Cinematography of “Foundation” – interview with Owen McPolin

May 16th, 2024

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome back Owen McPolin. In this interview, he talks about changes in technology and lighting, the impact of Covid on the industry in the last few years, the potential impact of generative AI on the industry, and what advice he would give to his younger self. Between all these and more, Owen dives deep into his work on the first two seasons of the gorgeous adaptation of a seminal sci-fi classic “Foundation”.

Owen McPolin on location in Fuertaventura for Beggars Lament sequence in “Oonan’s World” episode. Courtesy of Owen McPolin.

Kirill: Since we last talked back in 2014, what changes have you seen in your field since then, perhaps around the evolution of cameras and lights, or maybe where these stories are told?

Owen: The biggest thing that has changed has been the type of lighting we have used in the last number of years. Everything has transitioned to LED lights. It’s great for the environment, it’s more reliable, it’s more accurate compared to the conventional tungsten and HMI lights. I now have the ability to cue lighting and to build entire cues of lighting far more easily. Now, not only you can change a whole array of lighting systems and bring them to bear on a scene, but you can also change colors and contrast, you can move the heads, and they can all be controlled centrally from a desk. We used to be able to control dimming, but now we have so much more expansion of control, and that has affected me and my work.

Back in 2019 I did a job in Budapest for Netflix on the show “Shadow and Bone”, and we had a fantastic local gaffer called KrisztiĆ”n Paluch. He has a team of expert and experienced board operators in the newer LED systems. One day we found ourselves in a scene where a number of characters had come into a forest environment, and the director of the episode wanted to rehearse the action in this large denouement scene in one. So together, Christian and I, we had developed eight or nine large cues to take place over. That sequence took about 15 minutes of screen time after it was all cut together, and when we were done with it, he told me that it had more cues in it than any of the “Blade Runner 2049” sequences that he worked on with Roger Deakins.

I told him that we would have never have been able to do that a few years ago, and he agreed. He had a small remote control queuing system handheld device, and he used that to trigger the cues as he stood beside me and the director on the set, relaying straight back to the Wi-Fi system on the dimmer board operator. Some of the cues were needed to be so accurate that KrisztiĆ”n needed to stand in front of the performance as they went, because there was a slight lag in some of the transmission back to the monitors. and you’d miss it.

We needed to generate a large amount of light around Alina Starkov’s character, and to maintain that ability of hers while the antihero came in who generated a lot of darkness. The whole queue is a ripple of darkness that runs over the set. And there was also gunfire and other elements, a lot of complicated cues all in one sequence. That was a real eye-opener for me. In a way my job is more difficult, but in another way, far easier. I can check with the director on what they want to happen in a scene, and build cues without feeling that it might be unreliable. It has opened up confidence to do sequences that, just a number of years ago, I would have thought to have been out my reach artistically, creatively, and technically.

As far as cameras go, there’s always new models coming out. You have more megapixels and larger resolution. Now 4K is the base level, and they’re talking about higher resolution cameras, and larger exposure latitudes within those new sensors. New Sony models have hyper-accurate ISO depths of 26,000 ASA, which is mind-boggling. This new sensor technology hasn’t washed over the dramas that I’ve been doing at the moment, but I expect that to happen soon.

There is obviously AI on the horizon. We might not necessarily see eradication of certain processes on the set, but certain efficiencies are expected. There are emerging AI systems for storyboard renderings. There will be machine learning for lighting systems, and that’s going to make a big difference. And then you can start thinking about artificial general intelligence (AGI) for the creation of sequences within a show. That can make a huge difference in pre-vis where VFX and real-time capture come to planning. Say, a director wants to pre-vis a space battle sequence. Today it takes a VFX house a lot of man hours, and there’s a lot of revisions to every such sequence again and again. With AGI you might form that storyboard much quicker, and then tweak it as well.

Kirill: Speaking about generative AI, do you worry how it can affect human creativity?

