Game of Thrones may be out of the awards conversation this year, but never mind that. Wrapping up his work on the series’ new season in December, Emmy-nominated cinematographer Robert McLachlan has kept himself plenty busy, between Ray Donovan and another HBO smash, Westworld.
Approaching the latter series, McLachlan was intrigued by the idea of working on an updated version of a film he had watched as a child—and equally, the opportunity to work out of LA for the first time in several years, given Game of Throne‘s continually daunting, international shooting schedule.
Speaking with Deadline, McLachlan explains the significant challenges he faced on Westworld—shooting on film for the first time in a number of years, while reacquainting himself with the limitations of the “dying art”—and what’s to come in the highly-anticipated seventh season of Game of Thrones.
What were the elements that interested you about Westworld?
I’d seen the movie as a kid on television, like a lot of people. It was incredibly intriguing, and the fact that someone as genius as Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy was doing it was obviously really attractive.
To be honest, the other thing attractive about it was, it was shooting here in LA, and I just spent half of the last three years prior to that working on Game of Thrones. The chance to do something really good and intriguing at home was pretty darn attractive, too.
Reportedly, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was one of the films that inspired you to become a cinematographer. Where did you look for inspiration in crafting the look for Westworld?
I wouldn’t say Westerns were a particular inspiration for me, visually. We all realized, early on, with Westworld, it’s not a Western—it’s a science fiction movie with a Western component to it, and it’s much darker than most Westerns ever were. That really interested me.
My primary visual references are fine art. One of the things I love about working on Game of Thrones is that you can hop on a plane and go to the Louvre, and go to the Prado, and go to the Rijksmuseum in Holland. That’s what I do, and I spend a lot of time in there, looking at the masters, really, and aiming for a more painterly look.
As a cinematographer, what preparations do you go through? Where does the process begin?
On Game of Thrones, with the huge vis effects component, everything is storyboarded for the bigger sequences ahead of time, and quite frankly, on the day, it takes a lot of the creativity out of lighting on the set. We had some storyboards for Westworld, for a couple sequences, but mostly we didn’t, and we almost never do for Ray Donovan, for instance.
I love shooting features, and I like having the time to make sure you’re getting it right, but after 450 episodes of TV, I’m also pretty good at rolling with it, landing on the floor and making the best of it, because so much can change.
On Westworld, the scripts were in a lot of flux, to the point that I was on the first part, but I couldn’t go back after their hiatus, because by then, I was back on Ray Donovan again, unfortunately. I would’ve loved to have seen it through.
And you can’t always shoot; in a Western, the natural light is either your friend or your foe, and often it’s a bit of both, trying to work with that and schedule yourself as best you can.
On Westworld, what camera did you use, and what was your approach to lensing?
This was the thing about Westworld—we shot on film, which was a real wake-up for me. We were shooting with Aericams and Kodak film stocks, and I hadn’t actually shot film for five years at that point. It was pretty exciting, to go back.
We’ve all gotten so used to having an HD monitor on set that shows you precisely what you’re getting, and it was nice to be back in the driver’s seat, in terms of the visuals, because on film, of course, only the DP really knows what it’s going to look like, when you get your dailies back.
That was kind of great, but having said that, film’s got some drawbacks that I’d certainly forgotten about, like having to reload very frequently, noisy cameras, and needing a lot more light.
I was flattered that I got the chance to do it. I got a call about a feature recently, and the director said that he’d seen a bunch of reels that he really liked, but mine was the only one that he liked by someone who actually knew how to shoot film, and he wanted to shoot film. It’s a dying art.
Bearing in mind your fine art inspirations, what was your approach to lighting the series? There’s a lot of chiaroscuro, particularly in the scenes at the Westworld hub.
My approach, anytime I’m lighting a scene, regardless of the milieu, what I’ve learned is you’ve got to let the location speak to you, whether it’s a set or a prairie. My goal is to try to avoid theatricality, and try and make it feel as natural as possible. Obviously, the bar’s gotten really high now, because digital cameras are so sensitive that they let you do that. Doing that, and finding that in a tasteful way, I think is a primary goal.
The diagnostic lab and those glass-walled sets were a nightmare to work on, because they were basically a hall of mirrors that reflected everything, so getting the camera and your lights out of the reflections took a lot of work. A lot of the lighting was integrated into the set, which I think is why it felt as natural as it did.
With the actors, you do what you can to make sure that you’ve got lots of expression in Anthony Hopkins’ eyes, while keeping it feeling as natural and true to the location as you possibly can.
