Cutting-edge technology to make the geeks happy? Check. Controlling production costs to please the network? Yep. Creative panache to satisfy artistic urges? Totally.
All of those goals converge in the riveting 20-minute heist sequence of Cinemax’s “Banshee” episode that aired Feb. 20 — a piece of television that also spawned a social-media site propelling the vidgame-friendly scene into Internet eternity.
The simple key to this achievement: small, wearable cameras.
“Banshee” showrunner-director Greg Yaitanes and his team shot the entire scene using only the consumer favorite GoPro Hero 3 and the Panasonic HX A-500. The cameras were integrated
into the actors’ costumes, providing points of view from multiple characters as the action unfolds in Cinemax’s highest-rated show, recently renewed for a fourth season.
Some cameras also were mounted surveillance-style, running continuously to capture all activity.
“We shot it that way out of necessity,” Yaitanes says. “We’re given a set number of days to shoot the season. I was looking to compress the schedule, and also to do something visually out of the box. We’ve all seen a million heists. We wanted to push the boundaries of what’s been done.”
Actors wore the cameras mostly on their heads. And because the devices are designed for action sports, not for the nuance of TV narrative, there was a learning curve. “When you look at something, you rarely turn your head completely in the direction of where you’re looking, the showrunner explains. “In a way, this required the actors to become storytellers. But they figured it out.”
The result: a fugue-like action sequence in which multiple layers of activity vie for viewer attention as they move the narrative forward.
During the peak of shooting, as many as 22 of the devices were rolling at one time. Additionally, each actor was miked, so “point-of-view audio” also was captured, adding to the tension and realism of the scene.
Because there was no way to monitor what the wearables were actually capturing, after each take, the crew removed the chips from the cameras and put them in a computer “so we could see if we hit all the story points,” Yaitanes explains.
Other challenges arose in post. “There’s so much going on that we did one of the most elaborate sound designs we’ve ever done on the show,” says Yaitanes.
In a similarly complicated process, editor John Valerio had to sift through and balance reams of POV footage to create visuals for a single screen as well as split screens, figuring out where to pull viewers’ attention as many tiers of activity unfolded simultaneously. He also had to produce cuts that would translate well into a Web experience.
“I’m always pushing the show into the multiplatform space,” Yaitanes says. “As we shot, I made sure we got the thread needed to go online and to be able to follow the show through anyone’s point of view, or through multiple points of view.
And yet, for all the complexities of post-production, the actual shooting was surprisingly economical — and saved money. The entire 20-minute sequence was shot in just two days. Yaitanes estimates it would have taken at least five days to shoot it conventionally.
“It was a truly creative experience,” says the director. “It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to being back in film school.”