TV Awards Season Preview: A Glimpse Of Emmys To Come?
Susanne Bier (photo by Les Karner/courtesy of HBO)
SHOOT connects with recent DGA and ASC Award nominees across television categories

Whether or not the DGA and ASC Awards are a preview of Emmy nominations to come is a matter of conjecture. Whatever your inclination, there’s no denying that those recently named nominees for Guild and ASC honors across television categories are worth looking into relative to their talent and the work for which they are being recognized. 

SHOOT does just that as a precursor to our Emmy season preview on May 7. This will be followed starting May 14 with SHOOT’s weekly 16-part The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories. Providing a taste of perhaps what’s in store, SHOOT now delves into four DGA Award nominees--Susanne Bier, Zach Braff, MJ Delaney and Christopher Werner--and a pair of DPs in the running for ASC honors, Jon Joffin, ASC and Ken Glassing.

Susanne Bier
In a year when women directors have made a major mark on the awards show circuit--with Chloe Zhao for Nomadland, and Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Women each garnering DGA Award and Best Director Oscar nominations in the same  year--Bier, who preceded them in making history, continues to add to her accomplishments.

Bier broke new ground as the first female director whose work won an Academy Award (Best Foreign Language Film for Denmark’s In A Better World in 2011), Golden Globe (also for In A Better World as Best Foreign Language Film), Emmy (Outstanding Directing in a Limited Series for HBO’s The Night Manager in 2016) and European Film Award (Best European Director for In A Better World, and in 2013 Best European Comedy for Love Is All You Need). Just last month Bier added a DGA Award nomination, the first of her career, for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Movies for Television and Limited Sereis on the strength of The Undoing (HBO).

Bier served as an executive producer and directed all six episodes of The Undoing (HBO), created by David E. Kelley and starring Nicole Kidman as Grace, whose seemingly perfect life goes off the tracks when her husband, Jonaghan (Hugh Grant), disappears about the same time Elene (Matilda De Angelis), a parent at their son’s school, is found dead. An adaptation of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel “You Should Have Know,” The Undoing became a whodunit that captivated audiences on HBO and HBO Max. The final installment of The Undoing was the most-watched night for HBO since the finale of Big Little Lies the previous year (also starring Kidman in a collaboration with Kelley). HBO noted that The Undoing earned a special distinction--for the first time in network history each episode of a series was seen by more people than the prior one, underscoring how deeply people were drawn into the mystery. 

Nielsen also reported that The Undoing generated more convesation on social media than any other new scripted TV series in 2020.

Bier was attracted to the story from the outset. “I read the first draft of the first episode and was drawn into that world, the characters.” She also found creatively compelling the opportunity to maintain the truthfulness of the story while nurturing confusion as viewers anticipate what might happen based on their own perceptions. This leads to some internal questioning along the lines of am I seeing the actual person or what I want to see. This dynamic contributed to the must-see allure of The Undoing, explaining in large part why, as chronicled by Nielsen, the audience built steadily from one episode to the next.

Bier’s own modus operandi also contributed to that ever growing viewership. In working with the editor, Ben Lester, with whom she’s collaborated extensively in the past, including on The Night Manager, Bier continued to test cuts with an audience. “It’s not the classical studio test, more like friends and family. I use that a lot, in this case for the entire season, all the episodes.”

She explained that through this feedback you can see for instance, “at this point they don’t quite get it” so you edit accordingly to deepen the viewer connection to the story. “It’s a holistic approach to the entire work so that in the editing every element is very much seen as one piece” in the end, related Bier who lauded Lester’s profound “understanding of characters” and talent for conveying that to an audience.

Bier also enlisted cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (an Oscar winner for Slumdog Millionaire) for The Undoing, their first major longer form project together. They had teamed earlier on a couple of commercials. Bier said that in many ways she and Mantle found themselves on the same wavelength, both experienced in smaller Danish films and having gone to the same Danish film school. “We had a fortunate mix of backgrounds,” which she assessed, helped keep them on the same page all along.

