Bionic Woman's Style Shake-up Has D.P. Robert McLachlan Running and Gunning

Robert McLachlan knows a thing or two about TV. As a cinematographer with dual U.S. and Canadian citizenship – and both ASC and CSC credentials – he’s been a key player on shows including ABC’s MacGyver and Fox’s recent Pasadena. His work on Fox’s Millennium earned him three CSC Awards for outstanding cinematography and three ASC nominations in the same category. He divides his time among episodic television, TV commercials and movies-of-the-week, and feature film work, generally with a genre edge (Black Christmas, Final Destination and Final Destination 3). He recently served time as second-unit director and cinematographer on the massive New Line production of The Golden Compass as well as photographing miniatures for Journey 3D, an upcoming 24p HD release.

But right now he’s hard at work on NBC’s Bionic Woman, a re-imagining of a TV classic that’s throwing its crew some curveballs – the creative team and the visual style were dramatically revamped in the weeks leading up to its premiere this week. McLachlan didn’t shoot the show’s original pilot, which aired last night, but he did handle the extensive reshoots that were done to retool the story and characters and is shooting subsequent episodes.

Film & Video caught up with McLachlan on the set last weekend, as he was shooting tests to gauge the effect of swapping out the show’s 35mm cameras for a more lightweight 16mm arsenal, a potential strategy to match the show’s new handheld look. He talked cameras and lenses, described a signature lighting effect he developed on Millennium (and later used for Jet Li movie The One) that uses strobes to add a unique texture to action scenes, and talked candidly about his new mandate to forget about making the show look pretty.

As F&V went to press, McLachlan emailed to say, “I have seen the cut of our first episode and, apart from some lighting issues on the leads, I’m quite happy with it. It seems to be working and everyone is now quite happy.” Good news.

F&V: What cameras are you using on Bionic Woman, and how was that decision made?

ROBERT MCLACHLAN: I’m using Moviecams from Clairmont Camera, with 3-perf movements taken from Arricams. We would prefer Arricams, but the budget won’t allow it. We are framing for 16:9 and transferring in HD – I have been a proponent of that since the first HD telecines were introduced. I have always been an early adopter of any technological advancement that can speed up the process, improve quality, and save money. Shooting 35mm and transferring in HD is very forgiving. It means you can push the stock a stop and still have great, clean-looking images. Having said that, much of that quality is due to how good the new Kodak stocks are. I’ve used Moviecams a lot, ever since Millennium in the mid-1990s, and I’ve been in love with 5229 since it was introduced because it is low contrast but has amazing overexposure latitude. Just amazing. I’ve shot it and pushed it a stop for theatrical features, and a lot of people said the pushed scenes looked better than those shot at normal process. If you push it and do an HD transfer to tape, it’s like shooting clean 1000 ISO. Incredible. In the final telecine I can dial in whatever extra contrast I want that wouldn’t be there in the original neg printed normally. I shoot the whole show – exterior and night and interior – on it because whenever you mix stocks it shows. The texture and contrast are different, it means you have to carry more mags, it’s more work for the crew and there is more waste.

How about lenses?

I’m shooting with Cooke S4i prime lenses. I’ve always adored Cooke glass and am a huge fan of the new ones. In fact I’m carrying an old set of Cooke Series III Century Macro primes for close up work, along with a complete set of new S4is. I shoot a lot of big FX movies and the VFX guys tell me that the Cookes are so amazingly sharp it’s easy to pull very clean mattes off green screens, and yet they have a “roundness” to them that is just gorgeous and very flattering to actors. They also offer an amazing range of focal lengths. I own a basic set of seven, and the rest come from Clairmont. The thing about Cookes is they are not too contrasty. In telecine, it’s easy to add contrast but hard to reduce it. They are the perfect lenses. Brilliant! If they weren’t, I wouldn’t have $150,000 of my own money invested in them.

What’s your approach to lighting?

