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HBO’s Comedic Look At American History Gets Serious With Sony’s XDCAM HD System


Before shooting began on the new HBO special “Assume the Position 201 with Mr. Wuhl,” the production team and the star, stand-up comic and actor Robert Wuhl, decided they needed to “take things up a notch and move into the high-definition realm.”

Previously, the show’s 2006 pilot installment was shot using Sony’s standard-definition DVCAM™ format. To move to the next level for this follow-up special in high definition, the team chose Sony’s XDCAM® HD Professional Disc™ System.

“It’s a comedic look at how American history is molded by pop culture, with Robert basically teaching a class to college students,” said Dave Sperling, a camera operator and one of the show’s directors of photography.

According to Sperling, most of the show takes place in a classroom lecture setting, although there are interviews with historians and other pick-up shots and b-roll mixed in as well.

The focus on Wuhl’s comedic presentation required a camera system that could allow the crew to keep rolling for long stretches of time without having to stop and re-load, which adds time to a shoot and disrupts the spontaneity on set.

“It’s a stand-up comedy show, more than anything else,” Sperling said. “But it’s different than your standard comedy show because Robert’s also teaching a class, and in that type of environment, the students—their responses and reactions—are a vital part of the experience.”

To capture this, four XDCAM PDW-F350 camcorders were set up, with two always trained on Wuhl and two covering the reactions of the students. Three of the four cameras were always hand held.

“The deciding factor for us in choosing the XDCAM system was it allowed us to shoot for more than an hour at full HD resolution, without a break,” Sperling said. “It was very important for us to be able to roll continuously and at no point lose cameras for re-loading.”

Other systems were considered, including a Panasonic model, but according to Sperling, “The sharpness of the XDCAM HD system was better.”

He added that to obtain the kind of length he needed with any other camera, “We would have had to sacrifice resolution by dropping down to a lower rate or format. This was the only HD camera system that would go past 45 minutes, while remaining at a high level of HD quality and resolution.”

Sperling first used Sony optical technology on Eli Kabillio’s “Dream Science Classroom,” a documentary special that aired last year on the Discovery Channel. That show was produced by Mad Dog Films, and both Sperling and co-producer Eli Kabillio of Mad Dog realized that the XDCAM system would also be the best choice for “Assume the Position.”

“This disc-based format just allows you so much freedom on the set,” Kabillio said. “These camcorders are the perfect choice when capturing every bit of dialogue is critical.”

Sperling noted the camcorders’ flexibility came in handy during the shoot.

In addition to his starring role, Wuhl was also actively involved in directing the show and often wanted to review footage that was just shot.

“With the XDCAM system, it’s the easiest thing in the world to just hit the return button for two seconds, and the camera instantly goes back to the beginning of the previous take and starts playing,” Sperling said. “We grabbed some shots in the subway, and Robert wanted to review certain footage while we were waiting for a train. Then as soon as we sensed the train was coming we were able to go straight from reviewing earlier takes directly to recording live footage with no transition time.”

To keep the results from all four camcorders consistent, Sperling used their Memory Stick™ flash media capability.

“I set up the look for the show on one camera and then used the Memory Stick to copy the look onto the other three cameras,” he said.

According to Sperling, “From the first time Robert saw the footage from these cameras, he immediately knew that we had taken things to the next level, and that it really looked great and was a definite step up.”

“Assume the Position 201 with Mr. Wuhl” premiered on HBO on July 7 and will be airing through July.


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