Laughing Matters: DP Jay Lafayette talks Netflix Comedy
Netflix has put a focus on launching a steady stream of stand-up comedy specials which meet the high-fidelity standards of all of its OTT programming. Each special is captured in 4K multi-cam which has to be fine-tuned based on venues and seating arrangements.
Emmy Award-winning Director of Photography Jay Lafayette has become the go-to cinematographer for capturing anything comedy-related on Netflix. Jay flies across the country with his crew, capturing one Netflix Comedy special every week. At the guts of his production, is a VER prepped ‘4K multicam’ flypack, customized to meet the changing needs for each show. We caught up with Jay at the recording of the latest Jim Jefferies new stand-up special for Netflix, called Unusual Punishment- releasing soon!
Jay, what got you into cinematography?
I was originally in the music business! We were making music videos, which eventually evolved into our own ‘local MTV-like’ community broadcast. We were curating music videos, featuring artist that we, or business associates, were creating. When web videos started gaining popularity, the ‘local MTV’ program transitioned to online. We were only doing this for short time, when Launch.com decided to acquire us and all of our assets. In 2001, Yahoo purchased Launch.com for $12 million. After years of doing music videos, I realized that I needed to fully commit to either motion graphic editing or cinematography. I went with cinematography. Initially, people were offering me short-form comedy and commercial work. It spiraled from there. Comedy Central hired me consistently to shoot “The Half Hour” which eventually became “Comedy Central Presents,” a broadcast featuring stand-up comedians performances in theatres across the nation.
How did you get involved with shooting 4K large sensor multi-cam for shows?
While we were shooting theComedy Central Presents, I started collaborating more with Multi-Cam Director Ryan Pollido. One day, we were throwing around ideas, and had the thought, “why do we need broadcast trucks” and “why not use cinema cameras instead of broadcast cameras for the comedy shows.” At this time, we started testing the Arri Alexa camera, but it was mostly a single camera, lens, and cable package connected to a switcher with all the other broadcast cameras. This is where VER came in. I connected with Morgan Kellum from VER Camera / 35LIVE! around four years ago. At the time, Rick Carpenito and Morgan Kellum had started building out large sensor multi cam VER flypacks. This was right about the same time that Cineverse and VER Camera joined forces, so you had access to the best resources from both broadcast and cinema under one company. The cinema camera has a very different look than the broadcast camera. Broadcast (ENG) cameras typically use medium or small sensors, which makes it easy to keep all the action in focus. Cinema cameras typically allow for a much higher resolution, better color, and dynamic range. Audiences are getting savvy to how things look. Even if they do not know the terminology, their brains naturally distinguish high quality imagery from lower quality broadcast. When we started shooting with the cinema cameras, it looked amazing. No one was shooting comedy like this at the time. After Ryan Pollido and I dialed in the 4K workflow and won an Emmy for our work on Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade, the Netflix Comedy specials started picking up.
What was the technical decision made behind the scenes to achieve large sensor multi-cam for these comedy specials?
Netflix Originals requires production to shoot with a true 4K sensor. We naturally started our initial Netflix Comedy recording using the Sony F55. The shoots turned out great, but we had a few concerns. While the F55 was great at a lot of things, it was often noisy and hard to light correctly in multicam format. We now primarily settle on the Panasonic Varicam 35, although we find ourselves using a variety of cameras- depending on the gig, venue lighting and what is required. One benefit of the Varicam was that the camera connected with Panasonic RCP Paint Box. With the Alexa cameras, we could use a GUI interface with networking, but it wasn’t easy. With the Varicam 35 connected to the RCP Paint Box, our video village was able to make iris control adjustments from the master console much smoother. I really feel like I’m in control of all my camera settings from a single switcher. The cameras and cameraman often have very little room, since the comedy performances are in front of a live audience, typically a sold-out venue. Camera positions change in each theatre, with varying seating arrangements and capacity. This is often one of our most difficult decisions, since it effects our camera and lens options. All the cameras are then fed back to the video village via fiber where we can manage camera control settings.
What were some of the decisions you made for the Jim Jefferies special?
Jim Jefferies was performing a sold-out show. As I mentioned before, depending on the seating arrangements in the venue, our team has to make the best of the situation. Luckily, our workflow is really locked down. We’ve figured out how to put cameras and camera operators just about anywhere.
Tell us about your interaction with the VER Camera team.
With all of these shows it’s always a challenge of getting gear in-and-out and on time. It’s really easy for VER to get the gear we need to wherever we need it. My first call when I book a gig is to Morgan Kellum. Morgan actually keeps a “Jay Lafayette” package in the warehouse. The VER team is always fighting to get us the best deal and providing a great service experience at any of their Camera Prep locations.
VER provided large sensor cameras and multicam video equipment for the Jim Jefferies Unusual Punishment Netflix Special.