Exclusive Interview with Robert McLachlan ASC / CSC – Part 2

Robert McLachlan ASC,CSC is a leading director of photography, whom’s work includes The Golden Compass, the Final Destination franchise and network TV show Human Target – www.fox.com/humantarget – on which he used the Panasonic GH1 HDSLR.

I’m really pleased to bring you part 2 of my interview with Rob where we talk Human Target, Hollywood, HDSLR cameras and cinema.

EOSHD: Do you share Rick McCallum’s opinion that HDSLRs are democratising filmmaking and knocking down walls? Traditionally a filmmaker and a crew needed an expensive camera, factor in film processing costs, a distributor and the support of a studio to green-light a production. Now the HDSLR is the camera, the internet is the distributor and maybe there won’t be a role for a studio in the future. Do you see this being a boon to creativity, with many new DPs and directors getting themselves established, or is it business as usual in Hollywood? Do you see your craft as a cinematographer right now as about to under go a revolution or remain fundamentally the same and just evolve?

RM: I know Rick. He had me up to the Skywalker Ranch when they were posting the second last Star Wars instalment – he spent most of the time touting shooting on F900’s with a minimal crew. He and Lucas have a great deal of antipathy towards established Hollywood – you’ll notice they haven’t hired an American DP in years. They have been trying to dismantle that system for years. And …so yes I think he’s quite right. Hollywood really does have a lot of the best film technicians in the world – as does London, but like London they have only one way of doing things – the way they have “always” been done – what they say is “the right way”. Problem is now producers have worked with less hidebound crews in Vancouver and Texas and Budapest , New Zealand etc. etc. they know there are other ways to get the job done and that in fact crew can have more than one speed.

As for the changing tools. Smaller more mobile cameras will always open up new creative doors but as far as effecting the job of the DP? No I don’t think it will change. Whether you are shooting with a 150lb. Mitchell, an Arri 16SR, Panaflex, Betacam, HDSLR or what have you, in the end they are just picture making boxes. Tools to let you do your job which includes, choosing locations, hiring crew, designing shots, running the crew, making the actors feel safe and looked after, running quality control, supervising timing, liaising with the VFX supervisor and helping the director tell his story and plus making the thousands of tiny decisions all day that determine not just how the finished product looks and how the finished product works cinematically etc. but also just whether or not you make your day – which as much as anything will determine if you work tomorrow or ever again.

EOSHD: I am a huge fan of anamorphic lenses on the GH1, the lens flare, etc. They’re really immersive, cinematic. Reminds me of Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stanley Kubrick’s work. But there aren’t many lenses available to choose from – they’re very rare. Are you a fan of the anamorphic feel these lenses give footage, and why do so few productions seem to use them – costs?

RM: I love anamorphic – especially the Hawk lenses which aren’t too huge but I haven’t used it on a Lumix. Love to try though. A famous director once told me his feeling*- and I agree – is that the inherent flaws and flares etc in anamorphic + the better resolution from the bigger neg, make people subconsciously feel like they are watching a “BIG” movie. On Human Target I used a version of those wildly expensive “blue streak filters” those guys in Germany make. I had the first set of the “Parashoot Blue Streak’s made by Stan Wallace at the filter gallery in New York ([url]www.thefiltergallery.com). He now makes all colors at an affordable price – the German ones (Vantage – Blue Vision Streak) were like $3500 – I used it a lot on both the Lumix and the D21’s to mess up the look a bit. HD is just too damn clean anyway and I used a lot of Classic Soft’s and the Blue streaks – LOVED the blue streaks. I mostly wanted Human target to feel very old school slick action “Bond” movie with a dash of Tony Scott whenever possible.

You know – Producer’s always want “Tony Scott” for their series but it’s pretty hard to do on an episodic schedule – in fact on Numbers – they even hired Tony to shoot an episode. $7 million a bunch of extra shooting days later they had a “Tony Scott-esque ” episode – which when aired got the exact same ratings numbers as the ones directed by the schlub episodic directors.

