Shifting gears – interview with Jonathan Freeman ASC

July 22nd, 2014

When I first spoke with the cinematographer Jonathan Freeman ASC in late 2011, it was primarily about his work on feature films. Since then he has worked on a number of HBO television productions, including “Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire”. In this interview Jonathan talks about the disappearing world of mid-budget adult feature drama and the migration of creative talent into the television world, defining and evolving the visual look of a series in collaboration with multiple director / cinematographer crews, an almost-continuous seasonal cycle of high-quality adult drama series, his close collaboration as a director of photography with VFX department on the effects-heavy “Game of Thrones” and working on tighter-scripted story arcs that span entire seasons.


Kirill: As a viewer I’m seeing a lot of quality adult drama productions writing, as well as high-profile cast & crew, moving from the feature world into the TV world in the last few years – including “Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire” that you’ve been working on. Is that what you are seeing as well from within the industry?

Jonathan: Generally speaking I prefer the shorter format of movies. Telling a concise story, within a couple of hours, more or less, is something that I always aspire to. However I’m always drawn firstly to the content of the script. The difference of quality between features and television scripts that I’ve been exposed to lately, is quite surprising. There’s been such a great improvement in television writing to the point where one could argue that the best writing is currently in TV. You’re starting to see now how the success and popularity of TV shows overshadow some of the major film releases. If the old water cooler is any gage, people seem to talk about popular TV shows on Monday mornings more often than the latest blockbusters.

You’re also seeing a migration of highly sought-after filmmakers desiring to make a leap into television. Part of that is probably financial, but I think there are two aspects on the creative side. The first is the opportunity to tell a longer story, which is something unique. And the other is that the material presented to them is quite exceptional. As for myself, I continue to choose my projects based on the quality of material rather than the medium itself.

Kirill: And there’s not much mid-budget drama being done in feature world.

Jonathan: That’s very true. There seems to be a void between ultra low budget films and tentpoles. The middle-sized budgets – from $15M to $40M – are rarely being made currently. You’ll occasionally come across a couple here and there that were built up through some unique financing. But it seems like mid-range films, for the moment at least, are not profitable investments for the studios.

Hopefully these are cycles that may come back. There was a period a few years back where films recognized by the Academy awards were independent ones in that $15M-$40 range, gaining interest from the Oscars as well as at the box office. That seemed to go away when tentpoles and the ultra-low budget horror movies became very financially successful.

Kirill: And given this financial success that is not slowing down in these two particular genres, this cycle might take a while until things swing back.

Jonathan: It’s certainly possible. I don’t believe the studios are entirely in it to make money. They are filmmakers too, and they are proud of the movies they make. But it is a business first. And it’s hard to argue against financial success. You only have a certain amount of money to allocate as a business annually, and you have to be very conscientious of what you choose.

The swing will probably happen based on the outcome at the box office. If, perhaps, a few tentpoles flop, or the ultra-low budget alternative movies will become a bit tired, or the 3D format will get phased out again – these things do swing. And then if we have a series of independent or middle budget films that do well, there might be interest in reinvesting in that format. As to whether it’s going to be soon, I don’t think anyone knows. I certainly hope so, and I think most people in film do too. This is why most of us got into this business in the first place.

Kirill: Certainly as a viewer I miss variety in feature work. There were a few gems here and there in the past few years, but it feels like the middle has been hollowed out.

Jonathan: And it’s certainly seems true for American films. Maybe the inspiration will come from successful foreign films. It’s possible that could be the breakthrough, though it is rare.

But in the meantime, on the positive side, there’s another medium that is becoming more influential in a lot of ways, including culturally. More companies are investing in long format drama for television, and willing to spend the money to produce it at a high quality standard. That’s a great thing.

I’m a bit biased because I’ve worked with HBO, and I think that they are a great organization. They put the money on the screen, and they support the people they hire. They really strive to look for great material, and it’s always inspiring to see what they’re coming up with.

And the other part is the competition from cable networks and the newer ventures from companies like Netflix and Amazon. Competition can only make the medium of television that much strong.

Kirill: And this competition is making the overall pie, if you will, that much bigger, and not necessarily taking away “your” viewers.

Jonathan: Absolutely. Television is learning that quality does matter and that content does matter. It seems, within the last decade since “The Sopranos”, there has been a really inspiring evolution in television that can also be profitable – which is the key thing. It does come down to money. HBO couldn’t invest in “Game of Thrones” or their other shows if they didn’t think that there was some financial benefit to it.

