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'Journeyman Cameraman' McLachlan Among Four 'Game of Thrones' Cinematographers Nominated for Emmys
September 8, 2015  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

As a self-described journeyman cameraman who cut his teeth on the Canadian family drama The Beachcombers in coastal British Columbia where he grew up, Rob McLachlan (top, on location for Game of Thrones) had little idea that his career as a cinematographer would one day encompass more than a dozen features films, some 25 TV movies-of-the-week and countless U.S.-based, filmed-in-Vancouver TV series like The Commish, MacGyver, Strange Luck, Human Target, Bionic Woman, Harper’s Island, King and Maxwell and Chris Carter’s Millennium, where he first worked with director David Nutter.

It wasn’t until the time, four years ago almost to the day, when he stepped on Game of Thrones’ main soundstage in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for the first time, that he knew he had finally arrived.

The scale of Game of Thrones’ standing sets was unlike anything he had seen in his four decades of film and television. It literally took his breath away, he says now.

McLachlan was proud of his past work, but they were not the kind of series likely to be considered Emmy material. Game of Thrones was all that and more. McLachlan reunited with Millennium and X-Files director Nutter for the 2012 episode "Blackwater." On the strength of that, Nutter and McLachlan returned to film 2013’s notorious “Red Wedding” episode, "The Rains of Castamere," and followed that with that year’s season finale, "Mhysa."

"Mhysa" (right) proved doubly lucky: McLachlan was nominated for his first Emmy.

The following season, he filmed the episodes "Oathkeeper" and "First of His Name," for fellow Canadian director Michelle MacLaren, also originally from Vancouver. Their work together prompted Thrones co-showrunner David Benioff to dub the pair, “my demented Canadian duo.”

McLachlan filmed the final two episodes of this past season, "The Dance of Dragons" and "Mother’s Mercy," again with director Nutter. Earlier this summer, he learned he was Emmy nominated once again, this time for "Dance of Dragons" (below, right). Nutter, for his part, has been nominated for outstanding director, for the season finale, "Mother’s Mercy." The cinematography award will be handed out Saturday, Sept 12, at the Creative Arts Emmys at the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles; the coveted award for best director will be announced a week later, Sept. 20, at Los Angeles’ Nokia Theatre.

More tellingly, Game of Thrones has scored an unprecedented four nominations for cinematography in the same year. McLachlan will compete for the award — “‘Compete’ doesn’t seem quite the right word,” McLachlan says — with UK director-of-photography Fabian Wagner, German cinematographer Anette Haellmigk and McLachlan’s fellow Canadian Greg Middleton. The three are nominated, respectively, for the episodes "Hardhome," "Sons of the Harpy" and "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken."

The other series nominated for cinematography are House of Cards (Martin Ahlgren), The Good Wife (Fred Murphy) and Boardwalk Empire (Jonathan Freeman). Academy rules changed recently to allow up to seven nominations in some of the more crowded, competitive categories.

McLachlan was influenced as a young, would-be cinematographer, by the late cinematographer Conrad Hall. Hall is hardly a household name, but he was a legend in the film community, owing to his work on such film classics as Cool Hand Luke, In Cold Blood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and, toward the end of his career, his personal favorite, Searching for Bobby Fischer

McLachlan, an avid film buff growing up, noticed that Hall was subtle where other cinematographers were in-your-face. McLachlan realized that darkness is just as important to dramatic effect as bright light.

More importantly, McLachlan said over lunch on a holiday weekend in Vancouver, he noticed something about Hall’s work that few others did: The strongest light source in Hall’s films tended to be off to one side, not what the eye was watching — a flickering candle, perhaps, or an open window, or a beaming shaft of sunlight.

That breaks every accepted rule of cinematography but it creates a subliminal, three-dimensional effect. It puts the viewer in the moment without our realizing it, McLachlan explained, because in real life we hardly look directly into a bright light. 

What we see — a human face, a stirring landscape — is illuminated from the side, or above, or even from behind, by reflected glare.

McLachlan realized something else. He isn’t a fan of bright light, or saturated colors, in a scene he’s shooting for film or TV. He recalls one TV series, early in his career, when he walked onto the set and shouted out loud, “This looks like a Safeway!” and then walked around the set, turning off lights.

His reluctance to rely on bright, high-wattage stage lights, coupled with new, high-tech digital cameras that respond well in low-light conditions, stood him in good stead on the "Red Wedding" episode (left). He wanted to light the wedding — and subsequent massacre — using entirely natural light, even though it was a night scene. McLachlan says a cinematographer’s strongest ally is a director willing to listen to outlandish ideas, and unafraid to try them out. The wedding ceremony was lit entirely by flaming torches. McLachlan suggested to Nutter that, halfway through the wedding, soldiers start to leave the wedding hall, each one taking a flaming torch with him, slowly and subliminally lowering the lighting in the scene and creating a sense of foreboding. The bloody final moments, in which — spoiler alert — Robb Stark is stabbed through the heart and a crying Lady Catelyn’s throat is cut — were so dimly lit by that point that their blood ran a dark brown.

