A first-person tour behind the process of shooting during this new golden age of television.
Cinematographer Sam McCurdy is an expert raconteur on all things filmmaking. If you don't know McCurdy by name you might be familiar with his work. His recent projects include the Netflix series Lost in Space, and prior, he lensed Blackwater (S2E9), the Game of Thrones episode in which Stannis Baratheon's fleet attempts to raid King's Landing.
Blackwater changed the course of Game of Thrones, and perhaps influenced the scope of what can be done cinematically in modern television today. In an interview, McCurdy breaks down his approach, process, preferred tools, and offers advice to anyone coming up.
No Film School: How did you get your foot in the door as a working cinematographer?
Sam McCurdy: I started as a PA in the camera department, moved into being a loader, a central loader, 2nd tier C, 1st tier C, operator, and then a DP. It's a very old fashioned route, but it was a really good route. You spend a lot of time on set working with operators, DPs, and focus pullers, and learn as you go.
NFS: Did starting out in film help your career?
McCurdy: I was very lucky I learned on film and worked under some very great DPs. I think I always knew from a very early age that I wanted to do this. I studied photography and fine arts, so I knew photography was always the way I wanted to go. Back then, you had to get in at the bottom end of the camera department and work your way up. In this day and age, you could go and buy a second-hand camera and start shooting.
NFS: Ya, the whole idea of shooting a movie on your own.
McCurdy: Exactly. The whole place is open to fresh, young, new, and exciting people that want to get involved in the film industry. It makes a huge difference/ For my department, I welcome in as many as I can and the people who want to be there. That's the bottom line. You quickly realize who actually wants to be there and who doesn't.
NFS: Besides digital technology, there's been an explosion of platforms creating high quality content. Has it helped your career?
McCurdy: Absolutely. And it's great. 10 years ago, I was doing very well doing on projects with 25 million, maybe $30 million budgets. You'd do one a year and it was fantastic. Now, you'd be very lucky to do movies like The Descent, The Hills Have Eyes, Centurion, and Doomsday. They were all brilliant, genre-specific movies, with good budgets. Those budgets have really disappeared. But now we have Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, EPIX, Disney, YouTube, Apple, and other platforms that have taken its place.
NFS: Is that was made you jump on Lost in Space for Netflix?
McCurdy: I remember facing the first of season of Lost in Space and a lot of people said to me, "Why do you want to go on a show that runs for so long, with all the VFX?" And I said, "Guys... this is my version of a Marvel movie. They give me a hundred million dollars to spend. We spend it over 10 episodes, but it's a hundred million dollars. What movie do I get the chance to shoot a hundred million dollars on?" It's a no-brainer.
I get to work with the same VFX artists that work on the Marvel movies. The same post houses. We do the same color timing in the same color timing houses. I use exactly the same cameras. There's no difference. I just have to fit every episode into a two and a half to three-week schedule as opposed to having maybe 18 months to shoot something. But it's a hundred million bucks!
"From my side of things, you can never have too much prep."
NFS: And it looks cinematic. Can you talk us through prepping and shooting a project like Lost in Space?
McCurdy: With Lost in Space I was given about six or seven weeks of prep before we started principal photography. Then in between each episode, about two weeks of prep with each individual director. Usually, for the first two episodes, you get between 30 and 35 days to shoot. Somewhere in the region, it's rough for two episodes of that level of TV drama.
The big difference in the prep we get is it's never the same as feature film prep. But we do get a good bulk of prep right at the beginning of the show, so we get to pre-visualize much of the work. We pre-light many of the sets. When we first built Jupiter that was all done within the first weeks of prep, so we had plenty of time to pre-light. We had plenty of time to go in and test everything to make sure we liked the look of it. If we didn't like it, we'd go back in with a fresh tin of paint, give it a different color coat, and test it again.
NFS: Is that the same for shooting?
McCurdy: When it comes to shooting, we do have to work at a furious rate to complete each episode. There are so many visual effects, but we plan them brilliantly. Jabbar [Raisani], who was one of the directors on season two, was our VFX supervisor. We spent weeks going through all of the visual effects elements, where they would go, how they were going to be photographed, how he was going to build them in post. We had such a good idea of how things were going to be done going in.
From my side of things, you can never have too much prep. It's the time you get to spend with directors, showrunners, and producers, and find out from a very early stage exactly what they're expecting. Are they expecting a huge scale? Are they expecting lots of detail?
NFS: How do you design a look with scale over the course of a series?
McCurdy: The basis for Lost in Space was trying to base it in reality. We took a lot of references from real spacecraft. There has to be a reality in the way you photograph to give some longevity – to hopefully not have it dated in 10 years' time. For me, the key thing was that I was actually under lighting as much as I possibly could.