Bier also felt a shared vision with series creator Kelley--and that this shared vision became a singular vision which helped to drive the series in concert with an amazing cast and crew. Such a singular vision, Bier affirmed, is necessary, particularly in a narrative with all the twists and turns of The Undoing. Otherwise without that vision, the story can become muddy and you can’t suspend disbelief.

The Undoing adds to a body of work for Bier that includes A Second Chance, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival; Things We Lost in the Fire starring Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro; Serena starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper; After the Wedding, which also received a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination; Brothers which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Fim Festival; her debut feature The One and Only which won Best Film at the Danish Robert Awards; and Birdbox, a post-apocalyptic thriller starring Sandra Bullock and which made a major splash on Netflix and in theaters, scoring critical and popular acclaim.

Additionally Bier is drawn to short-form fare. She is represented in the commercialmaking/branded content arena by production house SMUGGLER. Bier regards the short-form experience as providing “a two-way synergy” which informs her longer form pursuits through experiementation, exchanging ideas and experiencing different ways of working.

As for what’s next, Bier at press time was directing The First Lady, an anthology drama series for Showtime.

Zach Braff
Braff is no stranger to the awards show circuit. As an actor, he’s scored multiple Golden Globe nominations and an Emmy nod for playing Dr. John Dorian on the sitcom Scrubs. As a filmmaker he’s been nominated for the Humanitas Prize for Garden State, which he wrote, directed and starred in. Garden State also won him Best First Feature at the Film Independent Spirit Awards and Best Directorial Debut from the National Board of Review. Braff additionally won a Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for Garden State. Yet it’s his latest recognition, a DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy Series for the “Biscuits” episode of Ted Lasso (Apple TV+), that perhaps most resonates for him.

“I always wanted to be a filmmaker since I was a kid--the second I saw my brother with a camera making his own James Bond movie. He was James Bond, I was the villain. That’s the first time I heard the term ‘closed set.’ He told me this was a closed set. I was probably four years old. My directing aspirations went that far back. I went to film school. I PA’d on music videos in Manhattan in the late ‘90s. I remember being so stressed but passionate about it. To now be acknowledged by my peers, my community, ADs, the directors, everyone in the Guild just feels special. I’ve been doing this for 20 years or so and I was taken aback by how much it meant to me. It really moved me to be recognized for something I love doing more than anything, making TV comedy.”

Ted Lasso emerged from a series of promos for NBC Sports’ coverage of the Premier League. Jason Sudeikis portrayed Lasso in that campaign, eventually yielding the Apple TV+ series which centers on a small-time football coach, Lasso himself, who’s hired to coach a professional soccer team in England, despite having no experience coaching soccer.

Ted Lasso broke new ground for Braff whose TV series directing had been confined to episodes of shows in which he starred, including Scrubs and Alex, Inc. Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence, who had a creative hand in Ted Lasso as well, brought Braff into the Apple TV+ show’s directorial fold. Braff was immediately drawn to the series for the opportunity to again work with Lawrence and to collaborate for the first time with Sudeikis who stars in the title role and created the series with Lawrence, Joe Kelly and Brendan Hunt. Also appealing was the prospect of directing the second episode of Ted Lasso, meaning Braff could help lay the foundation for the series in terms of look and tone. In that vein, Braff said that while the pilot was “hilarious,” it didn’t really yet reflect the heart of the show. “Biscuits” introduced that emotional side to the series.

What concerned Braff a bit was another element in the second episode that wasn’t in the pilot--namely scenes depicting soccer being played on a field. Braff, who’s not much into sports, dove right in nonetheless, working with field groundskeepers who were protective of their turf, literally, and U.K. crew. Through special mounts and lightweight cameras, Braff and his compatriots could ensure that the field could endure lensing and remain pristine, thus satisfying groundskeepers. Braff thus was free to capture realistic sports action scenes while of course doing justice to the humor and pathos of the show.

Ted Lasso has become a breakout comedy for Apple TV+ which has already renewed the series for its second and third seasons. Sudeikis won the Golden Globe for his portrayal of Lasso. Ted Lasso also earned a Globe nomination in the Best Television Series--Musical or Comedy category. Furthermore the show received two SAG Award nods--for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comdey Series, with Sudeikis in the running for Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series--Musical or Comedy. Ted Lasso additionally won two Writers Guild Awards.

