Sharpshooter: Capturing dragons with Game Of Thrones' Robert McLachlan
Robert McLachlan ASC started out shooting anything he could. Now he shoots anything he wants. Neal Romanek interviews the cinematographer who brought us Game Of Thrones' Red Wedding and some of the most epic moments in TV history.
How did you get started in the industry?
I grew up in Vancouver, Canada in a house that had a rudimentary darkroom. I had a father who was an artist and a photographer, and there were Super 8 cameras. I always loved using that stuff and started developing my own photos when I was quite young. By high school, I was taking some advanced courses in photography.
Then the day comes in high school when you have to decide what to do with the rest of your life. But my father was a bit of a bohemian, and what he drove into my brother and I was that it didn’t matter what you did when you grew up as long as you loved it. I realised I loved going to movies and I loved photography, and it became a question of how to become a cameraman.
There were almost no film schools around at the time and very little production in Vancouver - that of course has changed a great deal now. So I made some little independent documentary films and that led to starting a production company which was really to provide myself with things to shoot more than anything. We produced documentaries, television commercials, training films – anything I could get my hands on that would have me shooting stuff.
Slowly the company grew, and I did some documentaries with Michael Chechik who ended up being my partner and was working for this young, grassroots group called Greenpeace. So I spent about every moment with a camera on my shoulder or shooting anything I could.
Then when I was about 30, the low Canadian dollar started attracting a lot of American television production and there were openings in dramatic filmmaking. I managed to get into the union as a camera operator, because by then I’d already shot a very low budget feature.
By the end of that first union job, the director of photography had moved up to direct, I was photographing this series. And that was my first break.
Soon after that I got Canadian television show called The Beachcombers which was an incredibly good training ground. I was incredibly fortunate, especially considering how young I was. And that led to getting hired on MacGyver which was the biggest TV show on American networks and since then I’ve never stopped.
Do you think you’re career was boosted by shooting so much TV early on?
When I was young, I had a wife and two kids to feed. I couldn’t sit on my backside waiting for the perfect artistic showcase feature film to shoot. At the time, I was jealous of people I knew who were doing really good films – although maybe one a year. But in hindsight, if you want to do a thing, you’ve got to get out and do it. And the best thing you can possibly do is do it every single day.
I have shot a dozen feature films, including some quite big ones, as well as a couple dozen movies for television.
Has it turned now? Is today the highest quality work being done in TV?
I think the best quality material is being made for television now. From a technical standpoint, as far as cinematography, there’s great work being done in both features and TV. But the best photography in the world, if it’s in aid of a less than quality product is ultimately not satisfying. And the quality of product – especially the writing – seems to be in TV.
You’ve shot some of the most popular episodes of Game Of Thrones. Do you have as much freedom in big budget effects heavy TV as you’d have on other shows?
Anything that’s going to be heavily touched by CG is going to be very carefully dictated. A good example is the Loot Train attack in this season’s Game Of Thrones, and there are a few other big set piece scenes that I’ve done on the show.
But really many of the episodes are all about character and drama. A lot of scenes are two people in a room, which I like shooting the best. On Game of Thrones you’ve got beautiful sets, you’ve got beautiful locations, which are very carefully chosen, but at the end of the day at the interpretation of it is in my hands, in aid of the director’s goals. And you really do have a lot more input into it.
I think the quality of work done on Game of Thrones has radically and forever raised the bar in terms of what is acceptable cinematography in television
I have done some visual effects heavy feature films as well. It’s quite a different beast. It has to planned very carefully in advance. Those effects shots have to be very carefully budgeted, because they’re so wildly expensive. So that’s much more of a heavy collaborative process between the cinematographer and the visual effects department. Luckily, on Game of Thrones the visual effects department is unparalleled and you can trust them to make you look better, not worse, which isn’t always the case on a lot of shows.
Are there certain rules you have to adhere to when shooting a series? Especially something as visually designed as Game Of Thrones?
