Rob McElhenney can do no wrong. When Apple started promoting its original series Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet created by McElhenney, Charlie Day, and the very funny Megan Ganz, it started to gain a following. And for good reason too – it's hilarious.
The series follows a group of video game makers who run a popular fantasy role-playing game. As the story arc gets deeper into the season, you start to care more about the characters than the success of the game they're creating, which is a toast to its stellar writing.
Season one doled out 9 entertaining episodes, and when the crew started to film the second season, the pandemic hit. “It was a pretty surreal moment,” says cinematographer Mike Berlucchi, whose credits include You’re The Worst and Kong: Skull Island. “We were about halfway through our first episode and we started hearing about the shutdowns. After the second day, Rob said we would shoot one more day, and then that would be it.”
For McElhenney, he didn’t want to call it quits just yet. “Rob reached to see if we could film something remotely, and whatever it ended up being, it was going to happen quickly," says Berlucchi. "I did some research, and at that point, we shot a test scene to see if it could work.” To record the test, the cinematographer downloaded the Moment Pro Camera app onto their smartphones and shot a rough scene. “Apple loved it and they gave us the green light.”
What came from it was a special episode dubbed “Quarantine,” where they Mythic Quest team is stuck working from home – a situation many of us are familiar with. From concept to delivery, the production took about three weeks.
Shooting the episode was a challenge in itself, which McElhenney served as the episode director. Being an Apple show, production was sent 40 iPhone 11 Pros and 20 sets of AirPods. Each actor was also given a Shure Mv88 mic that plugged directly into the lightning port to record the audio. Filmic Pro and Shure's MOTIV app was installed on all the cameras. “Prior to sending them out to the cast, we determined the best shooting settings, and post department was incredibly helpful to get that setup and dialed in," says Berlucchi.
The idea was to give each cast member three phones so they could cycle through each one so the work could be done much faster. This way production could pick one up for the editors to unload the footage and still have two other phones in play before returning the first.
Dana (Imani Hakim) and Rachel (Ashly Burch)Credit: AppleWhile the phones were being delivered, production asked cast members to virtually scout their homes through Zoom. “The cast was so amazing about finding things around their home that would add to the frame. We didn’t want to simply throw them up against a wall,” says Berlucchi. A little production design went a long way to help establish the look of the episode. Imani Hakim, who plays Danna, decorated her walls with a string of lights to add texture. Others framed for color, depth, or included set decoration that matched the character’s personality. “It was cool to see how much everyone was into it. They were able to find multiple locations in their homes to give us some different, so you didn’t see the character in the same place,” notes Berlucchi.
Once the phones arrived, production had each actor in the scene on a Zoom call to record the video-chat scenes. This included the crew members standing by to do their jobs remotely. The scenes would be recorded using the iPhones that were setup over their laptop cameras. Actors would look directly into the lens and McElhenney would communicate with them through a pair of AirPods.
By using the Filmic Pro app it allowed the cinematographer to push the iPhones to their maximum capabilities. The entire episode utilized the Log setting on the app, which is a flatter gamma curve that provides more control and dynamic range when it comes to online editing. “It was really impressive the quality we were getting out of the phones,” says Berlucchi. “So much so it sparked conversations about how we could incorporate them into the show.”
Each scene was shot utilizing the 12MP wide camera lens which is a 26mm F1.8 lens. Production stuck to one focal length to closely mimic the field of view of a webcam or FaceTime call. “We felt that jumping out of that lens and into the telephoto or super wide would have taken you out of the story. We wanted it to be as true to life as possible in that way,” explains the cinematographer.
Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao)Credit: Apple
For a scene between McElhenney’s character Ian and Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao), the lead programmer on the team, timing was critical. The sequence had Ian walking from his house to hers in order to lift her dwindled spirit. The entire moment played out through FaceTime until the very end. The scene, as well as the entire episode, was choreographed using Zoom, which had its own internet drop outs and connection issues. The climactic moment ends with Ian knocking on Poppy’s door and giving her a hug. Since quarantine was in full effect, McElhenney didn't want to show up at Nicdao’s home. Production stuck to the limitations of being in quarantine.
To shoot it, Nicado’s husband, Bayden, stood in for Ian, who had to time the knock and eventual hug as if he were Ian. “We shot that scene first and it was a little brighter. We did it again, darkening it and had the cool, cold environment of the living room and then added the warmth of the door when Ian comes in. That's really Poppy’s moment to feel connected to the world again,” says Berlucchi
To create the final look, visual effects stepped in to detail the correct height and size. “Rob shot himself up against a white wall as a template for visual effects to reshape Nicado’s husband’s body to sell the piece even more,” he says.
The episode ends with a Zoom meeting in which everyone has a part in creating a Rube Goldberg device that ends up being a multi-screen chain reaction. To pull it off, each actor was sent individual pieces that had to be reconstructed upon arrival. Once set up and working properly, production would coordinate each row individually rather than trying to shoot the entire sequence at once. But even then, it each section had to be shot dozens of times. “If we tried to do it all at once, I think we still would be shooting it right now,” laughs Berlucchi.
When shooting during quarantine, the cinematographer says patience is key. “If you’re shooting over the internet, be prepared to completely lose someone. And don’t be afraid to push it if you’re using an iPhone. The low light capabilities are quite impressive. Let it be dark if that is the story. The phone can handle it.”