Behind the Scenes on ‘True Detective’ Season 3, with Cinematographer Germain McMicking ACS

Retired detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) revisits key moments from a haunting murder/kidnapping case from thirty-five years earlier. True Detective returns for a third season with Australian cinematographer, Germain McMicking ACS.

By James Cunningham.

Detective West (Stephen Dorff) and Detective Hays (Mahershala Ali) speak with a suspect in ‘True Detective’ – DOP Germain McMicking ACS, PHOTO Warrick Page

The third season of anthology crime drama True Detective, created by Nic Pizzolatto, was confirmed by HBO on August 31, 2017, and premiered on January 13, this year.

Season three plays out in three separate time periods, telling the story of the 1980 disappearance of a young Arkansas boy and his sister, and a mystery that deepens over decades. Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) stars as state police detective Wayne Hays, who recalls the days and weeks immediately following the crime, as well as developments in 1990, when he and his former partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff), were subpoenaed after a major break in the case. What starts as a routine investigation becomes a long journey to dissect and make sense of the crime.

Australian cinematographer Germain McMicking ACS first had some inkling about shooting the series back in October of 2017. His agent at WME, Grant Illes, had it on his radar for some time and had begun a campaign actively pursuing producer Scott Stephens on Germain’s behalf.

I was a massive fan of the first season,” says McMicking. “Although season two didn’t really resonate with me, I expected that writer and creator Nic Pizzolatto would surely have written something great. I was happy to take a look.

The scripts landed shortly afterward and McMicking wasn’t disappointed. “I loved the world Pizzolatto had created,” he explains. “This beautiful and deeply layered story of a man desperately trying to find context and truth, in a life challenged by early onset dementia.

Sure the show was a kind of classic pursuit for answers to an unsolved crime, but there was so much more to it being a richly woven family drama, and a deeply philosophical rumination on the abstract nature of time and memory.

McMicking’s interest also piqued learning about the season’s incredible cast. “The opportunity to work with someone of the calibre of Mahersala Ali doesn’t come around every day,” says McMicking. “Working with our other stunning cast members Carmen Ejogo, Stephen Dorff, and Scoot McNairy was also highly appealing.

A scene from Episode 6 of the third seaon of True Detective - DOP Germain McMicking ACS
Detective Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy) in ‘True Detective’ – DOP Germain McMicking ACS

Director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, The Green Room, Hold the Dark) was attached to the project, who McMicking admired as an incredible talent. He knew the show was out to a number of people at the time, and so the cinematographer didn’t hold out a huge amount of hope initially.

McMicking expressed a passionate enthusiasm for the job. He was asked to participate in a number of Skype meetings with Stephens and one with Pizzolatto. “We all seemed to communicate well, and discussed the themes and hopes for the season,” he remembers.

Both Stephens and Pizzolatto really admired McMicking’s work on Ariel Kleiman’s Partisan (2015) and, the cinematographer believes, his work on Top of The Lake: China Girl (2017) gained the approval of HBO. 

Also,” McMicking adds, “my geographical origin may have helped. Stephens acknowledged that they’d had great success working with ‘southerners’ before, in Adam Arkapaw ACS ASC (on season one of True Detective) and Nigel Bluck (on season two). He saw a common ‘can do’ attitude and subsequently… I was offered the job.

I loved the cinematography of both seasons one and two and so there was definitely some personal pressure to ‘keep the bar high’,” he says. For the producers, HBO and audiences alike, there were also some huge expectations for this season to right the ship after season two’s widely perceived failings.

I guess there was a lot to live up to, and we held a definite respect for what was done before,” McMicking says. “For us, this was an entirely new show and we took it on as our own.

Of course there are similarities on a script level which informed McMicking’s work. Two detectives investigating a crime, invariably leads to similarities in terms of choices on cinematic design. Repetitive aerial shots of the police vehicle traversing the landscape, and long dialogue scenes within moving vehicles, are all familiar territory.

Detective Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Detective West (Stephen Dorff) speaking to Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy) in ‘True Detective’ – DOP Germain McMicking ACS, PHOTO Warrick Page

I think we intended to do something different, and we weren’t bound by any bible or set of rules,” McMicking says. “Our job was to respond to the material, the performances, and this environment of north-west Arkansas.

I think there was a great new story telling opportunity offered on season three,” McMicking says. “The entire season is essentially told through the point of view of a seventy-year-old former detective. He essentially shuttles us through time. It gave us some nice story telling opportunities to transition from one time to the other, and do it in quite a conscious way, driven by character. 

