Since the early days of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the viewing public has been obsessed with sexy robots, so it’s no surprise that people tuned into HBO’s Westworld. What made the sci-fi epic so aesthetically interesting, though, was that it highlighted the potent mix of circuitry and sensuality not only in individual characters, but also in the overall visual tone of the show. With Emmy nominations on the way in mid-July, it seems likely that the HBO prestige drama will rack up more than a few nods, so we caught up with cinematographer and Game of Thrones and Ray Donovan veteran Robert McLachlan, who was the director of photography for many of the first season’s episodes — including the one with the orgy — to talk about how the show’s look was constructed.
What was on Westworld’s mood board?
Well, they had shot the pilot at that point, which was a template. Although, my experience with pilots at that point is that you’re still trying to find the specific style and find the stories and find the characters and everything else. The same certainly holds true for the first few episodes of any new TV series, especially if it’s really ambitious, like Westworld was. I broke my own personal rule of trying to not shoot the first season of any new, especially ambitious series because it’s usually really hard. It always takes somebody a year or two to figure out who they are and what they’re doing and what the template is that they’re aiming for.
Other than the pilot, did you look at other works for inspiration?
The key thing that we had to keep in mind was that it was a lot more Blade Runner than a Western. We had to keep in mind that we weren’t shooting a Western; we were shooting a science-fiction show. So stylistically and artistically — for me, at least — it gave you the opportunity to swing between the very hard-edged, technical, clinical world of the control center underground and the fabulous Western settings that we had. From a cinematographer’s standpoint, that was really fantastic, but we always were mindful of the fact that this was actually a science-fiction-based story, and not a Western. So it was much less prosaic than you might expect.
And yet, you’re outside for much of the show in these gorgeous natural vistas. How did you apply the lessons of Blade Runner to shots of the natural landscape?
It was so subtle that I think most viewers wouldn’t pick up on it. When it came to how we used the camera and how we framed things and the camera movement itself, the goal was to be assertive, mechanical, and we didn’t ever want the viewer to feel like there was a human being on the other end of that camera who was operating it. Almost as if it were robotic, as well, and we did that as much as we possibly could when we were in the control center underground. But it was a little harder to do when you’re dealing with horses that don’t hit marks and that sort of thing. As much as we could, we used that technique when we were above ground.
That’s fascinating. What are the challenges posed by shooting outdoors in a pretty remote area?
Well, the biggest one is that when you’re outside, natural light can either be one of the most beautiful lights there is, or the most harsh and unforgiving. The way we dealt with it, for instance, on Game of Thrones, where we have a lot of prep time to plan ahead, was to try and scout the locations and plan your days as much as you could around where the sun was going to be. If you’re in a natural setting and you clock your actions so that they’re always backlit, then you have very little to do to make it look beautiful.
The problem is that things don’t always go according to schedule. Quite often, you’d find yourself shooting a scene at 12:30 in the afternoon that would really look way better at either nine o’clock in the morning, or four o’clock in the afternoon. It becomes really labor-intensive to get big silks overhead so that the actors look as good as possible. It really comes down to how fast you’re able to work and where you can get heavy equipment into. I mean, the amount of machinery you actually need to shoot an attractive exterior shot on a show like that is something that I think people would honestly be quite surprised with.
You shot on film, not on digital. How does that change the process and the end product?
Digital, you can roll and roll and roll, and it doesn’t really cost you anything. A lot of filmmakers have gotten into the bad habit of letting the camera keep rolling, or going back to the start and starting over again. I think it’s tough on the actors, and it’s tough on the crew. What happens is that people get a little bit lazy, because if you don’t get it right on this one, you’re going to get it right on the next one. Whereas, when expensive film is rolling through the camera and the assistant director yells “Rolling!” and “Action!” everybody knows that film is rolling, and you’ve only got so much in the can before you’re going to run out. It really makes everybody snap to attention, from the actors right through the entire crew.
On a much more exciting and satisfying side, the cinematographer is once again back in the driver’s seat in regards to what it’s going to look like, as he’s the only one who knows exactly what dailies are going to look like tomorrow. With digital, anyone can look at it on the high-def monitors on set and see whether there is too much or too little detail or shadow and what have you. It really puts a massive amount of the experience back on the shoulders of the cinematographer — and that’s not a bad thing.
Speaking of responsibility, the scripts often weren’t ready until right before you started shooting. What kind of challenge did that pose?