While Braff thought Ted Lasso had all the elements to be successful--being funny and heartwarming at the same time--he didn’t foresee the extent of its success. “You never know what will click with audiences and this has become a global phenomenon,” said Braff. “I only directed one episode but I’m sure glad I hitched my wagon to Jason and Bill.

Braff also hitched his wagon to RSA Films for commercials and branded content back in 2019, turning out such work as In The Time It Takes To Get There for Adobe Creative Cloud out of agency Pereira O’Dell. Braff wrote and directed the short which was lensed by cinematographer Mauri Fiore, ASC, an Oscar winner for Avatar

Braff regards the short-form realm as affording a director “the chance to explore and challenge yourself. I like to work with new cinematographers, learn from them, try out things I haven’t done before. The Adobe short was a dream project, a modern comedy but with a period piece aesthetic. And I got the opportunty to work with Mauro (Fiore).” 

Braff’s directing credits in the ad arena include such brands as Hidden Valley and Dunkin’, and music videos for the likes of Gavin DeGraw and Joshua Radin, along with Lazlo Bane’s “Superman,” the Scrubs theme song.

Besides his nine-year run on Scrubs, among Braff’s credits in front of the camera are Community, Inside Amy Schumer, Arrested Development, BoJack Horseman (voicing himself), and the feature The Comeback Trail with a cast headlined by Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones.

MJ Delaney
Delaney casts her DGA Award vote every year. This time when the ballot came through, she saw her name on it. That was a thrill in and of itself. “To see myself as an option was something,” she recalled.

Describing herself as “happy just to be on the ballot,” Delaney saw that inclusion go a significant step further as last month she earned her first DGA nomination for “The Hope That Kills You” episode of Ted Lasso.

Producer/writer/director/actor Sharon Horgan knows Sudeikis and recommended Delaney to him as a possible director for Ted Lasso. Delaney had directed Dreamland, a short film written by Horgan, as well as episodic work for the series Frank of Ireland which Horgan executive produces. Produced by Amazon Studios and Horgan’s production company Merman, Frank of Ireland is scheduled to debut on U.K.’s Channel 4 and Amazon Prime next month. In 2018 Horgan as EP/writer won the BAFTA for Best Short Form Program for Morgana Robinson’s Summer, which was directed by Delaney.

Via Horgan, Delaney got a meeting with Sudeikis, resulting in her directing episodes 9 and 10 of Ted Lasso, the latter installment being “The Hope That Kills You.” 

Delaney said her biggest takeaway from her experience on Ted Lasso goes beyond its awards show success to what she believes has contributed to the show’s popularity among viewers and critics. “It shows the virtue of a lack of cynicism,” she observed. “It’s so lovely to see how the atmosphere created in that show has resonated with people during what has been a hard year, a devastating year for many. I think it provided what people wanted and shows how the creators had such great foresight in seeing the value of the story--the spirit of that character which became the spirit of the show was something quite special.”

Delaney added that there’s something to be said for properly placed “sentimentality and earnestness.”

The environment created for the making of the show was also special, continued Delaney. “It was a very happy set. Everybody had a really good time which was a testament to the people at the top of the tree.”  Along those lines, she continued, “We feel safe COVID-wise going back for season 2. I thank Warner Brothers and Apple for that.”

At press time, Delaney was preparing to embark on season 2. Testament to the success of the series is that Apple TV+ has already renewed it for a third season.

Delaney is represented by Moxie Pictures for commercials and branded content in the U.S. The alluded to Merman handles her for ad assignments in the U.K. Delaney credits her experience in the short-form arena with positively informing her longer form endeavors.

“I’m grateful for the experience of doing commercials work--being able at times to play with expensive toys. My trajectory is starting on micro-budget movies, then low budget television and short films. Because I had done commercials, you understand a Technocrane or CGI when you get on a bigger budget show. It would take a much longer time to get there just in long form. But you get a grounding, an invaluable experience in more sophisticated tools and resources, from commercials.

Delaney’s commercial exploits spans such brands as Dove and Nivea, as well as public service fare for United Nations Global Goals, UNICEF  and the Obama Foundation. She’s found the public service work as particularly gratifying in that the direct-to-client relationships include her having the opportunity to help conceputalize the creative.

