Trevor Hogg chats with Rob McLachlan about making people scared to attend weddings and having to deal with mysterious creatures that turn babies into zombies….
“I’ve got David Nutter [Disturbing Behavior] entirely to thank for the fact that I’m on it,” states Rob McLachlan (Final Destination) when discussing how he became involved with the epic Game of Thrones which has eclipsed The Sopranos as the most watch TV series on HBO. “Our house backed a big nature reserve next to the ocean in Vancouver and he was shooting a pilot [Arrow] there. I didn’t want to bother him. David was setting up a big action scene. When David is working he is one of the most focused people I’ve ever known. The soundman was a good friend of mine. We had started out in the business in Vancouver in the late 1970s and I jokingly said to him, ‘Tell David I said, ‘Hi and get me on Game of Thrones.’ Patrick passed that along and three weeks later I got this phone call. It blew my mind!” The new recruit immediately sought out the source material penned by George R.R. Martin and watched previous episodes. “I had not seen much of it but of course as soon as I got the word that I was going to be working on season three I got the books and season one [on DVD]. I watched season two [which was being aired at the time] and was absolutely hooked. When you’re working on episodic television it’s not that often that you get excited about a project not only from the script and performances but from the sheer cinematic aspect for a cinematographer.”
“I read the first and second book in short order when were going over to scout locations for season three,” recalls Rob McLachlan. “It gave me a good lay of the land. Because in season three I was doing episode nine and ten, I had to read all of the ten scripts and familiarize myself with them. What I found was because of purposes of brevity and cinematic storytelling, the episodic scripts started to vary from the books. They didn’t go off on the long tangents that the books tended to do. I found myself getting confused and not being able to remember if I read something in the book or if it was something that happened in episode 305 that was going to impact on how we’d shoot episode 310. I had to step back from the books and focus on the script. They’re complex enough as it is without getting that far into it.” McLachlan took note of a prevailing shooting style. “The biggest thing is that they shoot like a big traditional Cinemascope epic where the camera is not handheld very much; they don’t use a lot of steadicam and try to make it look as invisible as possible. It’s locked down, carefully composed and nicely framed. There’s a lot of thought that goes into building the frames dramatically. You don’t see it in a lot of television. Certainly British television has gone entirely to a handheld documentary approach and lot of TV here has too in order to compete with the reality shows.”
“Everybody thinks that because Game of Thrones is a massive undertaking that you have all the time in the world to shoot stuff unlike most episodic where you’re in a mad scramble all day long,” observes Rob McLachlan. “In fact Game of Thrones is no different. On paper it looks like you get a lot of time to shoot it but you don’t because in the British system they only work 10 hours days. They take a running lunch. They start at 8 a.m. and finish at 6 p.m. which is great for the crew and for having a life. Typical North American episodic production sees you starting at 7 am on a Monday, never working less than 12 hours plus a one hour lunch, and if the work is not done you have to finish it. You’ll go into overtime and get the time to do it. On that show it’s absolutely ironclad 10 hours; that’s it. You have to work exceptionally fast. When you have to get a lot of setups in the can in a day that have to look good, having thousands of days of experience pays off. Among other things it lets you find immediately what is the best lighting approach or where to put the camera. Where Game of Thrones does give you an advantage is that we do get a lot of prep time and visit the locations a lot in advance. It lets us have all of that stuff planned so you’re not pulling it out of your backside at the last second.”
“In terms of the look that is done amongst the cinematographers and post-production people,” explains Rob McLachlan. “They’ve developed a good system where we are all given an iPad with what is called flipbooks on them. The flipbooks are from all of the previous seasons and put into chapters of each of the reoccurring locations. They’ll have a cross section of scenes that were done in each set that were their favourites. This is what has been established here so a new DP doesn’t go off on a tangent and turn it into something entirely different that is going to feel out of place. During the season the same thing happens. If somebody has shot in a particular set like the Cersei Chamber in episode 2, somebody else was in there in episode 5 and I’m in there episode 10, I can go back and look at what they did there under those circumstances. The lighting is always going to change depending on the blocking, where the actors play it, and the mood and tone of the scene but that’s how we keep it consistent from episode to episode.” When it comes to principle photography for the 10 episodes, McLachlan remarks, “Typically their preferred way is to have five directors, five DPs, and five ADs. You each do two episodes and they’re all clumped. The first director is doing one and two, and the next one is doing three and four. We are all there at the same time although it is more staggered this year [for season five]. Episode one to four will get started maybe three weeks before David and I will start our episodes which are nine and ten. There are two complete units called Dragon and Wolf; you’ll bounce between those two but even then there’s only one or two episodes shooting a day. During those days the other directors and DPs are out looking at locations, and plotting out how they are going to shoot it.”
