Zombifying Conan: An Interview with Dylan Sanford, DP of the Conan 'Walking Dead' Cold Open
Last month, Conan O'Brien dedicated an episode of his show to the return of The Walking Dead. In honor of the widely loved AMC zombie drama, Team Coco put together a comedic Walking Dead-based opening sketch, featuring a decomposing, flesh-eating rendition of Conan. As a cinematography geek, I was blown away by how the production team managed to both emulate and parody the cinematographic style of The Walking Dead. Luckily for you, No Film Schoolers, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dylan Sanford, the talented DP who lensed this cold open. Stick around to hear Dylan explain exactly how it was done, from pre-production all the way through post.
First, in case you haven't seen it already, here's the Team Coco Walking Dead cold open. Prepare yourselves for the hilarity that is zombie-Conan.
And here's the delightful behind-the-scenes video from Team Coco:
Now let's get to the interview with Dylan!
NFS: Talk a little bit about how you landed this Conan gig and the general production environment of Team Coco.
DS: First, a bit of a primer on how that particular show works: obviously, since they’re a weekly show, they have a VERY tight schedule. They are constantly prepping for the next shoot even as they’re editing or shooting the last. So they have a fully operational staff that handles the main show and field shoots. But sometimes, if the scope of a field shoot is too great or they’re after a particular look, they’ll bring in an outside crew to augment theirs. That’s where I come in.
They don’t formally have directors on the field shoots just head writers, so camera positioning, coverage, and shot scheduling generally falls to me, which I like.
I first worked with them a few years ago when I DPed the cold open for the premiere on TBS. I had been brought in to give it a more “cinematic” vibe, having been recommended by the main show lighting designer (that I had just worked with on a Taylor Swift concert film.) We hit it off. So I still get that call from time to time.
The call for The Walking Dead open came in on a Monday or Tuesday. Thursday was our location scout. By Friday we were shooting it over the course of about four hours (the only time we had with the talent). So, when I say tight schedule, I mean it.
NFS: You guys successfully mimicked the visual style of The Walking Dead for this cold open. First of all, what exactly is this "style" from your point of view as a working DP? What kind of preparations did you make, and what was the overall pre-production process in order to create this parody in such a short period of time?
DS: Glad to hear that we accomplished that. I’m a fan of The Walking Dead so I had the look in my vocabulary from the start. From my point of view, that show feels like the south to me. Highlights are all a bit sunbleached, greens are lush vibrant, interiors utilize a fair amount of atmosphere while building in contrast with the lighting. There’s strong warm or neutral large-source backlight, generally coming in from low, with a cooler fill. In addition to that, the camera is almost always in motion, but rarely handheld. They use a lot of dolly, steadicam and crane. And unless they’ve changed format in recent seasons, I think they’re still a Kodak show shot with ARRI 416s.
Our preparations were abbreviated. As I said, I got the call only shortly before our shoot. They already had a house location selected for the interiors (and exterior fascia) that was actually the old house from The Waltons, on the WB Ranch Lot. The exterior greenery was to be shot in a remote section of LAs Griffith Park. We were to do our scout on Thursday, the day before the shoot. Also, the script called for a specialty shot, pulling out from an ECU of a zombie eye to a MCU, revealing that the eye belongs to Conan (a reference to the season 3 premiere of TWD.) I knew that that shot alone would require some careful prep. Close-focus tight shots that end that wide are not easy. So I started examining my options with regard to lenses and diopters.
On Thursday, we scouted the locations. That was with all department heads, including the main show LD, Noah Mitz, who would be providing his team for lighting & grip support. At that scout, he and I discussed the look we sought to accomplish. We agreed on a broad plan. Then, we headed to the Griffith Park location and selected a few specific spots that we would take advantage of. I worked closely with the writers Scott Gairdner and Todd Levin, Scott ostensibly directing this one.
At home that night, I watched some episodes of TWD on Netflix and pulled some iconic framegrabs that I thought well represented the “look” and downloaded them to my phone. That was the full extent of the pre-production for me.
NFS: Talk a bit about your camera choice of the FS700/Odyssey7Q combo for this shoot. Why that camera setup considering the plethora of RAW options on the market today? How did this setup help you achieve the aesthetic that you wanted?
DS: I’ve owned the FS700 for some time. I was an early adopter (replacing an FS100) and a big supporter of the camera. To me, Sony was doing something very unique with that camera. And because the body is (comparatively) inexpensive, I’m able to offer it at a very fair rental price for productions that can’t afford the bigger guns. That said, when Sony revealed the R5 solution for 4K, I didn’t see myself utilizing that feature much. The ergonomics of a separate recorder/interface unit and battery system seemed too cumbersome. And 4K raw sounds great on paper, but the realities of minimally compressed 4K raw sets in quickly when you have to hand off 25TB to some poor assistant editor in the middle of the night. BUT, when Convergent announced the Odyssey, I immediately put one on preorder and sold my nanoFlash recorder (which I loved because it was utterly bulletproof). I took delivery of my O7Q back in November.
So, I selected that camera system because I owned it. But seriously, I had been experimenting with 2K raw and found the results to be really quite excellent. A little prone to moiré/aliasing (a condition of how Sony executes the 2K), but overall exceptional. Convergent has provided a serious upgrade for the FS700 that gives the F55 a run for its money in terms of image quality. For this, I knew we would have very little time to shoot it but that they had a little extra time to post it -- so raw wouldn’t be exceedingly prohibitive. And it would definitely give us the flexibility in post to nudge it towards the look of TWD.
