This is a continuation of a conversation with cinematographer Paul Cameron, ASC. Part 3 coming next week. And look for episode 2 of the Art of the Shot podcast to hear the full conversation now. Available on your favorite podcast platform.
Derek Stettler: It makes a lot of sense. You want to keep it as consistent as possible with the rest of the series. Were any unique filmmaking technologies or noteworthy gear used to capture this season beyond the LED walls and what you helped engineer for the drone work?
Paul Cameron: No, I think that was probably the predominant thing technology wise. I think you’ll see every episode tends to have some kind of shot or scene that’s from an interesting perspective that we haven’t seen before and that’s always fun to shoot. There’s one with Jonathan [Nolan] on the first episode, where the camera is in the backseat of a car with Evan Rachel Wood and they’re trying to drug her, then Tommy Flanagan leaves the frame and she grabs a knife and cuts herself free and shoots two guys in the car. We see somebody gets shot in the rear view camera. She walks in the front, shoots a couple thugs and then we see her running back and the camera pulls back. Then she gets in the car and drives over the other thug and pulls away. It’s not so much new technology, but it’s just thinking abut how to drive the audience, what do you want the audience to see, what kind of coverage, etc. In this case, Jonathan was super clear that he wanted this strange subjective point of view of seeing the action out front and seeing the action through the rear view camera at the same time. So it was fun to do stuff like that. And it’s always like, “How can we do this in the most creative way?” And what great technology can we use? And then what do we end up doing? We wedge the seats a little wider, and we stick a slider in there and rip the camera off the Steadicam because it’s already been stripped down, and we put it on a slider and we push it through seats. The most analog way!
Stettler: The most analog, yeah.
Cameron: It’s fun though. And I think the technology is changing so much, so it was great to get into a film helicopter again. I had Pursuit Aviation and XM2 set up remote wireless wheels for me in the backseat, so I could operate my own aerials. I love so many aerial operators out there and have relationships with a number of them on a lot of movies, but to be in the backseat of a helicopter and talk to a pilot and a DP that you haven’t worked with is great. You’re trying to coordinate, give your idea, and then they have a different idea, and then you do a few takes and sometimes they have to move on even if you’re super experienced as a DP. But now shooting my own aerials, I was able to really get in there and do what I want fast, and I had a great relationship with the pilot, so that was good. And XM2 set up the master wheels and I either operate the drone shots or stick Chris Harhoff, “A” camera/Steadicam on it and he operates it off the wheels.
Stettler: Oh yes, Chris is an incredible operator, too. I think last year he and Steve Matzinger won Camera Operator of the Year in Television at the SOC Awards for their work on Westworld. And he was involved since the very beginning with you, right? In Season One?
Cameron: Yeah. Chris has done a few movies with me and I recommended him to work with us on Westworld and he’s done three seasons now and he loves it. He’s really such a force around the camera in such a great way. He’s a gentleman, he’s incredibly well-prepared, incredibly talented, and has a lot of great input. He’s just an amazing operator and filmmaker.
Stettler: Yeah he really is. And he’s such a great guy, too. I’ve met him a few times and he’s the nicest guy. So in regards to the approach to camera, in Season One there was a philosophy behind the movement where there was a dictate set that it should be in studio mode a lot of the time, on dolly tracks to kind of mimic the way the hosts are in their defined loops. And then that was used intentionally to great effect when all the sudden handheld was introduced. It created a very noticeable shift that maybe people picked up on, or maybe not, but it suited the story. It was storytelling through camera movement. So this season, were there any specific dictates in terms of the approach to the camera or the visual storytelling? Or were you guys more free to just shoot in this new world now?
