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`Sweet Magnolias’ Season 2 Used Sony HDR Camera and Monitoring Gear

Sony Electronics
(Image credit: Sony Electronics)

PARAMUS, N.J.—Sony Electronics has announced that some of its latest HDR capture and monitoring technologies were used in the production of the second season of Netflix’ “Sweet Magnolias."

The Sony gear used on the production included the  BVM-HX310, PVM-X series of monitors and VENICE camera. 

Netflix’s “Sweet Magnolias” is a dramatic romance tale set in the South about three lifelong friends navigating their personal and professional priorities and relationships alongside one another. 

With a cast lead by JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Brooke Elliott and Heather Headley, the storylines of each character help set the tone and look of the show, which often features the traditional light and bright exteriors typical of romance narratives, while incorporating shadows, darkness and contrast, uncharacteristic of the genre, all of which are amplified through the use of HDR imagery, Sony reported. 

From a behind-the-scenes perspective, Sweet Magnolias features the technical talents of Tyler Blackwell, digital imaging technician (DIT), whose credits include “One Night in Miami…,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and “Women of the Movement,” among others and Brian Johnson, director of photography, a Gemini Award nominee, a two-time Golden Sheaf award winner and recipient of two Leos, whose resume includes “The Killing,” and “You Me Her,” to name a few.  As a Cinematographer, Johnson uses his camera and lighting to execute the creative vision of the series, helping to determine the look of the show, emphasize the aesthetic and create emotional connections to the characters, while Blackwell assists Johnson in ensuring that his vision is maintained and the look is flawless, accurate and engineered to seamlessly make it through the post-production process.

Season 1 of Sweet Magnolias has been a popular title on the streaming platform, and Season 2 was released on February 4, 2022. Its stunning images are captured by Johnson using Sony’s VENICE full-frame digital cinema camera, while Blackwell monitors the series using a combination of Sony’s PVM-X2400 and BVM-HX310 4K HDR monitors.

As HDR comes to the forefront of productions, Blackwell explained its appeal by explaining:  “on Sweet Magnolias, we’re delivering a show in SDR and HDR. My hyper-critical eyes are on every frame and having HDR monitoring on-set has been very helpful in pushing a different standardized look. We use Dolby Vision, which I think is the pinnacle of HDR and provides the best viewing experience for our devoted fans.”

Another important aspect in delivering and providing that top-notch viewing experience to the audience is having the right tools.  

Blackwell prides himself on being proficient in the latest cutting-edge technologies, including 12G, 4K and HDR, which help contribute to his success and marketability as an in-demand DIT, and he understands that using superior solutions help him achieve a first-class result and reputation.  “After some trial and error using other equipment, as well as a good deal of research and development, I found my way to the Sony 4K HDR monitors,” he said.

“On Sweet Magnolias, we use three PVM-X2400s and one BVM-HX310, with the X2400s on my cart and the main cart, while the HX310 is on the HDR cart, which is in our command center – the DIT tent.”  Johnson added, “The DIT tent is pretty impressive.  It has an array of Sony monitors and it truly offers the best visual representation of what we’re going to ultimately end up with.”

The BVM-HX310 is also used for QCing dailies.  Blackwell explained, “We use the BVM-HX310 to make sure the team is comparing my stills to what they’re viewing in their environment and ensure everything is lined up and accurate to what Brian and I have created.”

For Blackwell, he zeroed in on the Sony PVM-X2400 after standardizing on the BVM-HX310 in 2020.  Blackwell chose Sony over the competition due to the company’s “critical” and “priceless” support and dedicated resources.  He also cited the monitors’ dynamic contrast drive feature, which helps ensure content is matching to the HX310, as well as the proper viewing environments. 

Since Blackwell already owns two BVM-HX310s, he recognizes the benefits of working with a primarily Sony workflow.  He said, “The fact that the HX310 and X2400 are an extremely color accurate match and work well together is very important.  We even had a scenario where Brian and the crew were shooting on the rooftop of a building and we brought the HX310 up so that Brian could view what was being shot in real time.  Because of the size and the weight of my cart, and the facility having no elevator, rolling my cart in wasn’t an option.  This is where the X2400 really shined.  I was three floors down, operating the cart and relaying between Brian and myself to ensure he could match what he was looking at with what he wanted to see.  I had one of the X2400 monitors in HDR mode and the other in SDR mode.  Brian was monitoring upstairs in SDR on the HX310 but I was still able to have the environment that we typically have, where the HX310 is usually in HDR and the X2400 are typically in SDR mode on the cart.”