Christopher Werner
Werner considers himself fortunate. While the pandemic put many careers on hold--and had numerous others scrambling for another way to make a living--he was able to continue working as supervising producer and director on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO). 

On one hand, he was slated to fully “graduate” from directing segments to full episodes of the widely acclaimied series. On the flip side, just when that new career chapter was about to begin in March of 2020, the COVID-19 lockdown took hold. So when the chance finally kicked in for him to take on full-fledged episodic direction, Werner would have to do so mindful first and foremost of the health and safety considerations for all involved. It would no longer be production as usual as Oliver had to move to a makeshift home studio while creative and production colleagues had to collaborate for the most part virtually.

Within those constraints for much of 2020, though, Werner came out the other side with a coveted DGA Award nomination for the second consecutive year. The latest Guild recognition came last month for the “Trump & Election Results” season finale. Werner had earned his first nod in 2020 for the “SLAAP Suits” episode--this came because he helmed a significant portion of that installment as in-house segment director. That Guild nomination was shared with director Paul Pennolino; that episode also garnered an Emmy nod for Outstanding Directing for a Variety Series. 

Reflecting on this past year of COVID, Werner shared that the cirumstance made him even more grateful for “working on a show that has something to say.” Furthemore as the pandemic stretched into last summer, “I had something to keep me going. Too many people in my industry and others were feeling detrimental effects financially and from a mental health perspective. I was thankful to be able to continue to do what I love and to do it in a way that hopefully gave people an escape, a distraction from what was going on.” 

Werner also fully values the distraction he was given. “I had something to do the majority of the day. On days and weeks I had off, I missed that distraction. It was a weird time to take over episodic directing. yet it was great to have so much to think about and make sure we got it right. I had to say focused.”

This mix of being focused and happily distracted amounted to “a real gift” for Werner who helmed a DGA-nominated finale which was perhaps the most ambitous and challenging logistically from a production standpoint, the challenges including his being tasked with providing cartharsis via pyrotechnics.

During the episode, Oliver reflected on 2020, relating, “This year ruined lives, jobs, concerts, and sanity. It also brought a new wave of wrenching videos of police brutality that brought on a national reckoning with race and a ferocious and depressing backlash. And sure the presidential election ended well, but it was grim to live through—and Trump won’t actually leave office until next January.”

Oliver noted that “what happens next is up to all of us. It’s going to depend on how willing we are to fight, how well we learn from what’s happened, and how much we are able to care about each other. So I don’t know what happens next, but I do know what happens now.”

Safely distanced from a giant 2020 sign, Oliver affirmed, “Let tomorrow be about solutions. Today is about vengeance. Fuck you, 2020. Get fucked.” With that, he activated a detonator and the sign exploded in a blaze of strangely inspiring glory.

While it helped land him a pair of DGA Award nominations, Werner’s sense of timing, comedic and otherwise, is not infallible. Shortly before the pandemic lockdown materialized, he took on not only episodic direction but also signed with Moxie Pictures to break into commercials and branded content.

Needless to say, there haven’t been many opportunties in the ad arena as of yet for Werner. He’s hopeful, though, that whenever the industry returns to some semblance of normality, he can again pursue short-form filmmaking opportunities. “How Moxie has handled this situation and their communication with me have strengthened my desire to get involved in commercials,” said Werner who noted that Moxie partners Robert Fernandez and Dan Levinson have checked in with him regularly and been very supportive in terms of laying the groundwork for projects in the U.S. and U.K. “My excitement over working with them has not waned one iota. Still having their support takes me back to why I decided to work with them in the first place.”

Werner is no stranger to short form, having directed a fair amount of commercial parodies for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Werner’s work on the show has also afforded him the opportunity to collaborate with both unknown comedic talent, as well as high-profile performers such as Bryan Cranston, Michael Keaton and Tom Hanks. In his producer capacity, Werner was part of the ensemble on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver which won last year’s Emmy for Outstanding Variety Talk Series.