The scripts coming in really late, or having changes made in the middle of it, is not uncommon on most TV shows. I think I’ve been lucky on the series I’ve been doing, alternating between Westworld and Game of Thrones with Ray Donovan. We usually are a couple of scripts ahead, so you’ve got a good idea of what’s coming. The unique and wonderful thing about Game of Thrones is that they don’t start their season until we have a pile of all ten finished scripts, and everyone on the crew has read them from start to finish and know exactly what is going to happen down the line, and they know how a prop in episode one is going to pay off in episode seven, and so forth. Not having that in Westworld, and the fact that the crew was kept quite in the dark about exactly what was going on with the story line, I think probably contributed to some inefficiencies. There may have been a couple of issues because a piece of wardrobe was incorrect because someone went on under the assumption that in scene six — which followed scene five — the actor ought to be in the same wardrobe, not knowing that scene six took place 40 years after scene five.
A lot of us didn’t know that. They really were incredibly secretive — and very effective — at keeping that fact hidden from everybody, which I think had mixed results. On the plus side, I think that if people knew that one story line was taking place during one period as opposed to another one, we all might have approached a scene that was taking place today differently than a scene that was taking place 30 years earlier. And the goal was for all of them to be absolutely indistinguishable. A scene in the saloon in one episode looked identical to one in the other episode. We all assumed that they took place only days apart, but in fact they were years apart. There was a huge amount of effort made to be extremely consistent with how all the different sets looked all the time.
How did you shoot the subterranean locations so they didn’t look dimly lit?
I think the same rule applies to those as applies to doing any really good photography: There’s not too much of a secret to it, if you know your craft. The important thing to making really cool and interesting pictures is to only take pictures of really cool and interesting things, or really beautiful things. I learned a long time ago that if you try to force a look or a mood — especially a dark mood — on a set that doesn’t call for it or demand it, it’s going to feel false and bogus.
You see some of that, for example, in the early episodes of The X-Files. That was being shot next door to where I was shooting Chris Carter’s other show back in the late-’90s, Millennium, and I learned that the writers might write a scene that was supposed to be extremely dark and moody and — this is an extreme example — you walk into a supermarket where all the lights are on. Well, if you turn all the lights off in there, it’s just going to feel false and bogus, and people are going to be thinking, Why doesn’t somebody turn some lights on in there? So for me, I have to let the location and the setting speak first, and the rest comes out of that. I think the lighting and the camerawork, but particularly the lighting, is purely integrated into the story and the setting, so they all work together as a piece.
Photography that calls attention to itself is called decorative photography, which, unfortunately, is often what ends up winning awards and getting a lot of critical acclaim. But when you stand back and look at it, I think that most cinematographers view that as bad cinematography. Because as soon as the audience member is going, “Wow, look at the beautiful vista!” or “Wow, look how cool that lighting is,” they’re not engaged in the story anymore. I think that’s where we’ve been really successful with Game of Thrones, because it’s never self-consciously one thing or another. And the same with Westworld, the same with everything I do — the L.A. noir that I’m currently doing right now on Ray Donovan — we’re trying to really fill it in and make it as organic as possible so that they’re sucked into the story.
Is there a shot in Westworld that you’re particularly proud of?
There were lots. We had action sequences — I shot one of the biggest action sequences, actually, the chase with the Confederados — but they restructured the whole episode with a couple of others and took all that material to ramp up one of the slower-moving episodes, so I’m not even sure if I got credit for it. That was really satisfying because we planned it well and had very limited time to do an exciting chase and couldn’t stop to light anything, so we used natural light as often as we could.
I think my favorite scene, photographically — because it’s so lush from a lighting standpoint — is the one where they got to the massive brothel in the town of Pariah in episode five. We shot that in an amazing old mausoleum in South Central L.A., which was built in the ’20s. As you can probably see, the art department did a fabulous job dressing it and populating it with all these naked robots, but lighting it so that it felt like you were in a place that was only lit by a candle. Torchlight was really, really hard — especially on film. On digital, it’s much easier because it’s so sensitive to light, but on film, it’s tough. And we had a very, very limited amount of time to do that.
I look at the stills and the frame grabs from that and I’m incredibly gratified because it’s incredibly lush. I always feel like I’ve nailed it the most when you’ve got a subject like that and it feels as painterly as possible. If you froze it, it would look like something you might see in the National Gallery or the Louvre, which are both places I spend a lot of time looking at how Old Masters lit stuff. From a lighting standpoint, the most successful stuff and the most gratifying stuff that I’ve done has fallen into that category.
You’ve said in the past that the brothel scene was taxing. Do you mean that in terms of lighting it correctly?
Yeah, with the time and the resources that we had. It was an absolute gallop. We only had one day in there and it was an 18-hour day. Obviously, it was a massive amount of work to accomplish and it turned out really great. I would have done the color correction a little bit differently — I would have done it a bit darker than it went there — but I think it was really evocative. It was everything that the script wanted the place to be and feel like. So I feel like we really nailed that one, for sure.