Accommodating an HDR viewing environment is also important to Johnson, despite the understanding that he’ll primarily be viewing content on the SDR monitors and many of the show’s viewers will be consuming Sweet Magnolias in SDR.  He realizes there are certain situations where having an HDR vantage point helps enable his creativity and ensures the best viewing experience.  He explained, “In scenarios where there’s a wider field of view or where there are multiple windows looking out, we’ll put that up on the HDR monitor to see the perceptual effect of the bright windows.  Even if they’re not clipping, in HDR they can be so bright which allows us to gain perceptual information beyond any waveform information, so we can adapt our strategy to mitigate the brightness.  When looking at an SDR image, you don’t always have that same insight.”

But the Sony workflow and color matching weren’t the only reasons why Blackwell selected the PVM-X2400.  He stated, “Not only are the Sony monitors industry standard, they’re also requested by clients.  As someone who is a service provider, I need to listen to my clients and understand the market demands and that’s always been Sony.”

Johnson added, “I haven’t monitored in HDR on-set before, but I found it really comforting and handy to be able to, particularly when we’re getting close to a place that we feel good about the lighting in SDR. Once I check the HDR monitor, we can bring the highlights down more, if needed, or flag elements to address in post.  Using the monitors allows me to know I’m in a good place with the HDR deliverable, which is invaluable.”

Additional features that Blackwell called out included the monitors’ “fantastic” multiple channel setups.  “It’s pretty incredible,” he said. “I haven’t gotten a chance to use all 30, but to be able to quickly move through different configurations on the monitor is awesome.  Then I use the quadrant view to set an HDR and SDR next to each other.”

Another benefit of using Sony monitors on the set of Sweet Magnolias is the seamless collaboration and streamlined workflow they provide with the Sony VENICE camera employed by Johnson.  In addition to the impact of the lens, Johnson uses a LUT that he deems “idiosyncratic” and “absolutely key” to creating a distinctive look for the show, which is well represented by the monitors.

But that isn’t the only advantage to shooting with VENICE.  Johnson, who first used the camera to capture Sweet Magnolias in 5.7K, 16:9, remarked he was “really happy with VENICE’s representation of contrast and color.”  He initially gravitated toward the camera due to its ability to meet Netflix’s delivery requirements and its “super awesome” large format sensor.

Johnson noted, “I knew that on this project, we were going to want to limit the depth of field as much as possible on stage, so I was really keen to go with a large format sensor.  It worked out that the VENICE was our best candidate and aligned with our budget.  I had obviously read a lot about the VENICE and some of my colleagues had shot on it and had really great experiences.  I was curious and excited to work with VENICE, and it’s proven to be an awesome camera.  It won’t be the last time I use it, for sure.”

Additional benefits of VENICE that Johnson mentioned include its size and the quick and easy accessibility of settings.  He added, “This is a real cinema camera.  My team changes the ISO a lot and we love the internal ND function, which we use constantly, and that all of the functions are right there for the assistants.  Additionally, the camera’s small and light enough that we’ve built it on the Ronin very successfully, which has been great.”

From Blackwell’s DIT perspective, he also appreciates the VENICE.  He explained, “To be able to work with a piece of technology that can see more color than the human eye is pretty inspiring.  To know that we have as much as what we can perceive on set to work with is incredible.  In addition, from a technical standpoint, the ISOs we’re using enable us to make sure that we’re maintaining shadows or maintaining highlights depending upon the scene and the lighting environment that we’re in.”

Blackwell also pointed to the use of ART files, a technology that provides bit-level accuracy when utilizing a 3D LUT for on-set monitoring and improves image integrity for critical viewing applications.  He found that ART extensions provide the camera operators and assistants with insight, even when Blackwell’s not on-set due to COVID restrictions.  He explained, “Being able to leave Brian and leave the department with a camera that’s outputting the show LUT in an ART was critical for Brian to be able to continue doing his job without someone like me there keeping an eye on things.”

In addition, Blackwell values Sony’s SxS cards, especially their dual record functionality.  He described the benefits saying, “We used dual record on Sweet Magnolias, recording to AXS and SxS media to make sure that we have a backup because it doesn’t matter what camera system you’re working with, accidents happen.  Cards can get pulled out while you’re recording or there’s a power loss or a file corruption.  Being able to have two separate versions of your media recording at the same time is a great safety net.”

As Blackwell and Johnson look to the future, they recognize using state-of-the-art equipment, including Sony’s HDR monitors and VENICE camera, helps usher in a future where HDR is the expectation while solidifying the show’s legacy.  Johnson concluded, “I can only assume that one day, all monitors will be HDR, and keeping an eye toward that, we’re increasing the shelf life of Sweet Magnolias through our use of cutting-edge technology.”

George Winslow is the senior content producer for TV Tech. He has written about the television, media and technology industries for nearly 30 years for such publications as Broadcasting & Cable, Multichannel News and TV Tech. Over the years, he has edited a number of magazines, including Multichannel News International and World Screen, and moderated panels at such major industry events as NAB and MIP TV. He has published two books and dozens of encyclopedia articles on such subjects as the media, New York City history and economics.