Kirill: It also appears to be accompanied by transitioning to fewer episodes per season, from “Breaking Bad” to “Game of Thrones” to “True Detective” that did “only” eight episodes, where you don’t have the usual fluff of filler in the middle of a specific episode or the season itself to bring it up to the “usual” 22-23 episodes per season. I see very tight scripting that tells a very tight story arc across an individual season.

Jonathan: And that commitment helps to tell a tighter story, and one that is not filled in as much, which you might find in some network dramas. They have a daunting task to produce so much material per season. 22 episodes is a lot of writing. No matter how fast and how brilliant you are as a writer, there will have to be some filler interwoven into the season. The network shows that do deliver high quality writing are very impressive considering all the demands required of them. That’s also not to say there isn’t filler in the shorter season shows, but a shorter season provides the opportunity to tell your story as tight as you can.

And for the viewer that brings it that much closer to the film experience. When you look at a one-hour network script, it’s broken down into five acts – with or without a teaser. Those are designed commercial breaks, and there’s a structure that most of these scripts need to follow. At the end of each act there’s something to pull you in to the next act after the commercial. The cable format rarely requires commercial breaks, so the pace is much more like a feature.

Kirill: For me as a viewer these episodes flow much more naturally, with no forced “regular” breaks in the middle of a scene, and sometimes even extending an episode to be slightly longer to accommodate a more elaborate story point.

Jonathan: When you have that flexibility within that hour slot, it allows the writers and directors to pace the show the way they think best. Network shows, because of time restraints, are sometimes forced to cut scenes and sequences up so much, that there is no opportunity to breath.

HBO has been very supportive of allowing their series, to pace in a cinematic way. And again, it’s because of the financial success of some of their shows, that you now have other companies and cable networks producing big productions. Obviously there’s a much bigger risk in making such a commitment, but most of them are willing to take the chance.

Kirill: Especially, as you’ve mentioned, that a lot of high-profile creators including David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, or Martin Scorsese are migrating into the television work, bringing very high level of demands from themselves and their crews.

Jonathan: That’s correct. There’s a certain expected cinematic standard. Soderbergh is a great example, and I’m very interested to see “The Knick” which I’m sure will be brilliant. I was disappointed to hear he was retiring from film and was thrilled to hear that he chose instead to dabble in TV. Apparently he shoots his series very much like he shoots his movies, being involved in every aspect, with an impressive capacity to wear multiple caps and produce successfully and consistently.

Raising the bar in television can only be good for television, and in some ways it will also indirectly affect movies as well. I’m not sure exactly how, but the fact is the numbers for a series like “Game of Thrones” is impressive, and it will probably influence future movie content the way things usually do in the contemporary zeitgeist.

Kirill: The parallel in feature world would be multi-installment series like “Lord of the Rings”, “The Hobbit”, “Hunger Games” or “Twilight”, I think. However, they feel spaced apart too much, and people these days seem to gravitate towards binge-watching the TV content a whole season at a time. Speaking for myself, apart from “Game of Thrones” that I watch every week, in the last year I preferred to wait until the end of the season – especially if it’s only 10 or 12 episodes – and then watch that arc in a more condensed fashion, from “Hannibal” to “True Detective” to “Fargo”.

Jonathan: As long as you have time to do it [laughs], that’s the best way to watch it. Give David Fincher all the credit for releasing all the episodes of “House of Cards” at once. He’s certainly a visionary as a filmmaker, but also in envisioning how people might want to experience drama. And in some ways it’s a great structure for the viewer. You really do have the capacity to control your own programming.

Kirill: My only complaint about having so much high-quality TV content in the last few years is actually how much of it is out there.

Jonathan: I understand that. I can see how people can experience viewer fatigue and complain about not being able to commit another ten hours of their life to another fantastic wonderful show. “The Wire” is one of those classic underappreciated shows. Some claim that it’s the best-written show in the history of television. Yet many people haven’t see it because there is so many new shows that are equally compelling.

Kirill: And on these shows such as “Game of Thrones” or “Boardwalk Empire” or “True Detective” you can’t just miss an episode. They all have these continuous arcs that are told throughout the season.

Jonathan: Most regular network shows are designed to be played at any time in any part of the world, and deliver entertainment.

“True Detective” is unique for television. By committing to having one director, one cinematographer and, one writer – it’s closer to the dynamic of a long feature.

Kirill: In the world of feature work, it’s between the director, you the cinematographer and the production designer to decide how you bring the script to life. How was the transition to the world of TV productions, where so much is decided by the show creators and producers, with a production designer that stays for the whole season, and then they bring multiple teams of director / cinematographer to shoot one or two episodes, with perhaps less influence you have on the overall look and approach?

