In the mid 1990s, the north of England was a hotbed of film production, with well-known features such as Brassed Off and The Full Monty all produced within a few years and a few miles of each other. The Northern Media School, then part of Sheffield Hallam University, was literally and figuratively a long way from Los Angeles, but somehow cinematographer Stuart Brereton found a route between the two without ever having intended to.
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“I never really set out to be in the TV industry,” he says. “But while I was in Sheffield, I was lucky enough to get a job as a camera trainee on a job that was shooting in Yorkshire. I came out of film school, started working as a camera assistant and loader.” A conventional route through the camera department beckoned, but before long, Brereton found himself presented with the opportunity to move into documentary – a long tradition among some of the most senior British cinematographers.
“I'd stepped up to be a focus puller, decided it wasn't for me then spent five or six years shooting documentaries for National Geographic and Discovery, which was great. I was also shooting music videos through a company I was a partner in. Through that I met a director who was shooting his first feature.” Through a series of chance acquaintances, Brereton “ended up shooting behind-the-scenes on Torchwood and saw a director I knew. I didn't want to interrupt him, but I'm glad I did! I went on to operate on Doctor Who, Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures – this was before BBC Cardiff started doing Sherlock. That was before Cardiff turned into the huge production center it is now.”
Before long, though, Brereton had seized an unexpected opportunity and moved to Los Angeles. Perhaps atypically, after ten years in the city, he still says “I love it. I totally get the people who don't like it. I understand what they mean, I just don't agree. It depends where you live and where you're working. If I was living in an area that wasn't quite as much fun to be in and my commute was taking me an hour and a half every day both ways I might feel a bit different. I've been lucky. Half the work I've done has not been in LA anyway. When you work the kind of hours that we work, you travel at times when you avoid the traffic!”
Almost simultaneously with Brereton’s transatlantic move, the cable TV outlet Discovery Health was being remade as the Oprah Winfrey Network. OWN would grow during the 2010s to become an internationally-distributed entertainment and lifestyle channel, and began commissioning scripted content around the middle of the decade. It is now a producer and distributor of both series and feature drama, one of which, directed by Fred Olen Ray and produced by production company Hybrid, is Baking Christmas, a family-oriented seasonal story about a retiring baker who must decide which of her children will inherit her business.
“I was recommended to them by a line producer I knew,” Brereton recalls. “I met with one of the bosses of the company who also directs. He offered me a Lifetime movie, and a SyFy movie one after the other which I did, and I've worked for them on and off ever since. Fred, the director on this movie, has been around for a very long time. He's a disciple of Roger Corman and he's been directing movies since the 80s. And he knows on these schedules how fast we have to move, how many takes we get to do, what coverage we need. If we get into a situation where actors are all over the place he'll go in and simplify it – ‘Don't go there. Stand here.’ He's very good at making sure the blocking doesn’t get too complicated.”
Brereton describes the production process as “a smoothly-oiled machine. Typically these kinds of movies will be shot in twelve to fifteen days. There’s about a week of prep. By the time I get involved, the locations have already been scouted once and pretty much decided. I’m not coming on and saying ‘I can’t shoot here.’ I’m being told we are shooting here – figure it out! There’s a day or two to read the script and go over various things, a day of tech scouting, and that’s it.” Baking Christmas was shot around Los Angeles in October 2019, and with prep, production and post, Brereton’s involvement was around a month.
Brereton describes a production organised with the benefit of long experience. “We stick to twelve hours a day, and it's not just because of crew overtime. A lot of the locations go into overtime after twelve hours too.” Naturally, there’s a need to move quickly. “These movies are exactly 88 minutes, 90 if you include the titles. The script could be 105 or 110 pages. So, you know you're going to be averaging nine pages a day. You know that you’re going to have a couple of days where there's a six page scene of people sitting around a dinner table talking, there always is, and that's how you get through these high page counts. If you had six pages of action that's a very different matter. On any kind of normal schedule there'll be two or three days where you see a page count of seven. The tradeoff there is you know that if you've a seven page day, there’ll be a twelve page day somewhere else. That's where it's tough to get through.”
By choice, Brereton is something of a traditionalist, though improvements in lighter, less power-hungry lighting have helped. “I still use a lot of tungsten, china balls and covered wagons, but we don't carry a huge package on these shows. It's usually a three-ton grip and electric package. We used to carry tow plant [generator] with us, but now everything tends to run off house power, particularly as we've switched over more and more into LED lighting. We’ve usually got a couple of M18s, a 1.2 PAR, some Kino-Flo four-by-fours and two-by-fours, and on this particular show I had my usual gaffer with me. He has his LED package. LED was something I never used much, didn't like it, but on this show my gaffer had a whole package of it and I was very happy with how quickly we moved.”
