Behind the Lens: Homeland's David Klein, ASC
COW Library : Cinematography : David Klein, ASC : Behind the Lens: Homeland's David Klein, ASC
David Klein, ASC started his career in cinematography as a child, when he got his hands on his father and grandfather's cameras. His career got off to a bang with Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy. Since then he shot several TV series including Pushing Daisies and numerous indie and studio films including Clerks II, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and Red State.
How did you start your career in cinematography?
My dad and my grandfather shot a lot of film, so by the time I was in middle school I'd pried a Canon AE-1 from my dad's hands and a Bolex from my grandfather's. They taught me these cameras and, although they were not professional cameramen, they were no slouches. I cut my teeth shipping daylight spools of 16mm film to various labs around the country and camping-out in my high school darkroom, developing roll after roll of Kodak TMAX. It was my first learning experience in cinematography and it was largely an exercise in the necessity for self-education.
Not long after I graduated from high school, I put the cameras down and followed a girl to college. I'll spare you the "heartbreaking" details, but I dropped out of college and stormed off to the Vancouver Film School. That course of action was instrumental because, had my application been received two days later, I'd have ended in another class instead of the one I met Kevin Smith in. So thanks are in order, really.
I was fortunate enough to meet not only Kevin but Scott Mosier there, too, and shortly afterwards we began our careers with the films Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy. And shortly after that, I was forced out by a studio system that thought Kevin would be better off with a more experienced cinematographer. They were probably right, so I had to learn how to fight through the system.
I shot anything I could get my hands on: Indie features, music videos, television. It was absolutely the most important time in my career because I had to look at myself and ask why a studio wouldn't want me shooting features for one of my best friends. The answer was experience and how much of it I lacked at the time. I'm a firm believer in Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000- Hour Rule," but when it comes to something as complex as light, that's probably not nearly enough time. Right out of film school, things happened faster for me than I had earned, but I spent the next decade learning to deserve every frame I shot.
What's the most important thing you learned in film school?
Don't be afraid of what you don't know and don't be afraid to tell people that you don't know it. There's nothing worse in this business than those who claim to know what they don't. So I learned that, and how to use a light meter.
Claire Danes, two-time Emmy winner for her portrayal of Carrie Mathison on Homeland
You started off your career making some well-known indie films, and now you're shooting two very popular TV series. What does TV allow you to do that you can't with features? Are there limitations with TV that you chafe against?
Low budget indie features have time restraints in common with most TV series, so they're a good training ground for the amount of pages per day you end up shooting in television. But normally, you have more time in features and that's the most striking difference between the two. Luckily, on True Blood and Homeland, creatively, I'm left to my own devices. So I might not have the time, but I have flexibility and creative access. If somebody upstairs is unhappy with what I'm doing, they'll let me know – and I've been known to get into trouble now and again for being too dark. But, for the most part, creative lighting decisions are mine in the TV I've been doing.
You took over Homeland from Nelson Cragg who established the show in the first two years. What was his "look" for the show and what aspects of his look have you held on to?
The look established in the pilot by Chris Manley, ASC was very natural and raw. Nelson Cragg stuck to this for two seasons and it's what I inherited. It's not my place to reinvent the look of an already established, successful show, but I was hired for a reason. So I've maintained a natural, gritty and very real look, while doing it my own way. There are a lot of different ways to get a natural look; mine is precise and can tend to be big. I sometimes over-light to look under lit. Recently during a conversation with a key grip I work with, Bud Scott, I mentioned that I usually think lighting is 80 percent grip work and he replied, "The way you do it, it is."
David Klein, Homeland season 3 Director of Photography, is shown on the Puerto Rico set during filming of the third season of the Showtime award-winning drama. Photo: Kent Smith/SHOWTIME
What did the showrunners tell you that were looking for in Season 3 in terms of look?
Alex Gansa, Lesli Linka Glatter and I met on the look of Homeland Season 3 and we decided that no matter where we wanted to go with it, the show should open up feeling and looking exactly like it did in the previous two seasons.
After that, we'd let the story guide the look of the show, be that taking it in a new direction or not. I asked Alex Gansa at this point, "Whom do I answer to?" and he simply said, "You answer to yourself." Which was a gift and a curse. He gave me more freedom than most cinematographers have in my position but he also gave me the huge responsibility of creating the world these characters live in and maintaining that.
What aspects of your own aesthetic will we see in Season 3 of Homeland? What are your inspirations/influences for shooting the show?