“In film and television you’re always shooting out of order,” notes Rob McLachlan. “What it comes down to is the director and DP getting a clear picture in their heads of what is supposed to be happening in each scene, what is the connective tissue between one location and another, and how you’re cutting between the two. It’s setting up a clear picture of the show ahead of time. That’s the beauty of this show is that David and I don’t start shooting until late August. We’ve already got the outlines and had one meeting about the whole thing. We’re both chewing on what we’ll be faced with on it so by the time we get there we can make the most of those short days they give us.” McLachlan is a big fan of collaborating with veteran director David Nutter. “I’ve worked with him on Millennium [Fox, 1996 to 1999] and the pilot for the Tarzan TV series [The WB, 2003] which was shot in Toronto. They asked me to do the first three episodes to get it on its feet. It ended up not going for long. It had problems with the conceptual and network end. It was great to work with him on that too. We’ve both come a long way, and are older and wiser. Working with him two years ago on season three was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. There’s absolutely nobody like David in terms of how hard he works and how meticulous he is in his planning and thinking everything through. I thought I was thorough and could anticipate all of the things that could possibly go wrong but he’s in a league of his own.”
Overseeing the production of Game of Thrones are David Benioff (25th Hour) and D.B. Weiss. “One or the other of them is there much of the time or one of their writers like Bryan Cogman who wrote a couple episodes this season,” states Rob McLachlan. “The last two seasons they co-directed an episode and that tied them up a fair bit. I don’t think they’re going to do that for season five. The pivotal scenes are when they’re more likely to be around. But having said that David and Dan lead with a light touch and everybody respects them.” Not many conversations are required with the Wardrobe Department. “As far as the costumes are concerned they’re fabulous. The only time there would be any discussion is if a director is worried for instance that somebody’s garment was going to get hung up on something or might slow things down or patching it up again might be a pain or somebody is suppose to be gushing blood or how many extras do we have?” The cinematographers have conversations with the Art Department. “Last season they built two huge new sets; Dany’s audience chamber and her personal quarters which are suppose to be in the pyramid. All of the DPs weighed in fairly heavily when they saw the plans about having some openings to push some lights through because in the original form it was like a big cavern and there was no way to drive any light in; in a world where there are no artificial light sources, it’s either all torches or daylight, that’s critical. It got addressed early on and the sets came out beautifully.”
“There are a fair bit of visual effects on the show,” states Rob McLachlan. “It’s expensive to do. We do have previs artists in the production office but it’s only for the big visual effects shots. If you saw the scene where Littlefinger [Aidan Gillen] and Sansa [Sophie Turner] are approaching the gate to the Eyrie, it wasn’t there so that was all previs ahead of time so that we knew what we could and couldn’t do. A lot of time when you prevising and storyboarding that stuff it is for the visual effects guys to budget it more than telling you how to shoot it.” McLachlan observes, “Over here if I need a green screen I turn to the key grip and say, ‘I need a 12 by 12 green screen over there.’ Two seconds later it’s there. They work in a different system on the technical side. They don’t have the kinds of grips that we have here who can throw that stuff together in a hurry. You have to pre-order it. The riggers come out, get it, and build it. It’s a bigger deal. It’s not something you can pull out on the spur of the moment there. What you do have over there are scenic painters who are second to none. A lot of the backgrounds are a painted backdrop which is a dying art. We do use those if it’s going to be a blown out exterior that you’ll see through a window and that’s way cheaper than moving into compositing green screens.” The cinematographer has a great deal of respect for the visual effects crew. “If I’m creating part of the environment with lighting and the visual effects guys are creating the rest in CG, they’re good at being faithful to the mood and tone I’ve established in the main lighting so everything feels as a whole as supposed to discordant.”
“If you go through the pantheon of best Game of Thrones episodes at the best of times the show is dark, moody, gloomy, and even day interiors have lots of dark shadows where who knows what is lurking,” notes Rob McLachlan who lensed the infamous penultimate episode for season three. “It was paramount to Dan [Weiss], David Nutter and I that we didn’t tip our hat as to what was going to happen in the end of The Rains of Castamere. I wanted the audience to feel like they were going to get a happy ending. We eased into it carefully. We had only been in The Twins a couple of times over the three seasons but Walder Frey [David Bradley] was such a striking character; he loomed over the series even though he previously only had a couple of scenes. Here we are back there in this important political moment where the Stark party arrives and Robb Stark [Richard Madden] has to apologize to Walder for insulting his daughters for not marrying one of them like he promised to. We played it as if he arrived at 3 pm. We played some cold daylight through the windows. It was dark and gloomy, and felt like we’re used to The Twins feeling. The next time we are in there was the wedding ceremony and I played that for post-sunset. There was still a little bit of light in the sky. There is a cool light filtering in but we put lots of candles in and made it nice, warm and romantic. Walder is going to marry one of his daughters off to Robb’s uncle so maybe things won’t be so bad. I made sure that everybody looked gorgeous. We still played it as natural as we could with the light falling off naturally.”
