“There are so many programs about food on television. We really wanted to do something different from the standard cooking show format,” says Renea Veneri Stewart, producer and Director of Photography for Juniroa Productions, Inc. based in Honolulu, Hawai’i. “When determining a unique theme we decided to look to our own personal experiences and heritage.” The crew sees Hawai’i as a melting pot of cultures and culinary influences, so celebrating the state’s multicultural history and its mixed plate of unique dishes made perfect sense.
“We discovered the perfect combination of food, family and travel right here in our own community,” reveals Stewart. Family Ingredients is one part foodie adventure, one part cultural travelogue and one part genealogy. Each 30-minute segment tells the story behind a cherished family recipe. Episodes trace the history of the family and a favorite dish from Hawai’i to its origin. For broadcast on national PBS starting late 2015, this eight-part series is now being produced using solely Nikon DSLR cameras: the D810 and D4s (the D800 was used to create the pilot).
Smaller is Better
A Nikon photographer since 1985 (she occasionally produces commercial, advertising and wedding photography), 13 years ago Stewart joined Juniroa Productions, a company dedicated to producing television programming for and about her native Hawaiian community. During this tenure Stewart used a variety of traditional video and film cameras, but once she placed her hands on a Nikon D800, a camera change was imminent. “I was hooked. Working with a DSLR-size body brought a new level of ease and portability to capture. I could see how outdated our workflow would become if we continued using large, expensive, bulky and heavy traditional video style cameras.”
Continuing, “It was obvious that the smaller and lighter Nikon DSLR made shifting from handheld mode to mount on tripod, rig or slider much quicker and easier. The DSLR camera liberated us to easily grab any spontaneous moment. The crew can work in true run and gun style. We now have a far more efficient production option.” Combining this type of camera with the plethora of NIKKOR lenses available, Stewart realized how handily she could apply her years of still photography acumen to her expanding filmmaking expertise. “Having used so many NIKKOR lenses throughout my career, I have a leg up knowing which one to select in order to render a scene as I wish, plus it keeps my footprint small.”
Case in point—Stewart and crew often find themselves confronted with the challenge to quickly and efficiently capture from within confined and/or tight spaces. Referencing a recent trek to Japan, “In our pilot episode using the Nikon D800 cameras we shot noted sushi Master Chef Jiro Ono at Sukiyabashi Jiro, his restaurant in the Ginza district of Tokyo. This three star Michelin dining establishment is located in the basement of a vast shopping complex, tucked away in a corner. The restaurant space is small, but not impossible to work within. Thank goodness we were traveling light with Nikon gear.”
Sushi Slice and Dice
Prior to any shoot, the team holds production meetings to discuss the blocking of every shot of the segment. “For a travel show like Family Ingredients, we don’t have the luxury of always scouting our locations ahead of time. We often fall back on our own research, plus our director’s vision. He tells me what he’s looking for in terms of storytelling; it’s then my job to decide which lenses to use and how.”
Describing the session at Sukiyabashi Jiro, Stewart notes that the team had roughly half an hour for set-up. A tripod with D800 plus a monitor/recorder were placed at one corner of the 10 person sushi bar. A second camera person, Todd Fink, was positioned to work in handheld mode using a second additional D800 at the opposite end of the bar. “We added two 1×1 lights and stands, as well as a smaller light. Our audio person John Saimo squeezed into place with two recorders plus a mixer and boom. Our director Ty Sanga eased into place to supervise capture,” she notes, while the executive producer Heather Giugni and producer Dan Nakasone stood nearby. Capture was sent to CompactFlash memory cards placed in the cameras. The stream also went to external SSD drives (Atomos Samurai Blade) as ProRes 442 HQ.
In the meantime the talent took their seats at the sushi bar and lavalieres were attached. “Family Ingredients host Chef Ed Kenny, his guest Chef Alan Wong, plus our Japan host Nancy Hachisu and her guest were thrilled to have this opportunity to taste the best sushi in the world. It was the crew’s job to translate that feeling to our audience,” notes Stewart.
She continues, “During set-up, we hasten to put wheels in motion but precise gear placement is necessary. Lights had to be positioned, then moved a little. Audio needs to be checked. The director calls for action and Todd, on the handheld, begins recording. He moves his camera overhead Jiro and his son Yoshikazu as they prepare exquisite pieces of food art for the guests.”
Stewart works from a corner, operating her camera placed on tripod to capture the larger picture. “Once we are set-up we’re committed to a location. From my position I could zoom-in to rack focus on individual negi, then pan and push-in on the sushi chefs, or return to a medium or larger shot.” She also positioned her camera over the shoulder of the featured guest Chef Alan Wong. Using a AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II lens at aperture f/2.8, she captured at 1080p/30 and ISO 800. Her second camera operator on handheld filmed using the same settings, but with a 24-70mm f/2.8 NIKKOR lens.
