Behind the Lens: David Boyd ASC & The Walking Dead
COW Library : Cinematography : David Boyd, ASC : Behind the Lens: David Boyd ASC & The Walking Dead
AMC's Mad Men and Breaking Bad have been among the network's highest-profile shows over the years, but The Walking Dead, now in its second season, has more viewers than the two of those combined. Indeed, the second season premiere of The Walking Dead was the most-watched drama in the history of basic cable television.
David Boyd, ASC was the Director of Photography for that episode, among the 10 others he has lensed thus far. He also directed the sixth episode of the season, "Secrets," which aired November 20.
Some of his other cinematography credits include Without a Trace (48 episodes), Friday Night Lights (25 episodes), and every episode of Firefly. In addition to The Walking Dead, he has also directed six episodes of Friday Night Lights, and seven of Men of a Certain Age.
David had no interest in the movies when he was a physics major at University of California, San Diego, but took the easiest class he could find in the catalog to fulfill a humanities requirement. It ended up being a class on filmmaking, and the professor -- Jean-Pierre Gorin (Tout Va Bien, with Jean-Luc Goddard) -- set him on a new path.
After graduating from the UCLA Film School, he worked his way up the ranks in the camera department and concurrently shot documentaries. He most recently photographed the feature film Joyful Noise with Queen Latifah, Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson, and directed and photographed the feature film Home Run, both to be released in 2012.
Creative COW's Debra Kaufman spoke with David about shooting style, lighting and lens choices, and staying out of the way.
I'm not sure how I was brought on to The Walking Dead. I'm guessing most of the choosing came from writer/director/creator Frank Darabont, executive producer Gale Ann Hurd, and producer Tom Luse. Whoever they were going to choose had to be able to be fast and good. I got the job even though I had never worked with Frank in the past but, after having now collaborated with him on The Walking Dead, I know him to be a consummate filmmaker.
Director Gwyneth Horder-Payton with actor Jon Bernthal who portrays Shane Walsh
Cinematographer David Tattersall shot the first episode for The Walking Dead, which I was not involved in. I know they tested every single camera on the market for close to a week. They initially thought they would go with RED or some other digital camera, or maybe even shoot 35mm. Someone happened to have thought to bring in a few rolls of 16mm and, when they tried that out, they discovered that it gave them a certain texture and grain that allowed the zombie make-up effects to be the most believable.
I shot the pilot and all the episodes of Friday Night Lights on 16mm, with three handheld cameras, but I don't think it was my experience in 16mm that got me the work on The Walking Dead. They needed someone who could bring the show in on time and under budget and still look great, and I'd demonstrated that I could do that consistently, on a long list of previous projects.
My time as cinematographer on The Walking Dead started with the second episode of the first season. I've since shot all five episodes last season and the first five of this season. I then directed the 7th episode this season titled "Secrets" (it will be the 6th to air). As I was scheduled to direct the feature film Home Run shortly after that, cinematographer Rohn Schmidt was brought on to complete the remaining eight episodes of this season.
(Home Run, which was done widescreen in Oklahoma in October, is the story of a major league baseball player at the height of his career who is suspended for bad behavior; when he goes back home to do community service, he finds he has a ten year-old son.)
Directing the episode "Secrets" on The Walking Dead was a great experience. The Walking Dead is a high-profile show, so good directors come through. But they're only there for a couple weeks, and they can't possibly have absorbed the entire show and get the feel of it. I am the only director to direct an episode who had been on the show every single minute of every production day from its inception. Everybody on the set knew everybody else really well -- in fact, we're all like family -- and it went like clockwork.
Andrea (Laurie Holden), Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal), Carol (Melissa McBride), Lori Grimes (Sarah Wayne Callies) and Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) in Season 2. Photo by Gene Page. ©TWD Productions LLC.
Psychologically, "Secrets" is an intriguing episode. All the main characters are holding secrets; some are holding really important ones that affect the entire tribe. Each has their reasons for keeping these secrets, but soon it's obvious that if they are to survive, both together and separately, the secrets have to come out.
I had a lot of fun shooting the walkers in the barn, as it was the first time the story had taken us there. In the end, Rick and Lori Grimes have a wonderful scene where they really get to take a look at whether they still love each other and whether they can continue to keep secrets from each other if their marriage is to survive. And they come out stronger as a result. I just love this idea for an episode, against the backdrop of an epic story of physical survival.
Nevermind, I'll walk...
Shooting The Walking Dead, we used Arriflex 416 cameras, which incidentally embody the zenith in the development of 16mm cameras. It is poignant to me because 16mm has been around for decades and it's definitely receding over the horizon behind us.