Owen: I’ve been thinking about it lately. We’re all human individuals who’ve had different experiences in our visual uptake through our lives. And so, we could argue that each one of our visual developments for every individual is unique. AI gathers up vast quantities of data, and as a result of that, it takes an extremely wide and broad view. You prompt it to create a scene in the style of this filmmaker or this cinematographer or this artist, and it takes similar homogenous creations or versions of that, and boils it down to what it thinks is required by the prompt.

Interestingly, I see an apparent homogenous style that comes out of that at the moment. There’s a lot of copyright issues involved in that, because you could argue that is it based on an individual creative source, such as when you say the style of Picasso, or the style of Vermeer, or the style of whomever you want to create, or have a variant of that style. And that’s what the machine will give you, and when it starts to crystallize, I don’t know where we will be at in terms of our influences, because influence and inspiration is very much a human thing. Could you ask an AGI to come up with its own experience, its own view of the world, and how it sees it? Right now it’s being boiled down and homogenized humanity in the creation of certain images.

An interesting part of this whole process is to think about what that does to us. What it does is it exposes us, as human beings, to a certain kind of visual language, a visual grammar, a visual style and then that informs us, and then we will just re-feed that into the machine. It’s taking everything, boiling it down, giving you what you want, and then you progress on the basis of what you engage in. Compare that to the individual creation of art as a human individual that takes you away from that world, and then allows you – by no influence of interaction with AI – to have a pure version of creativity, where you as the individual can create by yourself without influences of AI, or the homogenization of the data AI has consumed.

That is the problem, and also what, ironically, is the solution as well. People think that AI is the golden ticket to the creation of new images and new inspiration, but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s more like a data mirror than it is a creation of new imagery, or new stories, or new ideas. Maybe AI is going to get to the point where – if it becomes self-aware – it will obtain its own interpretation of what it is. Maybe then there’s going to be something interesting there. But for the moment, it’s very much about what we’ve created, and it’s taking that imagery and that idea, and then it’s working within that world. This is where I see it going, but of course that may change.

Kirill: Getting to “Foundation”, how did it find you, or maybe how did you find it?

Owen: Like everything else, it was pure luck and serendipity. I had worked with David Goyer on “Da Vinci’s Demons” back in 2013. He was the show runner, and I did seasons two and three. Then I went on to do other jobs, and later on I’d heard that Goyer through Skydance had had secured the rights Isaac Asimov’s novels from Asimov’s daughter, who had put them on option for a year.

They had been on option to other companies for a number of years, but no one had ever got around to make it. It is so ambitious and sprawling. It takes place over many millennia, and its narrative is so dense. So everyone had taken influences from it over many years since it was written back in the ’50s & 60s. I think everyone thought it would be a good idea to make it, and yet no one did when they took a deep dive into it.

Then Skydance heard that Robyn Asimov had put the option up that anyone can have the option and to exploit it, but would lose the option unless they went into production within a short period of time. You can have it at a good price, but you have to make it, or you will lose it. Goyer read those books as a younger man, and he loved the story. This whole idea that Hari Seldon is trying to save human civilization’s knowledge and to shorten the inevitable darkness that would come after a fall of an empire was quite interesting for Goyer. So he gathered a writer’s team together, and went into development, and then around 18 months later was ready to shoot.

I had heard that they were coming to Ireland to shoot, and so I wrote to him to say that I’d love to be involved in this project. I’m working away at the moment, but if there’s any gap for me, I jump the chance to work with you again. And he said “Well, you’re in luck because we need another DOP. You’re hired, get over here.” So I finished Shadow and Bone, and went to Ireland, and I started a week later in March 2020 – two days before the general outbreak of Covid [laughs] which shut us down until the following September. The we started production again in Limerick, and we carried on, and I have been on this job ever since. I did the end of season one, and have continued through season two, and we’re currently shooting season three here in Prague. The production moved from the Limerick studios to a larger studio complex here in Prague, because we ran out of space in Limerick, and we have been here for a good year and a half.

On the sets of “Foundation”. Courtesy of Owen McPolin.

