The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents November 2016 Return to Table of Contents
Mr. Robot
The Walking Dead
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In our industry and the position I’m in as a cinematographer — or even operators, or most of the other people on the set — you’re constantly running into situations where you have to be able to react quickly to the unexpected. Shooting documentaries, you don’t really know what you’re getting into. You can’t block it out and say to the subjects, “You stand there, you stand there.” It just happens. And before it does, you have to decide: Where am I going to put the camera? What would be the best angle to tell the story? So you’re making those constant decisions and anticipating where the action might go — and where your cuts will be — as you’re shooting.

Documentary work forces you to pre-think what you’re shooting so you can almost edit it while you’re going along, in the sense that you need certain pieces to tell the story. Even on the set [of a scripted project], you’re constantly having to change and shift and problem-solve. We come into the day with a shot list, and we know where the sun is going be, and we think we’re in complete control, but we’re really never in control. Maybe because sometimes it rains, or the location didn’t work out for one reason or another. On this show, we’ve had situations where they’ve flooded. But that documentary background makes you able to react to a situation and say, “That’s not working; let’s do this instead.”

Shooting features and television is all about time management. It’s an art, but it’s still a business that’s all about time and money. And they only give you a certain amount of time to do the work you’re given in a day. When I get to set in the morning, they’ll hand me sides — a condensed version of the script pages we’re shooting for that day — that include a production timeline. And they say, “You have two hours to do this scene and get all this coverage.” And then the next scene is a certain amount of time, and so on. And once you start to shoot those scenes, they’re very conscious of the time. 

Film work is really not very glamorous. It’s actually kinda brutal. And this has been a brutal season so far. We’re working 14- and 15-hour days most every day. So it’s fun and it’s exciting, but it’s also tiring. Fortunately, I still enjoy it. I enjoy the moments.

For instance, this week we were able to shoot most of the big scenes backlit. We were able to actually choreograph the day that we could shoot with the sun. For me, that’s the best way to do it. Most of the ADs — the assistant directors — don’t care about the sun. They just care about making their schedule. But they don’t realize that if you can keep your subjects backlit, everything is so much easier to shoot because you don’t have to bring all this equipment in to control the light. You’ll always have great light whenever you do it. And this week it just happened to fall that we started the day backlit and ended the day backlit. And these are some pretty big scenes with lots of bodies and lots of zombies. And, to me, it just makes it look so much better.

Tell us a little bit about the photographic approach to The Walking Dead. Even now in the seventh season, photographically, the show has maintained a fairly consistent look. In some ways, it’s a visually conservative show and doesn’t get into a lot of razzle-dazzle. Instead, it’s quite grounded.

Yes. One of the things that drives the show is the fact that we shoot on 16mm film. And my relationship with the show actually goes back to before I actually worked on it, because I saw the pilot [“Days Gone Bye,” in 2010], which Frank Darabont directed [and was photographed by David Tattersall, BSC]. To me, that’s still the best episode that’s been done on the series. I mean, he had the best combination of psychological terror without showing too many zombies, in just the way that he shot it.

But they started the show shooting film, and although they did test digital formats during the second season, they decided, “That’s not the show.” Because the show, being on 16mm, has additional grain in it. It has motion blur, if only because it’s still going through a gate. That adds a bit of a classic horror vibe to the show. And I think they’ll maintain shooting with film as we go on with the show.

Interestingly, this past week, for the episode I’m shooting with Greg Nicotero, we did a greenscreen driving sequence that we ended up shooting digitally. Now, producers are always rejecting the idea of using process trailers — which are these trailers that you can put the car on and you can move through the environment down the road. But you can also mount dollies or jibs on it so you can move the camera and the coverage isn’t so rigid. ’Cause, a lotta times you’ll see traveling footage where the cameras are locked off and nothing’s moving; everything’s happening in a locked frame because the cameras are locked on the vehicle.

Because that’s the least expensive way to do it.

Exactly. So, for this one, Greg wanted to be able to pan and tilt to follow the action. He wanted to tilt down and see what the characters are doing, connect them and then move the camera. So we mentioned that we’d need a process trailer and the producers said, “No, way too expensive.” So the visual effects supervisor, Victor Scalise, said, “Well, maybe we could do it on greenscreen but shoot outside.” Okay, that’s great. We’ve done it before. We just make the light move to make it feel like the car’s moving. We also took all the windows out of the car to make things easier and Victor will later add the windows back and put reflection effects on ’em. It all works pretty well and looks good. Well then they realized that they have to rent the digital cameras to do this. So it actually cost more money to shoot digital than it would’ve cost to just get the process trailer.

So the show is still film-driven. We shoot at least three cameras every day, but for the last three days, we’ve had four cameras because we have a lot of zombies and effects going on. And I think it’ll continue in that way. We also shoot with prime lenses instead of zooms because of the glass. We’ve always felt that primes have a better, more solid feel to them. It’s much cleaner. You can also shoot into the sun easier without the light spraying all over the place. Since season four, which is the season I joined the show [as an operator, in 2013], we’ve been shooting all primes. And it just continues to add a cinematic quality to the show.

We shoot in 1.78:1, which most HD shows are shot on. But we then squeeze to 1.85:1, which is what a lot of the stuff that airs that you’ll see on the big screen is — they add an extra squeeze to it so it crops a little bit. Those are some of the ways in which the show tries to continue in that genre of making it feel like the old zombie horror movies. And the film grain also really does a lot. When I go to telecine, the grain is flying all over the place.

Not only are you using a medium — film — that’s more than 100 years old, but a camera format, Super 16, that was invented in the 1960s and video assist that’s at least 20, 25 years old.


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