Created by writer/director/producer Duane Adler, the Step Up film franchise, which consists of five films, has made over $650 million at the worldwide box office. The latest project, Step Up: High Water, is a dance drama series that is currently streaming on YouTube Red. Produced by Lionsgate Television, the show follows the students and faculty of High Water, Atlanta’s most competitive performing arts school. The ten-episode series was shot by cinematographer Joaquin Sedillo, ASC (Scream Queens, Glee, Veronica Mars) with Panasonic VariCam 35 cinema cameras.
Sedillo got involved with the series after reaching out to one of the producers, Adam Shankman, who put him in touch with Step Up: High Water executive producer Holly Sorensen. In the interview, Sedillo admitted that he hadn’t seen any of the films and Sorensen explained to him that they wanted a completely different look. “The movies were very polished with a big-budget essence to them,” says Sedillo. “Holly wanted the series to have a completely different feel, something more organic, like Fame from 30 years ago – more real like an indie movie – so we kind of ran with the ball on that. I avoided watching Step Up 1, or 2 or 4. I was guided by her and Adam’s notes.”
For Step Up: High Water, Sedillo had many challenges. The production had a large cast with a lot of short scenes and elaborate dance numbers. “It was similar to Glee – a large cast and complex logistics; but with Glee, it was mostly musical numbers rather than dance,” says Sedillo. “On this show, the challenge was shooting these powerful and moving dance numbers in an economically and logistically sound way for YouTube and Lionsgate, but while maintaining the same impact without making it look cheap with an indie feel. My crew really stepped up.”
When he first read the script, Sedillo was excited that the series would be shot Atlanta for Atlanta. According to the DP, Atlanta sunlight has a special quality to it. “Los Angeles has such a heaviness to the air so it makes the light feel bluer gray. Atlanta doesn’t really have that. I think it has more of a golden quality and strangely, maybe a green essence due to the gorgeous greenery throughout the city. Aside from the aesthetics of the city, I also enjoy the people in Atlanta – so polite, kind, and helpful. It’s a very centering place to work.”
For Step Up: High Water, Sedillo wanted to create a single source, or single essence light where the shot does not look lit and he wanted the show to feel real and organic.
His A-camera operator, Spencer Hutchins, helped convince Sedillo to try out the VariCam since Hutchins had shot previously with the camera as a DP. Sedillo shot the entire series with VariCam 35 cinema cameras that were rented out of Panavision Atlanta. He shot the series in UHD (3840×2160) in AVC Intra 12-bit 4:4:4 at 23.98-fps in V-Log. His dailies timer from 16:9 Post, Pat Shewmaker, created proxy files for dailes and his D.I.T., Mark Gilmer, created viewing LUTs. Mark created specific day and night looks for the High Water dance studios, home sets and office spaces. “Mark is so knowledgeable – he came in knowing he was just going to do one episode and he was all in. He’s an artist and has such a well-rounded knowledge,” says Sedillo.
For low light locations or high-speed sequences for dance scenes, Sedillo used the native 5,000 ISO setting but usually brought it down to 1,280 from 5,000. “I’m still old-school,” explains Sedillo, “and I still use my meter. In fact, when I pulled my meter out on Step Up: High Water, a couple of crewmembers walked up and asked, ‘What the hell is that?’ I think or hope they were joking. I don’t light to the monitors, I light to my eye. I key based on my meter and I can choose to go above or below that.”
One of producer Adam Shankman’s mandates was the use of handheld camera, which is the main form of camera movement on the series. “As a viewer/DP, I personally find handheld distracting,” says Sedillo. “To me, it calls attention to itself, but I’m happy that Adam pushed me. In this case, it worked because of the way the stories were told and the expertise of my operators, Spencer Hutchins and Brett Mayfield – both great artists in their own right. Spencer can watch a scene unfold in rehearsal and will go and tag details to tell a story, often without instruction from me, or the director. He’ll go to the back of someone’s head, wrap around and see a bit of one person’s eye, and not go back until the next person starts their dialogue.”
For lensing, Sedillo shot primarily with zooms, including two 11-1s, a 17.5-75 Primo zoom, a 28 – 76mm and 45 – 120mm Angenieux Optimo zooms. He only carried one prime – a 10mm Primo. “I also experimented with something new that Guy McVicker over at Panavision Hollywood came up with,” explains Sedillo. “It was an idea of optimizing their lenses by degrading the image a bit. They take the lenses apart and coat the inner elements with diffusion. It creates this beautiful effect where, when the lens is flared, the flare itself steps in slightly varied colors and shapes, which to me mimics how flares appeared on film as the light passed through layers of emulsion.”
For instance, in the rehearsal space, we could blast this intense but soft light (12 light fixtures through sheers) while we were shooting dance numbers – often we’d shoot people in gorgeous silhouette. I must give a shout out to the Step Up editors. A lot of people tend to be more conventional and think, ‘Oh there’s a flare, we’ll cut around it,’ or ‘Oh, there’s a silhouette, we’ll cut around that.’ So much of the beauty of what we’re doing on purpose has been used in the cuts. They’ll go through a flare immediately right on a cut, or during somebody’s speech, a flare with go through with pools of purple and turquoise and this beautiful candy apple red. It’s just the way these lenses react with this optimizing from Panavision that looks really cool.”
Step Up: High Water was graded at The Foundation in Burbank, CA with colorist Gareth Cook. According to Sedillo, the grade remained very close to the LUTs that Gilmer created. “Gareth has been with me since day one,” says Sedillo. “He knows that I like rich colors. I don’t like things to pop. I like things that are rich and lush. I tend to stay on warmer skin tones. Speaking back to the heat and humidity of Atlanta and that warm golden light, he knows where I like to place daylight – morning compared to evening light. He knows the combinations of colors – half blue, quarter green, as my night colors. I tend to use chrome orange for streetlights. He basically knows all of my tricks – for lack of a better word.”
Overall, Sedillo describes the look of Step Up: High Water as indie and artistic, “which I think is the point of the series. The kids want to be artists and want to express themselves. I think the creators of the show, YouTube Red, and Lionsgate allowed us to do that. To have fun and make this feel like an artsy movie. It was a blast!”