Kirill: It’s a big story that spans thousands of years and multiple planets, and perhaps no single protagonist that provides the continuity in the books, and you’re doing it as a streaming production. Do you feel constrained in terms of how much detail you can put into the screen, because these screens are relatively smaller compared to the movie theaters?

Owen: Not for me. We’re still just as ambitious as we would if this was a piece of cinema. Our budget, and our scale, and our idea of what we’d like to do visually isn’t constrained by that. Apple have said to us on numerous occasions – don’t feel constrained by the scope you want to bring to the show. Just go as much as you can.

Obviously, there’s always the box of the budget we are in, as opposed to the ambitions that we would always bring to the show. There’s always that tension, and that’s a good thing. The streaming platform allows a show that is sprawling, and large, and multi-faceted, and multi-world, as you described, to breathe and give it space to tell that story.

Each season we have common characters. We have the Cleonic Dynasty, the triumvirate of clone emperors who are reborn every generation. And we have Hari Seldon who, through various story conceits, has his intelligence preserved and embodied, both holographically and physically, in various aspects of the story. He is continuity throughout, as is his fellow traveler, Gaal Dornick. Those are consistent characters throughout the three seasons.

Every season has new worlds, and the challenge for us is how to maintain the look and feel for the show, while at the same time adopt and bring those worlds in, and make them look different, and give them a character, give them a look or feel that is indicative of where they are in the story and how they should be viewed. What’s good about this job is that when they want to create a new world, we end up going to a new country. You have different light, different landscape, different people in those jurisdictions, and it immediately gets you into literally a different world. You lean into that, and then you give it as much of that visual accent as is there that you find in front of you.

It’s interesting. How am I going to make this look even better than I find with my own eyes? What are we going to do to it? How are we going to manipulate it? What are we going to give it to give it a bit more interest visually? That’s how we’ve been progressing, and that has worked for us so far, and I hope that it will continue to work for us.

Kirill: Let’s talk about space ships. They’re out there with no natural source of light since you’re far away from the stars. How do you approach lighting in these environments?

Owen: You’ll be surprised what you can come up with. The good thing is that we always tend to be flying towards a planet or leaving, and we’re in deep space only once or twice. What we do, and we found this in the end of the first season, is that we always find a hard source. We can generate that to any number of hard source lamps that we use, mostly the 18 Alpha or the 12 Alpha. We’d normally fly down on a crane, and to create a slight motion within the spacecraft, we would have that a distance off on stage, creeping gently. This way you get hard moving shadows within the space. And then, when you’re getting closer to planets, or your planet fall and you’re entering atmosphere, then you can generate a whole bunch of cues, and to bring those characters through stratosphere, to the main atmosphere, to burn up, and then down to the stratosphere, and then on to land.

You can create a whole array of cues and lighting effects to tell that story that you’re coming from spaceflight into literally landing. We’ve perfected what they are. That was the challenge – depending on a planet we’re landing in, or crashing on, or whatever you’re doing. This season, we have to find a way of crashing into a planet that hinges on its poles, but doesn’t rotate. So, one half of the planet is completely hot arid desert, and the other is subzero frozen, and there’s this ribbon all around the outside that is actually just habitable. Of course, our characters end up crashing on that planet, and trying to find a way to create that light within the cockpit of that crashing ship was quite difficult. We did it, and we were happy with it.

These challenges are about telling stories using lighting in the space around the characters. That’s what you see most of the time. You look out those view screens sometimes, but it’s mostly about the reactions of the characters. You have panic, dialogue, a near death experience, all the elements that are associated with the crashing spacecraft, and then you have to play that into the ship. You have your LED systems, lighting systems, the whole gamut. We throw everything at telling that story.

Kirill: As you said, the show takes you to different countries and places. Where did you do the sequence in season one where Brother Day walks the spiral towards the salt cave?