But on the awards show circuit, perhaps the DGA nominations loom largest for Werner who reacted with what he acknowledged as being “cliche lines--but they’re cliche because they’re true.” Werner shared, “Getting to be a director professionally is not easy. Once you do, you try to get better. To get recognition from other directors, your peers, is as meaningful as it can get. Another cliche line--the nomination itself means so much. Other people in this industry watched the work and thought it was worthy. It’s hard to feel anything but immense joy and appreciation for that. Getting a DGA nomination was on my bucket list. For it to happen twice feels unreal.”

If the Freeform series Motherland: Fort Salem and the Netflix show Lucifer were under the awards season radar, they aren’t any longer. Both earned ASC Award nominations last month, respectively, for cinematographers Joffin and Glassing.

This marks the fourth career ASC Award nod for Joffin, the latest coming for the “Up Is Down” episode of Motherland: Fort Salem in the One-Hour Television Series--Commercial category. He’s now in the running for his second ASC win, having taken the honor in 2019 for an episode of Beyond, another Freeform Network series.

Meanwhile Glassing’s recent ASC nomination is in the One Hour TV Series--Non-Commercial category for the “It Never Ends Well for the Chicken” episode of Lucifer. This is the second career ASC nom for Glassing, the first coming in 2013 for the “Guitar Face” episode of the half-hour series Ben and Kate.

The ASC nods could be precursors to Emmy contention though there are some higher profile shows in the mix. For example when it comes to the ASC Award, Glassing’s work on Lucifer is up against David Franco for “Chapter 2” of Perry Mason, Adriano Goldman, ASC, ABC, BSC for the “Fairytale” episode of The Crown, David Greene, ASC, CSC for “The Moroi” episode of Impulse, M. David Mullen for the “It’s Comedy or Cabbage” episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Fabian Wagner, ASC, BSC for the “Imbroglio” episode of The Crown.

Joffin’s work on Motherland: Fort Salem is vying for the ASC Award against Marshall Adams, ASC for the “Bagman” episode of Better Call Saul, Carlos Catalan for the “Meetings Have Biscuits” episode of Killing Eve, Francois Dagenais, CSC for the “Area 51” episode of Project Blue Book, and C. Kim Miles, ASC, CAS, MySC for the “Operation Mainbrace” episode of Project Blue Book.

SHOOT connected with Joffin and Glassing to discuss their ASC-nominated episodes, backstories on how they became involved in those shows, and insights into their approaches and collaborative relationshps.

Joffin said his latest ASC Award nod was “completely unexpected” and he feels most fortunate for the recognition. Similarly he feels fortunate just to be an ASC member, noting that he has so many good friends in the organization. “It’s easy for me to talk to big feature DPs and ask questions. The members are all open and warm. It’s like a big family. I get emotional about it.”

Joffin credited Steven A. Adelson with bringing him into the Motherland: Fort Salem fold. Adelson--who’s directed several episodes of the series, including the pilot--served as an executive producer and director on Beyond for which he collaborated with Joffin. In fact, Adelson directed the Beyond episode (“Two Zero One”) that won Joffin the ASC Award a couple of years ago. 

“Steven comes from features,” related Joffin. “He was, for example, a Steadicam operator on Batman Begins and found his way into directing. We have a really good connection on using the camera to tell a story. It’s also nice to work with someone like that. He wants to bring a feature mentality to the TV screen. He approached me to do the pilot (for Motherland: Fort Salem) and I jumped at the chance.”

Joffin added that he was drawn to the series premise, recalling that the script eloquently conveyed “an epic and big idea” that unfolds in the future. We’re taken to an alternate universe in which witches made a deal years back to defent the U.S. with their magic--in exchange for no longer being persecuted. 

Joffin said of the storyline, “It’s about women running America. I like the idea. There’s no hocus pocus. It’s all very organic. Steve had big plans for it. He wanted the show to feel very cinematic.” 

That goal called for Joffin to maintain a delicate balance so that the story would at the same time feel both “natural and elevated” visually.

The cinematic “Up Is Down” episode, though, wasn’t directed by Adelson.  Rather it was helmed by Rebecca Johnson. As the sixth episode of season one, “Up Is Down,” hit what Joffin called “the sweet spot” of the show’s visual progression. He observed that it was a pivotal episode in the first year process of a series finding itself.