“The next time we’re in there it’s night,” continues McLachlan. “I had the Art Department give me about three times more torches and candle sticks because that way I could organically through the scene bring the whole light level up. It was practically Disney light levels by Game of Thrones standards which was exactly what I wanted. At the same time I didn’t want to play the whole mayhem in that bright high key lighting. There was a natural point with the bedding ceremony where the revellers and guests grab the bride and groom, tear their clothes off, take them to the bedding chamber and leave the room. I thought that was a perfect opportunity to have as many of them as possible grab most of the light sources, the torches and candle sticks, as they left the room; that way they could organically suck the light out of the room as suppose to me artificially suddenly lowering it so it would be darker, moodier and scarier. Then one of the Frey sons closes the door and the band begins to play The Rains of Castamere. It even worked on the crew because we had playback of that music with that cello coming in. We had a dolly shot that pushed in on Catelyn Stark [Michelle Fairley] just as the music came in and the lights had dimmed. Everybody on the crew had the hair on the back of their necks stand up. We’ve been working on this for a week at this point and we knew that we were definitely on the right path!” Other television series took notice of the episode. “A writer friend of mine told me that there’s a term in the writers’ room when they’re bumping into a wall that they have to ‘Red Wedding it!’”
“I have sat on Emmy nominating committees and juries,” reveals Rob McLachlan who received a Primetime Emmy nomination for the Game of Thrones season three finale. “What everybody goes for is quite fickle. I knew that the nominating ballots were going in luckily right around the time that Mhysa and Rains of Castamere aired. The Rains of Castamere caused quite a stir; it became the most famous episode in TV history in terms of the amount of talk and press it generated; that was going to be on everybody’s minds but on the other hand when it came down to looking at the stuff and voting. What happens with the Emmys for cinematography is you have to pick a six minute segment which everybody is going to see. They narrow it down to 10 six minute segments. A jury sits down, watches them all, and judges them. I chose Mhysa not just because I thought it was gorgeous and we hit some nice notes on it. If I had put The Red Wedding in, the scenes for that are so long that with one six minute segment they would only be looking at one note of cinematography. What typically works is when the jury gets to see a cross section. I chose Mhysa because in six minutes I could include a scene from The Twins in the same room where The Red Wedding took place. Now they’re cleaning up and it’s back to extremely stark harsh cold daylight coming in with an amazing conversation going on between Bolton [Michael McElhatton] and Walder Frey while a couple of charwomen scrub up the spilt blood as well as some gorgeous triumphant stuff with Dany [Emilla Clarke] freeing the slaves at the tail end.”
“The big challenge with Mhysa was dealing with thousands of dressed Moroccan extras in Morocco on an extremely tight time frame,” reveals Rob McLachlan who teamed with director David Nutter on the episode. “The climatic sequence in that whole season happens outside the walls of the city which was shot on the world heritage site Aït Benhaddou in Morocco where they also filmed Gladiator , The Man Who Would Be King , Lawrence of Arabia  and The Jewel of the Nile . We had a couple thousand extras to wrangle and two days to shoot a massive climatic sequence which on a feature film schedule we probably would have had 10 days. They weren’t even 10 hour days because the shooting day was quite short. We were in mid-November and had shootable light around 8:30 am and by 4:30 pm it was pretty much over. Getting your ducks in a row so you could get all the pieces you need for that sequence was a real challenge. I’ve got to say when we were finished I couldn’t have been happier with it. We got every single bit that we wanted and it was stunning. I’m proud of that last sequence where she walks out into the crowd, they hoist her up, and we zoom away with the dragons flying by. It was fantastic way to end the season.”
“In the fourth season I worked with Michelle MacLaren [The X-Files],” chuckles Rob McLachlan when remembering a compliment given to them by David Benioff. “He mentioned how great it was to have his ‘demented Canadian duo.’ We did a sequence in season four at Craster’s Keep where this horrible debauchery is going on with these Rangers. We wanted to be as out there as we could. They actually toned it down quite a bit in the final cut which is probably a good thing.” When comparing MacLaren to David Nutter, McLachlan observes, “They both work their butts off and plan meticulously. David is quite a bit more spare in his coverage while he does do a lot more coverage for an individual scene than quite a few of the directors on the show have done. Michelle’s thing is doing massive amounts of coverage; that makes it challenging for me and the technical crew because we don’t want to compromise on the lighting or the composition or the mechanics of an individual shot. If you’re doing twice as many in a day to accomplish her style you have to hustle and get your ducks in a row. It’s hard work. Everybody works differently and that’s the way she works and it works well for her. You can see that from her breathtakingly good Breaking Bad [AMC, 2008 to 2013] episodes. From what I can tell from her episodes in season four although the scale of them was not as big as many others they were engaging ones; they were human and personable.”