Owen: That was in Lanzarote in the Canaries, off the coast of Africa. We shot in Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, Tenerife and La Gomera. All islands have different characteristics. Fuerteventura is dry, volcanic, almost no vegetation. Tenerife has almost a sub-tropical climate, high mountainous ranges with dense green growth. It goes up to peaks of high volcanic rock, down to the coastal beaches with black volcanic sand. And then La Gomera was very inaccessible and harsh. There’s not much development on that island and therefore few people living there, and that gave us picturesque, stunning landscapes.

When Day struggles through the spiral of the desert, and then arrives at the cave where he dips in the water, we shot that in two parts of one end of Lanzarote that has large desert sections. That part of the island is shaped by wind erosion which has created unusual sand formations within that area. And then we went to the northern part of Lanzarote that has a lot of volcanic caves. It’s quite a tourist attraction, and that’s the stunning underground lake that we wanted to use. After his journey in the spiral he meets the triumvirate of the maiden, the crone and the mother, and that section in the church was shot in Malta.

On the sets of “Foundation”. Courtesy of Owen McPolin.

Kirill: How much time did you spend around the Foundation colony on Terminus and that hill with the Vault?

Owen: Terminus is where they first made planet fall, and it was a combination of the Canaries islands. The camp was built on a flat desert plain in Fuerteventura. The hill upon which the vault is suspended was about four miles away from where we built the base camp, so it was visually linked. You could see that hill from the camp. It also made it a little easier for our production base that we were able to transfer gear and equipment and people from one base to the other. It made the schedule more achievable.

In the opening episodes of season one the Vault is first found by the children on a volcanic hill, and that was shot in Iceland. Afterwards they found that shooting in Iceland for such a large sequence was expensive, and the location was proving to be inaccessible because of storms & logistics. So when we went to Spain and the Canaries, we found an alternative, almost exact replica of that hill – and it was decided that we would shoot the remainder of those sequences towards the end of season one, and the beginning of season two, at that location in Fuerteventura. It was more accessible, the weather was obviously a lot warmer, and since Terminus was built nearby, it made it far more feasible to do it.

On the sets of “Foundation”. Courtesy of Owen McPolin.

Kirill: How much time do you have on average for one episode?

Owen: It’s very hard to calculate that because of how the show is structured. All cinematographers and directors are hired and shoot simultaneously. It is all geared around locations. The entire unit moves as one to a jurisdiction or a location or an island.

I ended up doing two episodes of season one plus material for others. We would shoot all our sequences, we would walk away, the crew would remain, and another director, cinematographer, first assistant director, second assistant director would come in and shoot out their sequences in that location, and then we would all move as one company to the next island and carry on shooting. And then after about a period of three months, we moved to Prague as well as to Limerick.

Because of this I cannot give you an accurate day count of how many days it took to achieve our episodes. I can hazard a guess of anywhere between 25 to 35 days. It could be even longer, depending on the sequence.

Kirill: As you mentioned, the clone emperors are one the major connecting elements in the show, and the story spends a lot of time in the imperial palace. Are these locations or built sets?

Owen: Most of the interior of the imperial palace is built on stage, from the throne room to the clone tank area to the dressing chambers to pretty much all other interiors. Anything that you see there except for some exteriors are all built.

On the sets of “Foundation”. Courtesy of Owen McPolin.

Kirill: What is your approach to lighting the spaces of the palace?

Owen: Our production designer Rory Cheyne had said from the start that he wanted to use both internal and external lighting systems. Internally that would be LEDs built into the set walls, as has been the case in some of the spacecraft used by the Empire, and he wanted to reflect that and have continuity within the palace as well. We found that there was an awful lot of openings, and there was a lot of areas where we could push light. As we were talking, the other DoPs – Tico Poulakakis, Cathal Watters, and others – and I agreed that we should not be restricted by only having internal sources.

If we had a balcony, if we had a window, if we had openings through which we can push light, it tends to make the palace bigger. It gives it a bigger scale, it gives it a nicer feel. You also are able to change the colors. You can change the time of day that the interiors can be affected by that. You get a little more sense of a reality.

