Usher’s Super Bowl Pregame Coverage x Hawk AnamorphicsBy Olivia Farrimond | February 11th, 2024
Super Bowl LVIII has brought more than just football to Las Vegas. Alongside gifted athletes, a plethora of talent has flooded the city, including world renowned music icon Usher, who stunned the nation with his halftime performance. Amidst this world of sports and entertainment lies a diverse group of people who play a crucial role in sharing the events happening with the viewers at home. Bokeh Rentals proudly partnered with talented cinematographer Sean Brennan, the creative force behind Usher’s Super Bowl Pregame Coverage shot on Hawk V-lite Anamorphics, to offer an exclusive behind-the-scenes glimpse into the magic behind the camera.
I'm Sean Brennan, a freelance DP in LA and New York. My career occupies a unique place in the film and tv landscape, with my projects ranging from feature length docs to branded content, short films to broadcast features.
I started as a PA for CBS Sports where I came up during the C300 renaissance, which was obviously an amazing tool because of its functionalities, but definitely shrunk crew sizes. Most of the DPs I worked with at CBS were expected to shoot, gaffe, and run audio for themselves, so it made my extra pair of hands as a PA valuable to them, and also modeled for me the ways to be nimble and self-sufficient on set. As a football player from the midwest, the DPs loved that they could load me up with a couple c-stands and the old Arri 650 cases for a shoot on a 4th-floor walkup. I wasn't the kid that grew up with a camera wanting to direct, but as I found myself on more and more shoots lugging equipment around, I became so drawn into the image making process, and I was lucky enough to be taken under the wings of amazing mentors.
I started shooting within the first 7 months at CBS, grew to a staff DP within 3 years and went freelance at 25. From then on it's really been about finding my voice as a DP through filmmaking. I went through all the peaks and valleys from the jobs I worked on and the types of images I could produce, definitely trying too hard sometimes to impose a look that wasn't right for the story.
After a decade, I've moved much closer to finding that sweet spot of blending look and story. In the world of content we live in today, it's becoming easier to make pretty images, but making images that support and enhance a story takes more thought and artistry. I'm certainly striving for that in my work now.
For this project, I was brought on to shoot a 5-minute feature for this year's Super Bowl Pregame coverage for CBS Sports centered around an interview between Nate Burleson and Usher. Niya Walker, the Director, did a wonderful job of working with talent to make this more than just a fluff piece about the Super Bowl Halftime: they used this opportunity to explore the history of Black entertainment in Las Vegas and the significance of Usher’s journey in the town and throughout his career.
This all presented a fun opportunity as a DP: this piece had to be elevated but with purpose. It was not just a vibe piece, it had to relate back to the history they were exploring with intentionality.
I knew already we'd be shooting Alexa Mini LF, but the more impactful part was which glass we should rock. In the modern era of cinematography, there are loads of cameras that produce beautiful images, especially with how powerful color software has become, so the way for a DP to impress their vision on a project the most is through lens choice. There is no amount of post work you could do that can recreate what happens when you shoot through a Cooke S4 or Hawk V-lite.
The piece was built around a 4-camera shoot covering the conversation between Nate and Usher, so conventional thinking suggests going spherical for the sheer number of options you give yourself. That said, I couldn't get the idea of going anamorphic out of my head.
I think Vegas is a city that photographs beautifully in anamorphic – all the lights and textures render wonderfully in the anamorphic frame and there's a certain nostalgia about the city that brings to mind classic cinema and the time period of the 1950's and 60's, which also happened to be the era we were referencing often in the piece. Everywhere you look in Vegas is a set piece that would take weeks to build elsewhere. They exist in Vegas naturally, almost like this version of heightened reality.
Choosing the Hawks was an easy choice. Gina Ferrando, the production manager on the project, was so invested and trusting that this would be money well spent and when you’re talking about a shoot with this many Hawks, its pretty important to get production management on your side. This is also where Bokeh Rentals entered the picture.
I chose the Hawks for many reasons, but the two main reasons were their form factor allowed us to move quickly between setups (we only had three hours with talent) and they are the sharpest anamorphics that still have all the imperfections you'd want from choosing that format. Knowing this would be cutting with the rest of the pregame, I didn't want to go full 2.39:1 primarily because the way CBS had the frame setup with bugs and the tickers, it just didn't look right. Instead, I opted to go with a 2:1 aspect ratio, which blended more with the existing assets CBS was going to have on the screen.
