“Westworld” isn’t known for its subtly. The HBO series is filled with detailed sets from the Old West amusement park, and the sleek, modern facility below it.
Robert McLachlan, a cinematographer who’s worked on “Westworld,” “Game of Thrones,” and “Ray Donovan,” recently talked with Business Insider about working on HBO’s epic (and epically confusing) sci-fi western. He’s no stranger to shows of that size, having
shot the infamous Red Wedding episode on “Game of Thrones.”
McLachlan went into detail about what it’s like to work on a show like “Westworld” that’s on such a grand scale — especially when you don’t necessarily know what the hell is happening — and how peak TV has benefitted cinematographers like himself.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Carrie Wittmer: “Westworld” basically takes place in two different worlds: the park and the facility underneath it. They both have very different looks, but manage to look like they’re part of the same show — how did you accomplish that?
Robert McLachlan: The thing we realised with Westworld that we had to keep in mind — and remind directors who were coming in, who were excited and who had always wanted to work on a western — is that we weren’t making a western, we’re making a science-fiction show. And in terms of keeping the look consistent, I did a few subtle things between the two worlds just to create more contrast.
For instance, we used more filtration on the camera and we used dust and smoke when we’re in the Western world, because we’re trying to make it feel as authentic as possible. I did everything I could to make the lighting, whether it was by candle or torchlight or what have you, feel as natural and period as possible — because everything in that world supposedly was. Whereas in the diagnostic center in the underground facility, a lot of the look of it was really built into the sets with a lot of glass, hard edge, artificial lighting and so forth.
So it goes back to responding to what you have before the camera and letting it speak to you. Because obviously those sets demanded to look a certain way, and a saloon that’s only lit by some daylight coming in off the street could also only really look one way. And if you try to light or use a lot of artificial light in it in a theatrical way, it was gonna end up feeling kind of bogus.
Wittmer: Did you have any idea what was going on in “Westworld?”
McLachlan: I think … we [the crew] had some suspicions about Bernard possibly being a host, but the truth is, they kept that secret more than any other show that I’ve ever worked on. On “Game of Thrones,” it’s secretive. Everybody has to sign NDAs up the wazu and not talk about it. But having said that, everybody on the [“Game of Thrones”] crew has also read all ten scripts before we start shooting. So it makes it a lot easier for them to do their job, quite frankly. Whereas on “Westworld,” we didn’t even know that we were shooting stories that took place on different time planes. They were amazingly good at keeping that secret. We were cautioned that there were gonna be times where we would be asked to shoot something that made absolutely no sense to us, “but please just do it anyway!”
Wittmer: What were the biggest challenges of shooting this very complicated and secretive show?
McLachlan: On “Westworld,” because we didn’t know who or how something was going to pay off, you didn’t know that maybe something you were shooting right now was actually a pivotal and critical moment. And it’s not that different in any other TV. Certainly in the network episodic pattern, they would overwrite the scripts and the sad part was you would know that you’re knocking yourself out on a scene that may not make it into the final cut because the script was gonna run long. There’s no alternative, but to put every ounce of effort and creativity and professionalism into every single scene and every single shot, because you just can’t let your guard down, becuase you don’t know what it is necessarily that will become important.
Wittmer: TV has changed a lot over the years. How has it changed for cinematographers like you?
McLachlan: I’ve been alternating between “Game of Thrones” and “Ray Donovan,” which has played beautifully for five years now with the exception that I did “Westworld” instead of season six of “Ray Donovan.” It’s just a dream job for a cinematographer. I started to look at “Ray Donovan” for Showtime as LA noir, “Westworld” as sci-fi Western noir, and “Game of Thrones” as Medieval fantasy noir. This is the kind of stuff that lets you stretch your wings a bit and take a fair bit of creative licence and drama with the lighting. It’s just been incredibly gratifying. I think I’m the luckiest cinematographer alive to get to work on all three of these shows.
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