Exclusive interview with cinematographer Rob McLachlan ASC/CSC – Part 1

EOSHD has in the last few days been talking to Human Target and Final Destination Director of Photography Rob McLachlan about the Panasonic GH1 and HDSLR shooting.

Robert McLachlan ASC,CSC is a leading cinematographer based in Vancouver. Rob shot 1st unit on Final Destination, Dragonball Evolution and Fox’s network TV show Human Target. McLachlan has also completed technically ambitious 2nd unit cinematography work on The Golden Compass and additional photography for Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D.

Back in the early 90’s, Rob also ran the 2nd unit on MacGyver – a treasured part of my childhood TV memories and a show which really clicked with me. Now Human Target for Fox is an action heavy James Bond style TV show based loosly on a comic book. Sounds fun? Happily the audience agreed because the show has recently been renewed for a 2nd series. You can see more at the website at [URL]http://www.fox.com/humantarget

Being a Brit abroad, I have not yet had the chance to watch the series believe it or not, but I will definitely seek it out as it looks great. Now over in Prague Rick McCallum has Philip Bloom and his trusty 5D Mark II on the set of Red Tails which is fantastic – and then we have Gale Tattersall on House and the great work there – but the Panasonic GH1 has slipped under the radar as far as 1st rate professional work is concerned, until now!

The shots you see here from the set of Human Target, sent over by Rob. These are pulled from the Arri D21 ‘A’ camera live feed, but the tiny Panasonic GH1 + Cooke PL mount via Hot Rod adapter was used as a Digital Eymo style b-roll camera, and with innovation MacGyver would be proud of – Rob used the inexpensive GH1 for confined space shooting and as a crash-cam. The cameras were destroyed a few times! The shots were intercut just fine with that of the very expensive A-camera, which you can read more about here: Arriflex D21.

The series is shot in Vancouver, British Columbia and I caught up with Rob on Queen Victoria’s birthday (it’s a public holiday in Canada) to ask him about his experience of HDSLRs!

EOSHD: Hi Rob. Thanks for agreeing to help. It’d be great if you could tell EOSHD.com what the process was behind getting the GH1 on set for Human Target and some of the reasoning behind the choice.

Rob: We had a mandate, as most TV shows do now, to shoot HD instead of film, so the networks could sign actors on an AFTRA instead of SAG deal which saves a lot of money. For practical purposes it made absolutely no sense to shoot a big action/location oriented show like Human Target on anything but film for the mobility, high speed, high sensitivity etc.

At the end of the day we were stuck with HD and I chose Arri D21’s to shoot the show with because I don’t think any thing else looks as much like film. The focus falls off really fast with them (Arri says otherwise but my assistants and my eye disagree). Yes they need more light, but having done huge action pictures where everything needed to over-cranked or stopped up for anamorphic, I was was comfortable dealing with the low sensitivity of those cameras. Having settled that, the next question was if we were forbidden using film cameras how were we going to get all those shots you would normally use an Eymo for?

The answer for me was the Lumix which had just been released last summer along with the Hot Rod Cameras PL adapter. That would give us a really inexpensive camera that we could mount to things or drop flaming buildings on etc etc and not worry about wrecking a very hard to replace top end digital camera. Plus I had the option to get a very filmic depth of field with the camera using either the kit lens that came with it, a very good but slow Lumix 14-140, or any old nikon lens using a $50 adapter from ebay, OR one of my Cooke S4i’s. I generally used it with an old Nikon lens if it was liable to be damaged because the total tab would have only been under a thousand bucks.

The Canon, didn’t help me because at the time it couldn’t take any PL mount lens, OR Nikon’s – which I have a lot of (It will also take pretty much any other lens for that matter) and the Canon cost over 3 times more. So I was quite comfortable strapping it to flying motorcycle, putting in the middle of explosions (with a tidy little “Ned Kelly” the effects boys made us.) in a flipping vehicle or under a crashing school bus. and so on.

