When I get on the phone with veteran cinematographer Robert McLachlan, he’s standing on Stage 15 at Sony, taking a break from shooting the fifth season of Showtime’s Ray Donovan, set to premiere in August.
An amateur photographer and home movie-maker, as well as a commercial artist and painter—McLachlan’s father encouraged him to do what he loved. And so, he got into filmmaking.
The Emmy-nominated McLachlan has worked in both movies and television, making a name for himself on shows such as MacGyver, The Commish, Millennium and movies such as The Golden Compass, Willard and Final Destination 3. But he’s best known for his work on HBO’s Game of Thrones and Westworld.
Paste : What exactly does a cinematographer do?
Robert McLachlan: The title that has been negotiated with the producers is director of photography. A lot of Europeans prefer cinematographer, which loosely translated means “writer of light.” But the thing is, it’s about a lot more than lighting the image and finding the right mood and tone in the lighting. Obviously, you need to be an expert photographer and moving picture photographer, cinematographer, so the photographic part is sort of the first thing that everybody learns, and it’s absolutely essential to be a master of that craft. But I think where the art comes in is how you apply it given a particular situation, or the subject matter, [or] the location that you’re filming in.
But your job also requires marshaling and running what is sometimes a very large technical crew. Probably the biggest one I’ve had was on Game of Thrones. At one point last fall, we were filming a big sequence in Spain. I think there were about 25 people in the camera department alone, probably another dozen lightning technicians, another dozen grips, who are all directly involved in putting an image on the screen and controlling the light and sculpting it and getting the cameras where they need to go.
The biggest part of my job is working hand in glove with the director to get their vision. And in television, of course, the producers are more in control than [in film]. For instance, on a feature film, you’re really working for them, together with the director, to realize their vision that they’ve written and to tell the story as best as it can possibly be told. That can include choosing the right lens to shoot a particular close-up with, how you move the camera on an actor to heighten the mood of the drama of the scene. It’s really very multifaceted. And obviously, it helps to be a people person and have good management skills. On the bigger productions, the art almost becomes secondary to the marshaling and logistics of getting the image on the screen.
Paste: Can you talk about some of the differences in shooting action sequences in a show like Ray Donovan versus Game of Thrones?
McLachlan: Well, one thing about Ray Donovan is, it’s not really about the action. We kind of make the action a little more secondary. We don’t make a meal out of, for instance, a car crash, or something like that, like you do with a lot of other network television shows, because it’s more character rather than plot driven. The action sequences for Game of Thrones are a whole other ballgame, because the visual effects and computer graphics element play such a big role. All that stuff has to be planned out in advance, because they have to know what each one of those shots is going to cost, how much they’re enhancing each of the shots, how much they’re adding to it. A good example would be the “Battle of the Bastards” episode from [last season], which I didn’t actually photograph.
But I did a major action sequence in this upcoming season, and the hard part was that all the creative work was actually done months before we got on the location to start shooting the sequence. And it had to be really nailed down with storyboards and pre-visualization. Sometimes they even animate it ahead of time so they can figure out what the budget’s going to be, and how much each of these shots is going to cost and whether they can afford them and how many they have to cut, and so forth. So by the time you actually get on the set—and the sequence I did we were working on for quite some time—[it’s] very, very prescribed and locked down.
Paste: The Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones is a fan favorite. What was it like shooting that episode? Was it, for you as a cinematographer, emotional shooting those sequences since you’ve gotten to know those characters?
McLachlan: Yeah, shooting that sequence wasn’t like anything I’ve ever done before. I think it’s a testament to how good the show is, that you had a very seasoned British crew who worked on everything. And the thing is, the show’s so good that everybody’s so engaged with the story and with the characters. And we obviously really like the actors as well. It was very emotional. And we shot it more or less exactly in the order that it took place. So the very last shot we did was the slitting of Catelyn Stark’s throat, and after, there wasn’t a dry eye on the stage. It was amazing.
Paste: Another really popular episode was “The Dance of Dragons.” Logistically, what was it like to shoot that episode? How did you guys pull that off? It’s beautifully shot.