You really feel the texture of film in the theme park scenes, with the presence of atmospheric elements—particularly, dust and smoke.
Yeah. I love using dust; I love using smoke. I use them on the other shows I do, as well, but the nice thing about a Western is that it’s a lot more justified.
But even having said that, there was sort of a visual bible; it was sort of unwritten, from Jonah Nolan, in terms of how much texture the sets had, the idea being that the deeper you got into the park, the more textured it was, and the lower key it was.
For instance, in Episode 5, “Contrapasso,” which is one of my favorites that I did, they end up in this town of Pariah, where it’s sort of Sodom and Gomorrah, anything goes. Shooting on film, and still getting the feeling that everything is lit by firelight and what have you, it was a major challenge. It would’ve been easy on digital, very hard on film.
You worked with some practical sources, like lanterns, in nighttime scenes. Even still, when shooting on film, how did you find enough light to illuminate the image, while keeping your shots naturalistic?
I pushed the film stock to its limits, and we just had to bring in a lot more light than you would typically use on a big, epic scene in Game of Thrones. We had some vast expanses of nighttime prairie to light up on Westworld. We were doing stuff on there that they wouldn’t even dream of doing on Game of Thrones. Only very occasionally do they do a really big, expansive, exterior night shoot.
Often, we’ll try to keep it all contained and do it at magic hour, or something like that, so the ambition of Westworld was really substantial, and it did require a lot of equipment. I think it took them a little bit by surprise, initially, just how much gear we needed to light up a whole prairie, and not have it look bogus, and lit.
People accepted a certain amount of theatricality, even going back to Dances with Wolves, on the night prairie scenes, where the prairie is lit, and then it falls off into pitch black.
With digital these days, and CG added to that, I think people’s expectations are much higher, and you just can’t get away with that. To accomplish that on film on Westworld was the most challenging thing I’ve done in a really long time.
I’ve done now a couple of the biggest episodes of Game of Thrones ever, and Westworld’s harder. [Laughs] Definitely.
How did you approach the series’ classic, gun-toting action sequences, and moments where you had to follow actors on horseback?
The big action sequence, when Dolores is trying to escape from the Confederados after the shootout with the train, we used the Russian Arm on an ATV, and also a vehicle called a Griptrix, that we strapped a guy and a steadicam onto. Those are really the best tools for that kind of thing. It’s so much easier now to follow somebody on a horse, or walk and talk, when you’ve got that kind of equipment. We also used technocranes quite a bit.
I’ve done other Westerns, both movies and television, and it’s hard. As soon as you’re dealing with horses or anything like that, these days, very few people have been around horses much. They don’t know how hard it is to work with them. You really have to take your hats off to some of those Westerns they did years ago, because the level of skill with the animals was pretty impressive.
Looking back, are there any visual ideas or clues used to differentiate the series’ timelines?
I’m going to let you in on a secret. At least up until we finished Episode 7, which is when they broke for their hiatus, to get their ducks in a row and finish the show—up until that point, absolutely nobody on the crew knew that we were dealing with a story that was taking place on multiple time planes. It was that big of a secret.
Occasionally, there’d be some arbitrary rules thrown at us about how this scene had to be like such-and-such, but nobody was telling us why. I’m not exactly sure why they did that, other than they just wanted to maintain the secrecy and surprise for the viewers, but no one on the crew knew that’s what we were doing.
Would you say there’s visual through lines in your work on Westworld and Game of Thrones?
Oh, sure. I’ve been incredibly lucky to be on an urban noir show like Ray Donovan, and I’ve also been lucky because it’s dovetailed perfectly with the Game of Thrones schedule, so I’ve gone back and forth between those for five years now, only taking one year out when Westworld dovetailed with it.
I sort of see it as medieval noir, versus LA urban noir, versus sci-fi noir, and obviously, anything in those genres, stylistically, I think they’re heaven for a DP to be involved with. To get to mix some Western into it on top of that is very satisfying.
Where are you in the process with the new season of Game of Thrones?
I wrapped up just before Christmas, and then they did some CG component work and some green screen work in the new year, after I’d had to come back to Ray Donovan, Season 5.
Season 7 is going to be fantastic. We did a showstopping, pretty epic scene in Europe just before I came back, and it’s really going to be great.
I don’t know the facts and figures, but they only did seven episodes this year, but I think their budget’s probably the same, so I think you’re going to see, whereas before, we’d have one or two showstopping, major episodes per season, this season, probably at least half of them are whoppers. They’re not going to disappoint.