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Cooke Lenses Deployed For 'The Expanse'

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Cooke Optic's 5/i Primes lenses have been used on set to film season 3 of SyFy drama The Expanse.

In 2014, Syfy commissioned 10 one-hour episodes of The Expanse; to this day, it remains the most expensive show the channel has ever produced. Based on the book series collectively known as The Expanse, written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (under the pen name James S. A. Corey), critics highlighted the series' visuals, lensed by Jeremy Benning, CSC.

When the series commenced airing on Syfy in December 2015, the network ordered 13 episodes for season 2 (premiering 1 February 2017), and then followed with a renewal for a 13-episode third season to air in 2018, which wrapped production on 5 December 2017.

The Expanse is primarily shot via 2-cameras using ARRI ALEXA Minis at 23.98fps, ProRes 4444 UHD 16:9 with a third ALEXA Mini brought in when needed.

Jeremy Benning, CSC, and the Director of Photography for all three seasons of the show, said: "I love Cooke lenses. I've been a long-time user of Cooke's S4/i, miniS4/i and 5/i lenses, and for The Expanse, I wanted a gritty, hard, but human look – Cooke 5/i primes were the natural choice from day one. With digital cameras, the Cooke 5/i lenses deliver something gentler that takes the edge off the crispness – it's still super sharp, but I get rounder and more gentle faces, great defocus, and wonderful fall off between foreground and background. DPs always talk about 'The Cooke Look' and for me that means a creamier, softer, three-dimensionality with great bokeh."

Benning prefers not to use any filtering for The Expanse, having done some tests during season one, although he will make use of the occasional 1/16th, Classic Soft. A major percentage of the show's visuals are in-camera, with VFX being used for set extensions and exterior space shots. For example, in seasons two and three, there are very dark, almost cave-like environments that needed to show bioluminescent particles and walls. Using ultraviolet pigment built into the sets and UV light to fluoresce and almost totally light the set, Benning was able to capture an ethereal look that would just need some VFX augmenting in post. This UV effect meant extremely low light levels on set.

"The Expanse is visually different from a lot of typical television science fiction," Benning continued. "The series has a hard-edge look without being clinical. The sets are often techie and harsh, and the lenses help take some of that edge off and add more character, sort of a graphic novel look to the images."

Production of The Expanse is 90 percent studio based, with one location day per episode. The sets are mostly complete 360-degree environments with walls, floors, and ceilings. Benning worked closely with the show's production designer Tony Ianni to work lighting into the sets, selecting the type of lighting and the materials the light would pass through. The sets are virtually entirely lit practically.

"Primarily, we use LED ribbons mixed with some various film-based and theatrical/rock-and-roll lighting," he explained. "We did extensive testing to make sure we had no flicker or any other issues. During season two, we started making our own lights for our standing sets – it's just so much more economical to build rather than to rent, and we can replicate most things the rental fixtures can do."

For The Expanse, Benning had the full 9-lens set of 5/i primes, consisting of 18mm, 25mm, 32mm, 40mm, 50mm, 65mm, 75mm, 100mm, and 135mm with T1.4 speed, shared between the cameras, with all lenses being used. Benning also used Cooke's /i Technology lens metadata protocol, which enables ARRI's Lens Data System (LDS) in the ALEXA Mini to automatically record key lens data for every frame shot and provide it to the show's multiple visual effects vendors digitally. This includes focus, iris, and zoom data, so that visual effects used to extend the sets or add in a new background can be seamlessly tracked to match the in-camera element.

"My goal is to keep the audience in the world of the show, making them believe that what they see is real," said Benning. "I often shot the Cookes wide open, to take the edge off the 'set' aspect of the environments, keeping the focal point on the actors' eyes. That takes the emphasis away from the artificiality of a space craft set. With a defocused background, everything blends so it helps sell the idea of being in a real place – that's our main goal. Cookes make the background look more like a painting than a set."

Image: Jeremy Benning on set. Image credit: David Grossman.

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