But this camera, which debuted in 2006, is a perfect organism: light, quick, fast. They're brilliant cameras, a fully evolved 16mm system. These machines are actually what make projects like The Walking Dead possible to produce well. Yet Arriflex no longer makes them, and I don't know of any other manufacturer still making film cameras. Man, is 16mm ever going out on top! We got cameras from Panavision Atlanta, which recently opened an outlet in Georgia because there's so much film production going on there. Last season we got the same cameras through Panavision Dallas. Both seasons of The Walking Dead have been shot in Georgia; the first season was actually centered right in Atlanta, and the second season we were located around Senoia, around an hour south of Atlanta.
I always advocated having three cameras but I only got the third about half the time. Three cameras is many times better than two because the third camera gets you the unique angles you don't have time to do when you only have two cameras.
The third camera is stealthy, and it brings in footage that tells the story like no other. With an A or B camera, everybody is controlling it and they get the ordinary and compulsory looking images. Directors and producers still want medium shots, although I think they are the death of cinema.
David metering light against zombie decay
With the third camera, I can do something odd, something that gets into what these characters are thinking, something that finds them looking or finding something with their hands, or not finding something, or thinking. It's a key that opens a door to something deep in the psyche that you don't get with another run-of-the-mill over-the-shoulder shot.
Cinematographers have been trained by experience over their years not to bring home footage that doesn't have a close-up, medium shot, over-the-shoulder, master shot. They don't get hired again if they don't accomplish those shots. But the third camera is the one that gets you something great. Friday Night Lights, as small a budget as that was, had a third camera every day, because the producers knew the power of it.
Videographer Constantine Nasr with David Boyd
Generally, if there were eight people talking in a scene I would get the third camera and crew. If it were a scene with only three people talking I'd only get two. But I could have used a third camera really well every single day. If you can take an hour off any production day by having a third camera, it pays for itself.
Follow the red bucket.
LET THEM LOOSE
I like to approach new projects from a unique direction every time. I'm not interested in making images that can be identified as ones I've shot. I prefer audiences to be unaware of the cinematography, to be responding to it subconsciously.
When it comes to moving the camera, personally, I favor the approach that is appropriate for a scene or project. With The Walking Dead, I tried to choose what was the perfectly appropriate way to cover a scene, and then execute it to its fullest extent. Sometimes we'd lock it down, sometimes we'd use a dolly, sometimes we'd go handheld.
It's fair to say that Frank Darabont is someone who is most comfortable putting cameras on dollies and doing nice smooth moves rather than handheld. It's interesting to note that the first episode last season took 16 days to shoot a 44-minute slot and there were only two people talking.
The first episode I photographed last year had 14 characters and 8 days to shoot for the same 44 minutes. In terms of shooting concept, that's a quantum difference. As a result last season we did a fair amount of handheld, and people dug it.
I'm not sure there should be any edict in terms of what is good or bad with regard to moving the camera. I believe the material should inform the process, not the other way around. I like to get out of an actor's way. I don't want to be in her or his face. I want them to have a stage, and light it so they have the freedom to do their thing. Great things seem to happen as a result of that that frees a whole project up. If you screw the actors into the floor, everything becomes tedious, and the work becomes work.
Norman Reedus (Daryl Dixon) with Boyd
The same goes for lenses. I like to spend as little time as possible dealing with equipment. The story is paramount. I wanted only one lens available to put on the cameras. If that lens couldn't do it we were going to do it with that lens anyway. It's a matter of making a choice conceptually and living or dying with it, of getting in a boat and cutting the rope and floating out onto a vast unknown ocean. There were no prime lenses.
We did the whole show with one lens, a Canon 10.5-168mm. It gets you a wide shot to be sure, but from 14 feet out, you can grab a screaming tight close-up from the same position. This simple choice has turned out to be the perfect one for The Walking Dead in so many ways.
I tell the operators -- and we have three of the best around in Mike Satrazemis, Chris Jones and Glen Brown -- if you see a performance happening and have the freedom to go get it as an operator, then go get it. We're not going to ask the actor to do a brilliant performance twice. We can always do a wide shot but if you see something happening emotionally, go get it.
The operators know they can go and do it and not get in trouble for it. That loosens up a show, and an entire company. There's not a mistake to be made. If it's not something we want, we talk about it after a take, but there are no penalties and there are no inquisitions. Because I love my operators, and my dolly grips Franc Boone and Mike Besaw, I can give them free rein.
Those people have a tremendous amount of experience, and when the cameras are rolling they are the only people around who can capture a moment when it's still happening. Do you know how many hours they've spent on set? Probably 50 times more than a producer. They know exactly what's going on. They've been around it, and they've been controlled unnecessarily in the past. I say, let them loose. I say, hire great people and let them do what they know needs doing.
