Christopher Baffa Frames Pirate Tales in Puerto Rico

Christopher in a still from the set of GLEE.
Christopher in a still from the set of GLEE.

When I caught up with Christopher Baffa, ASC he had just returned to the sunny climes of Puerto Rico, where he is working on Crossbones, a ten-episode series for NBC Universal that stars John Malkovich as the infamous pirate Blackbeard. An entire pirate village has been built, and two sailing ships in the style of 1700s Spanish galleons play important roles. Some historical sites in San Juan have also provided backdrops. As for what unfolds in these settings, there is some political intrigue, but no shortage of swashbuckling.

Christopher’s main tool is the Arri Alexa, shooting ProRes for the most part. For visual effects elements, the camera is switched to 2K to provide more flexibility later.

“We’ve been shooting in many very challenging environments with extreme lighting conditions,” he says. “We’ve been out on the open ocean quite a bit. The weather here changes on a dime. The Alexa’s done quite well at maintaining both the highs and lows.”

Most of the shipboard scenes are already finished. At sea, the cameras were handheld, on a Steadicam, or on a small crane with a Libra head. When possible, the ship was docked. The deck of the galleon was quite high off the water, which made it a bit easier to compose shots with water only visible near the horizon. Sometimes the production churned the water with speedboats for shots that include water that isn’t so distant. Selective focus helped sell the illusion.

Christopher at the camera, A Camera Operator Ben Spek, and A Camera 1st AC Bill Coss.
Christopher at the camera, A Camera Operator Ben Spek, and A Camera 1st AC Bill Coss.

“We also used a Technocrane on the dock to extend up into the rigging, getting some pretty dynamic shots,” says Christopher. “These ships were surrounded by an amalgam of ropes, and the crane opened up the freedom to get the camera where we wanted.”

Occasionally, Christopher had to choose between being ideally oriented to the sun or the wind. Current was also a factor. Sometimes fans were used to inflate the sails. Scenes were planned out with these limitations and opportunities in mind. “I remember one particular time when trying to get the backlight I wanted made the ride very, very bumpy,” he says. “And when we were handheld on the deck, it just made things prohibitive. We had to come around to more of a side light and change the angle of the ship. Once we did that, the deck became ten times smoother, and we were able to function.”

In certain situations, the sails served as large overhead silks. “There were times when the sails would take the direct sun off our characters,” he says. “On other occasions, when we are able to get the backlight we want, it’s wonderful because the sun would hit the sail, which serves as a giant bounce. It’s this old weathered brownish color, not a crisp white sail. And because it was so big and was being hit directly by an uninterrupted sun, the quality of light that came off of it was oftentimes quite beautiful. It was sort of like putting up a really dirty, giant bounce.”

Christopher says that the Crossbones assignment is fun and challenging, but from a personal perspective, it’s difficult because it takes him away from his family for long periods. Back in Los Angeles, Christopher and his wife have a son who is six years old and a daughter who is three.

“On a show like Crossbones, there is a reason that we are here in the Caribbean,” he says. “But there’s a way that it could have been engineered in southern California. I really do think that it’s time that this gets worked out, and production returns to California. In Los Angeles, we have beautiful stages on most of the lots that are sitting dark, with cobwebs forming. It’s crazy. I’m not sure what the solution is. But I’m hoping we’ll discover or create a solution, because I do feel it’s getting to the point where it’s going to start damaging things. I personally know people who are getting out of the industry because of this. And an industry is only as good as the people in it.

“I love what I do and I feel very fortunate to get to do what I do,” says Christopher. “And if this is the reality that accompanies that privilege, then I can’t really complain. But it also does have a lot of moments when it’s extremely painful. I’m proud of my children and how they’ve stepped up and embraced it as a reality. But it’s not the same at all as being with them.

“What’s concerning for me is that the tax incentives drive these decisions,” he says. “But there are many other costs that come into play for a production. My personal hope that is that things will reach a point where people will stop and say, ‘In the end, was it really worth it?’”

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