“For that, the pilot program, we set the Nikon D800 cameras to 1080p 30fps,” she notes. “I dialed my shutter speed to 1/60 (rule of thumb to double the frames per second). For work at 60fps I adjust the shutter to 1/125. A decision to dial to 60fps becomes necessary when working in conditions where footage might start to look jittery—for example when wanting to cut footage for slow motion.”
The team has recently begun production on the actual series; they now rely on the Nikon D810 and D4s. For this new work Stewart notes the Picture Control setting has been a boon. “I set it to Flat, which doesn’t look great on a monitor but when you go to colorize in post, wow! The Picture Control setting allows a DOP to basically create any look and feel for a project.” She continues, “I also love the ability to adjust the brightness, saturation, clarity and hue of my footage (in-camera while filming). This is crucial to a production workflow where we have multiple cameras capturing and will need to cut together a single film stream that matches.”
Lenses that Create the Looks
“One tip I can give anyone who is shooting a fast-paced series is to have a minimum of three lenses in their bag: the 24-70mm f/2.8, the 14-24mm f/2.8 and the 70-200mm f/2.8.”
Her overall go-to is the NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8. “It’s the best glass for a show like Family Ingredients. When on location and running and gunning, I most often grab it for an ability to capture a variety of focal lengths fast,” she explains. “And I like the 14-24mm f/2.8 when the camera is mounted on a slider to capture panning or portrait-like shots of the family and/or scene. It gives a view that’s wide—allowing me to show my subjects, plus the location. It’s versatile and can give either a tighter look or a pulled-out wider look.”
A third lens is the 70-200mm f/2.8. “It’s great for situations where the crew needs to be outside the action, yet still close enough to obtain a clean shot. It offers distance options and pull focus is easy. The camera can be far enough away from the subject so that he or she can relax. I also use this for landscape views, interview or when creating a takeaway with our host.”
Stewart additionally draws from a variety of primes, ranging from a 24mm f/1.8 all the way up to 105mm. It’s noteworthy to mention a selection of ND filters come along also. “I often use these in our Hawai’i sunshine. Threading a variable ND filter on the lens lets me fine tune aperture when there’s an enormous amount of ambient light.”
With a solid understanding of her lens set, Stewart can mix up creative techniques. “To showcase a dish or a person we often shift focus to a more shallow depth of field. For example, if I am shooting at an aperture of f/5.6 or thereabout, I may stop down to a shallow aperture such as f/2.8 or even f/1.4,” she explains. “Another look we do in almost all episodes is film and capture several people by panning or using a slider.” For success, she adjusts to a more narrow aperture, f/5.6 or lower, unless there is a rack focus effect happening on a single subject who is speaking. Once complete, Stewart will then rack to the food, and then potentially back to the person or overall scene.
A Future with Nikon
“How we now work on Family Ingredients is a preview of what’s to come and how production will
change for broadcasters and videographers,” she smiles. “When I speak of what’s to come, I am talking about the ways the Nikon D800 and D810 allow a DOP to essentially create a traditional big screen cinematic look using a camera the size photographers tote. There’s a winning set of production features in camera.”
Stewart effuses, “I see incredible opportunities for individuals like me who know and enjoy working with Nikon gear. For the photographer who has not yet tried motion capture, take your DSLR knowledge, pair it with your trained eye for composition and framing, then ramp up creativity to a new high by dabbling in motion capture. It’s wonderful that we will be able to take advantage of this gear as we move into the future. I like using products from a company that keeps the creative operator in mind, and that continues to produce the best possible.”
- Make sure your shutter is set according to what your movie settings are. In other words: if shooting 1080p @ 60fps, make sure your shutter is 1/125. If shooting at 1080p @ 30fps, set your shutter to 1/60. This helps ensure that footage is not jumpy.
- When shooting a documentary or period piece, set your Picture Control to Flat. This will enable the post-process person to more easily colorize footage to match the look desired.
- Adjust your file naming in the D810 to match the day you are filming. For example, I named day one 100, day two 200, day three 300, etc.
- I highly recommend recording to an external device while also recording to the CompactFlash card placed inside the camera. This will make it easier for the DIT (digital information technician) to transfer footage to an external hard drive at the end of the day.
- Have variable ND filters ready. Filters allow you to maintain a shallow depth of field on bright and sunny days.
- AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
- AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED
- AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED
- AF-S Zoom-NIKKOR 17-35mm f/2.8D IF-ED