Cameron: Well, we wanted to keep the syntax of the show, but there was a sensibility, even for the exteriors and aerials, for the previous Westworld park and that world. We wanted the camera to feel as if it was the people at the Delos Corporation watching. There were slight mechanical moves in the wide shots and there was a certain sensibility that Jonathan [Nolan] really wanted that we tried to get all the DPs and directors to do. Here, the significant thing is being away from the park. As we know, Dolores is on a new mission here and she’s got quite a bit of momentum and now you’ve also got Thandie Newton and that side and they’re coming from different parts of the world, and they’re converging in one place and there’s a lot of locations. There’s a lot of movement, people coming and going and bizarre scenes. So I think the biggest thing was to move the camera, to pull and push people into a scene and get the momentum of characters moving through the scenes and not be so static. But it’s also from the writing. It’s the movement of the scenes in the writing and the plotline. That helps a lot.
Stettler: Well, the writing is fantastic. That’s one of my favorite things about the show. It really feels like all elements are firing on all cylinders. The way that the camera has been kind of feeling like the Delos employees are watching in Season One is an interesting point you bring up, because I never thought of it that way, but it did feel like that. Like we were always spying on them. And then now in this season, it feels more like we’re with them in this present, dramatic, sort of unhinged way.
Cameron: Oh, yeah, for sure.
Stettler: So, is there anything specifically for this season that was set in terms of the look, in terms of rules for how this season should be captured? Beyond even camera, like lighting, or any sorts of hints as far as revealing the truth of something? Because I know fans always like to pick apart this show and try to find meaning in every little choice that’s made. So is there anything like that going on this season?
Cameron: I think it’s a different plotline in terms of what is the end of the game, and how we get there. Since they’re not in the park, there’s less mythology laid into the imagery and the art direction, but there is still quite a significant amount. It’s just the way that Jonathan, Lisa, the writers, and Howard Cummings want to layer things, so they keep that throughout, which is fantastic. But it’s funny, shooting a test with these guys, you can’t just go shoot a couple little looks, you really have to do extensive tests and show them what you’re thinking the world is going to look like, lighting wise. We wanted to tie it into what we’ve seen before in the park, so the show didn’t really look different. But I did reset color temperatures and faces and we stayed away from lighting faces with warm light, and keep it slightly on the cool side and still use color separation in the ways we want to make depth in a frame, but avoiding theatrical gels and ambient colored light that wasn’t authentic to the scenario.
Stettler: Yeah, it doesn’t feel like that. It doesn’t feel like any of these sort of theatrical lighting effects were used to give this impression of the future that you see in some other films or shows.
Cameron: It’s also due to the changing urban night landscape of Los Angeles and cities around the world now. We all grew up with this orange and green light just pervading urban environments, and those have been slowly replaced with a whiter LED light. In Los Angeles alone, probably a third to half of the city at night is now under a white light instead of yellow light. So I took that cue and the fact that when we scouted in Singapore those lights just never existed, it’s all LED light anyway or if they did, they got replaced immediately because they’re ahead of the curve on everything. We don’t see the future as this kind of 3D holographic Blade Runner or Ray Bradbury world. The concept from the show is a cleaner world. It’s not inundated with digital billboards and holographic people talking in space at night. That doesn’t exist, so how do you make frames interesting, how do you make lighting interesting? Well, it’s even subtle things like, throughout episode one, there’s constantly scenes with coverage where I layer in reflections of fluorescent tubes or graphic shapes or create something that feels graphic and futuristic, but isn’t over the top. So that becomes the suggested path for the other DPs on the show.
Stettler: That’s interesting. So what you were saying with some of the techniques that you use to make things interesting, like with the fluorescent tubes and the reflections, you’re talking about using lighting in ways that isn’t to actually light anything, but just to create visual intrigue, right?
Stettler: Interesting. So there’s a lot of lights in the sets that look like they’re integrated into it, like they’re practicals. But everything is all built, and all those decisions have to be made ahead of time before a camera is pointed at the set and you’re there saying, “Ah, we need a little light here in the corner to make it more visually interesting.” So how involved are you and the other DPs in integrating those lights and crafting the look of those sets?