No matter what I'm lighting, True Blood, Homeland or a feature film like Red State, the lighting has to come from a very real place. True Blood is like shooting a graphic novel, so the lighting has more contrast and is slightly more stylized than realistic – but you still have to believe in it; there's only so much liberty you can take with reality before the authenticity starts to leak out. Homeland, on the other hand, is extremely realistic, so the lighting has to feel like the light we actually move through in the world.
Once a shot starts to feel "lit", I'll change it. But to my eye, there's Dogme95 lighting and then there's intentional lighting that looks realistic, which are two very different things. I use a lot of big sources, extremely soft sources to start with and then I add to or subtract from that to shape the light according to specific scenes. That's a very broad generalization and not an approach I use on every scene, but I sometimes start with that.
To this I add some contrast and try to take a bit of color out of the frame. On Homeland I tend to make my version of natural and raw lighting look like real life but with more contrast and less color.
In terms of inspiration, I always go back to the well that is Conrad Hall, ASC. He had a tendency to light scenes so precisely and thoroughly (and sometimes with a very large number of sources), but most of the time the outcome was a natural and realistic look. In my opinion, he was the greatest American cinematographer and so will always be a resource.
Another well I frequent is Harris Savides, ASC, who was quoted often about "lighting a room and letting people inhabit it, as opposed to lighting the people." It's a very organic way to work and it gives the actors a lot of freedom. I also study my contemporaries and try to keep up with what they're doing. Lately I've been studying the lighting of Jeff Cronenweth, ASC, Matt Jensen, ASC and Reed Morano, ASC.
Damian Lewis as Nick Brody Season 3 Episode 3
All of the cinematographers I study do things differently and every approach is valid. Somewhere in all this experience and methodology I start to find new ways to light and new things I like to do with light. I do generally stick to studying cinematographers as opposed to painters and photographers, but they are valuable resources as well.
The first two seasons were shot with the ARRI Alexa. Are you continuing to shoot with the Alexa? I know you're also using the Canon. Can you talk about the mix of cameras and how they're being used?
We are still primarily an Alexa show, but this season I've added a Red Epic, Canon 1DC and Canon 5D to the mix. All of these cameras have their benefits and drawbacks so we use the right camera for the right situation, as long as I know I can grade them to match, which we have done successfully so far. The Alexas are our A and B cameras and we'll bring the Epic out for its size, weight and as a C camera body whenever we need it. I think the Alexa and Epic cut together really well. The Canon 1DC and 5D have mainly been used for their size and weight as well, because you can literally rig those cameras anywhere. They've been matching the Alexa and Epic footage better than I'd initially thought they would. All of these digital cameras look different, but if you find the right way to use them together it's pretty seamless.
Since Homeland is a realistic show, how does that influence both how you light and how you move the camera?
I started my career as a DP/operator mainly doing handheld work on indie features, so I have a fondness for really good handheld work, which is what we do all day long on this show. It's one of my favorite things about shooting Homeland (says the guy who doesn't have to shoulder these things all day long!).
We have a lot of tricks to make our handheld solid and rigid: sometimes an EZ-Rig, sometimes Nick Davidoff or Bob Newcomb (A and B camera operators, respectively) handheld on the dolly tracking and sometimes it's a springhead. So when we're blocking a scene, I try to think in terms of getting a handheld operator in the right position for the right point of view for that scene.
In terms of lighting, nothing drives me crazier than handheld camerawork with lighting that doesn't look real. So one of my overall goals is to keep the lighting as real as possible.
As I mentioned, on Homeland my version of real, gritty and raw is naturalistic lighting with a little more contrast than you might find in life and slightly less saturation. Why? I have no idea. It just feels right and a lot of times all you have are your instincts. When creating a mood for a specific scene I don't know that I can always tell you why I'm doing what I'm doing except that it feels called for.
My lighting is very different for specific projects, but overall, where it comes from is a combination of everything I've ever lit, shot and even watched coming together to be what I guess you could call an aesthetic, but it's experience, really. At least it's based on experience, which requires constant, continued education. Every cinematographer out there knows something I don't, and I pick something up from everything I watch. Sometimes I'll pick up what to do and sometimes what not to do. Both are equally valuable, but what not to do is generally more important to remember.
What's the biggest challenge in shooting Homeland? How have you met that challenge?
Coming from mostly feature films and, recently, True Blood, where I sometimes get 14 to 18 days per episode, Homeland's biggest challenge was the eight-to-nine day schedule. It's ambitious and I never have a moment in the day to catch my breath. How have I met that challenge? I think maybe my initial start in independent features made me very aware of time management. I've been asked if I'm fast and I absolutely hate that question. I'm not hired to be fast, I'm hired to create and maintain a look. So, am I fast? I have no idea. If one of our ADs tells me we have to be finished with a scene in an hour, I'll do everything I can to finish in an hour. Sometimes I can and sometimes I can't – but there are always other factors involved. I may not get you home early, but I'm also not going to be the reason you do a 14-hour day.
