Cinematography of “Madam Secretary” – interview with Learan Kahanov

October 18th, 2019

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Learan Kahanov. In this interview he talks about collaboration between different departments, technological changes and breaking the political status quo in the world of storytelling, the multiple roles that a cinematographer must assume on set, and the importance of story. Around these topics and more, Learan dives deep into his work on “Madam Secretary” that is in the middle of its sixth and last season as we speak.

Learan Kahanov on sets.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Learan: I was interested in the captured image since an early age. I played with cameras all through my school years. My mother is also a fine artist, and she went to art school when I was in middle school. So I found myself being dragged along to the darkroom as she did a minor in photography. While she was learning photography, I was learning photography. Eventually I got a camera and started shooting black-and-white stills.

After my mother graduated, she started teaching drawing classes. We had our own art studio, and she would hire models that would pose for her drawing classes. She offered me the opportunity to take pictures and I could do my own stuff.

I was always interested in pictures and imagery. I don’t actually remember the moment where it clicked that I wanted to be a filmmaker. Throughout growing up and in high school I worked at a Children’s Museum and I taught other younger kids how to do photography and photograms. Then I got into some video work and taught the kids how to use the video cameras, and we would make these little short films at the Museum. That’s what really sparked my interest and I quickly realized that filmmaking was the direction I wanted to go.

I went to my state school for photojournalism in order to create a portfolio to get into NYU film school. When I was at NYU, I went right away to all the professors and said that I have no interest in directing. I just wanted to do cinematography.

I think a lot of it came out of how I was raised. I’m first-generation American to Israeli parents; my mother being a fine artist and my dad didn’t have a typical job either. It was seeing the world in a little bit of a different way than the people I grew up with.

I wasn’t necessarily ever a cinephile or someone who studied film as a kid. But I was always interested in the emotional response of an image and the way an image could tell a story. That’s my memories of it as a kid and as a young adult.

When I was at NYU I shot as many films as I could. I also worked as an electrician and eventually a gaffer in the indie world in New York because I was always interested in lighting. Even the photography I was doing in high school and in college was a little more towards the art side of photography rather than the documentary. I was never the guy who walked around the street with a camera and did street photography or documentary style. For me it came more from a narrative storytelling point of view, and that’s why it was an easy transition to try to get into movies, music videos and commercials, and less documentaries.

My early career was basically shooting as many student films and indie films that I could, as well as working professionally as a gaffer. I always felt that I won’t always end lucky enough to have a gaffer who knows how I want things to be lit, so that was my angle – advancing through lighting.

Around 1999-2000 I decided to make a strong push to DP full-time. It was a lot of hard work, a lot of “no”‘s, a lot of low budget projects that did not make me a lot of money. I ended up shooting about a feature a year for eight years, and around 2007 I got into the Camera Union in NY. That parlayed into other television work, commercials and bigger projects, leading me to where I am today – finishing up the sixth season of “Madam Secretary” on CBS. I started the job as A-camera operator and additional cinematographer, and then on the third season took over the show fully.

Cinematography of “Madam Secretary”. Courtesy of CBS Broadcasting.

Kirill: If I went to your set today, what do you think would be the most unexpected or surprising thing for me as a viewer that knows only how the final product looks?

Learan: I wouldn’t say this would be specific to my set, but to film sets in general. It’s the amount of choreography that goes into making that final product, and the dance that we all do between the departments. Everyone has this special skillset that can work beautifully in tandem with everyone else to create this piece of art, or piece of entertainment, or whatever that product might be – however artistic or commercial you might want to call it. It’s amazing to see that team work, that collaboration in an industry that is far from democratic.

Filmmaking is not a democracy in its hierarchy, but it can’t be done without collaboration. It’s quite a beautiful thing how there’s all these levels of workers, bosses, managers and artisans – from producers to the directors to the production designers, and all the way down to the set technicians and PA’s. On the best jobs there’s such a synergy and a symbiotic way of working, it’s truly magical. You have to pull back the curtain to see how many people are involved, and how they relate to each other. It becomes a family.

