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‘Parts Unknown’ Crew Shares How Show Shaped Its Vision

In the 11 seasons of CNN’s “Parts Unknown,” the late Anthony Bourdain taught us more about humanity than about food. The series captured six Emmy nominations this year, including four in below-the-line categories.

The show’s “Lagos” episode — which snagged noms in cinematography, picture e diting and sound mixing — details slices of the Nigerian megacity, which Bourdain describes as “the most dynamic, unrestrained and energetic expression of free-market capitalism and do-it-yourself entrepreneurship on the planet.”

Production prepped for three months, then spent several days scouting before recording more than 50 hours of footage, visiting affluent Victoria Island, where nightclubs cater to the elite; the floating shantytown of Makoko; and Computer Village, an electronics market where people repair goods as customers watch. Morgan Fallon, one of the three nominated DPs alongside Jerry Risius and Tarik Hameedi, cites the 1982 film “Fela Kuti: Music Is the Weapon” as a visual reference. “I fell in love with its 16mm cinema vérité look,” says Fallon. “We wanted to do something similar with ‘Lagos.’”

The DP trio shot most of the episode on 16mm film, using unobtrusive handheld techniques to capture the city’s energy. “We wanted our camera to be organic,” Risius says. “We are the guests, and visually that’s how we look at it. It’s about operating in the emotional guidelines of the environment … and tuning into the hearts of the people.”

Episode editor Hunter Gross sifted through the content, drumming up a heart-pulsing pace tied to the area’s popular Afrobeat music. “Integrating natural sound and elements into the edit has been something I’ve been working on over the years,” Gross says. “We try to create a symphony from the production sound and other audio elements to build atmosphere.”

In the episode’s first 10 minutes, a cacophony of music, honking horns and street sounds mix with snippets of dialogue and other aural cues in the city of 20 million. “We use sound to draw you in,” says rerecording mixer Benny Mouthon. “Hunter will have the sound design already laid out so I can concentrate on the audio cleanup and complementing any mono sounds with stereo versions. We’ll also pan different sound elements to match on-screen visuals, like a boat crossing through, for instance, to make it a more natural, immersive experience.”

“It’s about operating in the emotional guidelines of the environment … and tuning in to the hearts of the people.”
DP Jerry Risius

The biggest challenge for the editor is staying true to the people and environment. “You can very easily make a show about those living in poverty in any one of the cities we visit, but we try to create a balance,” says Gross. “We take the point of view of the common person while bringing to light the more positive facts about their society.”

For “Lagos,” the story was rooted in survival, perseverance and the relentless positivity of the people in achieving their dreams. “Since I don’t travel with production, I explore these places just like our audience,” Gross explains. “It’s something that will be incredibly missed now that Tony is gone. Everyone is very proud of what we’ve accomplished, and everyone is incredibly sad it has to come to an end.”

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