McLachlan: Thank you. The great thing about Game of Thrones is that you do get quite a bit of lead time and prep time. So we scouted that bullring that we turned into the arena in June. I think we didn’t shoot that sequence until the end of October. But I use an app on my iPhone that tells me exactly where the sun’s going to be at any day of the year, so I could go in there and say, “Okay, make a schedule…” We only had 10 days to do that sequence, which might sound like a lot, but when you consider it’s a big chunk of the episode, and the logistics involved, it’s actually an incredibly short amount of time.
Every day was an absolute sprint to get all the bits that were needed each day. And I knew the only way we were going to do that and have it look really good was if we just let the sun determine where we were shooting. So I had the production designer design the entrances to the ring to all look exactly the same, and in the morning we’d just start shooting as the sun came over the lip, with backlight, and then we’d literally follow the sun all day long. So it was all this beautifully backlit and very consistent, and it required a minimal amount of technical help, like we would usually use, if you have to use big silks and stuff so that you don’t have your leading lady in harsh sunlight and so forth. But that worked really well. That, and it was about absolutely meticulous preparation, mainly on the part of the director, David Nutter, who’s amazing.
Paste: Let’s switch over to Westworld. You were a fan of the original 1973 version, weren’t you? As a kid?
McLachlan: Yeah, as a kid I saw it on TV. I didn’t see in the theater. But it’s a pretty fascinating concept, and Michael Crichton, who was a genius, it was his first and far from his best film. But that concept was so intriguing. When I heard that HBO was doing it and [Jonathan] Nolan was doing it, I thought, “Wow, this is going to be really something.” And then when they called me and asked me to come in and meet about shooting it, I was all over it. Nothing really prepared me for how clever the scripts were, which we almost didn’t know, because the producers kept it secret from that crew, and most of the crew didn’t even know what we were shooting. We were telling a story that took place on two very vastly different timelines, which made for a fair bit of confusion. But that’s how carefully they wanted to keep that secret.
Paste: Did you shoot Westworld on actual film rather than digital?
Westworld was shot on actual film, which was a real challenge. Jonah Nolan and his wife Lisa Joy, who created the show, (Jonah is the brother of Chris Nolan, who has made all those amazing movies, mostly recently Dunkirk, which he shoots on at least 35mm film and often on 65mm film). And both of them hate green screen; they hate visual effects. They want to do everything, as much as they possibly can, in camera traditionally, because I think they quite rightly believe that the audience can, at least subconsciously, tell the difference, and it feels more real. It feels like it’s been photographed for real, and it hasn’t just been created in an artificial environment. The downside of that is I hadn’t shot film for about five years, and it’s surprising actually how many people now who call themselves cinematographers probably don’t know how to anymore. It seems to be a dying art.
But it came as a little bit of a shock to me. The learning curve was pretty steep getting back into it. Because, of course, with digital you have a monitor on set, and everybody can see precisely what you’re recording, if it’s really moody or if it’s bright, dark, whatever. But film, like with photography, only the cinematographer knows exactly what it’s going to look like tomorrow when the film’s been processed, which puts a lot more responsibility and a lot more pressure on me, and ultimately makes the job a lot more rewarding too.
I’ll tell you a good example. You know, in the control room, with the huge rotating map of Westworld that went around and around? Any other production today, that would have been just a big green disc that would go around, and they would have composited Westworld on top of it. Whereas what we had was a giant thing on a turntable on a huge hydraulic lift that raised it out of the floor. It was a real contoured topographical map, and then the map itself was painted white, and the map and the images were project onto it by a huge projector in the ceiling that was in sync with the rotation of the map. Which was a massive amount of work, compared to just doing it green screen. But you were actually looking at and photographing something that was real. And Jonah’s contention is that that just hooks the audience more. The more real and the less artificial you feel like the subject is, the more it’s going to draw you in.
Season Seven of Game of Thrones premieres Sunday, July 16 at 9 p.m. on HBO.
Charlie Moss is a freelance writer based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He has written for The Atlantic, Washington Post, Slate, Vice, and other publications. You can read more of his writing and can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.