We go to work and you become close, because you’re spending a lot of hours together. Often it’s more hours than most people do when they’re at their everyday job working in an office. It becomes a family, and I think that surprises a lot of people. It’s often separate from the final product of what are we creating. It’s that passion for creating something that everybody shares, whether it’s someone whose family’s been in the industry for many generations to a person like me who has no family in the industry, somebody who just decided I’m gonna go for it and break in.

Kirill: Looking at these first 20 years of your professional life, do you think it’s easier to get into the industry nowadays? The cameras are getting better and cheaper, and there are so many productions of so many different sizes. Does it feel like if you were starting today, maybe it would have been accessible?

Learan: A few months ago I went and talked to a class at School of Visual Arts in New York. I talked about my career, how do you break into the industry and what have you. My take is that it’s definitely more accessible these days to produce something- short film, TV pilot, feature film. It’s definitely easier and more accessible to create something.

That being said, I don’t know if it’s any easier to get into the industry. I think the industry still in many ways, both the good and the bad, is stuck in its ways of how things are produced, funded and distributed. You have all these streaming services, digital acquisition channels and digital distribution channels. There’s an increase in need for content, an accessibility for content and a yearning for content. My middle schooler son can make a short film and put it on YouTube for anyone who wants to see.

But as far as the industry is concerned, I think it’s still as difficult. The politics have not gone away – the who you know, and the where you’re from, and the where you’re going. There’s a lot of talent out there and talent alone isn’t going to get you there. In that sense the industry hasn’t changed that much, as far as breaking in.

The great part about these times is the accessibility of it all. The cameras are so accessible. You can do nonlinear editing on a laptop, along with sound design and visual effects work. It’s opened a lot of doors for a lot of young filmmakers, and for not so young filmmakers who want to break into the business later in life. The question is how do you “make it”. There’s a little bit of timelessness to how tough things still are.

I do think that’s true with any creative industry, whether it’s filmmaking, music or dance. There’s the old saying of where talent meets opportunity. That’s still true to this day. The great thing about where we are now is that because of the accessibility of the cameras and the gear, a lot more talented people have a voice, and can put their ideas and their stories out in the world. That was a lot harder to do 20 years ago, just for the simple fact that we all shot on film. There weren’t that many video cameras, especially any video cameras of high quality. It was a more select group of people who had that access.

Cinematography of “Madam Secretary”. Courtesy of CBS Broadcasting.

Kirill: On one hand, you have a lot of great technological progress that is accessible to more people, and on the other hand there’s your lifelong interest in the artistic side of it. Do you think that to be a cinematographer, you have to find the balance between the two?

Learan: Absolutely. There are different ways that a cinematographer’s mind works, but no matter what your approach is, the best part of the job for me is that we do bridge the world of creativity and technology.

Regardless of the type production you always have three elements.

You have a managerial role, you have a creative role, and you have a technical role. It’s creating the balance of those three that really makes you talented and successful. You could be the most creative and talented person in an artistic sense. But if you don’t know how to manage your crew and people involved and get the shots that you, the director and the producers want on time and with expediency, efficiency and to everyone’s liking, it doesn’t matter how creative you are. All the while you also have to know what tools are out there to be able to achieve those things.

You have to have all three to really be successful.

For me it comes from the story first. It comes from what’s the intent, and then picking the right tool for the job. Even when I use the latest technology, the technique of actually getting the image I want is just as old as it was 100 years ago when they were using incandescent bulbs needing a lot more light. The concept is the same. It’s not what light you use, but where you put that light, or how much light you use. It’s not what digital camera you use, but what lens do you use and where do you put that lens.

What are you trying to tell? Is it a low angle, is it a high angle, is it a telephoto, is it wide? Regardless of the medium you’re capturing on, those basic aspects of storytelling and how you use those choices is what adds to the creative element of the storytelling. To me that’s the part that’s interesting – using the technology to tell the story and finding the right tool.

