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September 2014
Issue: October 1, 2012

'Dexter' embraces Nikon's D800

By: Randi Altman
When you give our “TV Series” feature a read this month, you’ll notice a trend: shows that shoot digitally also shoot on a variety of smaller cameras for those hard-to-get shots, in addition to their larger, main camera.

Showtime’s Dexter, which shoots on Arri’s Alexa, is no different. But when you have to get into tight places, the Alexa is just too big. Eric Fletcher, SOC, the show’s camera operator, was given the opportunity back in April, while working on a John Wells pilot, to check out the new Nikon D800, and he was impressed with the form factor and image quality.  

“The D800 seemed like a good solution because it’s small and has appropriate features, like the ability to output an uncompressed, clean HDMI signal — lacking the overlays of other cameras — out to an external recorder. I could also record to a Compact Flash or SDHC card. So it gave me the options that a DIT has in order to ingest footage at his station.”

Within hours of the box arriving on the camera truck, Fletcher (pictured) and crew shot timelapse footage with the D800 that actually ended up in the pilot. They were happy with how easy it was to set up, and the image quality right out of the box.

Three weeks later, while starting prep for Dexter, the crew did a camera test with the D800, the Alexa as a baseline, and the Canon C300. “We were testing two different modes, recording to HDMI 4:2:2 and recording to internal SD card on H.264. We then went into the Technicolor color correct room we use on Dexter and started screening the stuff. In the scene, the Dexter character (Michael C. Hall) is driving. He is in shadow, but the world outside of him is overexposed, so we wanted to see how far we could push all three cameras on that test.”

Fletcher says the Alexa handled it exactly how they thought it would. While they were also impressed with the C300, they expected that would be the case. “It’s a $15K camera with a $20K lens on it,” he says. “It should look good. When the D800 footage came up — a $4K package between lens and body — our jaws hit the floor. The first footage we watched was the uncompressed footage recorded out to a Blackmagic recorder. We couldn’t believe how well the DSLR was handling. Then we put up compressed footage that was recorded internally to the card in-camera. The difference between recording to the in-camera card and to the external recorder wasn’t great enough to warrant us going to an external recorder.

“So now we have a viable camera package that I can hold in the palm of my hand, put in Michael’s face while he’s driving. It’s liberating because we didn’t have to worry about highlights going away or the blacks blocking up.”

So while Dexter will continue to use Alexa as its main camera, the production now has an affordable option with a small footprint and quality image.