Jonathan: It’s interesting. With HBO it’s usually multiple directors and DPs [directors of photography] doing each season. On “Boardwalk Empire” we have two alternating DPs, and that’s been the model since “The Sopranos”. We also did that on “Rome”.

“Game of Thrones” is different because their schedule is so sophisticated and complex. They have two full shooting units running simultaneously. One unit is shooting entirely in Belfast, mostly interiors, with built sets and some location work. The other unit is shooting at the same time in other countries. They start in Belfast, then go to Croatia for King’s Landing, then to other countries like Malta, Morocco or Spain, and usually finish in Iceland.

These two brilliant units are running side by side, and they have to have all 10 episodes already written before the season starts – which is an amazing feat in itself – breaking down the scripts to organize where each episode and scenes are shot.

Kirill: I was watching the first episode of season 4 which you did as the cinematographer, and it spans pretty much all the “locations” in the story, jumping between the continents, the main cities, the castles and the Wall. Does that mean that you were flying back and forth between the different locations to shoot these individual scenes?

Jonathan: It’s not always the case, but they have 10 episodes, and they hire perhaps 5 directors, give or take. Each of the directors has a team – director of photography and first AD [assistant director]. Most of the time, the three of them jump back and forth between the two units all the way through their scheduled season. You have camera crew, lighting crew, grip crew and a base AD crew in each unit. The art department needs to operate with two units, so art directors go to different countries to oversee the construction. And the production designer is overseeing everything, unifying it all together.

But the DP’s role on “Game of Thrones” is quite important. There are quite a few cinematographers whose work has defined the evolving look of the show. Everyone’s contribution is influential in some way. There are certain aspects of contrast and color choices that are encouraged for every DP that ends up working on the show, and we look at each other’s work, lighting sets and tackling approaches. This is very unusually for film and television – it’s actually unprecedented.  I’ve never experienced this kind of cross-over collaboration with so many different cinematographers. It’s a rare and wonderful experience.

Kirill: And the end result, if you watch the episodes back to back, looks like it was done by one crew. Do you feel certain constraints imposed on you, like the golden look of King’s Landing ruled by the Lannisters, the dirty look around The Hound and Arya, or the icy blues around the Wall?

Jonathan: These are easy restraints to deal with. Parts of them were developed by the cinematographers that work on the show, and the consistency is maintained by people working in post-production, headed by our post producer, Greg Spence. He helps oversee the look of the show, and Joe Finley, our phenomenal colorist from Modern in LA, matches our work seamlessly together. Joe is an integral part of our cinematography and a brilliant artist. They both masterfully mold each cinematographer’s look into a unified vision.

And on the other side, the producers look for cinematographers who have similar styles in lighting. They don’t hire somebody who will be in great contrast to the look that has already been established. And beyond the aesthetic aspects, the producers look for cinematographers, who are a match in personality. It’s essential that all the cinematographers are willing to collaborate with each other for the betterment of the whole show.

You know that you have to work in the box with everybody else and support each other as best as you can. And if I was only doing features, I would never have experienced something like this. Even for TV it’s an extremely unusual experience. Here we have an opportunity as cinematographers, to see and be inspired by other cinematographers work, sometimes on the same sets and locations.

A shorter answer to your question is that it may feel like you’re not contributing as much, but I think the cinematographers on this show do contribute quite a bit in their own individual ways, and as a collective whole. Each episode is treated like a mini-movie, and the directors & DP’s approach their shooting in that way.

I can give you some examples. I often prep quite extensively with the directors. For this season, I was working with our show runners, David Benihoff & Dan Weiss. Technically Dan was directing this premiere episode, but as they do in writing, they are constantly collaborating. It’s an amazing thing to see – how in tune they are with each other and the show. We needed to be very organized since, on top of directing the premiere, they were wearing multi-hats, writing, casting, approving every stage of production. So prep time was very important.

We either pre-vized, storyboarded, photo-boarded or created shot plans for every scene. I’ve come to like creating photo-boards because they can give you a truer sense of how the sequence might like, because I use photos of the actual angles and then manipulating them in photoshop, adding characters and tone to the images. It’s a lot of work but I think the results pay off.

Photoboard 1 – Tywin’s forge (all images courtesy of Jonathan Freeman).