Cameron: It’s a good question. Working with Howard Cummings, the production designer, he picked up on a lot of the discussions I had with Jonathan about how to layer some of these sets and how to take the great work from the park and the laboratories and the weird offices that they had, and how to take that into the L.A. world and the Singapore world. And then it’s also, again, when you go scouting in Singapore and you see all the stairs have backlit LED lights in them and it’s graphic and it’s lit beautifully. We’re seeing some of that in Los Angeles, but the truth is it’s lacking with the architectural scale and imagination with lighting and future look, even in its contemporary architecture. So I sat with Howard and we figured it out. Like in the boardroom, we thought there should be a big light hanging over them in the boardroom and it’s not a light source but it should be a visual statement. And since we’re going to see down a hallway, what do those lights feel like? Where is that leading to? So I got involved with Howard, and I did set the tone with the gaffer, Russell Ayer, and John Grillo and Zoe White, the other two main DPs this season, and I’m like, “You gotta get them to build this stuff into your sets.” So they did it as well. It’s in the prep and it’s the involvement. It’s much more of a feature-level collaboration on this show and expectation for sure.
Stettler: Well, it shows. So, on the episode that you were responsible for as a director, how much of the episode were you involved in after shooting? Were you involved in post-production? Or after you did your part on set, was it basically turned over to the show runners to edit and shape how it turned out?
Cameron: Well for me, when we finished principal photography, the editor gets eight days before the director shows up and they gave me four days as a director to work on it. So you have to review your material and know your performances and you sit there and you go through the first cut. And this is all new to me, but traditionally, the editors are responsible for cutting it exactly the way it’s written for the show runners and writers to see it. And I realized I wanted to try a few things, editorially, in the short time that I had. So I was very prepared. I went through all the material and I picked all the takes and performances that I wanted to hinge the scenes around. And I went in and then on the first screening, I knew that about 75% of those scenes were more or less structured around the same performance takes I wanted. So I was very happy about that and since I had four days to do the edit, I decided I’m going to finish it in two days.
Stettler: [Laughs] You’re so completely ambitious from the pace of shooting the show, you bring that into everything now, huh?
Cameron: Exactly. So I’m going to finish it in two days and spend two days trying some radical changes in the edit.
Stettler: Oh, so your philosophy was to get it done in two days, so half the time getting it to a place where if it needs to be that, then it’s great? And then two days to try all sorts of crazy stuff? And then in case they don’t work, you still had it set where it should be?
Cameron: Yeah, exactly. And Anna Hauger, the editor, did such a great job. I actually thought it would take me three days to get the edit where I wanted it, and then a day to try some some radical cutting changes just to see how it feels. But I was able to do it in a couple of days. There’s a couple moments in the episode where there’s some big character reveals, and it’s the timing of the character reveal that matters. It was written one way, and I wanted to see what it felt like with some more radical editorial reveals. So that was one thing and then in the opening of the episode, I had designed the sequence so that Ed Harris was really unhinged and with jump cutting it becomes a cerebral thing where blood is dripping down on his head and he looks up at the chandelier with water pouring down and then he comes out of the bathtub in the bathroom where his wife committed suicide last season. Then his daughter appears in his mind and the camera travels around them, jump cutting as Ed hallucinates the daughter. So it was great to be able to have those kinds of sequences, to be part of those in the writing phase.
Stettler: I also imagine in the fight sequences, because the editing of those feels very effective. And of course, the reveal. Spoiler alert: well, I’ll just say the reveal of the truth about Dolores. That was impactful. It felt like a revelation watching it. Depending on I guess how astute you are and how much you’re trying to predict what’s going to happen next. I’m sure maybe some people predicted it, but it worked really well. Was that an example of one of the moments that you tried something creative and different? Or was that how it was scripted?
Cameron: That story beat and plot, the character reveal felt like such a responsibility. I explored a lot of ideas with the actors, talking to them about their feeling of what nuances do they use in the reveals, and editorially, how is this going to feel if it gets separated, or if it happens all at once. Originally, the scenes were structured differently on the reveal towards the end, so they were much more separated. And I think, for me editorially, I overdid it. And luckily, Jonathan went back in with Anna and found the balance between the two. And I think in the opening of the episode. I went crazy on the directorial part of it and really got some amazing stuff with Ed, but then I cut a very radical opening sequence, very jarring. They cut it back and made it less intense. And, again, I think we found a middle ground on it. I was fortunate because Anna is such a great editor, but I could see how first time directors and even directors with experience would go in on shows where they don’t know anybody and having only four days of cutting would be a disaster for them for various reasons. So, luckily, I didn’t have that.
