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04-08-2024 - Case Study

Shot on VENICE 2: How DP Pierre Gill Created the Magical, Natural Look of ‘Percy Jackson and the Olympians’

By: Oakley Anderson-Moore

The cinematic eye of Pierre Gill has brought us signature looks on shows like The Borgias, Casanova, and cult classics like The Covenant

Gill started out as a DP who just had a knack for it.

“I was 18 years old, shooting Super 8 film in a cinema class, and my teacher just said to me, ‘Pierre, this is what you have to do.’

So he did! Over the course of more than two decades of cinematography work, he’s won four ASC awards for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography, two Gemini Awards, and four Genies. 

One of his most recent shows, Percy Jackson and the Olympians (from creators Rick Riordan and Jonathan Steinberg), brought on fresh challenges to creating a brand new look for the beloved book series that needed to feature fantastical Gods and Minotaurs, while still looking beautifully natural.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series Trailer

Gill sat down with Sony Cine to talk about shooting the VENICE 2 with specially modified Cooke lenses to create a natural look in virtual production and why he’s so proud of Percy Jackson and the Olympians. 

How Pierre Gill picked the VENICE 2 camera for Percy Jackson and the Olympians TV series after a blind test shoot

When Pierre first read the script, he knew the look should be closer to the naturalistic beauty of the Percy Jackson books more so than the aesthetic of the recent movies. 

“That was one of the first things, make it look real but, of course, with beauty,” describes Gill. “It's not like a Marvel thing or a gritty thing, I want to keep the color. We're missing a lot of color these days. It's easier to do desaturated because it looks good right away; it's harder to keep color. And it was about the [character’s] faces looking really nice.”

In the past, Gill had used the Sony VENICE on TV shows and music videos with Billie Eilish and Childish Gambino. He suspected that the VENICE 2 would be the right choice, but he wanted to know for sure. 

“One thing I did, which was pretty amazing, I tested 100 lenses on the VENICE 2 with William F. White in Vancouver,” explains Gill. “They were absolutely phenomenal. First of all, they're the ones who got me the VENICE 2, because I absolutely wanted to have the VENICE 2. So, I was lucky enough to get it just in time, and probably the first one in Canada. You can use [the VENICE and VENICE 2] together, no problem. It’s very subtle, but the VENICE 2 sensor is cleaner. The color rendition is better. So, I had a VENICE 2, I had an ALEXA, and I had 100 lenses. I put them on, I did extensive tests about the Volume, and then I found the Cooke 2x anamorphic I series and the VENICE 2. I was like, ‘Hmm, not bad.’”

Next, Gill asked his colorist to color the shots from the VENICE 2 and ALEXA, and not tell him which was which. 

“Match them to the nose,” recalls Gill about what he asked for. “When I go there, don't tell me anything. Zero. Not one word. Show me the shots. Then I want to see it on the big screen. When I got there, I said ‘This is the one I want! ‘I bet you it's the VENICE and the Cooke.’ He said, ‘Yes, it's the VENICE and the Cooke.’ So, my choice was made this way.”

An unretouched photo from the volume

Why VENICE and Cooke were the real love story in Percy Jackson and the Olympians 

It’s not about Percy and Annabeth. According to Gill, the real romance on the show is how the Cooke lenses and VENICE performed together.

“In the Volume, I wanted the anamorphic, but I didn't want flares. So, I asked Cooke if they could open the lens and tweak the lenses. And they did such an outstanding job because they created a set of Cookes that I call ‘the velvet’ and ‘the velvet extreme.’ The extreme has a flare, and the velvet is a bloom, so every light source just blooms. The VENICE 2 and the Cooke lenses, it's just a love story. It's gorgeous. When I watched episode 108, I got shivers, it's so beautiful.”

The visual look was achieved with just the lenses. 

“There's no filters at all, zero, because the tweaked lens is already beautiful for their skin, and it was just phenomenal. The faces are gorgeous.”


How Pierre made shooting on the LED Volume work with a totally different approach

One of the biggest challenges for Percy Jackson and the Olympians was making it look natural. 

“They wanted us to be natural and realistic, which is nearly impossible in the [LED] Volume. We worked really hard. The hardest part is to try to make sure that when you're in the Volume and when you're outside, it’s consistent.”

To make it work, Gill did the opposite of what many productions do: he used the look inside the Volume as the starting point for everything outside on location. 

“I have to do the Volume and see how good I can do it. And from there, everything else will go. So sometimes outside I would say, ‘Give me more light because it looks too real. I need it to look more fake.’”

Gill worked with ILM for the first time, and together they created the right environment for the Volume to work -- including sticking with the VENICE 2 for every stage.

“It became very, very collaborative with all the ILM team and what I did,” explains Gill. “When we came into the Volume, they had a RED camera. But how can you prepare the scene with the RED? I'm shooting on a VENICE 2 with Cooke anamorphic. I told Production I wanted the Cooke anamorphic and a VENICE 2 in the Volume full time. And that's what we did. So, we had four VENICE 2’s: three on my package, and one in the Volume with the Cooke lenses at all times.  So, every test they were doing, they were putting the VENICE 2 with my look. That was so much better. You cannot work any other way.”

Why dual ISO and ND flexibility of the VENICE camera were game changers throughout Percy Jackson and the Olympians

“On the VENICE system, one of the most beautiful things is this freaking great, genius ND filter system,“ says Gill. “The ND filters from 3, 6, 9, and 12.  The second thing is the Rialto, because it’s awesome. I use it every week. The ND system of the VENICE 2 is just the best thing ever. It's useful everywhere. It's a critical thing.”

That includes being helpful on the Volume, along with the VENICE 2’s Dual ISO at 800 and 3200. 

“I can use it and you will never know. Even my dailies guy doesn't even know. I told them, ‘Hey, this is amazing. It's like 3200 ISO.’ He's like, ‘What? Impossible.’ 

Gill cites the color accuracy in the dual ISO as another big boon.

“One of the amazing things is, from 800 to 3200, there's no color shift,” says Gill. “So, me, I use them, I switch in a scene, I'm like, ‘Okay, turn it around. I want to be at T4 because of this, put it at 3200.’ Don't even think about it. I just switch inside a scene. It's not even the same ISO and then Percy Jackson is full of that.”


Taking pride in the collaborative effort on a series

For Gill, on a series where different cinematographers come on later in the season, establishing the look and asking questions is the key to success. 

“I'm very intuitive,” says Gill.  “I'm the guy always asking questions. ‘But why don't you do that? Why do we do that? Why is it like that?’ I challenged them all the time and we did amazing stuff.

Working with other series DPs like Jules O'Loughlin was a good collaboration and the look of the show worked through every episode.

“I'm so proud of this,” concludes Gill.

Watch Percy Jackson and the Olympians on Disney+ here.

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