For the opening shot, David & Dan wanted to instantly convey that the sword Tywin draws from the wolf-skin sheath is the sword known as ‘Ice’, from his great nemesis Ned Stark. The wolf-skin was important to distinguish it from any other sword. Ice is a huge sword, but there was no way we could give it scale in a detail shot. I thought it might be effective if the viewer saw the sword in it’s most iconic way – the image from the first season of Stark holding Ice on the throne…

So we decided to reveal Ice from the same graphic perspective.

Left – camera tracks over wolfskin from above, revealing Ice. Right – cool light transition into fire light as Tywin’s hand removes the sword.

Camera low looking up as hammer comes down, removing the hilt. This was essentially a symbolic be-heading of the Stark clan.

Ice before and during the melting phase.

Molten metal and making two new swords.

Left – camera follow Tywin from the back as he prepares to throw the wolfskin on the fire. Right – the flames and smoke eventually consume him.

Photoboard 2 – The Thenn arrive (all images courtesy of Jonathan Freeman).

I did this photo-board of the entire sequence of the Thenn’s arrival using existing angles we planned to shoot at the Iceland location, and overlaid characters from shots on previous episodes.

Shooting plans for the Hound fight in the Inn (all images courtesy of Jonathan Freeman).

For the Hound fight in the Inn, I made a series shooting plans that would cover the action. We chose specific camera positions to cover parts of the action. Click each image to see full version. Note the movements of each character (colored dots and arrows), as well as the position and movement of each camera.

Camera B follows the first kill, camera C pans to follow the daughter climbing the stairs.

Camera A follows The Hound’s point of view as he is attacked, camera B keeps Arya in the background, camera D follows the daughter’s point of view.

Camera A pans through partition to follow the dagger attack, camera B follows the rapist hitting the partition, camera C takes a wide shot of the dagger attack, camera D follows the blood gag at the end of the dagger struggle, camera E does the close up on the final stages of the dagger struggle, camera F films The Hound struggling with the rapist.

On top of the visual feast that we get to play with, GOT also has inspiring writing and a great production team that is able to coordinate such complex story telling into a practical window of shooting time. It comes from the very top. From the creators, David and Dan, to the brilliant producing team who organize this massive machine, all the way down. It’s an honor to be a part of this great company.

Kirill: How would you compare it to “Boardwalk Empire” that has, perhaps, not as wide a variety of sets?

Jonathan: They’re equally inspiring in different ways. As a lot of series are, it is not based on existing material. Therefore it’s harder to expect all the scripts to be written when you start a season, and sometimes it can make prep a little more difficult. But for me it’s such a great writing, very cinematic and a very fascinating period of American history.

We shoot a lot of locations, many in Brooklyn and Staten Island, and every time you end up walking on a set that is beautifully decorated and designed to exquisite period detail, it’s mind-blowing. On the aesthetics alone it’s a treat. And then you add the exceptional quality of writing – it’s a great place to go to work everyday.

Our schedules are more generous than most television schedules. They have fewer episodes, and they do spend the money. I’m not sure but I think the original budget for “Game of Thrones” was around $5 to 6M per episode, and I believe it’s gone up since, but regardless it’s more than network shows. But it’s still is not a massive amount of time for the content that you have to cover. We might get 3 to 4 weeks of shooting for an episode of “Game of Thrones”, and probably 3 weeks for an episode of “Boardwalk Empire”, give or take. That said, our average day on GOT is 10 hours – European hours – which is 2 to 4 hours or more shorter than your average show.

Kirill: Do you participate in post-production?

Jonathan: Not in the editing. For the most part our real involvement is in the color grade. To HBO’s credit, they’re very supportive of most of the choices we make. I have never walked away from an HBO color grade where I felt the work was compromised due to studio preference.

Kirill: There are quite a few digital set extensions on “Boardwalk Empire”, and a lot of almost completely digital sets on “Game of Thrones”. For example, in one of the scenes in the first episode of season 4, Daenerys is sitting on a rock with the big dragon right next to her – which wasn’t there when you were shooting the scene. How do you operate in an environment where these major elements are added in post-production?

Jonathan: I’ve had a fair amount of experience with visual effects, and I always aspire to deliver as much as VFX elements needed, and then some. The worst thing you can do as a cinematographer is to fail to give the VFX team what they need. If you are not able to deliver them quality material, then the likelihood is that the VFX shot will suffer. Every visual effects production house works slightly differently. You need to listen to them to see what their requirements are, from something as simple as what the exposure should be on the blue or green screen.

For the director and DP, we start with the script and make notes and then we go to the location. We working out the ideas of the shots to present to the VFX team – which has it’s own director, producer, VFX artists, conceptual artists etc. They may have started on their own end, even before the director and the cinematographer are involved, to presenting their ideas to the creators of the show. But in the end, there’s a unified interpretation of the way the VFX shots will look in the final analysis.