By the way. Change will be slow in Hollywood. This is a place where, for instance, when I was hired to shoot THE ONE – with Jet Li in Hollywood, the producer Lata Ryan didn’t want to let me use Arri because “This is a big Hollywood movie and you can’t use Arri for That”. She had to have it pointed out to her how many Oscar winners were done on Arri. Another time they didn’t want me using Fuji because…they hadn’t before. When so many (seasoned post producer and TV network producers that is) got stung in post 2 years back during a pilot season that went RED big time – none will ever go back. Period. RED blew it.

EOSHD: It’s interesting that you mention the concern of people at the network over the situations when the footage didn’t quite hold up. How much input did the network or producer McG have on the decision to allow use of a HDSLR on a set of a major production like Human Target – was it a case of hands off, let’s trust these guys to do what they do?

RM: They let us use it as described but when a couple of directors saw it and wanted to shoot whole scenes with it they put the kin=bosh on it. McG and the rest were pretty hands off the technical end generally.

EOSHD: You say these Human Target frames (pictured) come off the live rolling Arri cam, right? (The GH1 crash-cam / B-camera stuff was intercut)

RM: Yes they are frame grabs off an Arri D21 with a Schneider 1/2 classic soft and an Optimo 24-290 at T4. The diffusion was which was standard on the cameras almost all the time. Occasionally I use glimmer glass. While I never bake a look in on set, instead using the LUTs I pre-install in the Cinetel for on set look and then sending a note to the lab for them to apply to dailies.

I do like adding diffusion on set because these days with so many cooks in the post kitchen, especially on the bigger shows, and in this case it’s posted 1500 miles away, it’s the only way I know I’ll get what I want + post schedules in episodic are so intense they most likely would have no time to be selectively be adding diffusion. I have tried. Doesn’t work.

On big features I’ve been using Tiffen DFX myself for a while to effect still frames that had to be shot clean in camera for VFX / green screen reasons so the VFX supervisor would know where we wanted to end up or if he had to add diffusion / fog etc later to match the non-composited shots.

EOSHD: You know, it never occurred to me before about the optical filters being out of bounds for green-screen work but seems obvious now. So I guess you are forced into yet more digital post work with green-screen afterwards.

RM: Yes. Any green screen screen work is hampered by anything but the sharpest images – no smoke – no diffusion etc. If the VFX house has it’s act together they can match it. When it’s a new filter I’ll always give them reference by shooting a pin point source – like a bare small maglight bulb against black at various exposures for each density of filter. From this they can create new look up tables to match the effects elsewhere.

EOSHD: I wonder, will standard HDTV widescreen (16:9) begin to change? And who determines this… TV manufacturers? I guess a critical mass of material shot in super-wide 2.35:1 anamorphic would be necessary for 16:9 format to become the new 4:3.

RM: You know the ASC and other artistic bodies really fought that 16X9 decision way back when – they wanted closer to 1:85 or narrower but lost to the manufactures and engineers – SMPTE was the enemy on that one too. That was a fight fought ages ago – you can probably read about it in the ASC mag archives. We’re stuck with 16.9 now – I don’t see it changing – costs too much and took way to long to settle on the last time round.

EOSHD: Cooke cine lenses with Hot Rod PL mount adapter on the GH1 or Zeiss Compact Primes? Which do you recommend?

RM: I can’t make a recommendation between Cookes and Zeiss vis a vis use on the GH1 – they have different looks.

I love Cooke. Always have!

EOSHD: Right now, my favourite lens is an old Zeiss 85MM F1.4 AE designed for 1970’s Contax SLRs. The GH1 has so many adaption possibilities due to the lack of mirror. Some of the vintage Cooke 16mm c-mount cine lenses on eBay have an amazing look on the GH1 – radial bokeh and as fast as F0.95 in stills camera terms. Hunting for these between $100 and $1000 is like a treasure hunt. Some of the vintage lenses really do have a vintage feel to them, without any digital post processing. This is very unusual in the digital camera world. (This is a video I shot on the Zeiss 85MM, plus others + GH1 – [url]http://www.vimeo.com/12150129)

Any ideas as to what lenses and cameras Hitchcock shot on?