NFS: How so?
McCurdy: We had this incredible spaceship built, and the big thing for me was, well, okay, if we're going to build this incredible spaceship, let's put as much practical lighting in there as possible so that I'm then not tempted to go in with a lot of big lights and start over-lighting the sets and making it look like it is something beyond reality. We wanted to keep it grounded as much as possible.
We always went back to Star Wars, but Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi specifically. Movies that were shot on spaceships, or shot in real jungles, or real forests, or a real desert, but you never once didn't believe you were not on another planet.
NFS: Love that. It seems that the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon was lit differently over the course of the Star Wars films. In Empire, it almost felt like it was being lit by practicals from ‘within the ship’ so to speak.
McCurdy: Absolutely. It was one of the things we looked at. The idea being that once you go into space, you've basically got the sun [as a lighting source] and that's it. The light outside the spacecraft was the sun. It was going to be white sunlight. So we didn't force ourselves into oranges, blues, purples, or violets, and the different things that take on other worlds. Everything else had to come from inside the ship. It had to come from within the vessels themselves.
The first three Star Wars, for me, stand head and shoulders above so many movies for getting that point across where you can go and shoot in the forest. You can go and shoot on a desert, and you can make people believe that you're on a different planet.
NFS: You lensed, in what I think is a landmark moment in television with Blackwater. Prior, Game of Thrones had yet to do anything with such scale. It felt like it opened a door for the series and TV in general. Did it felt risky at that time?
McCurdy: Everyone knew that Blackwater was going to be a bit of a gamble. It’s very kind of you to say that it was a landmark, and I think it was a landmark, certainly for Game of Thrones. I think it jumped, not only as far as budgets were concerned, but it also allowed Game of Thrones to then go, "Right, okay. We can be big."
NFS: It literally exploded with that episode.
McCurdy: It was an incredible experience. The particular episode itself was penned by George Martin. He wrote it himself to purposely blow the world up of Game of Thrones. So when we first saw the script, it was like, "Oh my god. How do we do this in 15 days?"
NFS: How did you?
McCurdy: I think we all knew we'd got a tough assignment. I'd worked in Belfast before. The whole crew had worked on the season prior. Belfast is, I don't know if you've ever been out to visit, but it is one of the wettest places on the planet. I mean, it makes Vancouver look like an arid desert. The weather systems that cross Northern Ireland are pretty brutal. Winds, rains, all the rest of it. We knew it was going to be difficult.
It was that thing of sitting down in prep going, "Look, all we've got here is a battle. And then we've got a lot of people underground talking about the battle." And now we've taken it down to its real basics.
Once you took it down to its basics and went, "Okay, fair enough. So we'll have X amount of days outside, and we'll X amount of days underground. Let's figure out what we need to do each day." Then the visual effects elements side of it was easier to plan.
NFS: Even it being only a handful of years ago. VFX planning was different, right?
McCurdy: Yes. It was 2013 roughly. And even though it doesn't sound like a long time ago, in the visual effects world, it ages ago. Back then we used huge green screens for every single shot we were doing. Nobody wanted to pay for rotoscoping. Nobody wanted to do face replacements. Nobody wanted to put a dozen extra ships in the background.
Now we take for granted, "Oh, it'll take you five minutes to build that in a computer. We'll just shoot one little bit of it." Back then we shot everything. It was all down to preparation. When we first went in we thought this is going to be something that's either incredible or we're going to find that we just have not got the time to do it, and it's going to look like a pile of shit.
NFS: Sound intense.
McCurdy: It was a scary gamble. That was one of my first jobs with Jabbar. We all just sat down and went through exactly what we needed to do. The great thing with Game of Thrones was that everybody that came in was absolutely incredible.
We would rehearse a hell of a lot and then you'd go for maybe two or three takes, and we would have it. There were scenes where we had 20 guys on horseback, and then we had a hundred background artists behind that, and then we had guys throwing fireballs and things like that. Everyone was great.
NFS: And it all went smoothly? Even in the awful weather?
McCurdy: The shoot was incredible. The incredible thing was the producers. Dan [Wiess] and David [Benioff] are, as I'm sure anybody will tell you, two of the greatest showrunners I've ever worked with because they give you free rein to do whatever you want. They trust the words on the page. They said, "even if you just shoot the words, we know we've got a good episode. So knowing that you're going to shoot the words with a big battle going on behind means it's going to be even better."
They trust you implicitly to do your job. Everybody tells you that the most important thing is letting somebody do the job that they were hired to do. If you hire a director, you let them direct. If you hire a cinematographer, let them be a cinematographer. With Game of Thrones the level of trust from the guys at the top filtered down so that you were always going to do your best work.