We visit these sets a lot. They tend to reoccur a lot within the show. When I walk into a set having lit it 15 or 20 times, I always struggle to find a different way – and I always am trying to find a different way, to nuance it or vary it, to give it a slightly different turn, and to make it a little more interesting, and to try and inform the story to some degree. Obviously there should always be a consistency there, but I want to have a slightly different way when we come back to that set. So having large windows, having balconies, and to feel where the palace is, always gives me a different way of doing it.

Kirill: Staying in the palace, my favorite sequence on the show so far is the flashback closer to the end of the first season where we go back 600 years, and we see Demerzel deconstructed and restricted in that space, and as the time progresses, she manages to enchant the aging emperor to free her – only to be captured by him as the dynasty’s servant. What was your approach of telling that part as one sequence that covers so much in it?

Owen: Our brilliant and talented director Roxann Dawson felt that that sequence should play almost as a movie by itself, a movie within a movie, a story within the story. It was written that way to be completely self-contained, so you could take it literally out – and yet it informs everything going forward in the following episode, and to the denouement of the season.

As a result, we decided to shoot that in one entire block. Once we went in there, we shot it all out. It was logistically difficult, but possible to do. It was shot near the end of the season’s filming period, and because of that we knew everything, and we had lit everything, and shot everything up to that point in our episodes with Roxann. So when we got into it, we had a good period of prep. It took weeks to prep it, because there was a lot of elements to it.

You start with the introduction of the young prince to Demerzel, his eventual seduction, then her release by Brother Day, and then Brother Dusk’s eventual control of her. The way it’s explained in the story is that Demerzel’s dilemma is that she has no real free will. Her entire raison d’etre is to protect the dynasty. She is trapped. Having transitioned out of physical incarceration, she is now incarcerated by her programmed subservience to the Cleonic dynasty.

We wanted to tell the story as compactly and visually as we could. When the young prince comes in, he is scared of her. She is entombed in sliced sections, but she’s alive. She is unable to move, and yet the actor Laura Birn needed the ability to articulate her emotions on her face. We had to come up with a way of being able to suspend Laura a very rigid way, but retain the ability to have small movements in her head & neck. We found a way of building a frame in which she was able to stand, and to keep her body absolutely motionless. The art department built the middle sections of the robot, and then her body was molded, and the rear back section of her body was placed on the rear panel at the very back. We wanted to emphasize the slices and the cuts, and how that was designed. So we built a cue of lights to be able to reveal that slowly but surely as the boy came close.

Then as we transition into Day in his mid-20’s, we found ways of transitioning the story to jump forward with camera moves and dissolves to show that the boy has grown, and then we move to the later version of Day who releases her – that was put together by the VFX. There was an interesting challenge around Laura’s hair. She has long hair, and if her body is cut up, the question is what happens to her hair as the slices are reattached. How do you join hair from one end to the other? It’s physically impossible. Eventually hair and makeup came with a clever conceit. Her hair is tied up while she is entombed, and as she comes together, someone off camera pulls this little piece of string that releases her hair, and the hair fell down.

You have all of these little pieces, practical, visual effects, lighting and all the rest. Everything had to come together to make the merging happen well.

Then as she is released from her physical prison, more drama happened, and eventually she is reprogrammed by Dusk. And then he proposed to her, and a beautiful part of the sequence was the irony that was displayed when he asks her if she would love him, and then says that he should have asked that question before he reprogrammed her. It was a beautiful moment, because it encapsulated her dilemma. It was an amazing performance to capture on camera, and it’s a perfect ending to explaining of why Demerzel is the way she is.

It ended up to be around 16-17 minutes long, although it was a bit longer before they did the final editing pass. They cut it down slightly, but it didn’t feel like it. It’s a beautiful, singular story within the larger story. The set was large, we used lasers to create the idea of prison bars, we had a whole sequence of lighting cues that work from above and below. The whole sequence took about a week to film, and the subsequent episode went off to finish the story.