McMicking knew early on that the show was to be shot digitally, and his preference with shooting digital super 35mm is the ARRI Alexa. “Obviously the Alexa is an industry workhorse,” he says. “Its reliability is proven and I love the aesthetics of its sensor. 

HBO and production were happy with the Alexa, shooting ProRes 3.2K, and they also had a preference to shoot this series spherically. “I was in agreement here as I knew I wanted the ability to be quite subjective with our lensing of the Hayes character (Ali), and get physically closer to him on slightly wider lenses at times. So spherical it was.

Whenever possible I try to work with Panavision on my shows,” McMicking says. “I love their service and their inventory of glass.” Given McMicking and his team were shooting entirely in north-west Arkansas, where there isn’t any local support or film industry, it was especially comforting knowing they had back up. “Bob Feortsch and lens guru Dan Sasaki helped Donnie Steinberg and myself carefully put together a select package of lenses and Alexa SXTs and Minis.

With set up director Jeremy Saulnier, I went through a lengthy process of discussion and testing in pre-production to determine the right look for the show,” the cinematographer explains. “I knew one significant place to start is with the glass.

Initially, they had a mind to mark each time period with different sets and eras of lenses. However the more they tested, the more they kept coming back to an opinion that the added texture and feel of vintage glass would work across all the show’s time periods.

Detective Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Detective West (Stephen Dorff) in a scene from ‘True Detective’ – DOP Germain McMicking ACS, PHOTO Warrick Page

Because of the cross-boarded approach,” explains McMicking, “I realised on a practical level that running different sets of lenses for different time periods would have been an expensive and logistical headache. We were constantly moving back and forth from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.” Saulnier and McMicking felt there were also many other signifiers, in front of the camera, to mark jumps in time; production design, wardrobe and makeup, all make these times so distinct.

Ultimately, McMicking settled with multiple sets of Panavision Ultra Speed. “We had a mix of both 1970s ‘yellow’ speeds along with 1980s ‘green’ speeds,” he says. “They’re very textural, filmic lenses, versatile and fast, have beautiful round bokeh, and some interesting edge fall off especially when shooting OpenGate or 3.2K.

I also felt that qualities of the Ultra Speeds worked harmoniously with the ageing makeup applied by Mike Marino and his team, which I thought was truly amazing,” McMicking says. “That make up was so damn good you could hit if with hard light if you wanted to, it was flawless.

Other lenses employed were a number of ‘portrait’ anamorphic and spherical lenses for flash backs in episode eight, Panavision Primo 11:1 and 3:1 zooms, Super Baltars, and PV/Century shift and tilts.”We did alter the colour palette for the different time periods in terms of lighting design, and with our lensing there were some conscious shifts.

The 1980s colour palette was somewhat an Ektachrome look playing off the desaturated tones of an Arkansas winter,” says McMicking. “We wanted a slight yellow tone to our mids with cooler highlights. I remember a go to lens for that period was the 40mm Ultra speed, which is comprised of warmer Baltar glass, as opposed to the rest of the Ultra speed Zeiss based lenses, which are much cooler. I loved this lens for the period as it had a natural yellow cast due to it’s distinctive coatings. When shooting wide open it would fall apart in the most beautiful way.

McMicking describes how he pushed his lenses to their limits for the show’s 1980s scenes. “As we progressed through time we gave them a little more stop to increase contrast and feeling of resolution,” he says. 

We tried to steer toward wider lenses in this period, or sit back from our heroes and have them feel a little more observed.” McMicking was conscious that in many ways everything was a memory of Hays’ from the present; as time progressed McMicking tried to be become more subjective with point-of-view, and for his camera to subtly close in on Hays as the story progressed. Ever so slowly hinting on getting deeper inside his mind, and communicating a world where the truth is closing in on him.

Detective Hays (Mahershala Ali) in a scene from ‘True Detective’ – DOP Germain McMicking ACS, PHOTO Warrick Page

Ryan Smith was the production designer on the show, and was a real talent, and a great human being,” says McMicking. “He’s young guy from Portland, who’s been racking up some great credits over recent years.” Smith came to True Detective through director Jeremy Saulnier, who had worked with him previously on Green Room and Hold the Dark.

Smith was like the oracle on this show,” says McMicking. “As directors changed he was a constant. He was definitely a significant voice in holding the whole thing together.