Just a few days into shooting the battle sequences we knew the producers were never going to stop us with, “Oh my goodness, that's too dark. Oh my goodness, that's too gory. Oh my goodness, there's too much bad language.” They just went with it and they let us all do our jobs. That was one of the great things for Game of Thrones. They always allowed the creatives to be creative and I think that's what kept the show so fresh over all the seasons.
NFS: Does that kind of open creativity help with cinematography?
McCurdy: For a cinematographer, there's nothing like being given the completely blank canvas of night. I think we did nine days of night shooting for Blackwater. It is basically a blank canvas. Somebody says, “Well, we should have a lot of burning things." Brilliant. Cool. Let's put some fire over there. Oh, and we're going to have wildfire as well, which is green. Cool. Let's have green lights over here. Suddenly you grow a canvas in front of you. It was an incredible episode to work on.
NFS: How did you strike the visual balance between the practical and the visual effects elements in Blackwater?
McCurdy: After Game of Thrones finished I had so many photographs and so many tests. I think on one of the Instagram sites I run for the BSC in the UK, I posted an early test for wildfire and it was basically a bunch of guys in the backlots in Belfast throwing petrol bombs on the floor of varying different colors to see if we could get anything to burn green.
I'm sure that plenty of people out there would look at it now and go, “well you could probably do the green fire a little better with more effects help and more this and more that.” But actually it's still got such a down and dirty kind of feel that it really suited that episode. It had that otherworldly kind of feel but still felt a bit rough around the edges, which that whole episode was about. That whole episode was about being down in the mud and the blood. There was something critical in keeping everything grounded. If we'd gone completely over the top, it would have felt completely wrong.
NFS: I know every job is different on many levels, but are there any specific tools or types of lighting you prefer?
McCurdy: Those choices are obviously so important. Especially now.
I take the view that a sensor and a lens combination are now my new film stocks. So, for example, Fuji film stock has different ratings or Kodak film stock has different ratings. So for me now, if I pair a Denali Mini with a set of Master Primes, I know what it's going to look like. If I pair a RED Monstro with a Zeiss, I know what it's going to look like. Or if I pair the new Sony VENICE with 4K anamorphics, it's going to look like X.
It comes down to preference. It's knowing how you feel a project should look and then making sure that you've got a bit of time to go and test some stuff, test different lenses, etc. Because the difference between a Master Prime and a Leica, or the difference between an anamorphic and a spherical is huge.
You really do see the difference. I remember not that long ago, when the Alexa first came out and everybody wanted to shoot with the Alexa. It seemed everybody paired the ARRI Alexa with a set of Cooke S4s. And it looks beautiful. Cooke S4 is a beautiful soft, warm lens. The ARRI Alexa has a very soft, creamy kind of sensor. But then suddenly my attention was drawn to the fact that so much television started to look the same. I was like, wow, you really can tell that everybody's shooting on the Alexa and Cookes.
NFS: When you were talking about lens pairing with cameras being your new stock, I was reminded that so much of what we hear about now is that people are using lenses to distort image quality because the sensors in the camera are so powerful that it looks too perfect. Is that true in your experience?
McCurdy: I've been drawn into this conversation many times and for me personally, I think it's wrong to say you choose the lens to distort the sensor, or to degrade it, or take it's edge off, or something. For me, the best way to do it is just to pair the two things that worked best for the story you're trying to tell.
I'm a huge, huge fan of RED. Have been for years. It was unconventional. And I'm a big fan of the unconventional. They absolutely broke the mold. And I think the guys, with everything they do with every new sensor they bring out, I think they do something different, which is great.
But what you've got to do is pair it with something that works for what you want to shoot. I think there's a bit of a misnomer that, oh, we should just get really funky old distorted Russian anamorphics and put them on a camera, and it will look fantastic.
NFS: But you hear that a lot though, right?
McCurdy: You hear it so much. But it's not necessarily true because that might just be wrong for the subject matter. I've got a lot of friends who do it and I tried to put them off it. I say, “well look, you can probably get a similar look if you pair a different sensor with a better set of lenses and lenses that work properly. Lenses that the first and second ACs can work with properly. Lenses that hold focus from top to bottom and don't just have a little tiny bit that's in focus in the middle.
It's a kind of fine balance. I hear a lot of people saying, “oh well I just need something that, if you'll pardon my French, I need something that fucks the sensor up a bit.” No, you don't need that.
What you actually need the right lens for the job and you just haven't had the time to go out and check five or six different lenses. I was just reading some of Dan Mindel's posts just recently. I mean he was working on that last Star Wars. You look at some of the lenses he's got, and they're the best lenses in the world without a shadow of a doubt. But what he does is he pairs them with the right sensor, he uses the right filtration, and he gets an incredible looking movie.