It was really satisfying. It’s like theater. It was an interesting small short story that had theatrical elements. Characters come, they enter the stage, and they leave – but the camera never left the area, except when you introduce the space. That was it. There’s something simplistic and beautiful about the sequence, and I’m really proud of it. The scale and scope of our show is multifaceted, because of all the countries and the worlds we visit, and sometimes it’s so refreshing to shoot in one room, and stay there, and see if you can challenge yourself to make something interesting.

On the sets of “Foundation”. Courtesy of Owen McPolin.

Kirill: Every once in a while Brother Dusk works on the murals in the long hallway. What does the camera see? Is there anything on that wall? Is it all greenscreen?

Owen: There is very little greenscreen on this show. It is fantastic for cinematographers, because we don’t have to deal with spill, and performers don’t have to imagine what is there. The majority of the time, it’s all physically there – unless you hang black outs outside spaceships, and you add some planets and star fields and so forth. It also means that you have far less limitations with lighting within the space.

The place you’re referring to which is the Mural of Souls has pre-designed murals placed up on the wall, depending on the story. It is a mile long, in our story and each mural represents a section of history in the Cleonic dynasty. Depending on where the characters are viewing it from, they would come from one end of the mural, which would be hundreds of meters away at least, to where the scene would take place.

So when there is a certain piece of Cleonic history to be referred to, art department would make up a large section of mural in that particular style, and they would effectively glue that paper to the wall. Then, for anything that involves someone touching any detail or seeing the texture move, VFX animated that section. But when we’re wide and high, or in a certain area within the mural, there is no VFX needed – unless there’s tidy up, or the infinity corridor that goes out from beyond each end of the Mural of Souls. There is a VFX intervention, but not a huge amount.

Kirill: Where did you shoot the palace gardens throughout the episodes?

Owen: There are many gardens. Depending on where we were filming at time, they would always go in search of topiary gardens. Some of them were outside Prague, some in Prague, some in Ireland. We didn’t find anything in Spain or Italy. It’s a collection. Wherever we are, someone will go and try and find a topiary garden, something with elegant and large garden areas.

That’s what we’ve done. Let’s see what’s around. The great thing about being in Central Europe is no matter where you go – north, south, east or west – you will find something that will have interesting architectural or different unique features that you can use.

Kirill: Where did you shoot Gaal’s flash-forward sequences where she sees urban guerrilla fights in the streets?

Owen: It was a location, a former steel plant about 10-15 miles outside Prague. It has a long corridor of a concrete structure with a roof, and concrete pillars that ran for about 80 meters long. We designed the sequence where the Mule is first introduced, and he is the main antagonist in season three. There’s about four or five cuts in the sequence, but we tried to hide them.

We’re bringing Gaal from the past into the middle of a battle, we’re introducing the Mule, she’s attacked and hit, and then blown forward, and she lands beside the dead future body of Salvor. Then the Mule shows up, lifts her up, and we cut back to the present. It was quite ambitious, as everything tends to be in the show. David Goyer directed those episodes, and we decided to do it in as big and spectacular way as we could. There’s a lot of lighting drones, a lot of hidden lights, a lot of interactive lights, big special effects, fire, blasts, explosions. We threw everything at that chaos, and melee of light and texture and explosions and color – to try and make it as violent and as scary and intimidating as we could.

On the sets of “Foundation”. Courtesy of Owen McPolin.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as the most challenging or rewarding or most difficult set or sequence to have worked with on this show?

Owen: For me it was the Vault. I know it doesn’t sound challenging, but it’s always the case for me. The Vault’s position is in Fuerteventura on that hill. The denouement of season one is about 15 minutes of screen time where various factions resolved the first crisis. We ended up shooting for 9 days in that location, three days with Roxann on her sequences, and then with Goyer on the final episode.