I carry a pretty basic movie lighting package. I love the new LitePad light panels from Rosco and use the new Arri T12 spotlights a lot. The really unique thing we’re doing is using the Clairmont strobe system – lights that fire at 1/50,000th of a second – to get our action looks. It’s a technique I first used for the main character’s visions on Millennium 10 years ago. We would shoot with strobe lights at 12 fps and then print it back to 24. Anything lit with the strobes would be very sharp, but anything lit with conventional light would have a great deal of motion blur. It was especially good for violent action, so you got a lot of blur and a lot of sharpness all in the same frame. We’re using that now at 24 fps for some of our fight scenes, and it’s a really amazing look. If you use it as a backlight, what’s lit with it will look extremely sharp. And what you have lit conventionally has a lot of motion blur. What you end up with ‘ entirely in camera ‘ is absolutely crystal-clear sharpness, like you’d get with a 45-degree shutter or if you were shooting at a very high frame rate. But at the same time you also get the motion blur that gives you a sense of speed and power. That’s the unique trick we’re using on the show.

I used it on a feature we did with Jet Li called The One. When you’ve got a tight visual effects budget and you want something that looks cool and unique, it’s something you can do in camera. It comes out of the lab looking heavily manipulated, but it’s done in camera. Personally, I love the look of it. The lights were originally designed for beer pours – anything with liquid, or doing ice-cream commercials where the product would melt under normal lights.

Initially we started off shooting 35mm, as you would any big Hollywood flagship network show, but there’s been sort of a change of regime. The guys they’ve brought in are used to shooting in 16 and HD, and they want to throw out all the conventional rules of filming – keeping on axis, nicely lit close-ups, smooth camera moves. They want to shoot it where you’re off axis, giving it a feeling like you’ve just barely caught the action. I think that comes out of the new showrunner’s experience on Friday Night Lights. But the reason they shoot that show – or David Eick’s Battlestar Galactica – that way is because they initially had extremely tight schedules and it was the only way they had any hope of getting the show in the can. On this show, the schedule isn’t that tight and we could shoot it in a more glossy, big-feature way, but they’ve decided they want to eschew that.

What have your discussions about the look been like?
My initial discussions about the look of the show were with Glen Morgan, the show-runner, whom I have worked with before. He wanted it to be the same sort of very well-crafted, artful show that Millennium was, for instance. Absolutely cinematic and high class. We set out to make Jaime’s apartment warm and stable, and the farther we strayed from it the more murky and unstable the images would become – with more and more handholding, etc., as dramatically required. Handholding can add a real edge to action or tense scenes, and that was our M.O. for the first four episodes.

Unfortunately, Glen left due to creative differences with the other producer, David Eick, who wanted it to be all handheld and rather ropey and documentary-ish. This is quite hard to accomplish in 35mm. Eick brought in another producer from Friday Night Lights, Jason Katims, who re-wrote the first 3 episodes and has had us shooting three cameras non-stop – all handheld, all scenes, at all times. Like Friday Night Lights, they don’t care about axis or eyeline or lighting, especially. It’s impossible to make an actor or set look good from three opposing angles at once unless it’s lit like a Wal-Mart, so I sort of had to throw out the “artful, cinematic” style and revert to old documentary shooting and lighting, where you use whatever light is there and augment it a bit. They threw out the first episode after the pilot and combined it with stuff from the second to create a new first episode after a lot of re-shooting.

I think the style is going to be pretty visually eclectic. For me, great cinematography is unnoticable. It helps tell the story by drawing the eye using composition and light. That’s not what we’re doing any more. They are talking about going to 16mm, because we’re shooting more than 20,000 feet of film in 3-perf format per day and that’s a lot of money.

Did you ever consider shooting HD instead of film?

