Shooting into the Void: PBS Science Series ‘Closer to Truth’

Presidents and paupers, musicians and moviemakers, actors and athletes, writers and regular Joes – I’ve shot hundreds and hundreds of interviews, perhaps thousands, sometimes 25 or more in a single day. But shooting for  “Closer to Truth,” the PBS science series on “Cosmos, Consciousness, and God,” presents a unique challenge.

Start with the quest for a dramatic but natural lighting look, while shooting two people talking, with two cameras. Then add the factor that both cameras are moving constantly. Because the cameras will see more than 180 degrees of background during their slow journeys around the room, there’s nowhere to place stands for backlights. And front light just won’t do – flat and boring, out of the question.

Circular dolly track for Contributor's camera

A fresh visual approach to “Closer to Truth” features long, individual discussions with some of the world’s great thinkers, scholars, and scientists – including five Nobel Prize winners – all shot on location in High Definition, a marked change from the earlier, studio-based round-table show of the same name. PBS member stations will begin showing the first 39-episode season of this newly revamped series in summer and fall 2008. Director Peter Getzels has already shot over a hundred interviews, using local crews in other parts of the U.S and Europe.  Now, in twelve intense shooting days in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are filming about 20 of these long-form, two-camera dialogues. None of the questions has a simple, or short, answer.

Start in a two-shot as the Host asks the opening question, then dolly slowly, slowly, slowly to the right as the Contributor, our interviewee, begins his response; gently squeeze in on the zoom as my camera rolls to a vantage point looking over the Host’s shoulder. Keep checking the position of the other camera, swinging on a jib arm and focused on the Host, to make sure we stay out of each other’s shots. Reset during the follow-up question, cut at the end of each answer, try to vary the pattern for each question, and settle in for a four- or five-hour chat.

Our Jokers and Kinos hang from pipes rigged to a built-in wrought iron grid in physicist Leonard Susskind's living room


Host Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s intellect, curiosity, and ability to digest and comprehend the most abstruse points of view continually impress me, as he engages our Contributors in spirited dialogues about quantum physics, or string theory, or the origin of the universe. “Closer to Truth” is Kuhn’s “life journey” to grasp these beguiling concepts, visiting with world experts on multiple universes, fundamental physics, religion, deity, brain, mind, free will, and similar profound subjects – distinguished thinkers and academicians from across the U.S. and Britain, and from a gathering of cosmologists in Iceland.

A typical discussion consists of 6-16 questions on camera, each carefully designed to fit into one of the new season’s episodes. The first three episodes are titled “Does God Make Sense?” “How Vast is the Universe?” and “Why is Consciousness So Mysterious?”

Our menace arms extend the lights out over Kuhn (R), with Andrei Linde and Renata Kallosh at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center

Director Getzels picks our locations carefully. “Generally, I am trying to find a place that has some depth and is visually arresting, but even more, I want it to have some kind of resonance with the content at hand.”

We film two Bay Area Nobel Laureates: George Smoot at Chabot Observatory in Oakland, and Robert Laughlin at home in Palo Alto. We interview physicists Saul Perlmutter at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and Andrei Linde at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. And we stage other discussions at the Exploratorium science museum and the ornate Flood Mansion in San Francisco, at the Women’s Faculty Club and the oak-paneled Morrison Library at UC Berkeley, at several other professors’ homes, and on a boat on San Francisco Bay.

John Searle in his living room

Our two Panasonic Varicam camcorders, with Canon zoom lenses, record DVCPRO HD 720 progressive format at 30 fps. Each Varicam slowly describes a different, wide sweeping arc of the room during our coverage of the interviews:

My peripatetic camera, always pointed at the Contributor, rides on a Fisher 10 dolly with skateboard wheels, and creeps along on a quarter-circle of curved track. The Contributor is about seven feet away, seated at the nodal point of my dolly track’s circumference, as I arc 90 degrees around him. Key grip Brook Johnson meditatively pushes my dolly at a snail’s pace, following my occasional hand signals.

