Lighting Love Scenes, Working in Period Locations, and Keeping the Crew Happy

Blending equal parts biceps, romance, historical fiction, and time-traveling, Outlander lives far from the futuristic conventions of most other science fiction dramas. Now three seasons in, Starz’s sexy fantasy inspired by Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling books has blazed through battles, intrigue, uprisings, shipwrecks, kidnappings, brutal rapes and, of course, tender love scenes — lots and lots of them, to the delight of the show’s loyal female fans. When Season 4 premieres in November, we’ll next find 18th-century Scotsman Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) and his century-tripping wife, Claire Randall Fraser (Caitriona Balfe), taking up residence in the American colonies.

Cinematographer Stephen McNutt, ASC, CSC, stepped in as an alternate alongside original series DP Neville Kidd during Season 2, shooting the French court locations and Season 3’s Scottish- and American-based episodes. Though he is best known for his work on NBC SyFy’s Battlestar Galactica and its spin-off prequel Caprica, McNutt found plenty to engage with while capturing Season 2’s eye-popping tonal glamour and the more organic colors of the Boston- and Edinburgh-set Season 3 episodes and beyond. We spoke with him about color temperature, tricky lighting setups on location, and how U.K. film production regulations, driven by the European Working Time Directive, elevate everyone’s mood on set, the two chummy stars included.

One of the show’s key requirements is to shoot star Sam Heughan’s Jamie Fraser as both a man of his time and a romance hero who transcends it.

StudioDaily: When you first joined the show at the beginning of Season 2, how did series creator Ronald Moore (also a Battlestar Galactica and Caprica alum) describe the season to you cinematically?

Stephen McNutt:  “Paris” was really a separate world and so different from where the show had been before. Arriving at the 18th century court of Louis XV, it was mostly about color and the lush images one could get among flickering candle and firelight — at least what we think it looked like back then. [Jon] Gary Steele’s production design and Terry Dresbach’s costumes were my focal points, and I was really working with them in a lot of ways. Neville [Kidd] came in, and the two of us did a number of camera tests. We were thinking about changing from the [Arri] Alexa to the Sony F55, but when we saw that the Alexa captured the colors in the sets and costumes more truly, we decided only to move to the Amira for the 4K. Returning to the later Scotland episodes, we did, however, bring in the F55. We also ended up shooting with the Cooke prime S5s, which were used on Season 1. They were great lenses.

How did you shift your lighting setup for the French episodes?

It’s all about color temperature in a lot of ways. Terry and Ron and I talked quite a bit about it. Because I prefer to use warm light, we had to reduce a bit of the warmth in the Paris scenes, particularly at the ball. It took away from the true colors of the gowns. Any time you add anything other than white light to something, it changes the tone. But we found a great compromise and I thought it looked great. Really elegant and pretty powerful.

Where were the Paris exteriors and the ball shot?

For the ball, we went to Salisbury, England, and shot inside Wilton House’s Double Cube Room, as well as exteriors of the estate. It’s such a wonderful place. For the Paris exteriors, we went to Prague. Back in Scotland, we were on the stages but we also shot in a distillery and inside castles, which is challenging because you can’t touch anything. We also took over the downstairs of the Glasgow Cathedral, which stood in for the French hospital when she miscarries.

Did you expand your camera units when on location?

The season’s shooting schedule was divided into six 28-day shooting blocks, with a change of director and DP for each block. But the crew remained the same. In addition to me, we had two operators, two first assistants and two second assistants, a DIT and a loader. It’s what you put in front of the lens that you shoot that matters. Sure, it becomes logistically challenging sometimes, but as I remember it, we managed fine in each place. These guys are an incredibly good crew, by the way. Hard workers and I just love them all. Whatever we had to do they just did. We all just put it all together. It was a different way of working for me because there’s no real grip and electric department separation. The sparks, as they call the electrics, do everything, from the lighting to the flagging. The only thing the grips do is move the camera around and push the dolly.

Caitriona Balfe glows in red satin in a scene from Season 2

Did you enjoy working that way?

To be honest, I didn’t really like the system and it was a bit harder at first. But I just loved the guys. In my view, once you put one group of people with both lighting and flagging, one of them is going to suffer. In this case, I think the flagging did. But they were such a great crew. I couldn’t believe how well they worked together.

How did you light the ball and other period locations?