It was, Brereton says, very rare for the production to light from scratch. “With the kind of locations we're in, we're looking at augmenting the natural light. My job is to figure out how I can let the natural light do most of the work for me, that's the basic philosophy. What does it look like right now, how do we light the space the actors are going to be in.” Natural light, though, is famous for its variability, and “there have been times when we've got into trouble with that, late in the afternoon when the ambient light starts to drop and everything starts to look lit. The ambient light starts to come down and the area where the actors are starts to look artificially illuminated.”
Special circumstances such as night scenes are, Brereton feels, “one of the big challenges for us. There are often numerous night scenes in these scripts, and we don't shoot nights. We shoot 7am to 7pm during the day because if you suddenly switch to a split or a night you've screwed up the rest of the schedule. If we have night scenes we generally have to black out the entire house and shoot day for night. We have to tent the windows.” Careful scheduling is key: “you'll see a schedule where it goes day, day, night, night, day, night day. We can't keep switching back and forth because it costs us thirty minutes every time.”
The push for 4K is now more or less universal, pushing Brereton move away from an old favourite. “We used to shoot them on Alexa. Then all the networks started being much more picky about 4K, so we switched to Sony F55s. Baking Christmas was FS7s. It's extraordinary how good it is. People grumble about the menus, but the cameras are set up to shoot and we don't touch them. I really like them. I've shot on the FS7 a fair bit over the last five years and I think they're great.”
On location with director Fred Olen Ray (in patterned shirt). Brereton just visible at left between the two foreground actors.
A minority of Baking Christmas was shot on Rokinon Cine DS lenses, though as a counterpoint to the razor sharpness of 4K acquisition, Brereton shot mainly using Mamiya 645 lenses, to “change it up. Let's do something else, let’s get a slightly different look. In the end we stopped doing it because the process of converting Mamiya 645 to Sony E mount created a lot of movement in the lenses with the focus motors, but that's something we did, to give it a slightly older, softer look. We also experimented a little shooting with Asahi Takumars, both on this show and on another I did in February 2020 that we did entirely on the Takumars.”
The results, he says, were subtle “You see it, but does it really scream out at you? No, not at all, it's subtle. It's that thing where everyone’s trying to differentiate themselves. It used to be filtration, DPs would have hundreds of different filters. Now it’s lenses.” Other than color temperature control filters for a slightly warmer image, Brereton avoided filtration. “On Sony cameras you're restricted to three white balances under some circumstances, so I'll tend to carry warming filters, an 81EF and an 85B, but I don't use any lens diffusion. I wouldn't. I'm not a fan of it. They wouldn't have a problem with it, that sort of thing would go down quite well. I just don't like it. I see halation round a light source and, ew, I don't like it.”
Sony ship the FS7 with a monitoring LUT titled LC-709A, designed to produce an image suitable for display on conventional monitors but with contrast handling appropriate for single-camera drama. “It supposedly has that Alexa rolloff in the highlights,” Brereton says, “and I found it was too low contrast for me, so I switched to using the Alexa 709 LUT. Right at the end of it I think I got hold of the Venice 709 LUT which also looks great and I probably would have switched if we hadn't already shot eighty per cent of the movie. The Venice LUT was probably closer to how the finished look is, a bit punchier and a bit warmer.”
The grade took place over two days, although as Brereton recalls, “half of the second day with be mostly concerned with dropping in VFX shots, titles and things like that. You really have a day and a half. That being the case, the emphasis on me is to get it ninety-five per cent of the way there in camera, because there isn't the time to fix things. We do a certain amount but if you're going in there and having to grade shot to shot on every scene you're doing something wrong. In a way that's pretty good for me because I don't have to worry about them going wild and changing everything because they don't want to do that. If I get it right in camera and give them my LUT and say ‘use this, don't change it,’ they'll leave it alone.”
Baking Christmas was one of a slate of productions successfully made ready for the network’s 2019 holiday season. “Generally these things are a dream,” Brereton says, “because everyone's on the same page. The cast really elevated it, they were amazing. Within the mechanism that they have for getting these things done on budget and on schedule, things are very well worked out. You don't get those horrible unexpected disasters. They’re happy movies, they're generally very good fun to work on, you don't get those days where it just goes on and on and on. They’re great.”
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