Stettler: Oh, good. And I’m curious about another element during the editing of the show. The way the music is on the show is brilliant, what Ramin Djawadi does really makes the show come alive. It’s like a whole other character, the way he does it. So when you’re editing a sequence–let’s use that reveal, for example, because the music really underscores it there–is there temp music you’re using? Do you edit it and then it goes to Ramin to score? What level of involvement does the music have at that point?
Cameron: Kilter Films has it set up so they do their sound effects and scoring editorially in house. So basically, there’s a brief discussion with the show runners about what type of music we want, like in the auction sequence or at the reveal. We don’t talk about it at all, but we go through some of the rough beats, for example knowing that we’re going to reprise the Dolores western music when she reveals herself at the end. So those types of music cues are written into it. And then, when the footage hits and they start cutting, even before you get there as a director, they’ve already got an incredible temp mix done. It’s already cycled back through Ramin and they put in pretty close temp music and then certainly any songs that need to be cleared they get put in and then they do the rough mix. It’s awesome because I can sit there in editorial and ask them, “Hey, that’s a great piece of music, great movement, but if it just had a little more tempo and it was just slightly more upbeat…” or whatever the note is. And then two days later, you get the music correction from Ramin. It’s amazing. You could walk into an edit room with a great editor, but if they don’t have any support with sound effects or music, you could have a very dead soundtrack. When you’re trying to analyze a scene editorially and you’re looking at it without any vibe, you’re like, “God, it’s never going to feel like this because it’s going to get layered with sound effects and music”. In this case, Kilter Films set it up so that everybody experiences everything at the closest level to completion, visual effects included.
Stettler: Well, lucky you! Without the music and the sound effects pulling their weight when you watch such an important scene like a character reveal, it makes your work as a director look less impactful, and then you might start trying to edit different ways just to make it work better. Even when it’s not the edit that needs to change, it’s the elements added on top of it that really need to underscore what the edit is already doing. Since this is the Art of the Shot, is there a specific shot from either episode one where you were the cinematographer, or episode four that you directed, which stands out as one you’re particularly proud of achieving?
Cameron: Yeah, I think a particularly interesting shot we did was for episode one with Jonathan Nolan directing. It came from from the writing in the script, where it’s basically described as a camera watching through the backseat of a vehicle. What it is, is Evan Rachel Wood, the Delores character, has just been taken away and drugged many times by Tommy Flanagan’s character. They’re underneath an overpass in Los Angeles and they’re waiting for the drugs to take effect on Evan Rachel Wood when another vehicle starts to pull up and gets Tommy Flanagan’s attention and he turns and looks and walks away. As he walks away, the shot starts and basically the camera starts inside a car back behind the seat of a large SUV, and Dolores is camera left and a thug next to her is in the front seat with a gun. But what we really see is Connells in the navigation screen through the rearview camera walking away towards a vehicle that’s shining its headlights at him. And there’s a quick moment where Dolores grabs a knife she stashed and with a few precise, fast moves, she cuts herself free, grabs a thug’s gun, shoots him and the thug in the front seat. So the camera hasn’t cut yet, it’s all in the backseat.
So we’ve seen her execute two people, and she exits the vehicle. Now through the windshield we see two thugs in the distance turn toward the car, as the camera tracks in through the seats, we see Dolores walk around to the front of the car and she executes the two thugs. The camera starts pulling back, and we rack focus back to the the navigation screen for a beat as Dolores gets in, puts the car in reverse (and the camera is back all the way now), and we see her and we watch her back into and run over a thug in the rearview camera on the navigation screen. And she puts the car into drive and pulls away over the thug for the last time. It’s all described from this one point of view in the script. And scouting with Jonathan was great because he was sitting there literally whistling the music that he uses in the edit and he really did visualize it all in the writing. It was more for me about the execution of how do I light it in two directions because we wanted to shoot the camera looking forward toward the navigation screen with the rearview camera and have the rearview camera be live. It’s a little tricky lighting both angles for that. But it’s funny because we love to shoot film on the show, and I thought about doing the shot digitally just so we could really see it and time it and rehearse it. But we decided to stay with film for the shot that travels through the seats. And we used the Venice Realta rig, which is the umbilical rig for the Venice camera where you detach the optical block from the front of the camera…
Stettler: Yeah, I think that just won the Technical Achievement Award this year from the Society of Camera Operators.