You can’t touch anything, so it was really challenging. But for the ball, they allowed us to have candles. I lit it with balloons, but it’s difficult to control that in a tasteful manner on a television schedule, but I think we were very successful. I created a lot of setups with China balls. I would cover the top of them and give them a bluish cast, so I would use them as fill light. The warm light would key on their faces, but I could fill with slightly cooler light, which is something I’ve always liked to do. Even Neville tended to jump into that a bit, too, and was working with it as well. And because they are so cheap and so lightweight, I also able to change that to warmer tones when we needed it and string them with basic wire from chandelier to chandelier in the castles and country houses we shot in. You start with the actual light sources in these places, which don’t always look that great, so instead we lit it from above. Then, of course, everything else came from the floor. We used practical effects, such as off-camera floor light sources we created that flickered, to support the actual candle and firelight. With the cameras we have today, you don’t need much. They pick up everything.

How did you approach those famous love scenes?

I always tried to be as respectful as I could. I wanted her to look as beautiful as I could make her and him to be as handsome and chiseled as I could make him. That’s where I always started. It could be blue light, or warm light, depending on the set dressing. I only always had three light sources to convey: daylight, moonlight and firelight. You don’t have Tungsten light, so everything has to come from where those practical lights would naturally be. In Season 3, I was stuck in this room with them for about 45 pages. The story was that they’d been separated for 20 years and he’s working as a printer under a different name and they hole up in his room at a brothel. I really enjoyed those scenes. They weren’t just making love. They were making dinner, she was almost raped by an intruder. So I guess in that instance, the concept for me was just to change the light style every time they walked out of the room and then came back in.

For example, when she walks down the stairs to the common rooms to have breakfast with the girls, it’s a warm daylight interior, so I’m using the windows a lot. But when she walks back into her room, it’s now a darker blue because there’s a man standing behind the door and he threatens her and tries to rape her. In reality, everything looks the same, so I try to mix things up from scene to scene. But as far as Cat and Sammy making love, their friendship and affection for each other is absolutely genuine. They like each other a lot. When they are standing outside in the cold Scottish weather, they hug and keep each other warm. They chat and laugh. They are not an item at all — I think she just got married — but what you see on camera comes from a lovely place. I was always in such amazement of that. There was never anything but great affection between them, both on and off the camera. They would just have fun.

The Frasers reunite in Scotland, after twenty years apart, in one of McNutt’s episodes from Season 3.

You mentioned earlier how much you loved working with your crew. It seems like there was a very collegial atmosphere on set.

The crews here in the U.S. are great, too. But I think it comes down to this: they only do 10-hour days over there. The energy of the crew is a whole different ball game. That’s the thing that’s different. If you’re working in the States or in Canada or anywhere else in North America that shoots normal shows, they are pretty much under the direction of all the producers. If you’re forced to work 14 hours, you work 14 hours because you’ve got to get the work done and we all know that. But that’s changing now, thank god. If you have eight days to shoot a show, this is how many pages you have to shoot a day. If they still want to be ambitious with it and blow up cars, well, that takes time. So while that’s happening, you say, ‘We’ve got this whole scene left to do, so let’s go do it.’ Then the next thing you know, you’ve clocked 14 or 15 hours a day. Then things get spooky.

In the U.K., they schedule themselves for 12-day episodes. They made sure we were able to get what we needed and if we didn’t, we could always pick it up. And never, ever, ever did you hear anybody ask when we were going home. They all knew! If you get there at 7 in the morning, you’re going to go home at 6:30 p.m. That’s it. It’s actually an 11-hour day: 10 hours of working and one hour of lunch. As soon as I get back to Canada or the U.S., I sit there and the first thing the crew talks about is, “How long do you think we’re going to go today? Do you think we’ll work 12 hours?” It really occupies a lot of the conversation during the day, how long the day will go. It influences the psyche of the crew and their desire to be there. The actors get angry because they are also wondering, and everything is a lot more tumultuous. In the U.K., the actors never leave. They sit in their tents, they talk and read scripts, and you call them and they are right there ready to go. Nobody goes to sit in a trailer or says they aren’t showing up that day. They know they have 10 hours to do it and then they are going to go home.

It’s another reason why we see this affectionate relationship playing out in front of our eyes.

Oh, absolutely. It’s true. Everybody is much more pleasant, much more happy and they do great work because they know their life is their life. It’s a very good thing.

To see excerpts of McNutt’s work on Outlander, visit