RM: Hitchcock shot Panavision a lot and over the years their glass has been made by Cooke in the UK, Leitz in Canada (Primo’s) Zeiss and God knows who else. I had a couple of old c-mount and tried them but they done’t cover the frame with out vignetting.

I think I may have seen your stuff on Vimeo – nice work.

EOSHD: Thank you Rob.

RM: I turned the Director of Betwixt, Christian Duguay on to the Lumix and he has one now. He is based in Montreal and Prague – he’s a DP and Stedicam operator himself and LOVES that camera so expect to see some cool Lumix stuff from him.

I saw the Panasonic prototype for a dedicated GH1 style movie camera (AF100) at NAB – it was under glass and really ugly – supposed to be out by the end of the year at about $3000 I think. I assume the final one will be a lot sexier. I think it’ll be another game changing RED killer if it is easier to set up “film style”. Meanwhile I think starting this summer the Alexa is going to be the production camera of choice for all high end network stuff – it’s fantastic!!!!

Thanks for the contacts [regarding getting in touch with Panasonic for suggestions on future cameras].

EOSHD: How do you feel about 3D? Cinema’s future or just a marketing gimmick? My take is that it’s a bit of both. There is future in it. But right now it’s a gimmick. If you think about the depth perception in human vision for example – we have senses that take advantage of the depth our two eyes can deliver, and 3D cinema tries to exploit that. But I think what makes it truly 3D is being able to interact with the scene in front of us – physically reaching into the world in front of our eyes. So 3D has to stop being a pop-up-book-o-vision and become interactive to be true 3D, in my view.

But then it becomes more like an interactive game and less like cinema. In my opinion they’ve gotta get a grip on the marketing budgets, start running filmmaking businesses again (sad to see MGM, home of Bond in trouble) and dictate good films to audiences – not spend money asking people what’s good. Many cinemagoers don’t know – it’s not their job – but filmmakers do.

RM: I actually think 3D is the future. I think it is going to fundamentally change the business the same way sound and later color did.

When I arrived in Montreal to start prepping the miniature and additional photography for Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D. They screened a 10 minute reel they had prepared to show Jim Cameron how his cameras worked and I walked out of the theatre and phoned everyone I knew and said as much. Sound and color and widescreen were all gimmicks once too.

On marketing – some of the big studios have been making a lot of really bad movies for ages but massive and often genius marketing has made them hits. The problem is it has empowered the execs that were responsible by making them think they actually are making good movies. I don’t know if Bond is in trouble as much as MGM. There IS a way to make good movies on a small scale – or TV – but it’s going to take someone from outside the system to prove it.

EOSHD: Thanks for talking Rob.

Let’s hear it for Robert McLachlan! This was a memorable and enjoyable chat which I’ll remember for a long time. It’s great to see that established DPs, who have crafted their work for years without the rapid changes in technology we’re seeing now, are not afraid to get into all this new technology as the game changes and to push it into all kinds of creative places. This is the mark of a real maverick.

Whilst with all the rightly justified excitement over technology, cameras remain tools. Picture framing boxes. The craft of a DP will always be his eye, his creativity on set, his use of new tools and his ability to put things into the scene and light it in such a way that it tells a story and emphasises the emotions and feeling of the material.

Without a good eye, ‘content’ may as well be words on a page or music with no feeling. This is why the role of the cinematographer is safe and will not be diminished as technology evolves even further.

Even if we go into the realm of interactivity or complete audience control over the film in virtual 3D environments it’s still up to the filmmaker and DP to design the scenes, unveil the content, tell the story and generate the mood.