Cameron: It’s a great tool. And of course we were going to put a fisheye on it for the rear view, but it was a little too wide. So I think we did it with a 10 or 12mm lens. I could tell from Jonathan’s first pitch of the shot, that it’s basically about taking the audience down a visual path and have them experience it and figure it out in one shot without cutting. In fact, the shot is not that complicated. It’s an underslung slider rig that travels through the seats of a car, from the very back towards the front and then pulls back. But in its analog fashion, it still has a point of view. And that’s something I appreciate, as a cinematographer, when directors bring a point of view to the table, which often I’ll recommend. But in this case, it was so clear, it was just a joy to to break it down with him and talk about how to execute it and pull it off. Anything that helps the audience to stay engaged and have the audience trying to figure the story out in an interesting way, I think is a good thing.
Stettler: Yeah, and to show two shots at the same time. Two points of view in a way which is organic to the moment in the story. It’s not like doing an editorial effect, like a split screen or something. That’s very cool. And it was live, right? It wasn’t matching the action to a recording?
Cameron: No, and that’s the thing with Jonathan and working with him that makes it so interesting. I’m like, “Well, we’ll shoot them separately, right? And you’ll just comp that in.” But he’s like, “Why?” Why composite if we can do it real? Certainly if I said it was impossible to light it, or make it look right, he’d say, “Okay, let’s composite it.” But it was a big location. And the action was shown from a slightly compromised angle anyway, with the wider angle. So I just went for it. I had condors on both sides of the road above and lighting everything up in both directions, as best I could.
Stettler: So you talked about how you like to have multiple cameras covering a scene. Was it just those two? Or were there also others at the same time?
Cameron: We don’t know how to let the camera sit idle when we’re shooting stuff like that. There’s stunts, gunfire, and action, so I can think of at least two other setups we had at the same time knowing that for whatever reason, he’d have some more coverage for it. It’s just shooting the additional angles, I can’t not do it, even if the concept is one shot. There’s many times directors will say, “No, no, don’t worry about it. We’re only going to use this shot.” And then of course, you see the edit and they don’t use that shot. They use a different shot or a selection of shots. So, I’ve always followed my instinct and my gut with this stuff. I feel like the best thing is to get those extra shots when you can get them anyway. So it worked out.
Stettler: And you had the time to do it, which is also a little bit of a surprise, given the fast pace of this show.
Cameron:Well we actually weren’t given enough time to do it, unfortunately. When you look at the reality, I think we had maybe four hours to light it, block it, and shoot it. So the additional coverage was more a question of what cameras can I get in there that are lit well that I can hide from the other two cameras. So, that’s what we did. I think we just ran two additional cameras, so four total.
Stettler: I see. Okay. I’m glad you cleared that up, because initially, I was understanding you had shot the sequence for the one shot and then re-shot it for the other angles.
Cameron: No, I wish. Again, as we spoke before, I am a very strong advocate for those additional cameras to get those shots that are particularly unique or emotional, but that you may not have on your shot list, or you may not be discovering in the heat of the moment. I think in the beginning, working with Jonathan way back on the pilot, he was leaning toward one or two cameras, and then he came to the other side and is now fearless with multiple cameras. Part of the idea of fearlessness in filmmaking is that it’s better to get the shots sometimes, and have them maybe not perfectly lit, or within the vision that you have, but if you actually get the shot and get that moment, it really helps the director and editor later.