Hire great people and let them do what they know needs doing.
As soon as it starts to look like it came out of Chapter 4 in the Lighting Book, I lose interest.
I love sourcey light. I love knowing in my imagination where light is coming from. For day interiors, I like to throw a giant amount of foot candles in through a window and let it rattle around in the room a bit. You can always find a way to get that quality of light up onto peoples' faces. Sets start to look naturally lit.
On The Walking Dead, we had 9-light Maxi-Brutes loaded up with firestarter bulbs, which are very narrow 1200 watt sealed-beam globes similar to aircraft landing lights. Those units put a bunch of light through a window fast. The same sealed-beam globe can be put into individual rock 'n roll parcans, which are probably my favorite lighting instrument ever.
I also like to have Lekos at my disposal. These are great lights because you can use them to make any pattern on a wall. You can create the effect of the sun coming in a window, hitting a beveled mirror and going across the room.
Lekos are versatile lights
I operated for a great cinematographer, James Glennon, ASC, who once brought a bunch of one-foot square mirrors and handed them out, one mirror per department. The prop guys, the art department, the costume people all got a mirror. Then he invited them onto the set and asked them to place the mirror where they thought it would create the best kind of light. There was a competition for who put the best mirror in there. I think the costumers won pretty often.
Keeping lighting simple helps us to work faster and better. We aspired to a great-looking show that never went over 12 hours in a day, often turning in over ten pages of the script daily.
The biggest challenge in shooting The Walking Dead is the climate. The Georgia summer is nothing to be trifled with -- and we were out in it every day, all day long, for months.
L-R Top: Focus Puller David Galbraith, Camera Operator Mike Satrazemis, Focus Puller Bruce Robinson, Camera/Steadicam Operator Glen Brown
L-R Bottom: Camera P.A. Nicole Castro, Dir/DP David Boyd, 2nd Cam Asst Angela Holford, 2nd Cam Asst Matt Mcginn
At the same time, in the woods where we were this season, there is every insect known to man and poison ivy everywhere. You're standing in the woods, wearing as few clothes as possible because of the heat and humidity, but every portion of exposed skin is getting eaten alive. It's no lie. Every once in a while someone would just fall over. Can you imagine how hot the people in full zombie make-up get?
The Walking Dead Season 2 Episode 6: Secrets. Photo by Gene Page and Greg Nicotero. ©TWD Productions LLC.
That's the biggest challenge. The rest of it is pretty straightforward filmmaking and everyone who's done it knows what to do when. We solve problems all day long; that's what the whole process is about. I constantly have to decide whether to continue with something we're doing, with the idea that there's something good down a particular road, or to cut and run and do something else fast. I must always be making those determinations. If it starts to rain I have to have a plan, and my vote is usually to keep shooting.
My hero Conrad Hall, ASC, used to say that the greatest images are what you let happen by accident. You just rummage around a bit until something good happens. Just let it happen. When it happens you know it.
On a The Walking Dead TV schedule, those happy accidents take place 400 times a day - as long as you don't control it, but let people do what they're going to do. Never lose sight of where you need to be at the end of the day, but don't fret or get worried. It wants to happen, so let it.
BEYOND THE END CREDITS
Now and for the last several years there's been so much good concept material on TV that's worth doing, and The Walking Dead is one of them. Because I've experienced so many projects, from film loader to director, from small to big, I know there are huge budget shows that are bereft of any redeeming qualities, and small shows that are conceptually fantastic.
I photographed a short film in 2003 entitled Two Soldiers. No one was paid. We all did it for the love of cinema, and the darned thing won the Best Live-Action Short Academy Award® in 2004. I still consider it one of the very special experiences of my career.
Once in a while you get a chance to contribute to a project that becomes part of the cinema lexicon. I pulled focus on Re-Animator. I operated the N.Y.P.D. Blue pilot. I photographed the series Deadwood. I shot 2nd Unit on Cast Away. I'm inspired by the process one's mind goes through on the way to creating something unique and lasting in people's minds. I'm satisfied professionally if an audience's viewing experience doesn't end with the end credits.
My shooting philosophy is continually changing and adjusting to the requirements of each new project, but it's probably fair to say that I try not to get stuck in any particular vision prior to shooting a project -- and then I resist with all my energy any forces trying to move me away from it once we start shooting.
I also try to learn something good always, even if a show has no redeeming value story-wise. Most important to me at the moment is to try to pick projects that put something thought-provoking out into the universe. I'd rather say no to an $80 million piece of junk than turn down a beautiful story to photograph.