October / 1998
VANCOUVER: TAKE 2
McLachlan said he was surprised his work on Millennium won back-to-back CSC Awards because cinematography recognition usually goes to “the picture postcard shows like Lawrence of Arabia (Oscar for Frederick A. Young) or Braveheart (Oscar for John Toll). Millennium doesn’t have any of that kind of stuff in it. The movies that get critical notice and always win the Oscar for cinematography are the ones with the spectacular scenery, like Out of Africa (David Watkin).”
by Don Angus
An Interview with Rob McLachlan csc: Life on Millennium
“After years of lighting high key colour stuff, with lots of big, soft lights and soft sources, I found it was a lot more fun to get back to basically the way those guys worked in the ’40s and ’50s, with the slower stocks, with smaller lights but harder sources.”
Rob McLachlan csc sipped a cup of coffee as he talked, his long legs stretched under the table of a family restaurant just around the corner from Lion’s Gate Studios in North Vancouver. His easy conversation covered with affection the 20 years of his upwardly mobile career as an award-winning cinematographer—from peanut butter to champagne, so to speak.
He was trying to relax, to squeeze some well-deserved down time with his family into a short break between shoots. Here, in mid-July, he had recently finished a Disney MOW, and the hit TV series Millennium was about to gear up for its third season. The first two seasons earned McLachlan consecutive CSC Awards for best TV series, plus an ASC nomination. There have been other celebrity accolades, too, like a feature story in the June issue of BCBusiness magazine.
He was “a little tired right now,” he said, admitting that if Millenniumi had not been picked up, the prospect of taking his first summer off since 1984 had definite appeal. Work, however, is something McLachlan has come to appreciate, and “that’s the great thing about a series as opposed to one big feature a year. It’s the same as writing or painting or whatever, you don’t get good at it unless you’re doing it all the time.
“I probably work as many or more days as any other cameraman in the country—if that’s smart or not I don’t know—but if every day you go to work trying to do something a little better than you did the day before, you learn something new. Some kind of new problem gets thrown at you, and you can’t help but get better. Apart from being afraid of never working again, the thing that makes me take the jobs is because I just like shooting.”
McLachlan traces his love of shooting back to his youth. He was born in San Francisco, where his father was getting his start as a commercial artist, but his parents moved back home to Vancouver after a year and a half and young Rob grew up on the North Shore, “on the side of the mountain.” His dad was an avid home moviemaker, with his own rudimentary darkroom in the house, along with editors, splicers and projectors, and a piece of equipment to dub sound on to regular 8mm film. Later he switched to Super 8.
The younger McLachlan started doing his own pictures when he was about 12, and when he was in Grade 10 English he was given the option of doing some sort of project instead of writing an essay. He and some classmates decided to make a film.
“We went out and had a riot. We used my dad’s camera, spliced it all together and laid a soundtrack on it, and we all got the first A’s that any of us had ever gotten in English. So I realized I was on to something here. I liked doing this. This was really fun.”
After high school, McLachlan enrolled first in the fine arts program at the University of British Columbia for a year, but “around this time, the late ’60s, early ’70s, the Simon Fraser University Film Workshop was the place to learn film, so my wife, a whole bunch of my friends and I all switched over.”
He paid his way through school by working in the Woodward chain’s downtown Vancouver department store, and that resulted in his first independent film, and his first film award
‘He had been looking for a long time for
somebody to make a film about asparagus’
“For years the store had been making peanut butter with a 100-year-old machine,” McLachlan recounted. “In fact, when my grandmother was a kid at the turn of the century, the machine was in the window, and you would bring your own bucket to be filled with steaming-warm, fresh peanut butter.
“In 1977, the machine was up on the eighth floor, where it was run by a guy named Clyde, who had been making peanut butter at the store since before the Second World War. In the 50 years he had been there, he had four years off to go fight in the war, and then he came back and went on making peanut butter. I used to love it up there because it smelled great and nobody bothered me.
“But the store decided to get rid of this machine, and I thought that was a shame. I wanted to make a film about something, and I had saved up my money to buy a little 16mm Beaulieu camera, so I wrote a letter to Chunky Woodward—the guy who owned the store—and said that for a thousand bucks I can make a film about this. I think it actually ended up costing about $1,200.
“It took me a week to shoot the film in my spare time, and months of editing on equipment at the school. With virtually no help from anybody else, I made it 7 1/2 minutes long, and it won first prize in the B.C. Student Film Festival that year.
“But the best part was that the vice-president in charge of Woodward’s food operation said he loved the film and that he had been looking for a long time for somebody to make a film about asparagus and a film about eggs.”
McLachlan gave him a quote of $1,000 a minute, the going rate for industrials in 1978. Since the first film was to be about 10 minutes long and the one on eggs about 20, the blossoming filmmaker, now 20 years old, quit his job on the food floor and started making films. “So I’ve been making my living in this business for 20 years,” he smiled, noting that for many years the peanut butter, asparagus and eggs films did quite well in distribution to school boards across Canada.
He came out of the egg film with a loan for a new camera, a company called Omni Film Productions with partner Michael Chechik, and a wife at home with a new baby. By 1980, “I had a camera and editing equipment, but I needed work. So I started going after whatever I could get my mitts on.” Over the next five years, he shot, directed and edited some 200 low-budget TV commercials, then went all over the world doing 16mm environmental issue films for Greenpeace.
McLachlan continued to “upgrade my camera gear and shoot
more stuff—three or four days a week. By the mid-’80s there was more and more production in Vancouver, more American production, more TV production, and in ’85 I shot a low-budget horror feature for a guy who needed someone who knew how to shoot and had some equipment. It was called Abducted. Crummy movie, but I got some nice comments about the camera work in it.