Wolfskin on Ice from concept mock-up (left) to final frame (right). Images courtesy of Jonathan Freeman.

Wolfskin on Ice from concept mock-up (left) to final frame (right). Images courtesy of Jonathan Freeman.

Wolfskin on Ice from concept mock-up (left) to final frame (right). Images courtesy of Jonathan Freeman.

Ice melting from concept mock-up (left) to final frame (right). Images courtesy of Jonathan Freeman.

Molten Ice turning to two from concept mock-up (left) to final frame (right). Images courtesy of Jonathan Freeman.

Sometimes this conceptual analysis is done even before you have the location, and sometimes it’s done after you have it. In a way, the VFX team is working in tandem with us, as well as adding their own interpretation of the details, the angles, the shots. It’s a collaborative thing. It is also the same for the Art department, who have to conceptualize design in the pre-prep stages.

For the VFX, we have our VFX team there on set making sure we have what we need, working in tandem with the DP. They make their own recordings, simulations of natural and artificial light so that they can build a virtual world and to match the lighting of the existing photography, as well as integrating lighting on virtual creatures and set extensions. It has to work very efficiently because there’s so much work for everyone, but particularly for the VFX department. They’re literally finishing episode 10, and then after one week-off they’re starting pre-production for the next season. They are an amazing crew!

Kirill: It sounds like it’s almost a continuous production, at least for some people.

Jonathan: It is for post-production as well. The shooting team that includes DPs and directors has a shorter commitment, but it’s still can be around 4 to 8 months. Then you have the production office, accounting – all of them work year in, year out.

Kirill: Was it different on “Boardwalk Empire” where most is shot in camera?

Jonathan: For the most part. Even on “Game of Thrones” we attempt to do as much as we can in camera. That, however, is becoming less and less possible with the story lines [laughs].

When “Boardwalk Empire” started, they built a 300-foot stretch of boardwalk and made the ocean view as the visual effects element. We would shoot practically into the buildings, but when we shot towards the water, it was blue screen, adding piers and other elements later. In the last couple of seasons they had to invert that as the property that had the boardwalk set on it finished its lease.

As the Atlantic City storyline comes to a fold and returns to the boardwalk, production had to develop a new approach. The new concept was to shoot by the real ocean, and then build a partial boardwalk. We’d shoot into the water with some cleanup work, and shoot into the practical buildings, which have further set extensions.

But the boardwalk played less of a role in the last few seasons. There’s only so much you can tell as a story line that takes place in a public space like the boardwalk. Most of the story lines on “Boardwalk Empire” are about being in dark spaces where deals are made or lives are lost, physically or metaphorically.

Kirill: And it makes your job more interesting as you don’t keep returning to the same exact sets season after season.

Jonathan: They did a great job bringing in new characters, creating story lines that opened up that world. The Empire expanded its scope to Chicago, New York, Miami and Belfast.

Tywin carrying wolfskin to fire from concept mock-up (left) to final frame (right). Images courtesy of Jonathan Freeman.

Tywin seen through fire from concept mock-up (left) to final frame (right). Images courtesy of Jonathan Freeman.

The Hound and Arya riding from concept mock-up (left) to final frame (right). Images courtesy of Jonathan Freeman.

Styr approaching Tormund and Ygritte from concept mock-up (left) to final frame (right). Images courtesy of Jonathan Freeman.

Kirill: When do you get to see the final completed version of episodes that you’ve worked on?

Jonathan: I would see the final color-timed conversion after the edit, but not necessarily with all the visual effects and sound design. Every year both “Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire” have season premiere screenings. In the last couple of seasons, I was involved in the premiere episodes for “Game of Thrones”, so I was able to see those episodes on a huge screen. It’s a wonderful thing to view your own work and everybody else’s on a fantastic scale, knowing that you’ll never see it like that again – in a huge theater with perfect projection and perfect sound. And with a live audience, with all their gasps and reactions, it’s a very rare opportunity for television.

Kirill: And now it looks like you’re back to the feature world, at least with your latest production.

Jonathan: I finished a film last fall. I’m always looking for a compelling script. For me the content is the most important thing, and I’d be happy to do interesting features, and I’m equally happy continuing to work with productions like HBO on their material. The quality of work on everyone’s level is really exceptional. Either option is something I look forward to.

And here I’d like thank Jonathan Freeman for finding time in his busy schedule to talk about his recent television work and for sharing the background material for the interview.