NFS: What was the philosophy behind your lighting for this shoot? What kind of lighting gear and setups did you use, especially for the interior shots with Andy and Conan?
DS: We had to ape TWD, but, since it’s comedy, they didn’t want to go quite as daring as a drama. So essentially, we lit for drama and then lifted the ambience. Noah and his team did a really great job, working fast (as they’re used to on that show) and bringing the look to life. Outside the two windows were 2 Arrisun 60s (6Ks) with some light diffusion. The windows were gelled with ½ CTO to give that late day sunbeam look. Inside, was a 4x4 Kino and some pars were bounced off of white boards set in the ceiling to provide fill. We also used a Leko with a crosshatch pattern for Conan’s entrance near the door. There was an additional 4K outside the other window that was fired into heavier diffusion that had papered the window. There was a lot of smoke, which is always a pain, in terms of matching contrast from shot to shot. Outside, the only lighting used was to bring up the shadow side when Conan smashes through the door. Everything else exterior was with available light.
NFS: Talk a little bit about the image pipeline with the RAW images. What was the workflow, from camera to delivery, and what was your involvement in the post process? Were you involved in the color grading, and, if so, what was your input in that process?
DS: That show has no time for (or experience with) a raw workflow. They post in FCP (with a mixture of AE.) My selling them on raw capture was contingent upon providing them what they’re used to: ProRes HQ. So I knew that when we wrapped shooting, my day would continue, preparing transcodes for them.
On set, there was simply no time or space to transfer footage as we shot (not how I like to do it), so we filled our SSDs and wrapped. I’m fortunate enough that my father, Mark Sanford, is a colorist (after over 40 years as a video controller), so I headed straight from the shoot to his office in Hollywood. There, using his DaVinci Resolve system, we did a grade that got them VERY close to the final look. He did this as a favor and I can’t imagine how the process would have gone without that. As amazing as it is to work with raw footage, living on the bleeding edge has a lot of “gotchas” that grind post to a halt. It is simply NOT plug and play -- yet. So, once we had applied a look, we transcoded out to ProRes HQ 422 and I delivered that drive of “dailies” over to their post department (getting there at nearly 10pm) so that editor, Rob Ashe Jr, could begin editing. After that, it was in their hands. But, I will say that the look we set in the pre-grade is pretty much what you see.
NFS: Even though the style of The Walking Dead was imitated for this shoot, you guys definitely added your own personal comedic touches. Talk about how you and your team took the show's style and turned it into a basis for comedy.
DS: I’m a big believer that the best way to execute parody is to mimic the source material as closely as possible. Remain faithful to that and it will just play so much better. However, as I mentioned, we still had to expose for the reactions, so I’d say we lit an episode of The Walking Dead, and then added a little more fill.
And that opening shot pulling out from the rotten zombie eye? It’s lifted directly from an episode of TWD. But here, as the camera pulls back, the payoff becomes, “Oh, wow that’s Conan!” Same shot. Different result. And that’s what I mean. Remaining faithful to the source is sometimes all you need to do for a parody to have a strong result.
I’ll mention that my AC, Eric Smith, was a real trooper on that shot. In order to accomplish it, that’s an 85mm lens with a ½ full diopter and a dolly back at a 2.8/4 split. AND we were trying to nail it quickly, because the contact lenses were KILLING Conan. I knew Eric was getting a shit sandwich, but I thought he did a fantastic job pulling focus, since racking with diopters is always a mess.
NFS: Is there anything else you would like to share with the NFS audience regarding how you pulled off this fun little shoot.
DS: I’ll just mention a couple of things:
First, I’d like to reiterate to readers out there that this was shot in very little time on a very tight budget. Because scheduling with Conan and Andy is always a challenge (never mind the time that Conan had to be with TWD makeup team), it ultimately meant that we would get Andy from 11:30am-3:30pm and Conan from 12:30pm-4:30pm. That’s only 3 hours of common time to shoot out the whole piece. When we realized in the morning just how little time we would have them for, I suggested that we scout the area around the Walton House for exteriors, since I thought a company move to Griffith Park would be out of the question. My opinion was: repo and you get the location, but only one shot. Or stay put and sacrifice the look of the location but you get ALL of the shots. So we picked out some spots. And that’s precisely where we ended up shooting them. Plan for your failures and you’ll rarely be disappointed.
Also, on the FS700 with the Odyssey7Q, it’s a really fantastic combo. It’s not hyperbole when I say that it is very close in image quality to the F55. Very. The Odyssey, in addition to being a great OLED monitor is presenting some excellent recording options for filmmakers of all types, and now that Sony has authorized 4K raw recording as well, it’s a juggernaut. For the price, it can’t be beat. And CD is really listening to its user base carefully. I see that recorder becoming the standard-bearer for all the rest.
Lastly, I’ll add that I do a lot of these types of shoots. And you never know what will hit. Some are a drop in the ocean. Some go viral. There’s almost no rhyme and reason to it. But this one WAS a lot of fun to make. Andy and Conan are great to work with on an average day, but with the special FX, it was no average day. I heard from the art department that the breakaway doors were one of the biggest expenses. That was over $600 of balsa!
What do you guys think about the Walking Dead cold open and how it was shot? Do you have any additional questions for Dylan? Let us know down in the comments!