For Motherland: Fort Salem, Joffin continued deploying the Sony VENICE digital camera, making it a model he’s been lensing with professionally nonstop for the past two-and-a-half years. He used what he described as “very wide” Zeiss lenses in tandem with the lightweight VENICE to do full justice to the series.

Joffin said his overall experience on multiple episodes of Motherland: Fort Salem has been gratifying and mind opening. “My biggest lesson learned from Motherland is that it’s important to make every shot tell the story and maintain the tone of the script. It’s obviously tricky on a tight TV schedule, but if you include and inspire your the end of the day you will have a show that everyone is extremely proud of.”

Joffin’s most recent ASC nomination has again placed him in the Emmy Awards season conversation. He already has one Emmy nomination to his credit back in 2008--for Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries or Movie on the strength of the part 1 installment of The Andromeda Strain

That very same episode gave Joffin his first career ASC Award nomination in 2009. His second ASC nod came two years later for an episode of Alice.

Ken Glassing
From the outset, Glassing felt deep down that the “It Never Ends Well for the Chicken” episode of Lucifer could end well for all involved.

“As soon as I read the script, I knew it had the potential of being a unique looking episode. It takes place in film noir flashback mode within our Lucifer world.”

Glassing’s approach to this black-and-white episode was to pretend as if he were on a 1940s’ film crew making a film noir movie. “We did very little coverage. We had extended long takes. We did a good job of hitting those film noir notes like silhoutte shadows cast against buildings. We didn’t use modern lighting or modern movie-making techniques. There was no Steadicam. There was very little camera movement.”

While they didn’t have the luxury of swapping our cameras, Glassing assessed that the Sony VENICE digital model he had been deploying on the series would be up to the task to tackle black and white with some fine tuning like upping to 2500 ASA which, he explained, “introduces a little bit of grain” quality. He also dumbed down the Summulux C lenses he usually uses, opting for filters and netting to lend an older antique look.

“It’s not everyday that an episode like this falls into a cinemtographer’s lap,” said Glassing. “We got lucky in that regard. It was an episode you can read on paper that you ralize might be a onc3e in a lifetime cinematic opportunity for me. I may never do anyting like this for the rest of my career. I remember posting on Facebook that if I never shoot another episode of television for the rest of my life, I’m satisfied that I was able to do this particular episode of Lucifer.”

Lucifer first played for three seasons on Fox. After Fox canceled the urban fantasy show, it found new life as Netflix picked it up for seasons 4, 5 and an upcoming 6. Based on the DC Comics character, Lucifer centers on Lucifer Morningstar (portrayed by Tom Ellis), the Devil, who leaves hell for Los Angeles where he runs hiw own nightclub and becomes a consultant to the L.A. Police Department. “It Never Ends Well for the Chicken” episode is part of season 5.

Glassing began working on season 4 when the show jumped to Netflix at the 11th hour. At that point series DP Christian Sebaldt had moved on to another gig. Seybaldt put Glassing’s name in the hat to succeed him. “Christian opened the door for me,” recalled Glassing who was drawn to the show, having worked on other Jerry Bruckheimer series like CSI: Miami and CSI: Las Vegas

“It was up my alley with a eye-popping comic book style, a gorgeous looking show,” said Glassing who also found appealing a narrative revolving around a sarcastic devil and all that such a character entails. 

“We have a little liberty to be over the top with the looks we go for on Lucifer,” explained Glassing. “It’s a visually exciting show and we get to match the cinematography to a larger than life personality, Tom Ellis’ Devil.”

This in turn made “It Never Ends Well for the Chicken” all the more challenging and attractive, as Glassing got the chance to bring noir sensiblities to a pop-looking comic book series.

Glassing said that the crew was “giddy” to see the episode come together with hair, makeup, actors decked out in 1940s’ garb all appearing on a black-and-white monitor. “Everybody brought their A game. It was one of those times when all the planets aligned up perfectly for what we did.”

Lucifer adds to a body of work for Glassing which includes the features Rehab, Sharon 1.2.3 and States of Grace, and such TV series as Scorpion, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Back in the Game.

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