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Max Joseph on filming MTV's "Catfish: The TV Show"

October 17, 2014

On November 12, 2012 Catfish: The TV Show aired on MTV and MTV.com. The show – which uncovers the true identities behind real-life online relationships – is currently working on their fourth season of taking on the mysteries, complexities and manufactured worlds of dating in a digital age.

“We’re in this place where we need to look a subject in the eye and capture it on a camera at the same time,” describes the show’s on-camera cameraman Max Joseph. “Because of the often delicate situations we’re in, we really want to draw them away from the idea that they are being examined or recorded in any way.”

“Gonzo Verité” style

Joseph and his camera team wanted small, unintimidating cameras that fade into the background, don’t remind the talent they’re being shot from all angles, and were fast to use.

“Canon’s XA25, XF105, and PowerShot S100 and S110 were the ones for us,” says Joseph, who operates A-camera and works in close collaboration with the show’s cinematographer, John DeTarsio, and B- and C-camera operator/assistant, Brandon Romero. “I’d used the PowerShot S95 [an earlier version of the S100] previously on a Nike commercial shoot around the world with Casey Neistat, and couldn’t believe how versatile it was. We were able to get some really amazing shots for that campaign.”

Catfish: The TV Show takes generously from the “Gonzo Verité” style of camera work. Joseph understands that audiences are highly media literate these days and can make sense of many heterogeneous pieces of media at one time. “I don’t think that TV shows or films even are really maximizing the potential of the audience’s ability to understand,” says the New York City native. “Commercials and viral videos are a bit more daring in terms of mixing pieces of media together.”

Catfish (2010) was a feature-length documentary that grew out of the budding relationship between Yaniv Schulman and his girlfriend, Megan, whom he met online. Through a series of discoveries, Schulman unfortunately found out that his seemingly ideal girlfriend was, in fact, a 40-year-old wife and mother.

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010, won “Best Documentary Feature Film” at the Utah Film Critics Association Awards and got scooped up by Rogue Pictures for theatrical release, and there were rumblings of a TV show using similar Gonzo-style reporting tactics. Soon, MTV was involved, but Max Joseph – then working up his reel as a writer-director – was unaware.

“I’d been friends with Yaniv and his older brother Ariel [who directed the documentary] since I was 15,” explains Joseph. “I knew all about the movie and was even there at Sundance with my own short when it premiered. It was never a plan for me to be a part of [the TV show] though.”

Two days before Schulman was to shoot the pilot of Catfish: The TV Show, he called up his longtime friend and asked if he’d help shoot it.

“I happened to have a week off and I figured why not help a friend out,” he recalls. “Catfish had a very low-budget, DIY consumer camera approach that made it seem more authentic than if they had shot it all with really slick expensive cameras. The fact that the audience could see them shooting as part of the story, it gave it this really nice transparency.”

Joseph feels that after instances like The Blair Witch Project, where people felt duped afterward, audiences have a lot of doubt or trust anymore for “reality filmmaking.”

“We are pretty transparent about how we make the show, being able to see the crew and not pretending like no one is there behind the camera,” he says. “It adds to the authenticity and the honesty. I think Michael Moore was coming from that point of view too – it’s like I’m the documentarian - this is not this faceless voice. This is our voice, and the voices of the subjects we’re putting on TV.”

However, the Canon cameras weren’t initially on the docket in pre-production. And the pilot episode was shot with a Sony EX-1 – which, according to Joseph, was very large and didn’t lend itself to the style with which they wanted to make the show.

“It wasn’t really a consideration that we thought we should have,” he remembers. “We just figured we’d use whatever industry standard doc camera there was, but we failed to imagine what that would actually look like on camera.”

On the first day of shooting the pilot in Chinatown in New York City, Joseph was questioning why they didn’t have the $400 point-and-shoot PowerShot S110 (the next evolution of the S95 and S100). So in between takes, he and Schulman went out to an electronics store and bought the only S100 there, which was red. And after they finished shooting the pilot, DeTarsio brought in the Canon XF105 Professional Camcorder, and the team never looked back.

