10-14-2020 - Case Study, Gear
Litepanels Gemini and Sony VENICE create a unique color palette on Sex Education
How Gemini and Sony VENICE brought a unique color palette to life
Vibrant color washes the school hall marking the start of a standout scene in Netflix original series “Sex Education”—Lily’s school play. A beam of white light hits the stage, the cue for the drama to unfold. It’s just one example of how cinematographer Jamie Cairney used creative lighting for the BAFTA nominated comedy drama in which an awkward teenage boy, with a sex therapist mother, teams up with a high school classmate to set up an underground sex therapy clinic at school.
From the outset, Jamie and director Ben Taylor had a clear artistic vision for the relatable, coming-of-age series. Testing cameras and lighting fixtures with Panalux lead them to Litepanels Gemini and Sony VENICE as the perfect combination to achieve that vision. “We wanted to give the series a timeless feel, paying homage to the iconic films of John Hughes: “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “The Breakfast Club” and Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused.” Says Jamie, “Ben was keen to make the show feel like it was timeless and not set anywhere particular, So if you look at the show it’s not specific and makes no reference to that people are driving around in old cars, the costumes are retro and seated in the 1980s. We had a lot of fun removing things that would disturb this ambience.” He adds, “Sam Harley and Rosa Dias wanted to create a unique color and style palette that would be instantly recognisable and attributable to the show.” “The places where these stories are set are just as important as the characters,” says Jamie. “There are a lot of wide shots and close-ups with wide lenses so you can see more of the background. You see a shot from one of the scenes and you instantly know that it’s “Sex Education,” you recognize it, and know it.”
Lighting for the feel-good factor
“When you are forming the building blocks and visual language of a project, lighting feeds in early on” says Jamie, “In “Sex Education” I wanted it to be accessible, and for the lighting and photography to be completely led by the story which is generally positive and hopeful. The show has its heart in the right place, as do the characters, and it’s all about being honest. The lighting makes the show feel sunny, saturated, positive, and natural. We used a lot of smoke, so when you’re inside you catch the rays of light beaming through the window and it always feels sunny.”
For season two Jamie wanted to use more LED lighting to limit environmental impact and increase flexibility. "A lot of DoPs and Gaffers are keen to adopt LED technology,” says Jamie, “it is much faster, it uses less electricity, costs less to run, it’s more flexible, and produces less heat. On season one, I couldn’t find an LED that was good enough to use with the Sony VENICE - skin tones didn’t look natural - so we mainly used tungsten and HMI fixtures. For season two we wanted to push forward with LED so I tested every LED light available from Panalux together with the Sony VENICE camera." Testing many LED fixtures led him to the Litepanels Gemini 2x1 Soft RGBWW LED panel.
“It was the fixture that had the most faithful color reproduction of any lamps I was testing.” He explains, “The VENICE sees many more colors than other digital cameras; picking up very subtle nuances and differences. I could replace a lot of traditional tungsten space lights with Gemini as I felt confident that the color reproduction was so good. It would enhance the naturalistic look I was after rather than looking electronic and off.” With many sets shooting simultaneously, season two of “Sex Education” used 80 Gemini 2x1 fixtures, replacing many of the tungsten and fluorescent fixtures used on season one.
One light - endless options
One advantage of Gemini being a true RGBWW fixture is that - besides offering over 16 million colors - it produces the most accurate white light. As an example, Jamie recalls the interior scenes for Gene and Otis’s house. “It’s a set we built in the old school gym,” he says, “All the space lighting outside of the set was created by approximately 50 Geminis positioned in soft boxes with half silent grid cloth on them. They delivered the soft light coming in through the windows and we could tune it to any color temperature we wanted; so for example, I could quickly switch between sunny or overcast daylight. One thing I really love about the Gemini is how easy it is to create the cool blue, very slightly magenta look of twilight."
"Lighting continuity is another important factor," says Jamie. "For example, matching scenes between location and studio is always tricky and the Gemini's color reproduction in the studio made it very easy to finesse the lighting to match the conditions on location."
For Lily’s school play, Gemini fixtures rigged in the skylights provided the scene’s rich, saturated color washes. “Ziggy Jacobs was our fantastic desk operator, she effortlessly programmed the Geminis with many complex colour chases and lighting states in HSI mode", Gemini made it simple to do - even working with low dimming levels - the Geminis were fantastic.”
Flexibility and creativity, even in tricky locations
The lightweight Gemini 2x1 with its built-in power supply, meaning fewer cables, meant more flexibility for Jamie. “The school assembly hall was a very tricky location,” he says, “It is a Grade I listed building, with a wooden roof structure and has very few places to rig lights. However, we had 8 difficult to access skylights in the ceiling where we could rig sixteen Geminis to provide space lighting. Thanks to the way you can daisy chain Gemini, we only needed to run 4x 16 amp cables and DMX to them; tungsten lighting would have required significantly more power and cabling along with being a fire risk in such an inaccessible, enclosed space.”
“The sparks and the gaffers absolutely loved the Geminis,” says Jamie, “they are so lightweight. On the truck, every pound adds up; when you have so many lights, reducing weight is important.”
The flexibility of Gemini also brought more creativity. “On season one we used fluorescent type fixtures for space lighting in the school hall,” says Jamie, “the transition to Gemini was a huge boost for me creatively as it meant I could rapidly adjust color temperature and brightness (not possible with the fluorescent fixtures). The Geminis were operated remotely using a tablet via WIFI. I could zone the lighting, so if I wanted a little less lighting in one corner then we could adjust this in seconds,” adding, “everyone looked great under the Gemini lighting.”
Gemini & VENICE are a color reproduction dream team
Jamie and Ben worked together with costume designer, Rosa Dias, and production designer, Sam Harley, to design the signature look of “Sex Education,” developing a highly saturated and slightly unusual color palette. “I knew there were going to be colors in the gamut that would be difficult for a digital camera to reproduce as you see them, in particular deep maroons and greens,” says Jamie, “I needed a camera that was Netflix approved, practical to use and one that did not produce tonnes and tonnes of data, which becomes expensive.”
Sony invited Jamie to test the Netflix Post Technology Alliance approved VENICE. "VENICE is a 16-bit camera, so it's capable of capturing many more colors," explains Jamie, "That is important to me as I knew I had a complex color palette to deal with. It gave a more accurate reproduction of the colors I put in front of it, and I found that it was great with the many skin tones we had in the show."
He adds: “The VENICE has a dual ISO sensor allowing you to rate it at 500 or 2500 ISO with no obvious increase in noise. When working at a high ISO, you may find yourself dimming lights lower than usual and this is when the Gemini performs really well, compared to other LED fixtures. You can work at dimming levels right down to 0.1% with Gemini and there is no tradeoff, you won’t experience any shift in color or flicker.”
Gemini is now a preferred fixture on set.
"I’m using Gemini whenever I can" says Jamie, "Recently they were our go to LED fixture on a BBC film about the murder of Anthony Walker. The electrical crew were new to Gemini, and they loved it. At first there was the shock of the new, but as soon as they started working with Gemini, they were converts. The lower weight was especially appreciated, and they took them straight onto their next job." He adds, "Gemini addresses many of the shortcomings of LED lighting technology, specifically skin tone reproduction and working at low dimming levels. I feel confident using them in most lighting scenarios on set."
Two-time winner of the GTC Award for Excellence, DoP Jamie Cairney works on drama, comedy, documentary and commercials. As a freelance DoP he has lit such projects as BAFTA award-winning "The Detectorists", "Flowers", "The Thick of It" and "People Just do Nothing". Jamie was DoP on seasons one and two of Netflix Original "Sex Education."