We were in the middle of a hot burning sun, and trying to maintain some level of lighting continuity with not much control was difficult. We did our best to chase the sun, to rotate our action, to plan forensically, depending on the time of day. The one thing you can always guarantee in Fuerteventura is that the sun is always shining. You can plot it as best you can, but you can’t win all the time. There are moments where you find yourself running out of time, and you can’t wait until tomorrow and wait for the sun to get to the same position. You have to bite it and see how it goes.

We could control close ups and medium shots with negative or softening frames and whatever else we could. But when you’re on a wide, and you have to cut to another wide 180 degrees around the other side, we tried our best to always schedule that the following day, even though it was awkward for the performers. It worked with just enough planning. The key to it all on jobs like this is just prep. You need as much time as you can to plan it as best you can. The cardinal sin is walking into a set or a location, and hoping for the best. If you do it that way, it will always bite you. It’ll always come back and it will make a job like this literally impossible.

The key to it all for big sets is to pre-light them, build all your cues, and then walk in and do it. When you’re on large locations for long periods of time, sit down with the director and go through it forensically over and over again. Revisit, revisit, go back, keep going back, keep figuring it out with your assistant director, with the scheduling, with art department, go back with all the department heads over and over again – and eventually you’ll get to the point where everybody is clear and has understanding of what we have to do.

Kirill: You mentioned that Covid has interrupted the show right when it was about to start shooting, and when you came back to it, it was very much present in terms of testing and distancing and masking and all of that. Did it get a little bit easier on season two? Do you see new productions going back to what it used to be before 2020?

Owen: Obviously with the lockdown, productions stopped for a period of time in spring and summer 2020. And then when we got back into production, there was a serious amount of restrictions at the beginning, as you can imagine. But as the production progresses, and people understand the risks, they also become familiar with it, because crews work on the basis of repetition. We work on routine. We design our days around planning. And the more we do that, the more efficient we become.

That’s what happened with Covid. Obviously, we were all compliant with all the protocols. It was difficult to learn the system at the beginning, but as time went on, everyone became accustomed to it, and we got more efficient. We were allowed to carry on shooting by license from the governments. In the Canaries, there was no traveling as much as there would have been normally. A lot of the hotels and resorts we stayed at were empty. There was only us, our crews, and as a result, we stayed in a bubble. And it meant that our infection rates were very low. When it did happen, there were protocols employed. Thankfully, very few of our crew or cast got sick, and if they did, they were normally out of quarantine within seven or eight days and recovered.

Thankfully, there was no major consequences to anyone getting ill. By the end of it, as we came out of Covid, the testing regime became a little looser. It was a daily testing routine at the beginning, and it went to three days a week, and then finally, towards the very end of it last April, it became once a week. It just transitioned to a more normal way of life, and now, thankfully, we are free entirely of Covid restrictions. But then, we got an actual strike, and we shut down again [laughs]. That was just another thing you can never plan for. So we all waited for seven months, and now we’re back up and at it, and we will continue to shoot until season three is finished.

Kirill: Do you see Covid as something that is a memory now?

Owen: Yes, very much. It’s still present, because there’s no guarantee there won’t ever be another kind of epidemic or pandemic like that. I hope we’ve learned something. If, and I really hope not, something occurs in the near future like that, then we’re going to be a little more prepared for it. We hopefully will have protocols to see us through.

But I don’t know. I’m of the opinion that you can only control the things in front of you from the day to day that we’re in control of. Everything else that is beyond our control, I try not to worry about it, because you can’t control it. If you worry about that, it will hobble you in your approach to your work.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite kind of light, any particular kind of natural or artificial light?

Owen: We all would love to be able to make a whole film entirely in the golden hour. It has such a dramatic quality of light when we experience it. “Days of Heaven” was shot like that, and a few other films had that freedom as well.

It depends on the scene. I’m going to be doing a job after I finish this with my friend, and it’s going to be set in Ireland on the canals around the River Shannon. We want that to look like where it is, because the story is so rooted in the rivers and the canals of the Shannon estuary. So we want to get the quality and the kind of light that is particular to that location.