I’m lucky to work on a big-budget television show where we have access to all the new technology if we need to. We have the new Arri sky panels which are all LED. They can give you every color on the planet, and they dim from 0 to 100%. But then you’ll look on our set and that will be sitting in a corner, and we’ll be using a bare bulb that we’ve wired and put in a white bucket because the glow of that light can’t be beat. It’s a simple trick that you can build in your basement. Anyone can do that trick, and we use it because it’s the right tool for the job, even though we have access to all the new fancy tools.

It’s that bridge between new technology, old technology and what story you are trying to tell, what emotion are you trying to activate, what’s your intent and what’s the intent of the shot.

Kirill: I love the eloquence of it, but it might be a bit too long for introducing what you do. When you meet somebody who’s not in your industry, and they ask you what you do for a living, how do you convey this complexity?

Learan: When they ask me what does a cinematographer do, I say that it’s my job to make the director’s vision come to life. I’m in charge of the lighting, I’m in charge of the cameras, and I use lighting and camera techniques to convey the story that the director envisions in their head. Ultimately, my job is to put a director’s or a writer’s vision on the screen. I use my own creative eye and my technical abilities as tools to create that.

Kirill: Do you want people to know the complexity that hides behind the final product? Do you want people to dig in and find all of those things – technical, artistic, people and budget managements – that go into it?

Learan: Do I need them to know? Absolutely not. I’ve done my job when my job becomes invisible. I want the viewer to have an emotional reaction to what they’re watching. The better I do my job, the less aware they are of the tools I’m using to do that job.

For me it’s about emotion. It’s about story and it’s about telling that story. What I bring to the table is the ability to enhance the words on the page, to create these ideas that are in the directors’ heads and put them out there. It’s very easy to be flashy and evident. Here, look at me, look at this cool shot, look at this amazing lighting. It’s much harder to be hidden, when you see something and it invokes an emotion but you don’t know why. That stuff really excites me.

Cinematography of “Madam Secretary”. Courtesy of CBS Broadcasting.

Kirill: Stepping a little bit closer to “Madam Secretary” on which you’re completing six seasons, do you find that the productions expect more every season? There’s a lot of competition for viewers’ time, from networks to cable to streaming, and as I’m looking back at the interviews that I did 7-8 years ago, there were all on movies, whereas the last couple of years TV shows seem to be taking over my attention.

Learan: If you look at who’s getting interested in television productions, and the type of actors, producers and directors who are now getting involved in television, most of them would never do a TV show 8 or 10 years ago.

I think the pressure almost comes from within. There is an element of what’s written on the page. Now, from where I am, I don’t know if that is coming from the writers’ room that are trying to up the ante, or from the network who’s asking the writers to up the ante. I think it’s a little bit of both.

I do find that there’s also a duality to it, and sometimes a contradiction to it. Last year you produce this successful show and everyone loved it, so now do it again but “better”.

I would say, for the most part that need to make it bigger and better or up the ante comes from the filmmakers themselves. It comes from the writers, the directors, the cinematographers and the production designers. I’ve been on the same show for six years. I need to challenge myself so I don’t get bored. We’ve created a look of a show that people come to expect. That doesn’t matter if it’s “Madam Secretary” or “Game of Thrones”. “Game of Thrones” looks a certain way and people expect it to look like that all the way to the end.

So within those parameters, how do you make it interesting for yourself? How do you create something that you’re just as excited to go to work on episode 607 as you were on episode 105? A lot of those challenges come from within. And because it comes from within and because we all strive to do better work, by default everyone wins – the viewer, the network, and the people who are producing the show.

The challenge, especially in episodic television, is how do you do that in that timeframe and in that budget frame? What I pull off in 8 days on “Madam Secretary” is different from what a streaming show might pull off in 14 days. They have 13 episodes to do, and up until this final season I had 23 episodes to do, all in 8 days per episode. It’s a different set of challenges for each of those.

Kirill: The IMDB page for the show lists 34 directors across all the episodes. As you plan the arc of each season, as well as the overall visuals of the entire show, how do you find that balance between bringing in new voices from the directors and creating something exciting for you so it doesn’t become too repetitive, but also making it consistent and coherent for me as a viewer?