It's all in how you perceive the final piece looking. I remember doing Lost in Space Season 3 with the Leicas. Because it's television and because there are a vast array of consumer TV screens, you tend to put a little bit of extra crunch into a TV show. So when we were grading Lost in Space Season One, I found that I'd wanted something that was just a little bit thinner, a little bit more filmic.
So we went to the Cooke S5s for season two because they naturally gave me a little bit more information that was just a little bit softer and a little bit thinner. That meant when we did put that crunch in post.
NFS: That's a cool adjustment. Going back to Game of Thrones, there was talk in the final season that sequences were too dark. It created this awareness that our TVs are not prepared for some of the images that are being crafted by filmmakers who are shooting cinematic shows. Is it harder finding the right balance because of that?
McCurdy: Absolutely. Fabian Wagner is a very dear friend of mine and he shot the battle in the final season [of Game of Thrones]. Funnily enough, I’m working in Prague at the moment and Fabian was here about four or five weeks ago shooting a commercial and the two of us just went out for dinner.
We were talking about the last season of Game of Thrones and talking about the “too dark” for TV thing. The thing is when you buy a new TV and you take it out of the box and you plug it in, the picture probably looks incredible. But that doesn’t mean it's going to look incredible if you want to display the perfect cinema.
What Fabian, and myself, and everybody else tries to do, is we're exploring cinema objectives as far as our cinematography is concerned. We’re trying to put it across on a television screen.
The great thing is televisions are getting bigger and bigger. I know a lot of people do view things on iPads, laptops, phones, but I have to say, I think we're now in a world where we're making more television for the person that has a 65-inch TV, on their wall or for the family that has the 60-inch TV that sits in the corner.
"...for most things, I'll still set the lighting for a scene completely by eye and never look at a monitor until they bring the first team in"
NFS: How often do you get an opportunity to shoot on film?
McCurdy: I was lucky about two years ago. I did a very low budget thing for a UK TV channel. It was shot on 35mm and we shot it on 35mm because in the end, it was cheaper, easier, and more lightweight. A lot of it was shot at night. A lot of it was shot with no lighting whatsoever and we wanted to give it a real ascetic, so we shot it on film. There are so many huge productions, especially in the UK at the moment, shooting on film that there's a lot of companies that have now set up lab, stock, and processing all as a package deal for television shows and for students at film school.
NFS: Is there any working differences with film projects over digital?
McCurdy: I like film because nobody is attached to anything. Nobody is staring over monitors. Everybody is on set, just watching actors. And it's great! With that UK project, it went back to that kind of theatrical way of making movies where the cameraman, the operator would be next to the camera, the director would be right next to the camera operator watching the actors. I'd be with the gaffer looking at the whole space. I didn't sit at a monitor, I just looked at the actors and went, oh, that could be a little darker. That could be a little brighter.
You did everything by eye again and I have to say, even now in this digital world, I still prefer to stand on set with a gaffer and a grip and light just from what I see before I ever go back to a monitor to see exactly what everybody else was seeing.
I'll still light by eye on a set. I still have a meter that I walk around with just to check contrast ratios. Then I'll go back to the monitor and fine-tune from the monitor. But for most things, I'll still set the lighting for a scene completely by eye and never look at a monitor until they bring the first team in and you start tweaking and you start getting everything just right for the main artists.
NFS: It's like somebody who says, “I can sail using a compass, or I know I can look up at the stars and tell where I want to go.” It's a cool skill to have and it gives you a sense of crafting the image that I think is different.
McCurdy: Absolutely. Something I do say to a lot of DPs that I meet, a lot of younger DPs, or a lot of people at film schools or on media courses and things like that, is: learn to do things yourself. Don't trust everybody else to tell you how things are done.
I mean, to be honest, it's one of the things I love about No Film School is it offers up a kind of melting pot for people to kind of go, “well there's this and this and this and this and this…" There are a million ways to do everything and none of them are right or wrong.
It's one of the reasons I got into this industry in the first place. Once you decide you want to be a director or you want to be a cinematographer, there's actually nobody around to tell you you're wrong, which is brilliant.
For me, I love new ways of lighting. I love the new LED gadgets that we've got now. They are incredible because those sensors are getting more and more sensitive, and my lights can get smaller and smaller and smaller, and they can get flatter, and I can put them into places that I never could when if I was shooting on film.
It's only through trying things out that people get to learn these things. I can tell you what I do and the way I might like this, or the way I would light a big night scene or something like that, but don't copy it.
Just go out, do it yourself, and try things because it's the best way to learn. It's so important not to listen to what everybody else tells you. Absolutely find out for yourself
NFS: [laughs] That's so great as a final piece of advice to anyone.
McCurdy: [laughs] It's so important not to listen to other people.
NFS: I love that.