As for the look? Well there is no way a $1200 camera can match a $250,000 camera but then – if you look carefully in old action movies, short cuts made with an old Eymo usually didn’t cut very well either really and that was the use we were making of it. Our initial tests were run at Technicolor Vancouver who transferred the AVCHD files and under good conditions it looked fantastic. The only place we had problems, and it was a concern of the Post people at Fox was that under less than optimum conditions it didn’t hold up. But again – for a very short cut in an action sequence that we weren’t going to get any other way – it was great.

EOSHD: I think the AVCHD codec can be a winner, but on the GH1 it has a low bit rate and a finishing encoding format designed for consumer HD TVs rather than editors. Recently the camera community has reprogrammed the GH1’s firmware so that it records in native 24p at a higher bit rate, and the footage is starting to look a little more robust – and is easier to drop straight into the editing software without too much processing.

Rob: Cool – how do I do that?

[I told him and Rob seems keen to get into it, but it’s not without it’s risks!]

EOSHD: Personally I love the GH1 (actually more than the 5D Mark II) because it’s so small, has the rotating screen and so many lens adaption possibilities. Have you used the 5D Mark II on set too?

Rob: On a recent pilot for CW/CBS called Betwixt we used it to get really subjective shots that were being treated in post for a look anyway and I doubt we’d have got the frantic – running through the woods over and under trees with anything else. One big advantage the Lumix has over the Canon also is the orientable LCD screen. It makes it really simple to stick anywhere – a corner – on a dashboard etc – at the end of your arm with out an external monitor. For those kinds of shots you just want to be a minimal as you can & the camera is TINY – I left a couple of them right in the middle of the scene a few times during shoot outs etc. Worked great.

EOSHD: Was anybody from Panasonic on the set of Human Target, or in contact with the crew? I’m looking for signs that Panasonic Corporation recognise that the GH1 is being used so high up in the film industry, because I think Canon have stolen a march in this area.

Rob: So far I haven’t been in touch with Panasonic to get them working on this. I tried to find the right person at NAB but couldn’t. If you know anyone let me know I want to get on it right away – I have suggestions for them.

EOSHD: Is this the first time you’ve had a consumer device being used at this level of your profession?

Rob: I had never used a purely consumer device on a major show – I usually only shoot super 35mm, anamorphic or top end Digital. I have shot all or parts of many shows on D21, F35, RED one, Genesis and F950 in Stereo – on Journey to The Centre of The Earth 3D. (I shot all the additional photography and miniatures for that)

EOSHD: I believe you started out in the 70’s Rob, with your own production company, and travelled the world making documentaries. Do you see the internet and HDSLRs as a great opportunity for the next new Alan Whicker or Nick Broomfield – just a minimum of crew, and a camera, to get their break in the industry? Or has nothing really dramatically changed?

Rob: I wish like crazy we’d had this kind of stuff available in the late 70’s early 80’s when I was shooting docs. Especially because we were often financing them ourselves or at least on a really tight budget which meant every inch of 16mm film was precious and we probably didn’t shoot as much as we might have because of that. We had to be very conservative. Now I adored my SR’s but I could make a WAY better films with this technology now than we could then. I think it’s changing everything. My daughter is producing a small film right now with essentially NO money, on the GH1. No way could she have done that on film even with a big Kodak / lab discount. I mean you take the card out of the camera, plug it into the side of a new Macbook, decode it and start editing. I would have LOVED this technology back then. In fact if we had it, along with the market that exists for doc’s now I might still be doing it. Another thing it would have avoided was the constant (occasional life threatening) hassles you get when you look like a pro film crew including crossing borders etc etc. A small DSLR can go anywhere obsequiously.