Learan: Some days it’s easy and it just flows. I’m also a musician; I play drums. I think of filmmaking and playing music very similarly. You have your skill set, yet you have to play with other musicians to create a song. Some directors you truly click with, and it’s easy because it just flows. It’s a challenge if you don’t find a common language with the director who’s coming in.

We have a lot of repeat directors on our show, but even they want to change it up every time they come back. You do have to learn quickly how to read people and how to get in to their minds, so that you really can do the work and push it. You want to maintain a consistent look, but create something new and unique at the same time. It’s a challenge and that’s part of the draw.

There are times where it feels like a grind. You’re going there every day and you have to pump out this product for your bosses. But at the same time, we’re all artisans in one way or another that want to create beautiful work. Some days it’s not so easy and it feels like a job, and some days we all have flow and it’s the most rewarding thing ever. For me that’s what keeps things exciting.

We had two new directors on this final season of 10 episodes. As we talk now, today was the last day for one of them and tomorrow is the first day for the other. It makes you a little nervous. Are you going to get along with them? Are you going to speak the same language? Are you going to be able to make them happy? Are they going to try to break all the rules and you’re going to have to say “no” to them? It doesn’t feel like your job as a cinematographer to say “no”, but it is your job as the guardian of the image to keep things true. There’s all those mind games that you can have within yourself. Luckily, so far so good. Everything has been really great and rewarding.

Cinematography of “Madam Secretary”. Courtesy of CBS Broadcasting.

Kirill: Six years later, is there a set that you don’t want to see ever again?

Learan: That is totally true. I am so grateful and so blessed to be able to be a part of this show that I was on for the last six years. And in that same breath, I am so grateful and so blessed to be able to venture into something new. By no means am I saying “been there done that”, but there is a point where you ask yourself “How many new ways can I light this set that we’ve seen for six seasons?”

The interesting thing about where we are in season 6 on “Madam Secretary” is that there’s been some changes in the story. I have new sets and I have some new storylines that are brand new. So within the world that I’ve been in for five years, I have new opportunities in this final season to change it up. In a way, it’s the best way of ending the run because I’m ending it with some new stuff.

Kirill: And on the other hand, if something works, don’t disturb it too much.

Learan: There is that too. I’ve been in situations where we’ve lit a set a certain way and we try to change it because it becomes monotonous, and we quickly go back to the way it worked because it was beautiful. We try to tweak it to make good, better. Sometimes it’s just for our own satisfaction. It’s subtle and maybe the audience doesn’t see, but it’s just enough to keep it interesting for ourselves. That’s a joy of the industry.

Kirill: Do you find yourself worrying how the projects you work on will be seen in 20-30 years, if they still draw interest of the next generation or two?

Learan: I don’t, not really. Not in this time of my life, not in this part of my career. I try to put out the best work I can, in the moment when I can. Of course, I would love for my work to have longevity.

I just recently saw “Apocalypse Now” on the screen during the Tribeca Film Festival, and it was gorgeous. There were times where I would look at certain things and think to myself that I wouldn’t light it that way now. Maybe some of it is nostalgia. Maybe some of it is the memory of when you first watched it. I remember going to see “Star Wars” for the first time, when my grandfather came to visit from Israel and took me to the movies. I sat on his lap and watched “Star Wars” in the local movie theater.

I remember that and I still get joy watching that first “Star Wars” that came out. Then you look at work that was done with some of the newer “Star Wars” and visually, some of them don’t even compete. The more modern ones look stunning in a completely different way.

If we worry too much about our work holding up for generations, we get lost in the wrong reason for doing it. Maybe this is ridiculous for me to say, but was van Gogh worrying about how his paintings were going to hold up hundreds of years later? Probably not. He wanted to create something, he had something in his soul that he needed to put out there. Artists have to put it out there, and we have to express ourselves.

There is a line there. We were talking about feature films or television shows, and what television shows were 20 years ago is not what they are now. The commerce of television is different, and even the commerce of features is different. I’m working in the network television medium, and that medium is very commercial. I don’t deny that and I don’t try to pretend it’s not that.

Kirill: That’s been the story of art since forever.

Learan: Right. Some people admit it and some people don’t. That’s why I like the role I have because I do have the ability to do something as an artist or just a technician. Some days my job is more creative and some days it’s more technical. Putting out my best work and telling the story is what I’m about.