For a show like this – it’s in the studio a little bit, but it’s all action. It’s going to be shooting in Vancouver in the wintertime. We want a very fluid camera and the ability to move quickly. You just can’t do that with a Sony F950 – and they can’t afford the F23 or the Genesis. If you want to move really quickly, 16mm is still by far the best way to go. Super 16 with an HD transfer looks pretty good, and you can work really quickly with it. You can work in all kinds of circumstances and stick them in all kinds of places, because HD cameras are quite big by comparison. Today I’m shooting tests in 16mm to do side-by-side with our 35mm. Up to this point it looks really great. I don’t have a problem going to 16 because I started in 16, shooting documentaries way back when. That’s the big change that you might see by episode six.

Would that dramatically change your approach to lighting, or the way you would use the strobes?

It wouldn’t change what you do with the Clairmont strobes, because they tie in with the camera and fire once per frame no matter what frame rate you’re shooting at. I’d probably find myself wanting to use a bit more fill light here and there to avoid letting things be too contrasty. That’s what 16 needs; it’s just not as forgiving as 35mm stock – not even the 7229, which is the 16 version of the 5229 I’m using for the show.

Would a more self-consciously run-and-gun shooting style make your job more difficult, or a little easier in some ways?

Once we get it set up, I’ll have to let go of it as far as lighting is concerned. The director from Friday Night Lights [Jonas Pate] wants what he calls “universal” or “global lighting,” where you throw light all over the set, let the actors move around in it, and shoot it from every conceivable angle, repeatedly, over and over, so they have dozens of shots. Normally you’d do five nicely crafted shots to cover a scene. They’re doing it with as many as a dozen or 20 setups that they can cut together however they feel the scene works best.

Does it end up being a faster way of working, with less careful setups?

It can be a faster way of working, but because you’re doing so many more setups, the time you might have spent lighting it and building a nice composition you spend instead shuffling all the cameras around so you can do more angles.

Do you operate camera yourself?

Sometimes, but mostly I’ve got guys who are very good operators. We’re still shooting 35, so the cameras are really heavy. It’s pretty physically taxing. At the end of the day my operators are absolutely wasted. Initially the visual template for the show was Children of Men, which was heavily handheld but with non-sync sound, using very lightweight 35mm cameras, and then post-dubbed. We can’t post-dub, so the guys are using Moviecam Compacts, which are pretty light, but it’s still a lot to have on your shoulder 12 or 15 hours a day. The camera operators are amazing, but, man, they’re getting beat up.

Just pulling focus under those conditions has to be hard.

It’s a nightmare for the focus-pullers because you don’t get rehearsals and the operators and actors are never necessarily standing in the same place. It’s a real pain for them. But they were given quite explicit instructions by the director [Pate], who said he doesn’t care if it’s in focus. They’ll use the out-of-focus stuff, too – which is a good thing because when you’re working under those circumstances, a lot of it isn’t.

Anything else we haven’t covered?

It’s one of the nicest casts I’ve ever worked with. Michelle Ryan is a dream. She’s incredibly professional, and I think whether the show’s a hit or not she’ll end up being a star. She’s first rate. And the supporting cast is outstanding, too. That’s a plus. It’s a bit of an adjustment for the rest of the crew. Everyone has traditionally been trained to get the nicest, cleanest images they can get, and now we’re told “No, we don’t care if it’s in focus.” It’s sort of a non-directing approach, too. They don’t really block [the scenes], so it’s a bit confusing for the actors. What we’re hearing from the editing room is that it’s working – so I guess that’s what we’ll keep doing.

It sounds like your own jury is out on how this is going to work in the long run.

It’s not really the show that I signed on for. If they do go to 16 it’s kind of a step backwards for me. I’m not that sure I’d stick with it if they do. I’ve just come from directing and shooting second unit on a $200 million movie [The Golden Compass] and I did all the miniature work for a big 3D movie [Journey 3D]. I came in here mainly because it was going to let me sleep in my own bed. I have a house in Vancouver and one in L.A., and my work has been everywhere but there for the last couple of years. What’s happening is interesting – but it’s a big show, and if the elements come together it’s going to be pretty cool.