Jimmy Jib for our Host's camera and menace arms to hang back lights without stands showing in the shot

Across the room, Robert Barcelona’s camera, focused on the Host, is balanced on a Jimmy Jib 3 arm – arcing, of course, around its own fulcrum, always able to explore and exploit unusual, surprising angles by instantly resetting his camera height and position. For most of our shoot, the jib is rigged with a six-foot arm, though it expands to nine or twelve feet when we have larger locations. Even with the shortest arm, Barcelona can place the camera close to the ground or nine or ten feet in the air. We monitor each other’s shots to make certain they are complementary.

Interviewing George Smoot at Chabot Observatory

Getzels, an Emmy winner who lived in Britain for many years, has deep credentials at National Geographic Films, Discovery, and BBC. “Closer to Truth” shoots in the Bay Area nearly a year after their start of production. Getzels by now has developed a distinctive look for the series, a “work in progress,” adding more and more camera movement to the interviews as time goes on. He exploits our visually lush locations and pushes for more sculpting of the lighting ratio on our subjects’ faces – dramatic, directional, and contrasty, yet motivated, if possible, by natural sources in the frame.

“Since we put a lot of energy into locations,” he says, “we want to be able to shoot as wide as we can and get a reasonable amount of movement. So we have to fly the keys to avoid seeing stands. All the stands are on the same side of the axis as the cameras, so that they can be out of shot. But you can see these big huge sweeping backgrounds, with a good amount of separation.”

Flying the keys necessitates placing each keylight upstage, or behind the subject, in a 3/4-back cross angle. As few rooms provide rafters or ceilings conducive to hanging lights, gaffer Darrell Flowers and key grip Johnson rig two twelve-foot menace arms from 1¼-inch aluminum Speed-Rail pipes, each anchored to two steel combo stands, placed outside of either camera’s view.

At the end of each menace arm, a four-foot crossbar holds a 400-watt Joker HMI light with an extra-small Chimera softbox as a keylight for one participant, and a 2-foot, 2-bank Kino-Flo, usually with daylight tubes and diffusion, as a backlight for the other. In environments with tungsten practical lights, we sometimes clip warm gel to the Jokers and use tungsten tubes in the Kinos. Later in the shoot, in larger locations, we expand to 16- and 20-foot menace arms (with extra bracing) and six-foot crossbars. This lighting scheme enables Flowers and Johnson and grip Oskar Ness to fly the upstage keys with fine control and adjustability.

Kuhn and Merzenich at the Morrison Library, UC Berkeley

We need the control. We’re always working to splash light into our subjects’ eyes – the windows to the soul – while avoiding reflections in their eyeglasses, despite constantly varying our viewing angle as each camera plods through its full range of movement. The days are long and sometimes difficult. Getzels cajoles the crew repeatedly, with tongue firmly in cheek, that the next question is, by far, the most important of the day, sometimes the most important of the series. The joke continues to amuse as we go about our work.

When we finish each question, response and follow-up, we cut both cameras and regroup before proceeding. If the sun is moving or the light outside has changed, we can adjust between shots, as each question will only be edited against other interviewees in a particular episode, not against other shots of the same person. So we don’t have to maintain lighting continuity for hours. For example, during our interview with Andrei Linde in a huge work building at Stanford Linear Accelerator, a streak of bright sun crashes through a massive open door into the deep, out-of-focus background of our shot, about 100 feet behind the subject. As our discussion continues through the afternoon, we shape and control this glowing shard of pretty, hot background light, by creatively adjusting the door between shots, question by question.

Besides the discussions, each show features Robert Kuhn’s pensive narration about his thirst for knowledge and his search for fundamental truth, played under shots of him walking at the seashore or through vast empty landscapes, on country roads and forest paths, in urban settings at prestigious universities. All this mixes with computer graphics and animations and other concept visuals, such as cloudy skies, aerial shots of open countryside and seascapes, sunsets and sunrises, Northern lights and other natural phenomena, NASA footage of our world and the heavens.