“It was my camera—I had an SR2 by that point and a huge camera loan. It was actually a good thing to do because I had to keep it working, and I took anything I could get, from low-budget commercial on up. I was starting to do some bigger budget stuff by then, too, and some big government work.
“Finally, in ’87, a friend who was producing a remake of Sea Hunt in Victoria for MGM asked me if I wanted to operate on the series. They owned something like 45 scripts from the original Lloyd Bridges show, and they just reshot them. They didn’t even change the bad guys’ names; they were still called Iggy and Big Louie. It was stupid, but it was fun. Richard Leiterman shot it, but I shot the last couple of episodes when he was directing.”
‘We try to do as much
in the camera as we possibly can’
Sea Hunt,, said McLachlan, was his big break. It got him into IATSE 669 and “from that point I started to do tons of anthology series and dramatic stuff,” including the series The Commish and Strange Luck, a short-lived Fox show on the paranormal whose cinematography caught the eye of producer Chris Carter, creator of Vancouver-shot The X-Files and Millennium.
Carter launched Millennium in 1996, but had to step away from it last season while he was working on the feature film version of The X-Files. The writing team of Jim Wong and Glen Morgan took over the show in Carter’s absence and “I really liked working with those guys. But it’s not their show, and I think it’s a good thing that Carter’s going to be heavily involved this year. He’s the big reason the show looks the way it does, and he’s the reason The X-Files looked the way it did. He had the clout to say: ‘I want it this dark. I don’t care if the affiliates are complaining that the TV sets of their viewers in Ohio aren’t up to the signal we’re sending.’
“He wanted it dark, and most of all he wanted something that was as close to feature film calibre as he could possibly get, and he wouldn’t accept anything else.”
McLachlan said ,Millennium is shot in 35mm on both Kodak 5293 and 5298, although “I shot almost 90 per cent of last season on 98. But when Frank (the lead character, played by Lance Henriksen) has his visions, or gets into the mind of the killer and gets these flashes, we shoot it on 16mm because we couldn’t find any 35mm technique that would give us the same look. Not only that, but we shoot the 16mm on reversal film stock that we then push.”
At first it appeared that the only place that still developed reversal stock was out in California’s San Fernando Valley, but “I remembered that years ago Action Film Labs here in Vancouver—they do mostly still work now—used to do all the news stuff for CBC and BCTV back before they switched to videotape.” Action never used them anymore, but they still had their reversal machines, and McLachlan told them to “‘dust them off because we might be able to send you a couple of rolls every other week or so.’”
The resulting look hasn’t been very consistent, the DOP said. “I think it goes all over the place.” But, he added, “what we’re all looking for is what Carter referred to as a ‘happy accident,’ where maybe something happens in the lab and it gets a great look.”
He said he also shot a lot of the “visions” at 6 fps and then had them transferred at 6 fps, “so that at such a slow shutter speed you get a blurring effect, but at real time. Then my assistant, Mike Wrinch, had this fabulous idea to get strobe lights from Denny Clairmont (Clairmont Camera), designed for doing Coca Cola commercials and anything with running water. We would light one half of a violent, moving subject with them, light the other half with normal light, and then shoot at 6 fps. What you get with the normal light is a blurred effect because the shutter speed is so slow, but with the strobes in a very short exposure time the picture becomes super sharp. The image becomes three dimensional.
“We try to do as much in the camera as we possibly can rather than letting them play around with it in post. They end up doing absolutely nothing with it; they roll it over the way it comes out of the camera. It’s a little bit gimmicky, but it also doesn’t look like anything that I’ve seen anybody else do.”
McLachlan said he lights Millennium in a black and white style—“where you have hard back lights and hard edges and so forth”—that seems to work best for the show.
“The initial concept was to pull a lot of the colour out of the film in post, so that it became somewhat monochromatic but not quite black and white.” However, he said he found that “if you lit like you would for normal colour cinematography, the pictures went really muddy (in post) because you had no separation. When you’re lighting for black and white—the classic black and white lighting—you’ve got back light, you’ve got hard edges, you’ve got hard kickers. That’s
what I think gives the show its distinctive look.
“It’s harder to do, but after years of lighting high key colour stuff, with lots of big, soft lights and soft sources, I found it was a lot more fun to get back to basically the way those guys worked in the ’40s and ’50s with the slower stocks, with smaller lights but harder sources.”
McLachlan said he was surprised his work on Millennium won back-to-back CSC Awards because cinematography recognition usually goes to “the picture postcard shows like ,Lawrence of Arabia (Oscar for Frederick A. Young) or Braveheart (Oscar for John Toll). Millennium doesn’t have any of that kind of stuff in it. The movies that get critical notice and always win the Oscar for cinematography are the ones with the spectacular scenery, like Out of Africa (David Watkin).”
In 1993, McLachlan won the CSC Award for feature film cinematography, for a movie he did in ’92 called Impolite.
“I’m really proud of the lighting in that movie, because we had 18 days to shoot and the story takes place over a 12-hour period in the course of one day. The film got very little distribution or critical attention, but any notice it got for cinematography wasn’t for what I worked the hardest at, which was keeping a consistent feel over a one-day timespan, but for one shot of Christopher Plummer walking through a beautiful, virgin stand of timber when the light came through just right.
“I had the P.A. run through the background with a fog machine, and we waited a minute, locked off the camera, then walked the actor in and walked him out. In the theatre when we watched the shot, everybody went “Ahhhhh.”
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