The production designer had been on board for a couple of months before McMicking started pre-production, so was well advanced in terms of reference material and design. He had developed a book of photographic references; things specific to Arkansas and the 1980s, as well as ideas and feelings specific to the third season. “It was a great resource especially for 1980s scenes, where I could get a real feeling for the colour and light of the time,” says McMicking.

I love this period of pre-production, where everything is possible,” he says. “Through the process of sharing references and talking through the script you start to form a specific language and style for that particular show. That the references for me and for Smith were more of a discussion or step off point as to how to create the world, and not something that we specifically referred to once the bull was out of the gate.

In terms of photographic references, they talked about the photography of Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and the personal and open American landscapes they portrayed. “Mike Brodie’s book ‘A Period of Juvenile Prosperity’ was also a great reference for its beautiful colour and tone,” says McMicking.

Photographer Saul Leiter we referenced quite a bit for his abstract expressionism. We had hopes to play in this world. We both loved Leiter’s use of reflections in his work, and felt that that was something we could utilise, as we felt that reflection could reveal something about the elliptical nature of time.

‘My America’, by political photographer Christopher Morris, became a personal inspiration to the cinematographer for scenes set in the 1990s and 2000s. “I love the quality of his photographs,” says McMicking. “The cool austere feeling of them, and the way he could isolate characters within a landscape.

Detective Hays (Mahershala Ali) in a scene from ‘True Detective’ – DOP Germain McMicking ACS, PHOTO Warrick Page

In terms of film references, the team looked at varied sources including Rivers Edge (1986, cinematography by Frederick Elmes ASC), At Close Range (1986, cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchía ASC) and even Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975, cinematography by Russell Boyd ACS ASC) for the metaphysical portrayal of landscape. “It’s something we wanted to bring out of the Devil’s Den location where Will Purcell’s body is found,” says McMicking.

Smith was also instrumental in finding so many of the period locations, along with the legendary Batou Chandler (Location Manager), in an around Fayetteville where the majority of production took place,” says McMicking. “Although it’s quite a prosperous area these days, with the local Walton family’s (founders of Walmart) influence everywhere there were was still a richness of period locations there. It was amazing what they found there, and in the satellite towns nearby

The majority of the 1980s footage was shot during the tail end of a very cold winter, and the 1990s scenes were mostly shot in spring. “When you watch the show the seasonal changes are pretty distinct,” says McMicking. “By the time we shot the 2000s time periods our leads were deepest into wearing their prosthetic, seventy-year-old makeup. 

“I really feel that these seasonal shifts were another character in the show, and really contributed to its look and feel. I think ultimately the look of the show came about pretty organically, and as always in response to the script and performance, locations and seasonal shifts.

McMicking’s camera department was headed up by first assistant camera Donnie Steinberg, who was scheduled to leave half way through production to work on Jaume Collet-Serra’s Jungle Cruise, starring Dwayne Johnson. Stevie Cueva seamlessly took over and kept things running for the cinematographer. “I have to credit all the other assistant cameras who killed it: Manny, JoeZo, LT, Jordan, Hadyn, Josh and a few others,” says McMicking.

Mandy Walker ACS ASC was very helpful on giving McMicking advice on crew. “She suggested I speak with her usual camera operator, the fabulous Australian camera/steadicam operator Jason Ellson,” says McMicking. “He was available to come on board for most of the season, and made an invaluable contribution. Once Ellson left, Mark Meyers came on board to complete.

C-Camera was also a revolving door, with McMicking working with Mike Burgess, Jac Fitzgerald, Chloe Weaver and Ellie Ann Fenton filling that role. “It was so busy out there in the US that it was hard finding crew for the entire period,” he explains. “But I really can’t praise the entire camera team more. They were incredibly professional, and worked quietly and tirelessly to see the season through.”

Detective Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Detective West (Stephen Dorff)  in ‘True Detective’ – DOP Germain McMicking ACS, PHOTO Warrick Page

Depending on the episode’s director and the scenario, McMicking generally used two or three cameras on most scenes. “Occasionally we’d end up with four,” he says. “But I tend to prefer a more limited number of perspectives, so I can light the scene properly.

I’ve shot a few commercials out that way over the years, but really this was my first time working there with a large union crew and on something of such scale,” says McMicking. “It was a little daunting at first, with the sheer size of the circus each day. But it didn’t take long to fall in love with some of the advantages it offered.