For "Mhysa," the episode which followed — and for which he earned his first Emmy nomination — McLachlan opened the camera up to the bright sunshine of Morocco, for the scene where Queen Daenerys  (Emilia Clarke), “the Mother of Dragons,” is lifted on the shoulders of the men and women she’s just liberated at Slaver’s Bay.

“It was a deliberately cathartic moment,” McLachlan recalled. “Cathartic for the audience watching at home, after the darkness of 'Red Wedding,' and cathartic for the characters who’ve been through so much. It called for a really strong, uplifting visual.”

McLachlan says the biggest blessing Game of Thrones has given him, as a cameraman, is time — time to prepare, up to a year in advance in some cases, and time to get the scene exactly right. It’s no accident that HBO has led at the forefront of the present golden age of TV drama, McLachlan says. HBO’s schedule allowed him to shoot inserts — “due to actor availability,” was all he’d divulge — as early as six months before that episode was scheduled to be filmed. That’s a luxury unheard-of even in the feature-film world.

Coupled with locations as far-flung — and visually diverse — as Dubrovnik, Croatia, Seville, Spain, the rocky coastline of Ireland and the mountainous, ice-covered plateau of Iceland’s central interior, Game of Thrones is mounted on a massive scale.

McLachlan earned a reputation early in his career for working fast. As a visual minimalist, he wasted little time getting his camera crew to wrestle with heavy lighting rigs and instead chose to work with whatever light was already available. The result is a distinct style and look that separates McLachlan from a lot of cinematographers working in TV today — a look that appeals to showrunners like Benioff and D.B. Weiss and directors like Nutter and MacLaren.

The other thing McLachlan learned was that too many people in the film and television industry go out of their way to make their jobs look difficult. The secret to success, McLachlan says plainly, is to make it look simple. Just get the job done, quickly and efficiently, without the opera.

At the end of a long day on set, no crewmember — and no actor — wants to stand around while camera technicians wrestle with an overly complicated camera setup.

McLachlan’s story doesn’t end with Game of Thrones. He’s landed another prestige project, as the lead cinematographer on Showtime’s Ray Donovan (left).

Donovan, now in its third season on HBO’s rival Showtime, shoots 12 episodes a year. McLachlan has formed a tight bond with series star and co-producer Liev Schreiber, nominated this year for his first Emmy for lead actor in a drama.

McLachlan says he’s been lucky to work with some of the world’s best — and least appreciated — directors.

Nutter, Emmy nominated this year for "Mother’s Mercy," Game of Thrones’ season finale, is a better director than some give him credit for, McLachlan insists, because he’s good with actors, especially relatively inexperienced young people and child actors, strong in technical aspects like lighting and stunt coordination, and runs a safe, warm work environment where people aren’t constantly at each other’s throats.

“After almost 400 episodes of TV … and up to 200 or so directors, I can name the best two dozen,” McLachlan said, with typical candor. “The rest, thank God, my brain has filed somewhere in deep backup mode. I really don’t remember.”

That said, McLachlan added, when a director and the director-of-photography have a fight, there can only be one winner.

“And it’s not the DP.”

MacLaren is exceedingly good at what she does, too, McLachlan says, but in a different way from Nutter. It’s to Game of Thrones’ producers’ credit, McLachlan says, that so many different visual artists with different creative sensibilities can pass through from episode to episode, and yet the series looks seamless from beginning to end.

“Michelle is absolutely relentless in her pursuit of what she wants. You only have to see her episodes of Breaking Bad to see that. She uses a lot of cuts, which can be tricky, but her end result is terrific.

“I love working with good directors, and they seem to like working with me. It’s about taste. It’s about experience, creativity and a desire to get it right.

“Trust me, the director you don’t want to work with is one who doesn’t know what he’s after, and so is constantly changing his mind. That can cause nothing but problems. For everyone.”

With Nutter, each seems to know what the other is thinking without saying so in so many words.

“You can tell if you’re on the same page right off the bat. The good ones know right away if we are after the same thing. The older I get, the less territorial I am about it. I’m a craftsman, but I pride myself on being flexible, no matter the situation. I find the best directors are that way, too.”

Game of Thrones has touched the popular nerve in a way few dramatic TV series have, at least in part because Benioff and Weiss are guarded about their secrets. Few series are as closely pored over — or prone to spoilers.

“The storylines are by far the most carefully guarded secrets I have ever seen in TV or film. And, trust me, we’re only too happy to be the keepers of those secrets.”

McLachlan has worked with innumerable actors over the years, and seen them at their best and worst. He’s formed strong opinions, good and bad, about those he’s worked with.

He doesn’t profess to be a sage or have any special insight into the future, but he does think one young Game of Thrones star has the potential to be one of the finer actors of her generation.

“I’m really enamored with Maisie Williams,” McLachlan said. “She embodies that character. That kid is going to go far, mark my words.

“I have the most delightful photo of her as she popped out of character as a joke at the end of one scene — and scared the hell out of my camera operator — that really sums her up. But I can’t show it to you.”

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Rob is a portrait arist
His ability to creat scenes where the viewer must focus on the main character while paying close attention to the activity in the background is like a cinematic Rubik's cube
In order to play the game you must pay Attentionto everything even if your appreciation/view is altered or seemingly impaired by shadows

He is the Dylan or Leonard Cohen of light
Sep 10, 2015   |  Reply
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