You can’t go in and reinvent the wheel and make an iconic location like the Throne Room look different from how everyone else did.
The thing about a well-designed is sometimes demands to be lit in a certain way. Especially when you’re dealing with a set that has no artificial light and needs to look like it’s lit entirely by natural light.
Shooting at 4K, we just end up using more and more diffusion to knock it down to not make it look like video
We have a very good system on Game Of Thrones where at the beginning of every season they hand the cinematographers an iPad with what they call a “look book”. It has screen grabs from every set, from every season with examples of how it’s been lit in the past. There’s an amazing amount of consistency, but also a surprising amount of subtle variation, because every cinematographer is going to interpret the set differently because of the demands of the script.
On the other side, the show I’ve been alternating with Game Of Thrones is Ray Donovan on Showtime, and there I have absolute carte blanch. But you always try to recognize what the intention of the script is and the set and the location demands. You have to let that speak to you. If you try to fight a location, making a Tesco supermarket look dark and moody, it’s just not going to look right.
How has the work being done in TV now affected the quality of cinematography?
I think the quality of work done on Game of Thrones has radically and forever raised the bar in terms of what is acceptable cinematography in television. And you can see that effect everywhere.
Some of that is the taste and ability of the cinematographer, but it’s also very much dependent on the budget and the production designer. Freddie Young, after he won his third Oscar, for Ryan’s Daughter, was asked what’s the secret for making such beautiful images? And he said, “The trick is to only take pictures of beautiful things.” It’s partly true. One of the things on Game Of Thrones is that the production design is exquisite and a lot of the locations are amazing. There’s a world of amazing locations out there, but there, bloody hard to get to and if you don’t have the money to get 200 crew members to them, you’re not going to be able to take advantage of them.
What do think of the push for higher resolutions – 4K and 8K and beyond?
I think it’s silly and pointless. My mind was made up when I spoke at IBC a few years ago. They took some of our Game of Thrones footage from Season Three, which we’d shot in HD and up-ressed it to 4K and projected it on a 65ft screen. I was in the front row and was prepared for the worst, because anything I’d shot in the past for television was a little disappointing when it hit a big screen. But I was almost in tears, it looked so amazing.
So if you can do that with regular HD, certainly Ultra HD is as far as we really need to go. I think the rest of it is pointless, because very few shows have the money to post in those higher resolutions.
If you want to do a thing, you’ve got to get out and do it. And the best thing you can possibly do is do it every single day
And shooting at 4K, we just end up using more and more diffusion to knock it down to not make it look like video. A lot of the 4K shows I watch on Netflix, there’s no subtlety or artistry to it. It feels too sharp and too harsh.
Last year, I took Game of Thrones off to go shoot Westworld. We shot on film which is technically is capable of 6K. But in fact, they couldn’t afford to do the storage or the transfers or any of that. They can always go back to it, if someone’s got the money, but I think that’s highly unlikely. That almost never happens. They went just did a straight HD transfer off of something that is potentially 6K and the show still looks absolutely breathtaking.
What are your thoughts on VR?
Right now I think it’s too early to say. I think there’s some potential. I’m not sure it won’t end up being like 3D. A lot of people are jumping on the band wagon. Personally, I’m reserving judgement.
And you were a cycling champion when you were young. Have you gotten back on the bike again?
When we were shooting a battle scene on this season’s Game of Thrones, I rented a mountain bike because our battlefield was so vast, I had a second unit shooting about half a mile a way. The quickest way was to get there by bicycle.
I still bike, even though I live in L.A where the drivers seem to be homicidal.
What’s next for you?
I’ve shot one of the most famous episodes in television history (Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding) and the biggest budgeted episode. I don’t know where else I can go after that frankly.
I’ve shot between 450 and 500 episodes of television, and I’ve worked with about 350 episodic directors from whom I’ve learned a great deal about what not to do and what to do, so I’d like to start applying that knowledge with directing.