When you’re on a job like “Foundation”, you read the script and you ask yourself questions. What is the subtext of this scene? What are these characters doing? Are they at war? Are they in love? Are they killing each other? What is it? And then on that basis – not just whether it’s day or night – you choose a series of colors, and you choose a mood, and your bring it and put it on top. It could be raw, it could be violent, it could be awful. If there’s something you can bring to it to reflect that, even if it looks visually unpleasant, if the scene is particularly unpleasant, then that suits it. That is what I want to bring to it, because it makes it easier for the audience to pick up on the tone and mood of that story.

But if you only do one type of light, whatever that might be, it’s going to get a bit monochromatic. You don’t want it to feel the same all the time. Stories evolve and move and rotate. There’s all this drama that happens in individual scenes, and it’s nice to try and aim for that. That makes it interesting. You don’t always have the time, it’s always a pipe dream to do it, but you can always try to give it a new flavor. And when one scene ends and you go into another sequence, you know where you’re going. You don’t want to use the same homogeneous look for every single scene. That would drive me bananas.

When I leave in the morning, I go to work, I experience my daily life, it changes every time – and so should the stories that we’re making. The audiences who are watching us are informed by that, and it makes it more interesting.

Kirill: If you could go back in time and give a piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be? Or maybe alternatively, what piece of advice would you give to a young cinematographer that is starting right now?

Owen: For the first part, and this is something as one gets older, we think about more often – what would I really have loved to know? What would have made a huge difference in my development? And all that is – to relax. If you can relax, the noise in your head is less loud, and the ideas come more freely.

The transition from film to video and HD was a bumpy one, because the dynamic range of cameras changed radically. Where you used to have 12 or 16 or 18 stops in the film stock depending on the ASA, now you had a camera with only 5 if you were so lucky. I remember waking up most mornings around 2006 on one of the first big professional jobs I did, and how I used to look out the window and be terrified if the sun was out. Absolutely terrified, because I knew that I have to control it to such a degree that it would take up all my time. I would picture myself never completing the day, because it would burn out, or there was no details in the blacks.

I wish that I could tell myself that I needed to not worry about that too much. It made it more difficult for me to think about telling the story in a far more erudite way. It means that you – in your interaction with your crew, and the camera, and the actors – are focused on the wrong thing. I know light is important, but it’s not everything. And sometimes you can’t control the technology, because of the restrictions it offers you, because it was in a transition. But it blocked the ideas that could have come from being more relaxed and trusting your instincts. It took your eye off the ball.

From left to right, first assistant director Owen Magee, director Roman Dawson, cinematographer Owen McPolin. Courtesy of Owen McPolin.

To your second question, something that I have found really valuable is the knowledge to deeply listen to what the director and your instincts are telling you about this particular job you’re on. I wish so many times that I had said “No” to a job. I’m not the right fit. I’m not doing it, it’s wrong, it’s going to break my heart, you won’t want me there, our ideas are not compatible.

Ultimately, you are trying to find the best project for yourself, and it shouldn’t always be the choice of the person selecting you. It should be as much your choice, as it is for the person to hire you, or to be with you, or to choose to work together. Going on to the wrong job, bending yourself and subjugating your own ideas and thoughts and creative processes to the will of others that are clearly different to yours – that is creatively disastrous. It’s tough. All the energy that you should be pouring into brilliant collaborations or singing wondrous imagery is lost. It’s discursive, it’s destroyed, it’s lessened – and you end up producing mediocrity.

I wish I had said to myself to say no. I don’t want to do it. I know that this job is going to be a disaster, or I am going to be rubbish doing it. Just walk away. Have the confidence to say that something else will come up, and I’ll work with someone else, and that would bring me down another path. But I was a coward more often than not and said yes.

So that’s one thing I regret. I would tell anyone younger than I that is starting out – listen to your guts about doing a particular job.

And here I want to thank Owen McPolin for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography, and for sharing the supporting materials. The first two seasons of “Foundation” are available for streaming on Apple TV+. 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.