The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents November 2016 Return to Table of Contents
President’sDesk
Mr. Robot
The Walking Dead
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Walking Dead and Loving It

Cinematographer Stephen Campbell details his visual approach to the apocalyptic horror drama The Walking Dead.  (Part I of II.)




Director of photography Stephen Campbell — alternating episodes with Michael E. Satrazemis — is currently helping to shape the nightmare world of The Walking Dead, one of the most-watched scripted TV series on television, which boasts legions of fans worldwide.

After graduating from Rollins College, Campbell began his career in Orlando, Florida, working at a camera rental house before gaining experience as a documentary cameraman. He then worked his way up as a camera assistant and operator on such films and TV series as Superboy, Passenger 57, Vanishing Son, SeaQuest 2032, The Cape, Rosewood, From the Earth to the Moon, The Waterboy, Mortal Combat: Conquest, Monster, The Punisher, The Sopranos, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Zombieland, Last Man Standing and Endless Love. More recently, he’s been splitting time between shooting The Walking Dead and another AMC series, Halt and Catch Fire.

In 2015, Campbell earned an Operator of the Year Award nomination from the Society of Operating Cameraman for his work on The Walking Dead. 

For the current seventh season of the show, Campbell has photographed episodes 7:12, 7:13, 7:14 and 7:15, which will air in early 2018.

The following discussion with the cinematographer took place during the 8th annual Downtown Film Festival in Los Angeles before a live audience.

American Cinematographer: We have the great honor today — for cinematography fans and Walking Dead fans — of talking with Stephen Campbell, who literally flew in today from the set in Atlanta where he’s shooting a new episode for the seventh season.

Stephen Campbell: It’s gonna be a good one.

This will be a spoiler-free discussion today, but tell us a little bit about what you have been doing for the last 24 hours on set. You’re working with director… ?

[Executive producer] Greg Nicotero, who has now directed more episodes of the show than anyone else. He’s also responsible for all the special makeup effects. Greg comes from the George Romero camp way back and worked on Day of the Dead [1985]. His career has been very lengthy and very involved. He’s collaborated with all the directors on our show and got his touches all over, in part because all the zombies and prosthetics are supplied by KNB Effects, his company here in Los Angeles. Greg’s a genius. Every episode, he brings new zombie designs to the set and we’re just amazed. I’ve been on the show for four years now, and, when I first got there, I couldn’t believe we were actually shooting this stuff, in part because they just keep topping themselves. They keep coming up with new concepts for either a kill or a zombie who’s been torn up or caught or trapped or underwater or stuck in sand or mud. It’s never-ending, so there’s been a lot of creativity there that’s just amazing to watch.

Before we get into specific questions about The Walking Dead, I’d like to discuss your career and the steps you took to become a director of photography. This is a job where preparation meets opportunity. And, for you, it was almost 20 years of preparation before you met this kind of opportunity.

Yeah, it has been a while. I started working right out of college. I went to school in Florida at Rollins College. After I got graduated, I worked at a rental house for six months. There, I got experience with all the equipment — 35mm, 16mm and grip stuff. I also kept meeting this local producer and shooter who came in all the time to rent equipment. And he asked me if I wanted to come out with him on the road as a PA/assistant to help shoot Michael Jackson’s last tour with his brothers [in 1984]. On that six-month tour, I got a crash course in every film camera that was working, from Panavision to Arriflex to NPRs to Aatons. We put our hands on very camera that was available. Then I came back to Florida, where I freelanced for a few years. We then went back on the road again with Michael in 1987 and ’88 and worked with him for 15 months. We were his documentary crew and traveled all over the world shooting on 35mm. Before the tour, I had the great experience of coming out to L.A. and prepping all our gear. We went to Arriflex and bought a brand-new Arri BL and a complete lens package and magazines and told them, “Just send the bill to Michael.” I used that camera for 15 months on the road and it sort of became my personal BL. 

I then went back to Florida and the industry [in Orlando] was taking off because the Hollywood studios had just opened production facilities there. This is back in 1988, and Universal and Disney both had studios that were working. They were calling it “Hollywood South.” We had a very formal, great industry for probably 10 years. We worked all the time. It was like working in a mini L.A. in the sense that you had choices. Nothing to the extent of the volume of work being done here, but for a small market that had only seven or eight people doing each job, everybody was able to work all the time on different things, including features and episodic TV. We were always working on something.

Over time, I transitioned from assisting to operating to shooting. Each show you’d work on, you’d gain more experience: “Hey, go shoot that.” “Okay, good. I’ll shoot that.” And then, eventually, you got to the point of, “We’ll let him shoot all the second unit stuff,” or, “We’ll let him shoot.” Then I got my card in the union as a cinematographer. Since then, I’ve been working in that realm and also operating when I can, because I still enjoy that craft. To me, operating is the best job on the set. Roger Deakins [ASC, BSC] still operates all of his shows with everybody that he works with. He’s the operator and he makes all the choices. 

But, for me, when you’re doing multi-camera coverage like we do on The Walking Dead, it’s much more difficult to operate and shoot because you’ve got to oversee all those cameras. Just yesterday we had four cameras working at once.

So my career has been a series of working at home and then having to work out of town because that’s where the work is. And production incentives drive this industry now, whereas it used to be that L.A. was where you shoot unless you had to go a particular place because of your location needs. But now, producers require incentives attached to most every project they shoot.

It was just a coincidence that the original Walking Dead comic was set around the Atlanta, Georgia, area and it ended up shooting there as well, right?

Yeah. The timing was great because when the show started — this is the seventh season —the incentives in Georgia were just being established. So [the Walking Dead producers] came in early on on the program and took full advantage of it. And that has created a lot of work for crews there.

Let’s go back a bit and talk a little bit more about your documentary background. I think some people would be surprised by the number of top cinematographers who started in documentaries. Roger Deakins, who you mentioned before, did. Dean Semler [ASC, ACS], who shot The Road Warrior and Maleficent, as well. Can you tell us a little bit about how that background informs how you still work today?

 

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