You don’t want to compromise anything, but there were scenes I remember shooting with Tony Scott on a couple films where the lighting for certain angles was bothering me, and then of course you see the edit and it’s those three seconds from that camera that are just stunning, emotionally. And that’s when I’m an advocate for it. It’s a tough one, though. There’s ways to go about shooting and then there’s spontaneity. There were many times on Man on Fire, where I had an Arri 2C with a column motor and I made it so we could get 2.39 on three perf. It had a column motor and a 200-foot mag. It’s crazy. I would put an 85-200mm spherical zoom on there and leave it in a canvas bag and keep it on set with a small battery. So I could just grab that and lean against a wall and fire off a shot. Many, many close-ups of Denzel Washington in Man on Fire were from that camera. The more you can get into filmmaking and creating emotional film, taking chances, the better off you are. The more you do traditional coverage and get a wide master and a couple overs and then get out of there, that’s when you’re not necessarily making film too much; when you don’t have a point of view to your shots and you don’t have a point of view to your scene outside of a schematic. Unfortunately, that’s not filmmaking to me.
Stettler: I completely agree. It’s not visual storytelling. It’s more like a production line, like a factory making a product. So for you, what is your creative process? When you read a script and you are determining what these emotional shots are going to be. The ones that are not just the bread and butter of filmmaking, the standard over-the-shoulder or master shot, what do you think about? What’s your creative process to determine those shots?
Cameron:The script process is pretty simple and it’s always been this way for me. I try to read it all the way through the first time and really look at it, like words on paper, like I’m reading a piece of fiction without trying to extrapolate ideas or begin some kind of creative process. So I’ll read it, and I’ll really try to sit with it to see what the movie is about. What are the key storylines and plot lines and emotional arcs in the story? And then I start a process that I call visualization and conceptualization, where I begin to visualize the movie in my head and start conceiving ideas. So I’ll write those out quickly. And if I don’t know a director, I’ll start pulling some visual material right away. And I’ll make a kind of look book and just write down some initial ideas or maybe take up a photo of part of a script and an image and put them together. I’ll basically building a book for a meeting, that isn’t so much a book to get the job, but a kind of sketchbook for myself.
It’s hard, a number of us get a number of scripts to read. And there’s films that we really want to do and films that we’re not sure we want to do, and we take these meetings very often and I try to follow through creatively and walk in with this material or even send it ahead of time. You’re taking a chance doing that, sending it to directors ahead of time, but I find it’s always been a positive approach to it. Because I feel like once you get to the meeting, it’s often a director who keeps talking about his or her film as “my film” or “I see”; then if you want the movie, you’ve got to turn those meetings around to “we” right away. So I find it often helps if you do send stuff ahead of time and take that risk and there is a good response. Then I think good directors are more interested in even talking to you. Of course, it’s backfired a few times, where I really wanted a project and given some really good material to people and gotten a feeling that I was going to get the movie and then didn’t get the movie. And then I see the movie on the screen and I see references to my ideas.
Stettler: Yeah, I can imagine…
Cameron: But listen, we all like to think we’re new and inventive and original with our material, but sometimes it’s just coincidence. But sometimes it’s not.
Stettler: And I would argue another possibility is, if the material is very strong, and especially if it’s written a certain way, there’s really only a few shots that would work to tell that story. And so naturally, any talented cinematographer would see it probably in a similar way.
Cameron:You know, it’s our job to take the chance and pitch ideas to directors and producers and studios. I remember pitching the frozen moment camera system on Swordfish.
Stettler: Oh yeah, I remember that.
Cameron: It was a shot that took two days. I think the shot took a million dollars to do.
Stettler: Yeah, I think I read that.
Cameron: Yeah, it’s like 300 cameras, times four positions, with special effects and visual effects and going through walls. It was a complex shot. I pitched it and Dominic Cena was like, “This is great. I love a frozen moment, but you’ve taken it into a dolly and you’re tracking through this frozen moment, and you’re going 360 almost. So it’s a different concept. You’re elevating the concept. Let’s pitch it to Joel Silver and Warner Brothers”. So we did and Joel’s like, “How much is it gonna cost?!” But we figured it out and they approved it.