WEST Vancouver cinematographer Robert McLachlan is about to trade in teen witches for medieval hordes.
Recently wrapped on the WB's Secret Circle, McLachlan will soon be heading to Northern Ireland to work on the final two episodes of season three of the popular HBO medieval fantasy series Game of Thrones.
"I just received the schedule for the show and they've got units going in Morocco and Croatia and Ireland, and indoors and outdoors, and logistically I've never seen anything like it. It's incredible," says McLachlan. "It's absolutely gigantic."
Because of the size and scope of the show, Game of Thrones uses about five different DOPs (directors of photography) and five directors working in teams of two, he notes.
Traditionally one cinematographer would shoot an entire season of a TV show, which is pretty hard if the show is producing a full order of 22 episodes, explains McLachlan, noting until this year when he worked on Secret Circle, he hadn't done that for about 10 years.
"It's an incredible grind because you don't get any time off," he explains. You can't check out locations ahead of time, and you're not in any of the preparatory meetings for new episodes. "So what's happened more recently is more and more TV shows will alternate between two DPs, so one will be prepping an episode and scouting with the director while the other one's shooting."
McLachlan is scheduled to join the Game of Thrones crew based in Belfast at the end of July and work until early November. He notes there's been a real boom in the industry in Belfast since the conflict there reached a tentative settlement. Economic incentives and a lower cost of living make it more appealing than shooting in England, and "it's the perfect place to do a medieval set piece," he adds. "They've got the incredible scenery and it's also a good jumping off point for Iceland where they do a lot of their north of the Wall sequences." (The Wall is an outlying, wild territory on the show.)
The Wall shots will all be done by the time McLachlan starts, so he doesn't expect to be going to Iceland, but he will be in Croatia and Morocco toward the end of the schedule.
It's a big challenge for a cameraman to join a project that has been up and running for a while, notes McLachlan.
"I've never actually done that. In fact, I don't like to go in and take over on shows that are sort of established," he says. "In a normal circumstance it can be more satisfying to go in and create the look and be there from the get-go, but I've got a pretty strong affinity with what they've done, and I think creatively the key cinematographers on the show, and there have been about six or seven at this point, the key guys who set off the look of the show I think they hit all the notes exactly right. I feel like they did exactly what I would have done if I was in their shoes."
While the scope of the show is impressive, McLachlan is not intimidated by the prospect of joining an already established and popular show.
"I'm really very confident that I'm going to be able to go in and make a couple of the absolute best looking episodes that they've made, and part of the reason for that is I've got a huge amount of confidence in this director I'm working with, David Nutter, who is just massively talented and is one of the few directors I've worked with in television especially who is incredibly concerned about the visuals and understands what you have to do in order to make a good looking show. And you'd be absolutely amazed at how many directors just don't have that."
McLachlan first worked with Nutter on the X-Files spin-off Millennium.
"There are some directors who, whether they do episodic or feature films, their movies just never look really great no matter who the cameraman is and sometimes you just can't get it for them. One cameraman might be able to raise the bar a lot compared to their other shows but never as much as they can if they're working with a really visually oriented director, which sounds ridiculous that there would be such a thing as a non-visually oriented director, but there are actually a fair few of them out there."
But "David isn't one of those," says McLachlan of Nutter, whose list of directing credits includes ER, Entourage, The Sopranos and Shameless, among others.
"He's an innovator, he's always pushing and he likes to work really fast," says McLachlan. "And if there's anything that I find enervating about working on really huge feature films is the pace is like a dinosaur and a lot of the time the tail doesn't know what the head's doing."
He notes it's important for the director and cinematographer to work in sync, with both trying to achieve the same vision. "That usually goes a long way to making not only a really agreeable working relationship but also producing really good work."
Over the years, McLachlan has moved back and forth between TV and movies and says there used to be a very tall wall between the worlds of television and feature films in Hollywood. Feature film crews wouldn't use a television DOP because they would worry he or she would be a hack, and TV crews wouldn't enlist a feature film DOP because they would worry he or she wouldn't care about the schedule and would cause the production to go over budget and over schedule. (Episodic television is generally shot at a much faster pace than feature films.)
However, the advent of original cinematic-style shows on TV cable networks, such as HBO and Showtime, has helped break down that wall, and "you're seeing not only cameramen and directors going back and forth, but you're also seeing a lot more feature film actors ending up on the small screen now," says McLachlan.
Unfortunately one of the things fueling that crossover from the big screen to the small screen is that they're just not making as many movies in Hollywood these days as they were in past years, "so a lot of the most interesting work is really happening in the TV world," he adds.
About 10 years ago, film studios were making a lot of $20 million-$30 million movies.
With that budget, there wasn't a lot of interference from the studio and filmmakers had more control over the final product, notes McLachlan.
When budgets starting creeping up to $60 million, and on to $100 million and even $200 million, "all of a sudden there are a lot of really scared people and they're all having something to say about how that movie's going to get made, and I think sometimes a great movie still gets made, but often you end up with something that's really watered down," says McLachlan.
"I think what's happened is that the world of the more interesting indie $20-million movies you're finding the kind of stuff that was done there ending up on cable now."
The digital revolution has also had an impact on the great TV/film divide, making many shows look much better than before thanks to cheaper and better quality digital cameras, as well as generations of people who have been inundated with images thanks to digital downloads and the social media explosion.
"A lot of people these days are visually sophisticated and the bar is really high. If you look at a TV show or a movie done in the '80s even it looks like hell by today's standards," says McLachlan.
However, just because someone can go out with a $2,000 camera now and make something that looks great, it still comes down to the script, he adds.
"Fantastic digital cameras aren't going to have any more impact on the movie industry than spectacularly fast word processors or computers with script writing software installed on them are going to produce any more great writing."
McLachlan, who grew up in the Capilano Highlands neighbourhood and attended Canyon Heights elementary and Handsworth secondary, was intrigued by images from an early age. His father was a painter and an avid amateur photographer, so the family home was filled with art and always had a darkroom.
"I really got into it starting with the photography," says McLachlan of his interest in cinematography.
As much as his craft is about creating visuals, however, McLachlan has three words of advice for aspiring filmmakers: "Story, story, story."
"My biggest problem with film schools is they're teaching you all the nuts and bolts and the technical stuff, which isn't that hard to learn, but what the kids really need, what they really ought to be studying is English literature, fine art and history and all the stuff that goes into making a good story because the technical side of it that all the film schools are so good at teaching you can almost learn on your own or you could certainly learn it by going and getting an entry level job and just doing it that way. Good stories are the hard part," he says.
For all the production value, beautiful cinematography and great acting that Game of Thrones has, it wouldn't matter if the story and the characters weren't incredibly engaging, notes McLachlan.
"From the first image and certainly from the last frame of every episode there's no way you're not going to tune in next week to see what happens to those characters because it's so, so good."