In addition to being A-camera operator, Joseph is Schulman’s on-screen counterpart. He is the one that’s as close to a subject as he can be, getting in the middle of the action and acting as a sounding board for his co-star. DeTarsio and he share A-camera duties essentially, but DeTarsio is on the big Sony PDW-F800 most of the time, off-camera, and Joseph has the S110 in his back pocket always, with the XA25 or XF105 available to grab at a moment’s notice.

“The XF105 is geared more toward professional broadcast with a lot to offer an experienced cameraperson,” DeTarsio explains. “And the XA25 is a great camera to use on a one- or two-person documentary team where size and ease of use matter. Plus, it still makes a beautiful picture. Post couldn’t tell the difference between the XA25 and the XF105 shots when I sent the first ones over to them.”

Adds Joseph: “These cameras look good on screen, are small enough to hold for really long periods of time without a rig or harness, and their auto function settings are perfect for what we’re doing. What it comes down to is that they allow me to get more authentic material. And that’s what it’s all about – getting the subject to a point where they are the least self-conscious and the most open and connected. That is what I want to do as a filmmaker in general, but especially in documentaries. When you are also on camera though, you actually have to do a better job of it.”

“Catfish” unlike most reality shows

Joseph understands that he’s half talent, half camera department and admits that he’s like a “high maintenance cameraman.” He’s not held accountable for the usual things a cameraman might be responsible for, like charging his own batteries or keeping track of the SD cards. He is, however, accountable for the chemistry of the room and getting sensitive scenes captured.

Catfish: The TV Show is not shot like most reality shows. They don’t do coverage, they let their cameras run almost constantly, they don’t do second takes and they don’t do on-the-fly testimonials.

“We tell you the story in a chronological order without interruption, in real time,” says Joseph. “There are no interviews to break that up. And we do this to keep the essence of the film – the whole reason for this TV show in the first place. What made the film so interesting and different from other documentaries was staying away from speed-bumping the narrative with interviews. The show is a mystery in structure, we tease the mystery in the beginning scenes, then we go back and start at the beginning of the story from a very structural narrative perspective.

“That is a very strong narrative hook that you can put a lot of other things on top of,” he continues. “It’s a strong enough foundation that it can hold lots of character development. Staying away from those loud and dramatic characters sets our show apart. We don’t actually need that to keep people interested – the content alone is interesting enough.”

The total crew is about four people small, including their soundman who is also tasked with keeping time code for the S110.

“[The S110] doesn’t have jam sync time code on it,” explains Joseph, “so our post team was pretty unhappy with us that first season, before we’d figured out how to keep time code. Now, our sound guy has a time code counter that he always keeps on the front of his bag that we shoot at the head and tail of every shot where I am using the S110.”

After almost 40 episodes, six-day shoots with a one-day turnaround for the next episode, Joseph and his team are a well-oiled machine. And their unique workflow melds easily with constant domestic travel during the 11-16 weeks of production with 16-hour days.

"Brandon [Romero], my AC, swaps the SD cards out of all the cameras. We have a media manager who gets handed all the footage to download and sends them to FedEx overnight to our editing team at Relativity in LA. So every day, they’re getting the dailies, which we never see because we’re moving on to the next day of shooting.”

Joseph doesn’t know exactly how many hours of footage they’re being handed, but he can only imagine it’s a gargantuan ingesting process for post because of their let-it-run policy.

In the episode with Antoinette and Albert in season three, the team was shooting in Boca Raton, Florida where the “Catfish” was performing at a nightclub. They were going to shoot his performance and then have the subject meet him and surprise him in the parking lot afterward.

“There were a lot of moving parts on this particular shoot,” recalls Joseph. “We were shooting in a big, noisy nightclub where people actually started to realize who we were and we had to shoot outside at night with no lighting except for parking lot lamps. We had a producer in the bushes doubling as a cameraman on the XF105 with its long lens trying to capture the confrontation after the show. It took a lot of coordination from our field producers and a lot of communication between our team members.”

DeTarsio even admits that the XF105 is better in low light then his higher-end Sony XD camera. In this particular situation, with all the no-light and low-light challenges they faced and shooting at 18dB inside the club, they all felt the XF105 looked brighter when the show aired than they had thought it would.

“We were going to get the club to leave some lights on,” recalls DeTarsio, “but in the vain of ‘keeping things real,’ we turned on the Infrared setting and were able to get the picture really clearly with just that.”

