very professional, even when doing off-the- wall poses. After so many of years of experience both in front of the camera and behind, he knows exactly what to do. It’s fascinating to work with such a conditioned actor.

To illuminate the background inside the building, I blasted two Profoto flashes modified by beauty dishes from inside the building, pointed at the windows. I warmed up the color temperature of the lights with color temperature orange (CTO) gel. A Profoto flash with a silver beauty dish provided the main light on the subject’s face. I positioned this light to camera right, above the subject, and aimed down at his face.

To create a slight distortion of the subject and add to the comedic effect of the expression, I used a 35mm lens.

1/125 sec. at f/11, ISO 100

At the location, there was an old, dingy bathtub that I thought would make a fun prop for an individual shot with Charlie Day. I figured I’d have to convince him to give it a try, but when I suggested that he hop in the tub, he jumped right in.

The bathroom was really small and not well lit, but it did have a window. So I set up my Rotalux Octa outside the window and pointed it into the room, down in the general direction of my subject. It fired through the glass, which provided some additional dispersion of the light. Behind Charlie, I hid a little strobe with a remote trigger, pointed at the brick wall behind him to provide some backlight.

1/125 sec. at f/12, ISO 100

For the DVD cover image of “A Very Sunny Christmas,” each character is holding a favorite childhood Christmas present that was traumatically taken away as a child. We needed a clean white backdrop, which I created with a roll of white seamless paper. I often use white seamless on shoots that require both environmental portraits and studio-style shots. It keeps everyone together and creates a comfortable shooting environment to achieve a wide array of images.

We placed fake snow on the floor portion of the seamless paper to create the illusion that the characters were standing outside in the winter. To achieve the effect of the snow fading in the distance, the white tones of the scene had to be evenly blasted with light. I used a very large light source as my main light, a Elinchrom Rotalux Softbox Octa, (not shown in image above) positioned camera left. This gave a soft, even quality to the subjects and the snow. I also added two backlights behind the cast. To light the white background evenly and fill in any shadows that would dispel the snowy day illusion, I pointed two flashes modified by white umbrellas directly at the paper. Two medium Chimera soft boxes rim-lit the subjects. These had grids on them to control light and provide a little flare into the lens. I also positioned one light in a strip soft box above the seamless background to light the subjects’ hair from behind and act as another rim light.

Since this first photoshoot for Always Sunny, I have done several other shoots with the cast. What’s most interesting is the cast also created the show, so it’s always a pleasure to deal directly with them and the art directors at FX to make great, memorable images.


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