I generally manage my time based on the entire day rather than get bogged down in a specific shot. There are always going to be shots that are more necessary than pleasing. Maybe it's a shot whose sole function is to drive the story forward. Those aren't a cinematographer's favorite, but you have to accept the fact that with these schedules the simple, harsh truth is you have to make your days. Indecision will make you crazy and kill you, so you have to accept what you cannot change and move on. Or change what you cannot change and move on. But move on.
David Klein, Homeland season 3 Director of Photography, confers with the director of the episode, Clark Johnson, on the Puerto Rico set during filming of the third season of the Showtime award-winning drama (Season 3, Episode 3).
Have you introduced anything new to your workflow for the show? If so, what?
I've shot Alexa, Red Epic, Canon 5D and 1DC in TV and features, but I've never mixed them all together as I have been here. This adds some specific rules to each digital format in order to help them match each other. For example, I set the ISO differently on these cameras. I think the Alexa's ISO is more sensitive than the actual rating but I find the Epic to be a true 800 ISO. I've also added a full set of the new Canon PL zooms to my glass and I've never found lenses that match the Cooke S4s as well.
These are some of the best zooms I've ever used: Extremely sharp and they breathe less than most. I use them mostly as variable primes and couldn't be happier. We're also just starting to put some of the Canon EF primes through their paces and they are similarly impressive. It's great to see Canon getting back into the motion picture lens business because they've always made phenomenal glass and I've been a Canon customer since I pried my dad's AE-1 out of his hands and it became my first 35mm camera.
Every job is a learning experience – is there anything important (or less important!) that you've learned from shooting Homeland?
I'm always trying to expand my lighting vocabulary, which can mean anything from educating myself on the latest in lighting technology to taking this new gear and figuring out even newer or unintended ways to make it do what we need it to do.
For years, I was dead-set against LEDs, because there were so many LEDs out that didn't meet my or my gaffer's expectations due to output, color temp, flicker, et cetera. But in the past couple of years, companies like Mole-Richardson have fixed what was wrong with LEDs and now I've been using the hell out of them. We've added to our package some of the new Mole-Richardson LED fresnels (dayligxht and tungsten) and have created a lot of different configurations with Lite Ribbon.
Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson Season 3 Episode 1 of Homeland
We've also been figuring out how best to use MacTech LED flo tubes and when they're right and when they're not. I generally stay away from fluorescent lighting unless the scene is in a fluorescent environment, but I've recently been using more flos than I used in the past.
These cameras today are so sensitive, sources have become lower wattage, more diffuse and when you add a lot of these smaller sources together to create a larger, soft light, the different wavelengths and types of light start to blend. If I have a 12x12 tungsten book-light as a starting point, and add 4 foot fluorescent tubes pushed through full grid cloth as an eye-light close to this original source, the two sources become one and create something else entirely.
Now the mixed light (not talking color temp) is a tungsten/fluorescent blend that's slightly different than either on its own. This is an extreme oversimplification of this process and the new light created, but I'm always trying to find new ways to create the right light.
It seems like lately one of the trends (for me, this started with key grip Bud Scott on True Blood) is to do more with less equipment. Not in terms of less equipment on the truck, but less equipment on the set. Bud worked on a lot of different ways to be unencumbered. For example, he built 4x8 foot book light frames by hinging two aluminum stock frames together and then setting the frame directly on the stage floor, so no C stand. A lot of 2x4 and 4x4 book lights were supported by a C stand arm like a kickstand – so another book-light without a single stand.
Most of the diffusion frames on these book lights sport lighting control grids to avoid more stands and flags. It's a trend that I've seen all over L.A., but also in New York, Vancouver, Atlanta and now, Charlotte. It's interesting (and admittedly nerdy) to watch lighting trends make their way through the industry in different regions. Sometimes I've passed along techniques from a key grip in L.A. to a key grip in Atlanta or a gaffer here to a gaffer there, just as they'd been passed to me. It's all a part of the self-education process that keeps us relevant and vital.
Title Graphic: David Klein, Homeland season 3 Director of Photography, on set during filming of the third season of the Showtime award-winning drama (Season 3, Episode 4). Photo: Kent Smith/SHOWTIME
All images © SHOWTIME