The show is shot at 30p and Joseph is a fan of how it looks on 1/60 of a shutter. They like the 24p setting too on all the cameras, but it adds an extra layer of editing that they try and eliminate for post. They admit that 30p is not quite as filmic, but is still better then the typical 60p interlaced, also allowing them to stay away from a shutter effect when panning on.

“What’s also beautiful about the XF105 is its 4:2:2 color space and that it records on 50mbs – same as the XD camera,” says DeTarsio. “So while it has a smaller chip, if you’re not in a stressful situation for the lens, the 4:2:2 gives it a lot more latitude in editing and matches so well that you can’t differentiate between the $50,000 XD with a $20,000 lens on it to the XF105. We were worried about that, and how it might be jarring to the viewer. Honestly, we’re continually surprised with the outcome of the look.”

How to shoot with as little equipment as possible

One of the shots that Joseph knows they wouldn’t have been able to get with any other camera other then the PowerShot S110 was actually captured by Schulman. Schulman rarely picks up a camera, but in this situation he was following Craig, who had just found out the girl he thought he’d been talking to, was not who she said she was.

“He was really upset and he ran outside,” recalls Joseph. “Yaniv went outside after him and grabbed an S110 on his way. He turned it on and went to talk with Craig and just held it at his hip pointing upward. It’s this amazing shot with dead trees and gray sky behind Craig’s head. It was a moment where Craig didn’t feel like he was being exploited or manipulated, but was able to be honest on camera.”

Joseph emphasizes that this is the main goal of the show and a tenet of how they use their gear, what little of it there is: two XF105s, an XA25, three PowerShot S110s, and the Sony F800. For lighting, they carry two Litepanels and a Kino Flo that they rarely use.

“We’ll use them in some of the hotel room and investigation scenes where we have time to set up,” he offers, “and if a subject’s house is too dark – as some of them can be – we’ll set them up, but we don’t like them. They take time and it’s just one step further away from authenticity and reality. If our investigation goes from day into night, we’ll break out the Litepanels and Kino Flo to compensate for the darkness, so as to keep a more consistent look.”

Oftentimes, Joseph will shoot on the XF105 to boost the gain which artificially bumps up the overall brightness of the image. Also, the XF105 has an infrared function if it’s pitch black out. Usually, they’re able to use streetlights and overheads if they’re in a car at night.

“The dynamic range on the XA25 and XF105 is great for what those cameras can do,” he says. “And I always use the wide ‘WD’ focusing mode because you can switch to that when you put the converter on. On the XF105, we tend to use a wide-angle converter lens [as the camera doesn’t have interchangeable lens capabilities], which makes it a bit heavier, but I like that. It balances it out and takes away that shaky digital feel.”

Another auto mode Joseph works in often is the Backlight function, which is on their tip sheet that’s taped on each camera, as “Number 7.”

“If a subject moves in front of a window and all the sudden they’re really backlit,” he says, “I just hit program option number 7 and the camera will bring up the exposure on whatever subject you’re shooting -- without bringing up the exposure on the exterior light.”

Otherwise, Joseph likes to manually manipulate the picture, staying in manual on the focus ring. But he is grateful for other auto modes because of how often a producer may have to pick up a camera and just be able to shoot.

There was one instance in season two where Joseph used two cameras at once, holding the PowerShot S110 on top of the XF105, shooting both in different directions in order to capture two sides of a conversation. And another time, he was able to use his flashlight from his iPhone in combination with the PowerShot S110 and XF105. “It’s a great replacement for a Litepanel,” he adds, “which you don’t always have time to just whip out and use on the fly, like my phone.”

“We’re in a lot of crazy situations,” admits Joseph, “sometimes awkward, sometimes emotional, sometimes even a bit scary. The most important thing is to be present in the moment and to get the shot at the same time.”

With the PowerShot S110, Joseph knows he can hold it down low, and that more often then not, the subject will forget they’re being recorded. Even in casting sessions for his upcoming feature, Joseph has opted for the PowerShot S110 instead of the industry standard camcorders.

“It totally changes the game,” he says. “I think I’m getting a much truer representation of their performance with these cameras. It’s really exciting to get to rethink how you can cast a feature, and maybe even use it during production as well for certain shots.”

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