“Sometimes you’ll have half a day to do a scene in a small room,” remarks McLachlan. “The scene where Jaime [Nikolaj Coster-Waldau] gives Brienne [Gwendoline Christie] the sword and armour, which oddly enough even though logistically its only two people in a small room, that particular set is the bane of every DP. It’s almost impossible to do anything nice in there because of the way it’s laid out and designed. It’s been repurposed from a bunch of other sets from the past. Its little niggle technical stuff that make it tough and the time you’re given.” Unveiling the mystery involving the White Walkers required some creative ingenuity. “The challenging thing for The Oathkeeper was it was the first time we find out what’s been happening to Craster’s babies that have been left in the snow for these creatures that we’ve only seen in silhouette to pick up. We got stuck with the episode where you see that they’re being retrieved by these White Walkers and carried off to this king who turns them into snow zombies. The tough part for us there was no one knew, even Dan and the visual effects people, what that sequence was going to look like. We had to guess in terms of shooting our elements which was a guy in prosthetic suit on a horse that was going to be made to look skeletal after the fact. Michelle had a fabulous idea of having this giant block of ice, like an altar, for the baby to be laid upon. Right up to that second you don’t know if they’re eating the babies or what the hell they’re doing with them. We got some nice stuff shooting up through the ice of the baby being set down. What that did was it helped us to obscure what was essentially a guy in a rubber suit which none of us wanted to see particularly well. Finding a way to suggest what this thing was without seeing it really well was a challenge. I used a lot of smoke and snow and the whole idea of photographing everything through ice helped to do that. Then the visual effects people came in and created this world around it that worked.”
During the principle photography for the episode First of his Name, Rob McLachlan entered the Throne Room with Michelle MacLaren. “It was the first time I had shot in there. It has been done a lot of times before and in various ways with varying amounts of light and style. We tried to find the right note for that particular scene. A huge set like that you’d think it would be harder to light but actually big ones are easier if you have the equipment. There’s one thing they don’t cheap on that show are the lights that they give you. We’ve got everything. We have massive amounts of lighting equipment and rigging crews to put it in the right place. You can come in and turn it on and tell a director they can shoot anywhere they want because it’s going to look great.” McLachlan adds, “When we were composing a scene I said to the camera operator, ‘I want it to feel like a John Constable painting.’ I wasn’t specific. I was thinking of a painting The Hay Wain which is in the National Gallery in London. He said, ‘Ah, right. The Hay Wain.’ He moved the camera over, raised it up, got in exactly the right place and we had this classical composition that was pleasing to the eye. We got there quickly. I could never do that here because even dedicated camera operators, certainly not the younger ones, have not been marched off to the national gallery to appreciate art from a young age. Just learning those compositional elements is really important and that’s one of those things I love about my camera operators on Game of Thrones. They all have great classically trained eyes.”
“In Belfast with all of our sets and heaps of equipment we can create any look or feel or atmosphere that we want,” states Rob McLachlan. “When we’re in Morocco or Croatia or Iceland we’re working with a much smaller crew and you have to find a way to make it look terrific and right without all of those tools or manpower at your disposal. The way we do that is to scout the locations ahead of time and plan meticulously what direction we’re going to be shooting in through the day. You can plot your day out so you can follow the sun so that you’re always backlit or have the nicest possible background. You can make something that looks exceptional with what you’ve got to work with there.” Travelling around the world allows for some historical encounters. “We pinch ourselves when we are on these locations because for episode four of this season we were in a medieval fortress above the town of Split in Croatia that had changed hands a number of times during the Crusades. We had populated it with a couple of thousand dressed extras that we made to look like several thousand more in this breath-taking location. Here you are with this movie that made you want to make movies in the first place. Here you are doing it. It’s fantastic. Nobody becomes a cinematographer because they can shoot talking heads procedural police dramas.” The fantasy genre makes Game of Thrones overlooked in the awards process, especially, the contributions of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. “It’s exceptional writing and viewers’ investment with the characters is almost unlike anything on TV. It’s extraordinary.”
Many thanks to Rob McLachlan for taking the time for this interview.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.