Saul Perlmutter at Lawrence Berkeley Lab

Getzels adds: “The effort we put into dressing the set, getting good locations and flying the keys pays off in spades. When you come to the interview, your interest is sparked right off visually, your eye is busy looking at it … (Then you get) a little journey where Robert wanders in the redwoods, or wherever it happens to be. My goal is not to dumb it down, but to master the content, really, by having high production value.”

“We’re taking this really intricate, heavy-duty, interesting content,” says Getzels, “and we’re taking it out of the closet, we’re taking it out of the ivory tower, we’re taking it out of the studio to people who I think will like it. Universally people tell me television isn’t made this way anymore. The interviews themselves are beautiful and visual and they work, but then you get the interstitials, so people who might not want to stick with the complexion of the discussions, which can be a little heavy going sometimes, at least know they’re going to get a reward for sticking with it.

“One of the decisions we made was not to ‘lower-third’ the Contributors because we didn’t want to set up that kind of expectation, that this was Robert interviewing. Robert is a questioner. But if you see static cameras, and two people sitting knee-to-knee, and it’s lit in a slightly more conventional way, it signals that this is an interview show … I want it to be as close to a hybrid as I could; though the format is a series of high-end discussions, I want it to feel like a documentary … It really is a journey.”

Andrei Linde at SLAC

“Closer to Truth”

Produced for PBS by Grace Creek Media (formerly New River Media), Washington, DC

Creator / Writer / Host / Executive Producer: Robert Lawrence Kuhn
Executive Producer: Andrew Walworth
Producer / Director: Peter Getzels
Series Associate Producer: Brian Krist

San Francisco Bay Area shoot:

2 – Panasonic AJ-HDC27F Varicam camcorders recording DVCPRO HD 720 progressive format @ 30fps / 16:9 aspect ratio
2 – Canon HJ17x7.7B IRS zoom lenses
2 – Canon HJ11Ex4.7B IRS D wide angle zoom lenses

Field Producer: Kirk Oberholtzer
Director of Photography: Bill Zarchy
Camera Operator / Jib Technician: Robert Barcelona
Camera Assistant / Video Technician: Petr Stepanek
Second Camera: Jim Iacona
Gaffer: Darrell Flowers
Key Grip: Brook Johnson
Grip: Oskar Ness
Audio: Ray Day, Dave Wendlinger
Makeup: Yvette Rivas
Production Assistants: Danny Zarchy, Cara Miller
Coordinating Producer (in Washington): Christina Mazzanti

Other Directors of Photography:

Ray Brislin
Austin Debesche
Patrick Duval
Boyd Estus
Frifljofur Helgason
Brian Heller
Alan Hostetter
Kira Kelly
Peter Konczal
Sidney Lubitsch
Page McCartney
John Sharaf
Chris Simmons

Originally published in American Cinematographer Magazine, journal of the American Society of Cinematographers, December 2008

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4 thoughts on “Shooting into the Void: PBS Science Series ‘Closer to Truth’”


    Very well, Bill sir.
    It is really amazing. All of your blogs should be compiled together and should use as reference book in Film Making courses.
    It is really tough to use 2-camera setup when both cameras are moving. hats off to you…
    The more I read your blogs, the more I feel that I have learnt nothing till now.

    One question: – Do you have preference of DVCPro HD over HDCAM?


    1. Hi Vinny. Very nice to hear from you. Thanks for your kind words. Perhaps I should write a book … These days I shoot more DVCPro HD with the Varicam Panasonic 3700 (on P2 cards) than HDCAM. The choice is rarely mine to make. Most of the time the format has already been chosen by the producer and the post house before I even get on the job.

  2. Damn if this isn’t a great blog, superb article and compelling reading.

    We have a whole bunch of interveiws coming in forthcoming months with very high ranking Tibetan lamas and this style of set up is definitely the best reference I could have discovered; although we’ll be travelling unbelievably lightly and have a much simpler set-up it’s provoked a rethink. Thank you!

    Bill, your RSS feed is added!
    And added into our blogroll.

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