With Doctor Who, Sherlock and Outlander Cred, Kidd Is Bringing His Shallow-Depth-of-Field Style to a New Set of Shows

Scottish DP Neville Kidd is known for shooting genre-breaking sci-fi serials against the grain. Having lensed defining episodes of iconic British-originated favorites Doctor Who and Sherlock, for which he won a Primetime Emmy, he has also become the primary DP on the US-bred Scottish fantasia Outlander. To capture that show's organically sensual mood, he draped his lights in colored fabrics and bounced them off native wooden silver birch panels that had been fire-proofed for use on set. His images—and creative ideas—for Outlander's current season just earned him a 2017 ASC Award nomination and simultaneously nudged him into Netflix territory. Brought in to set the look for the first three episodes of Travelers, a Netflix series that premiered in late December, he is beginning production on Altered Carbon, an even-higher-budget Netflix show created by Shutter Island screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis. (Kidd wasn't always the sci-fi it guy; he also shot one of my favorite art documentaries, the quirky, BAFTA-nominated BBC Scotland production Michael Palin & the Mystery of Hammershøi). We asked him how he captured Travelers' edgy, character-driven drama and discovered that his most prized secret weapons helped shape every project in his recent portfolio. 

StudioDaily: When and how did you first become involved with Travelers?

Neville Kidd: My connection is with director Nick Hurran and John Lenic. I started working with director Nick Hurran on Doctor Who. We did about six Doctor Who episodes and then moved on to Sherlock together. Then we went off to Australia to do Childhood's End, which is from an Arthur C. Clarke novel, and John was the producer. John's next project after that was Travelers, which he swiftly brought both Nick and myself on to. That was the first time we'd worked with creator Brad Wright, who created the Stargate franchise. But it was a good fit.

Neville on Set Night

Neville Kidd (center) on the set of Travelers.

Why was that?

Travelers is set in a contemporary time, but the main stars come back from the future to become another person just before they die. One of the main points when we were filming it, and why I think they were keen to get Nick and myself involved, was to give a different kind of feel to the images than that traditional gleaming, deep-focus North American sci-fi aesthetic. They wanted to give it a real grittiness and a much different style. 

Tell me about your kit and how it helped you achieve that look.

We shot the show in Vancouver last spring on the Red Dragon, but my Cooke master prime lenses were a critical component. My big thing as a visual storyteller is to let people think what they see really is happening. Whatever world you create in front of them, you have to make them instantly believe in that world. You've got to get it right at the start to grab them; otherwise, they'll just find something else to watch. There are just too many other great choices out there right now. For Travelers, we wanted to give the impression that these main characters didn't really belong in the 21st century contemporary world they returned to, that they were in their own little world. So we heightened the drama and isolated them by shooting with Cooke 5/i and S4 primes wide open to get varying shallow depths of field. The 5/is are fairly open at [T-stop] 1.4, and they drop off the background in a much more out-of-focus way than does an S4 at [T-stop] 2. 

TRAVELERS Production Shot

Have you shot with Cooke master primes before?

Oh yeah, I'm a big fan of the lovely natural, cinematic "Cooke Look." I started shooting with them on Doctor Who [including well-known episode "Day of the Doctor"] and completely fell in love with them. I try to use them on every one of my projects. I shot Outlander with the Cooke S4 primes and Sherlock with the 5/i primes. We used the full Cooke 5/i line [18mm, 25mm, 32mm, 40mm, 50mm, 65mm, 75mm, 100mm and 135mm] and the 14, 150 and 180mm versions of the S4s for Travelers.

Was this your first time shooting on Red Dragon?

Yeah, that was a first-time thing. Pretty much everything I've done, from Doctor Who to Sherlock, was shot on Alexa. But I shot Case Histories, with Jason Isaacs, for British television on a Red One and I've shot on Red a few times for commercial work. Because of Netflix's 4K requirement, we were limited to cameras that shoot 4K and above, and Alexa doesn't hit that. However, at the moment I'm shooting another big Netflix show, Altered Carbon, with the Alexa 65, which can shoot 4K, 5K and 6.5K. But we didn't have the budget on Travelers for that camera, so the Red Dragon was the best fit. Cameras and camera deliverables keep changing, and of course every show has its own unique look and feel, but it's nice to have the Cookes, which I like to think keep things artistically consistent.

What else is key to delivering the right look and your signature style?

Operators are hugely important. I brought in Will Waring, who worked on Sliders and Stargate SG-1 and worked with me on Childhood's End. He's still working with us on Altered Carbon, in fact. Then I found a local operator, Rob Smith, in Vancouver. I always try to find operators who film and see the world I see it, with a very naturalistic style. On a show like Sherlock, where we were trying a lot more novel camera tricks, you've got to be as clever visually as Sherlock himself. But on Travelers, we wanted to make it not as aware of itself, and head more into the storyline, since it's so vast and there are so many characters that have equal importance. No sensationalism for this show, just a much more gritty and real approach. 

TRAVELERS in production

What was the most challenging segment of Travelers to shoot?

Probably those first five minutes in episode one. It's also my favorite part. It was a huge responsibility to introduce five different characters, as well as the five personalities of the dying people they are inhabiting on earth, and watch them experience, though shock and wonder, completely new perspectives. We all knew we had to hook the audience right there at the outset, and I wanted to grab them with images that matched those intensely dramatic moments. After shooting the first several episodes, I turned it over to the DP Stephen Jackson, who shot the remaining episodes of the first season. He picked up the baton and did such a great job. And he's a lovely person. It's always important to find the right team, but it's especially important for episodic TV, as it continues over multiple episodes and rarely has the same director for an entire season. Once you get the entire team behind your project from the start, it always benefits. People put their best work in and are invested in it, and the end result inevitably reflects that.

Do you prefer shooting episodics in doses for weekly releases or have you adjusted to the new Netflix normal?

That's hard to say. Everything's concentrated now. With the Netflix model, you do it all at once and put it all out there. And now the publicity and the reviews all come in one big blast as well. We're used to being drip-fed weekly. Living and working in Scotland as a DP, you've got to take on a pretty broad selection of work, from commercials to television, so I'm open to whatever form the work takes. But as a viewer, it's clearly a changing world and the way we stream media has vastly changed our viewing habits as well. But it can be deeply satisfying to stumble across some new show and then be able to consume it in one extended stretch.