EOSHD: Good luck to your daughter on her GH1 project. I shoot quite a lot with the camera, mostly Philip Bloom style music video / documentary still life style films in Asia. This in Taiwan for example ([URL]http://www.vimeo.com/9176830) and this in Hong Kong ([URL]http://www.vimeo.com/11349060) mostly shot with an anamorphic convertor lens and I plan to go to Berlin in September to start a kind of miniture-one-man music video production company with a friend. None of this was possible before HDSLRs came along but now I think there is no reason why a no-budget amateur film has to have the production values and the look of a no-budget amateur film! It all has a bigger punch if done right. Also the conspicuous small stills-camera appearance really does help for videos like these, because people carry on as they are almost without noticing anyone with a video camera is around. What are your thoughts on House being shot on the 5D Mark II?

Rob: I haven’t seen the house episode yet. My bet is they could have done it on any number of formats but lets face it. This way got them a ton of press. Problem is producers are going to read that – and look at cost savings the same way they swallowed the RED hype, hook line and sinker 2 years ago, (And got wise fast) press ahead or force the system on some crew and find out it isn’t the second coming. And go back to film or large format.

EOSHD: Can the intimacy and simplicity of a HDSLR technology ever be combined with an hugely ambitious production like, say, The Golden Compass – or will Hollywood remain expensive, complex and cumbersome to an extent? (Personally I can see films like Avatar remaining complex, but can HDSLRs find a niche in more traditional dramas and documentary work?)

Rob: I think the day might come when smaller cameras will rule but for a huge effects laden show like Golden Compass or Dragonball, the format and whatnot – film costs etc are such a small component of the budget that they are always going to go with the biggest / best. Although having said that – for a strictly green-screen show, a digital format that they can pull cleaner mattes off of quicker will drive the change. I’m betting we see a big anamorphic show shot on Alexa really soon. As for prosumer DSLR? If the VFX folks – who are the ones who pull all the digitized images apart and scrutinize the frames most minutely, decide they have all the information they need to produce great comp shots or whatever, then they’ll likely drive a switch too – since that end can now be a major cost factor in any show with lots of VFX.

I think pretty soon some Hybrid that falls somewhere between a full production camera and a HDSLR will likely come along and be really embraced by the independent world. I suppose RED or Scarlet are supposed to do that but my feeling is something else will come along and rule – at least for a while. The problem with the RED guys is not that the camera doesn’t make good pictures, it does (I shot a Nickelodeon movie on one last year. Looks GREAT but the post people had a ton of headaches and overages), it’s just Arri and Panavision and Canon and Panasonic and Sony have a world wide network of dealers and service agents. I think the Red guys thought they were making something SO great they could just sell them like widgets and so long. I don’t think they realized the level of support a professional cameraman is accustomed to and expects.

EOSHD: Well I think RED currently exist in somewhat of a bubble which is about to burst. I have heard very low budget indie filmmakers say they are now choosing HDSLRs over renting RED as these come with a package of expensive extras, and in some cases even a DP! So it’s interesting to hear from your point of view, about support, also being wrong at the other end of the scale.

I think the problem RED have right now is twofold – I think it’s hard for them to compete with huge corporations like Canon or Sony on outright R&D expenditure, and hence technology – and I think it’s difficult on the support-network reach issue you mentioned too. I have seen BBC nature documentaries shot on RED that look great – lovely resolution, 4K probably, and a few indie films here in Taipei that also look very good – but to be honest all this could have been shot on HDSLRs and looked good enough for HDTV and even cinema projection as Philip Bloom recently proved at the Lucasfilm Stag Theatre. RED undoubtably have some impressive technology, but will be overtaken in my view pretty soon by much cheaper cameras, with better support networks.

Rob: Here here. I don’t like their smug arrogance. Techno geeks [are]fine but they need to know DP’s.

Next week on EOSHD.com I will have part 2 of the Rob McLachlan interview online, for talk of anamorphic lenses, special FX lens filters, Hitchcock, democratic change and revolution in Hollywood, Rick McCallum, 3D and more!

A big thanks to Rob for taking the time to chat.