'Game of Thrones' DP Rob McLachlan Shares His Favorite Cinematic Images and His (New) Favorite Camera
Forget low-light, Sony VENICE 2 can shoot in moonlight. Here's what Robert McLachlan, ASC, CSC thinks this means for the future of cinematography.
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A few decades before Game of Thrones and Westworld, Rob McLachlan was eking out a living making documentaries in his own production studio. His ethos? Make good work, and make it efficient so he could keep the lights on. That philosophy has followed him on every project, no matter the size, for the last twenty years. And it’s landed him the DP gigs of a lifetime.
“I’m always looking for ways to do things better and faster,” McLachlan told No Film School. “That’s one of the reasons I’m enamored with Sony VENICE.”
The high ISO and genius dual-base ISO is his first reason.
“And it’s even better in the new VENICE 2 at 3200 and 800. Even at 3200, the shadows are the cleanest I’ve seen yet.”
McLachlan says he is incredibly pleased with a lot of work in his career, especially on Ray Donovan and Game of Thrones. (His episodes infamously include "The Red Wedding" and "The Spoils of War," where Daenerys rides the dragon to the Loot Train attack.) But his favorite images were actually shot on Sony VENICE. Which images are those, you ask?
A still from "Lovecraft Country." McLachlan cites the imagery on this show (shot on Sony VENICE) to be the most filmic of his career.Credit: HBO
“The pictures that pleased me the most photographically I made on Lovecraft Countryusing Sony VENICE in 6K mode with full-frame Zeiss Supreme primes.”
According to McLachlan, there’s something about both the higher resolution and the color processing in VENICE that is creamy and filmic instead of “digital/hyperreal/artificial” on other high-resolution sensors.
His affinity for the original is why McLachlan agreed to shoot test footage on the brand-new Sony VENICE 2. The result is a no-holds-barred resolution and dynamic range test called Homecoming.
No Film School caught up with Rob McLachlan to ask about anything from how to catch a break as a DP, to how VENICE 2 performed on his rigorous, ultra-naturalistic test shoot.
Take a look and dive into our interview.
NFS: You’ve lensed so many cinematic shows, from Game of Thronesto Lovecraft Countryto Westworld. How did you know you would become a great DP?
McLachlan: I really didn’t. But I did wake up one morning (tired) and realized I’d spent the best part of 50 weeks a year for 20 years on a film set doing something I loved. And making images and scenes I was really pleased with. So I realized I must be doing something right!
NFS: So after 20 years of creating images, what’s the most important skill you’d say you need to be a great DP?
Robert McLachlan: I think a great DP is a good multitasker—and a good manager. The ability to see the big picture (pardon the pun) and understand I’m part of a team is really important. To focus on that, the photographic and technical aspects need to be ingrained, instinctive. Second nature, really.
NFS: Sony VENICE 2 has a brand-new sensor, and looks to have even better overall image quality. In the film Homecoming that you made to test out V2, you mention not using any light, indoors or out. Why? How did VENICE 2 perform?
McLachlan: When Sony asked me to do this test, my first impulse was to gather my favorite crew and create a scenario where we could do what we are good at. Make gorgeous images of professional, made-up actors in carefully curated settings under ideal conditions with maybe vintage lenses, filters, smoke, lighting, and grip gear, and all the other elements we employ to make dramatic pictures.
But, then I thought, that sounds more like a demo reel for me than the camera. And will that really prove the camera to DPs? I mean, with all those assets you can make any camera look good. So I embarked on making a film with nothing between the viewer and the camera. I thought, let’s not use any of the truckloads of resources I normally have. Let’s take this camera out and throw everything we can at it. My bet was that if my experience with V1 was any indication, it would shine. And boy, does it.
Homecoming is really a return to my documentary roots, when I was always striving to make the best possible images with the least possible gear. I traveled to places I love, from my home in Palm Springs/LA to the home of my childhood roots on a small island inhabited by a lot of artists, off the coast of British Columbia. I wanted to see how the sensor rendered extreme contrast as well as skin tones under harsh sun, soft daylight, dusk, and simple domestic lighting. That’s why I took it from the Californian desert to the moody misty autumn shores of British Columbia.
If you carefully watch the film, I aimed for every un-manipulated image to tell you something about resolution and dynamic range. The simple shot, for instance, of the woman walking out of the harshly sunlit house with the dark garage in the foreground is an example. On a production, my grips would likely mount a bounce to kick some sun into the dim interior without me even asking. But we didn’t, and it’s fine, and feels as natural as it is. To keep it honest, we also avoided stop pulls and dynamic grading. What this tells me is in the future, even with every piece of equipment there is at my disposal, I can foresee using less and less—at least when pursuing my usual goal of “enhanced naturalism” in my lighting. And less is almost always more.
Now at this point, someone is going to say there’s another small, high-resolution camera out there that can do a lot of that, but I just don’t see ever using it, and post people hate it. The sensor is just not in the same league as Sonys. Let’s face it. Sony is in a league of its own in the chip race.
For my one night interior, shot in a real house with real un-made-up people, I resisted every urge to help the lighting out and just let the existing practical lights and one tattered found rice paper lamp with a 60-watt bulb do the lighting. I was confident everyone would still look very good. even without filters or smoke or my favorite Dedo Parabeam Octodome soft light. In far from ideal “available” light, the skin tones were lovely and flatteringly rendered.