If I’m shooting an episode and I can put something on the screen that enhances some emotion and lifts it up a little bit, I’ve done my job.

Cinematography of “Madam Secretary”. Courtesy of CBS Broadcasting.

Kirill: On a related subject, does it feel sometimes random what strikes chord with the audience or what enjoys a commercial success? Does it feel that it’s some combination of the story, the talent and also the timing?

Learan: Absolutely, and we have some of that on “Madam Secretary” with the timing. Early on we’d be shooting a storyline, and a month later, even before the episode aired, that would happen in reality.

I think it’s part of the times we live in now. There’s so much access to media and news and each other. In that sense, the world is getting smaller and smaller. That’s also a part of why, in many ways, it’s great to have all these new streaming services because more stories can be told and more stories can be heard.

Kirill: This is what I as a viewer love about these last few years. Maybe I don’t go to the movies as much, because the mid budget drama has been almost hollowed out. But there is so much great storytelling in a much longer format that allows the show’s creators to explore those worlds. Going back to “The Handmaid’s Tale”, I love how they based the first season on the book, and then expanded that world beyond. There are so many great shows out there now, and how can I complain about not having enough time to watch them all?

Learan: I agree with you a hundred percent. That’s what’s fascinating about our times. There is an audience for everything. And from my perspective as a cinematographer, there’s an element of bringing something to the table to a show that I may or may not watch if I wasn’t working on it. It’s a fascinating time to be working in this industry. There’s so much out there.

I really do enjoy working in episodic, and the beauty of it is that ability to tell a story over a long period of time. It is to be able to evolve with the show. If you look at my first episode of season 3 versus the last episode I just shot, you can tell it’s the same show. But you can also tell that it’s completely evolved. We’ve done things a little differently, let alone the first episode of season 1 to now. That’s a beautiful thing to do in episodic.

The one thing I like still about going to the movies is that it’s captured time. At home you check your phone, or you order food, or the kids are doing something. But when you go into a movie theater, that’s time just for that, and it’s a dark room with like-minded souls sharing space and watching a story. I do worry about that part of the experience going away a little bit. I try to get my kids to go to the movies with me often because it’s a different experience. There’s no pause, there’s no rewind, there’s no fast-forward. You’re in the moment. If you miss it, you miss it. There’s a certain magic there that I think cannot be replaced.

Kirill: With so many screens in our lives, we do have a little bit more opportunities to watch the stories. But on the other hand, most of those screens are not properly calibrated, or they are relatively small phone screens, or people watch those stories on their subway ride. Do you worry how the look that you intended to have is being “butchered” in all of these different environments?

Learan: Yes, it’s a concern. I’ve experienced that on my show. We work really hard to create a look, a feeling and a world. Then I go in every week and I do the final color correction. We make sure that all the shots match, and that all the color is represented the way we really want. And even in this digital world, once it hits the viewer, you don’t know what it looks like anymore. You only know what you intended.

For better or worse, I have to let go. That’s the reality these days. Someone might be watching your show on their iPhone 7 on the subway. I feel that I cannot let it affect me too much. All I can do is do my best work. I realized that when I do color correction, that might be the last time it’s seen in that way. But if you try to please every format, every distributor, every television, every monitor and every network affiliate that may or may not change the signal, you’ll never be able to do anything [laughs]. You’ll just drive yourself crazy.

At some point you have to let it go and know that you’ve done your best work. Hopefully it’s seen and appreciated.

Someone asked me the other day what movies inspire me. And the way I responded, exactly because of what you just said, was that there are so many screens out there and there are so many opportunities. What starts inspiring me more and more are things not on screens. It is putting my phone down. It’s not going into movies, but rather sitting outside and literally staring up at the sky and watching the clouds. Some of that is lost on us because we’re so media-driven.

That’s a balance that some of us are losing sometimes.

Cinematography of “Madam Secretary”. Courtesy of CBS Broadcasting.

Kirill: I look back just a few years ago, and I see that I used to have gaps in my day. And now every gap is filled with this phone screen, checking social or playing a round of some game, or just swiping around randomly.

