Eben Bolter on the Terror and Pleasure of Multi-Camera Filmmaking in ‘Avenue 5’

We chat with the cinematographer about the tools required to shoot a cinematic, sci-fi comedy series.
By  · Published on December 30th, 2019

What you want doesn’t matter. You can infinitely fantasize and plot your future, but both dreams and plans are destined to be shattered. A career, and a life, go where they go. If you resist opportunities because they do not fall into your narrow idea of you, then all you’re accomplishing is a mighty fine prison around yourself. Free your mind. Challenge your perception. Race toward what ignites the most fear. Embrace the uncomfortable.

Cinematographer Eben Bolter had zero interest in a show like Avenue 5. “Both comedy and multi-camera are two things I didn’t really want to do,” he says. “But when they told me that Armando Iannucci was going to be doing a completely brand new series for HBO, and it was set on a spaceship, I just had to find out.” When genius calls, you answer.

Iannucci is the devilish filmmaking imp behind The Death of Stalin, In the Loop, and Veep. He specializes in assaultive comedy, the kind that cuts into your way of life, flaying your skin to reveal the truly wretched creature beneath. You may be too busy laughing to notice, but days later, you discover the bruise on your soul. Oh damn. Those bastards Iannucci is brutalizing in his stories are me, or, at least, I help bastards like that get into offices of power; therefore, I’m a bastard.

Now, the final frontier awaits Iannucci’s viciousness. Forty years in our future, a luxury space cruiser blunders beyond the stars. Hugh Laurie is Captain Ryan Clark, who’s command over the Avenue 5 would be difficult enough thanks to passengers and crew in the form of Rebecca Front, Josh Gad, Leonora Crichlow, Ethan Phillips, and Zach Woods. Toss in a titanic space disaster, and suddenly the Captain’s job is a whole lot more demanding and troublesome.

“What was so exciting about it for me,” says Bolter, “is that Armando didn’t want it to look like a comedy.” Avenue 5 must appear as viable and believable as the U.S.S. Enterprise. “He wanted me to approach the visuals as cinematically and as seriously as possible. It was a case of how much of a cinematic look can you get, given the freedom and flexibility to shoot without rehearsal and have four cameras cross-shooting at the same time.”

Bolter has shot fifteen feature films and four television series. On each of those, he was the lead DP, establishing the look of the series from the pilot going forward. What’s crucial about being there from the beginning is that he’s in charge of assembling the right tools for the job. The multi-camera aspect of Avenue 5 created a new challenge for him, and as such, he needed the right cameras to get it done to his satisfaction.

The camera cannot get in the way. “You have to have something incredibly low impact, reliable, quiet, small, and nimble,” he explains. “The ALEXA Mini is the one. It’s absolutely reliable, incredibly quiet. You don’t really think about it. It just works, and it’s small and can fit into corners. It was always going to be the ALEXA Mini. HBO was great about it not being 4K, and that being okay, without delivering an ultra HD Dolby Vision series. They were happy to upscale from the 3.2K ALEXA Sensor, so that was great.”

Of course, the camera is only half the battle. Lens selection is crucial. “I went with the SUMMICRON T2.0 lenses because they’re relatively small and fast,” he says. “They have an incredibly cinematic characteristic. They’ve got beautiful contrast, beautiful color, and an ever so slightly interesting out of focus quality. Not vintage. They are very modern lenses, but there’s something to them that’s a bit more interesting than the SUMMILUX.”

Regarding such decisions, Iannucci trusted Bolter to figure out the best tools to secure his look. “Armando is very trusting in that department,” he says. As was HBO, but the studio certainly had their ideas on what was required to achieve the necessary visuals. “They do their own camera tests in house, every year. They have their own opinion on all the sensors. They are incredibly well informed.”

At one point, before production kicked-off, Bolter was testing the large-format ALEXAs. HBO kinda squinted and pushed back on the notion. “I was just talking to them about the idea,” says Bolter. “They just said, ‘You’ve got these massive sets that we’re building, and it would be a shame to have that large-format have an even shallower focus on such grand sets.’ I thought that was a brilliant note, to be honest. It wasn’t something I would have thought of. We do want a slightly deeper focus on these massive sets. They were great. They are really smart people over there.”

In tackling comedy, Bolter had to reconsider his role as well. “In terms of operation, you have to react,” he says. “There has to be a sense of naturalism to comedy. Armando’s style on The Thick of It is very documentary-like. On this, we wanted to get away from that as much as possible. We were on Steadicams or dollies.” Bolter’s ALEXA had to be ready to improvise at any given moment, moving to where the actor jumped. “We did have to be flexible. We didn’t exactly know what we were going to do on the day.”

Comedy also meant Bolter often shot the scenes wider than usual. “It was rare that we went in for closeups,” he says. “Most of it was shot in mid, two-shots and three-shots. You feel the physical quality of the group. Lighting wise, I was pushing against the comedy. I felt that the clash would be interesting. Visually, I thought it should have some cinematic naturalism, and their comedy and their performances should just come through that. Setting out to make it look like a comedy? I don’t know, that seems strange to me.” By ignoring the comedy, you enhance the comedy.

The big revelation for Bolter on Avenue 5 was freeing himself of his perceived mission as a director of photography. “Cinematography was not the most important thing about Avenue 5,” he firmly states. “I almost completely tried to shut my eyes and ears to what I should be doing, to what a normal studio multi-camera shoot would do.” He threw out any referential material. He mostly ignored the how-to culture of the industry. “Let’s just figure this out, and do it our way. Whether we succeeded or not, I don’t know. Hopefully, by trying to approach it from a fresh, different perspective, we’ve ended up with something that looks different. Most of all, I just hope the show is a success because it’s very, very funny.”

Avenue 5 premiers on HBO January 19th at 10:00 P.M.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)