NFS: You even make a joke in the BTS video for Homecoming that filmmakers might want to sell their stock in BB&S Lighting right now. Do you see DPs using less light as the way of the future?
McLachlan: Yes. With this camera I totally see DPs using less light—at least on location, day or night. The sensitivity and terrific latitude of the V2 combined with, for me, a desire for the lighting to feel as natural as possible.
Say you are in a situation where there is no light in the environment. In an open prairie at night, like we often had on Westworld, this sensor is so good that you can use less light and from much farther away, which always looks better and more natural. The bonfire scene I shot in Homecoming shows you can light faces just with a fire, and not have the flames totally clip. It’s a big step forward.
I lit a lot of scenes on Game of Thrones with only candles and torches, but the flames always clipped badly, and I hated that. And incidentally—that bonfire scene we did in which it’s actually raining? Had it been clear with a full moon, I’m pretty sure I’d have had detail and texture in trees in the background just by moonlight. I’ll find out next time.
Incidentally, on the island [in Homecoming] we shot in a very environmentally-sensitive nature preserve, and we had a very small window to film there. We were actually the only professional film crew ever allowed in there. Well, the shot of our woman walking in the woods, off the drone? We were really scrambling and racing from location to location and had not noticed that the drone operator had bumped the iSO setting to 200 from 800. In dailies it was almost black—but when we pulled up the master it was all recoverable in spite of being 2 stops underexposed.
NFS: What were your main impressions of what’s different on Sony VENICE 2 compared to the original?
McLachlan: My favorite mechanical feature is the built-in multiple stops of ND which are genius and allow you to change NDs with the snap of a finger. On a lot of shoots, this may need to be done frequently if you are trying to maintain depth of field from one lens focal length to another. I mean, think about it—multiple filter swaps could eat up, say, 10-plus minutes a day. Not a lot, but when you add it up over a week, that’s about an hour of shooting time. A typical series day could cost $300K, or a lot more, so those built-in NDs on VENICE can save 20 grand of shooting time a week. And on a 20-week series, that’s like $400,000, maybe more! That’s time better invested in more takes or honing lighting or camera moves.
Another thing I love about the V2 is how highlights roll off much more naturally. That was my one real beef about V1. If you watch the Homecoming test I shot, you’ll see I framed 3:2—using the entire sensor—in 8.6K. I did this because I thought it would be really informative to see everything edge to edge. It also allowed keeping the sun in the shot more to assess how those extreme highlights resolve. And as you’ll see, they resolve very very well indeed.
I had a secondary reason which was to look at how these new FF lenses perform top to bottom. Of course, I’d seen them on projectors, but not like this. And in 8.6K!
NFS: It’s obviously different for each project, but what is your overall guiding philosophy when you decide how to light a film?
McLachlan: My overall guiding philosophy on lighting is to first let the location speak to you. Hopefully it has been well chosen and suited to the needs of the scene. Then any well-designed set or location will demand to be lit according to its nature. To use a gross example, if you try to impose a spooky feel on, say, a supermarket without the story explaining why all the lights are out, then it’s just going to look dumb.
We had some huge, incredible sets on Game of Thrones, and the interesting thing was that when presented with a new huge set, we all headed in exactly the same direction when it came to lighting them. Maybe it’s because they chose their DPs carefully, but if you fight how a set or location demands to be lit, you always lose!
NFS: Based on where you are now, do you have any advice for cinematographers starting out?
McLachlan: I get asked all the time, how do I get my break?
You shoot everything you can get your hands on (except weddings!) and stick with it no matter how slowly it seems to be going, or how tough it is to catch a break. If you put in your 10,000 hours, as Malcolm Gladwell says in Outliers, when you do get a break or opportunity, you won’t blow it! And then? You’re on your way.
A lot of persistence led to Rob McLachlan to catch his big break. Now look at him, he gets to DP in a scary cave full of water and skeletons on the set of 'Lovecraft Country'!
I’ve been doing nothing but cinematography for a living since I was 23. From then to age 31, I barely scraped by. I had a wife and kids, so I couldn’t be too fussy about what I worked on, but it didn’t matter because I was shooting. And learning and improving. At 29, I shot a low-budget feature, but at 31 I got a union TV series as an operator and didn’t blow it. I even got to DP the last two episodes. And I didn’t blow it. And a year later that led to the original MacGyver as 2nd unit DP. And I didn’t blow it. Then 30 years later—two dozen movies and about 600 episodes of TV, including the famous The Red Wedding and the most expensive at the time Spoils of War. After non-stop work, here I am.
If I was to distill that, really? It’s to never give up, stick with it. It’s not easy, at least for most of us. But putting yourself in a position to compile a deep well of experience pays dividends later. Stay humble. And remember you are only as good as your crew and the rest of the team.
VENICE 2 in a nutshell? Since my first film at the age of 15 where I used an 8mm wind-up Bolex until now, I’ve used pretty much every camera there is except IMAX. Sony VENICE 2 is the best I’ve ever used, and I don’t think anything is going to come along that will beat it for quite a while.
McLachlan recently shot the pilot for the upcoming Apple Series, Shining Girls with Elizabeth Moss shot VENICE in 6K and framed 2:1 with both Zeiss Supremes and Supreme Radiance. Keep an eye out for it!