Shooting for Laughs: Filmmaker and Key & Peele DP Charles Papert on the right lights for staying on your toes

A Chimera user since the nineties, cinematographer Charles Papert got his start working in the Los Angeles television industry as Steadicam on the Drew Carey show in 1995. He has worked camera and stabilization for a legacy of modern-day classics like American History X, Office Space, Scrubs, Garfunkel and Oates, and The West Wing, but since 2012, his primary concentration has been head DoP on a number of top notch television episodics and sketch shows, notably the first three seasons of massively successful Comedy Central show Key & Peele. His eye as cinematographer can also be seen on recent seasons of The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, with Rachel Bloom, Mary + Jane, for MTV, and Burning Love, with Michael Ian Black and directors Ken Marino alongside guest’s appearances from several other members of famous skit troupe The State.

In addition, Papert shot the feature Hell Baby for writers and directors Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, who also got their start with The State. “It’s because I’m so funny,” he replies, deadpan, when asked what it is about his talents that have made him so well known as a DoP that can work with comedians in improvisational situations. “Really, though, I am a great fan of comedy. I’m fascinated by the process of crafting bits and how best they should be presented to maximize the joke. I’m very conscious of the ways that blocking, framing and movement can either augment or distract from a joke, and I enjoy working those through with a director. It’s a great feeling to watch the final edit and see how we may have successfully built a layer through the visuals that ultimately enhanced the ‘funny’.”

 I’m very conscious of the ways that blocking, framing and movement can either augment or distract from a joke

Also frequently active on independent full lengths as well as massively-budgeted commercials for the likes of Pepsi, HBO and Nickelodeon, Papert has produced and directed shorts, documentaries and music videos, even co-creating and helming a 48-hour filmmaking festival, Instant Films, from 2002 to 2006. He says that kind of experience with the budgetary and time constraints of broadcast and filmmaking have made him a big fan of the high quality light and long term longevity of the Chimera brand.

We know that their products are reliable and hold up

“I can’t remember a lighting package for a show that hasn’t involved Chimera products,” he says, listing a few of his favored Chimera models. “Obviously the softboxes (most often the Medium), but also the Pancake, the Birdcage, the Octaplus… We know that their products are reliable and hold up to the demands for durability across the rigors of a location show. One reason that Chimeras remain so useful is that you can use the same instrument in and out of the Chimera for very different purposes, even possibly cutting down on the number of different heads needed. Flexibility is really important. And not having to build diffusion and siders in front of an instrument saves time and manpower.”

His approach to the lighting on any scene is dictated highly by the material rather than anything else, but as someone who often has to stay wide enough to capture improvisation and often unpredictable performances while at the same time staying tight enough to capture a fleeting performance, he has a lot of advice culled from a long history of work in comedy. “There are indeed specific challenges to working in comedy, but, again, it depends on the tone of the piece,” he answers.

“Every project has to have a unique plan of attack. Sometimes the presentation is entirely straight-faced and the photography needs to reflect that. On “Key & Peele”, director Peter Atencio and I felt from the beginning that whole-heartedly embracing any given genre would make it that much more hilarious when the tone would shift to the absurd. You could watch the first 15 or 30 seconds and believe you had inadvertently tuned in to a horror movie, an action movie, a music video, etc. A comedy that plays like, or parodies, a drama, I’d approach just like a drama. For something more conventional, it’s usually preferred to see into the faces since that’s where much of the comedy plays out. There’s often a preference to cross-shoot, which makes perfect sense to accommodate improvisation, but can involve a certain amount of visual compromise. And, of course, flying instruments overhead takes more time to set up, and there’s rarely a surplus of that particular commodity.”

“I like soft sources that don’t require an abundance of stands for diffusion and control, so they can be quickly deployed. I’ve been very excited about the possibilities with Active Diffusion since I saw it demoed years ago,” he continues when asked if he was familiar with the new Zylight Active Diffusion collaboration with Chimera. With electronically and remotely controllable dial-in opacities, the Active Diffusion panels can be adjusted on up to 512 fixtures if using DMX. Currently available for most standard sized gel frames or softbox sizes, including 12” x 12”, 24” x 36” and 48” x 48”, Chimera is also planning to manufacture and distribute customize screens that feature the Zylight technology.

“Picking out the right level of diffusion is one of those things that takes a certain amount of energy, multiple times a day,” says Papert about his initial reaction to the technology. “I’ve always been something of a multi-hyphenate, making my own projects. Certainly the economics of the industry have continued to tighten down on the production side and unless one is working at the top of the industry, budgetary constraints have become the new normal. As DP’s, we have to be prepared to simplify our gear packages down from the wish list to the practical, which often requires some creative thinking.”

The grip department carries so many different flavors of diffusion

“The grip department carries so many different flavors of diffusion—at least five types are in our standard kit, built onto frames which takes up a lot of cart space. There will always be times when a particular type of diffusion will be the best choice, but so many times where an adjustable diffusion will speed things up. Multi-LEDs present an interesting challenge to diffuse because you rarely want the individual elements to play raw, as the shadow patterns are not attractive and they are tough for actors to look into. Yet picking the perfect diffusion is challenging—distance to the unit makes a big difference. Using a piece of Active Diffusion and dialing it in to the exact degree desired means maximizing the output of the unit.”

“Dimmability is a huge plus, and the current technologies that allow this without color shifting have been particularly useful. On a tight schedule where a rehearsal often becomes a first take (followed quickly by more takes without downtime), we find ourselves needing to refine levels on the fly, so portable dimming products like Luminaire have been a godsend. The ever-increasing demands of production speed have been matched by nimble remote dimming capabilities. The capability to make changes without sending crew into set to turn a knob or replace a frame is really crucial to making our process as invisible as possible. Watching the Active Diffusion do its thing is simply astonishing, like a magic trick!”

Papert says that the mandate in comedy to always use broad or high-key lighting has given way recently to an evolution in the genre where cinematographers can stretch and grow as visual artists. “It’s been a fun ride! I got interested in high school and did a brief film school stint,” he laughs, “talked my way onto a couple of big feature sets to observe and that was that! I was a camera junkie for a long time—operating was the best part of the job for me, and I had a great few decades flying Steadicam. At this stage I’m more focused on lighting and storytelling and content.”

You can see more of Papert’s work on his website (http://www.charlespapert.com/DP/Home.html), and on Instagram (@charlespapert)