Learan: It’s tough. Maybe it’s an age thing that I’ve gotten older. Maybe it’s because I have children who live in a world where there never was a time without a phone. And when I say phone, I mean a phone that’s a computer. That’s a device that isn’t just for making phone calls anymore.

I often refer to this, and I should probably look this up again and know exactly who said it first. It’s the notion of when the typewriter was created, everyone was up in arms about how this thing was going to make everyone able to write books. But just because you have a typewriter, it doesn’t make you a novelist. It just makes you someone with a typewriter.

The same thing goes true for cameras and iPhone videos and what-have-you. Just because you have the technology, it doesn’t make you a creator of something. And it comes in waves, where you have this influx of everybody that’s putting stuff out there because they can. But ultimately people want to escape and see what they want to see. It’s almost like a Darwinistic wave of art.

Kirill: Perhaps “Madam Secretary” is too fresh as you’re still shooting episodes for the last season. If you look at your older productions, what stays with you? Do you remember the positives, the negatives or some mix of the two?

Learan: When I look at the movies I’ve done, it’s a mix. There were some where the best experience of my career might not be my best work. It’s those times where you’ve learned so much that you remember the experience over the work.

But there are also other elements. There’s an early movie of mine, and I’m not going to say that I’m not not-proud of it. I was in the stage of my career when I was doing the best work at that time. In and of itself, it was an awful experience. It was a true test of patience and learning how to deal with someone. I did not get along with the director. The director actually wanted me to quit. He told me “Why don’t you quit?” and my response was “If you fire me, I’ll happily leave but I signed on to this project and I’m going to see it through”.

It was a true testament of how do you work through those moments. You know this is someone who has put their money into their project. This is their passion. They’ve hired you to deliver this, whether you call it a piece of art or a product – and I think it’s both. How do you create your best work while you’re not getting along with someone, when you’re not being treated nicely? Those situations resonate. I have memories of not only the work, but the experience.

And then there are some jobs where I go back and I revisit the work, and I really just get lost in the movie again. Then somewhere I remember that was the day that the grip truck broke down and we had to change the tire out on the highway [laughs].

Quite honestly, it goes back to me saying that I’m really lucky to be in this industry. We are lucky people to be able to create worlds and tell these stories to the rest of the world. It’s a blessing. Every job brings its own memory, and the best of the best have both those. You remember the experience, and when you look at the work you feel that what you were trying to do, you achieved.

Kirill: My last question is usually what keeps you going and staying in the field, and you pretty much answered it just now. So let me twist it a bit. If I gave you a winning lottery ticket and it was enough money to never have to work again, would you still be in the creative world or would you retire into the wide world?

Learan: I’d still be doing something. I could not not-create. What I might do is venture into other worlds. The ability to not worry about income allows you to do whatever you want.

On one hand, I would probably take that money to be able to produce a movie. Not direct a movie, but produce it for me to shoot and collaborate with those talented people I know who haven’t had a break. Try to put something out there. Maybe it will be new, and maybe it won’t be new. But it’d be giving an opportunity for some talented people to put their stories out there – that for whatever reason they haven’t had an easy time in the industry and they haven’t been able to get that out there.

On the other hand, I’d open up a restaurant and cook and create that way. I would be able to get my buddies together and record an album. There’s no way that I wouldn’t be creating. I think that that’s in my soul. Most of us who do this, that’s what drives us. It always makes it better when we can live nicely, buy nice things and live the fullest in our Western world. But I’ve never taken a job solely for money. There has to be something I connect to for it to make it worthwhile. Otherwise it’s just a job, and if I was going to just have a job, I wouldn’t be in this industry.

There’s too much of a struggle. You need to find something to make it worthwhile. If you’re going to be able to survive on limited income because you’re trying to get your project done, there has to be something deeper and bigger than yourself to do that.

Cinematography of “Madam Secretary”. Courtesy of CBS Broadcasting.

And here I’d like to thank Learan Kahanov for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography. I’d also like to thank Andrea Resnick for making this interview happen. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series