I still wanted the barrel distortion you get and the funky falloff on the edges and the beautiful flares you get from 2X anamorphic lenses and there are truly no other lenses that exist in the world that do both of those quite as well as the V-Lites. The location we were shooting in for the main interview was already stunning (thanks to my friends at Resorts World) but these lenses really brought the most out of the space. I often gravitate much more towards lenses with imperfections, whether it be distortion or unique flaring for the projects I shoot but I often don't have control of many other aspects of the frame. Its always been important for me when working with non-actors to give them the most amount of freedom as possible to move about the space as they would naturally, I think it lends itself well to a more "believable performance." For this piece in-particular, I certainly never wanted to break up the conversation between Nate and Usher, I didn't want the camera to be a distraction which left me quite exposed to natural light and other variables. Having lenses like the Hawk V-Lites, that create a world of their own, gave such a beautiful quality to the piece when we were operating outside what I was able to plan for.Broadcast TV in particular is a special beast in the content space because of how quick the turnaround time is. Theres often very little time between when we shoot something and when it makes air... We shot this 2 weeks before the Super Bowl which actually feels like a lifetime in that line of work. That quick turnaround time leaves little room to manipulate the image in post or do any sort of VFX work which means the emphasis is on getting the image as close to right in-camera as possible. It can be a really rewarding process because you watch something air very close to when you shot it almost exactly how you shot it... haha. That said, it relates back to what I was saying about lens choices. The way a lens renders an image in the broadcast space is so important as the DP because thats often the last time I'll have access to it, it goes right to an edit and then right the air. In order for it to feel like my intended vision, which really represents the vision of everyone involved, the camera and lens I shoot on matters greatly.
My initial ask when I hit Bokeh up about renting the Hawks was for 5 lenses with the 80-180 included but instead, what I got was the full 6 lens kit, an extra 110mm and the 80-180 for the same price because Bokeh really understood the vision of the project and the limitations we were facing. We didn't have an opportunity for a prelight day because the space we were using is a functioning bar… so walking into a space blind can be really scary and yet the gave me all the options I could have possibly needed. Having the extra lenses on set allowed me to get the most out of the location and there were 2 lenses in particular that I ended up choosing on the day that wouldn't have been in the kit I initially requested.
My gaffer, Hunter Langley, did such a great job of elevating the look and giving it the polish it deserved while working with what the Hawks were giving us. It's the job as a DP to truly understand the limitations and variables of a particular project and the gear, and try to find the apex where they can interact as seamlessly as possible. I knew we weren't going to have a lot of time outside the main interview to light or even flag Usher and Nate and we were going to be shooting during the middle of the day in Vegas, which is... not ideal. We wanted to give Nate and Usher the flexibility to move as they pleased and freely interact with their locations so for me, putting a good lens on a good camera was my only real defense against the elements and I can honestly say I wasn’t disappointed. I think ultimately thats the true job of the DP. Its eliminating as many of the variables as you can in pre-production and finding the gear that can bail you out of scenarios you might not have been fully prepared for. Thats where the production triangle never fails. I luckily had budget on this job, but little time (trust me, I was the guy in the room asking if Usher can come closer to sunset…), so we were still able to get stuff that's of the standard we were striving for.
There's one scene in particular, where Nate and Usher are walking through the Neon Museum where we were running tight on time and the V-Lites really showed their beauty. It was a really important moment in the feature because they landed right next to the old Moulin Rouge sign, which was out front of the hotel where many of the Black performers like Sammy Davis Jr. would stay when they would be in town. It was 1:30pm, and we had less than 15 minutes to wrap, so we simply had them walk through the museum backlight, no flags or bounces, and my killer Movi-Op, Chris Velona, moved around them with the 55mm.
Despite the sun being high in the sky, that lens decided it was going to flare in the most beautiful way, (it really does have a mind of its own) and the Alexa held all the information in the image. It just worked. Nate and Usher had a poignant conversation and we captured a moment that feels like the payoff of the whole piece.
This project felt like the culmination of all the things I love about this career: It's on the fly problem solving, it's using the knowledge I've gathered from hundreds of other shoot days, its gear... but its mostly about the people and relationships I have in this business. I had a client I've worked with for years that trusted me with their vision and money, I brought friends in that killed it in pressure situations, I had a rental house that was down to find a way to bring our vision to life and I got to listen to a conversation between two icons that was empowering and inspiring. I’m grateful quite a few people will get to see it.