McMicking explains that the skill set was comparable with the fantastic crews we have in Australia, but that the sheer numbers were significantly higher than what he’s experienced back home. “I don’t think this really changed how I approached things,” he says. “I felt that where it helped was that if offered greater flexibility in so many ways.

With a show of this size, invariably much of the pre-production becomes pretty abstract by the time you’re deep in it,” says McMicking. “Script and schedules change, locations fall away, directors and first assistant directors get replaced, so sometimes unfortunately you’re turning up on set a little blind. Flexibility is key, and you can be less apologetic for some of the unplanned or last minute decisions that come up.

One thing that took McMicking a while to get used to was the different delineation of work between grip and electrics. “In the United States, the gripping department are in control of all the materials to soften, bounce, cut and colour light,” he says. “I don’t think I ever stopped asking for things from the wrong team. They were all very kind about it, and I think in the end we ended up with some hybrid of their usual practice.

The gripping team was headed up by Jimmy Shelton, and electrics by gaffer Joshua Davis. “Those guys and their teams were simply amazing. They did an incredible job of keeping a consistent look across all the episodes with skill, humour and charm,” McMicking says.

McMicking worked with two of season three’s directors, Saulnier and Dan Sackheim. “I set up the series as cinematographer, shooting episodes one and two with Saulnier, episode three with Sackheim and the final three episodes again with Sackheim,” he explains.

Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) and Detective Hays (Mahershala Ali) in ‘True Detective’ – DOP Germain McMicking ACS, PHOTO Warrick Page

Initially McMicking’s hope was that he would shoot the entire season, but he knew show creator Nic Pizzolatto was getting his first opportunity to direct with episodes four and five. There was always a question surrounding these episodes. “What came to pass was that Pizzolatto, being a first time director, understandably wanted someone he was familiar with to help him through this experience,” McMicking says. 

He asked New Zealand cinematographer Nigel Bluck, who shot season two of the show, to come on board for his episodes. Bluck is a great cinematographer, meaning I was comfortable in the knowledge that he’d maintain the look and feel we’d established in the earlier episodes. I felt they both did a great job together.

Saulnier was initially set to direct the majority of the season’s episodes, but unfortunately – due to some scheduling conflicts with HBO – Saulnier exited after finishing up episode two and was subsequently replaced by Sackheim. “In many ways, only taking on six of the episodes ended up being a blessing, as with the instability caused by Jeremy’s departure early on, I had to do a fair bit of doubling in pre production to do what I could to help Sackheim get up to speed,” McMicking says. 

I dearly loved working with Saulnier. He’s one of the nicest people you’ll meet with an amazing energy and he’s so very talented,” McMicking says. “I feel like he brought a very measured and a classic cinematic sensibility to the work, and will no doubt continue to go far. It was a real shame he had to leave when he did, but that’s show business I guess.

And then there was Sackheim,” McMicking continues. “He had a completely different energy in so many ways. I also adored working with him. He is an immensely experienced television director and creator who I learnt so much from. He tended to come at a scene with a very economical, initial framework. He’d know what bare essentials he’d need to make a scene work, and then this would allow him time to explore performances and devise some really interesting story telling techniques. I personally think his work in episode seven is a stand out of the series.

Season three of True Detective was shot over about one hundred days, and was cross-boarded to account for the seasonal shifts, the multi layered time lines, and the detailed and time consuming makeup requirements for the last period of the story.

It was a very complicated shoot on so many levels,” McMicking says. “Keeping track of where you were emotionally within the story at any given time was a real feat. I think the cast would have had the most difficult time with this, needing to delve back and forth into a different head space and emotional state. Also, what was a real killer was that Pizzolatto held onto episode eight for the longest time… it was hard to anticipate where we were ultimately headed.

Detective Hays (Mahershala Ali) in ‘True Detective’ – DOP Germain McMicking ACS, PHOTO Warrick Page

As the show moved into post-production, the tyranny of distance and life prevented McMicking from being involved. At the time, the cinematographer’s best friend passed away and colour-grading wasn’t high on his priority list.

Although McMicking was disappointed he couldn’t help craft the final frames, he wasn’t overly worried for a couple of reasons. “Firstly, I felt like the majority of the work was done on set,” he explains. 

We developed a particular look-up table for the show and steadily tweaked it throughout filming. I was blessed to work with a couple of amazing digital intermediate technicians, Jason Bauer and Mike DeGrazzio. I felt like we were already in a pretty good place with our rushes.

Secondly, I knew that Deluxe had Pankaj Bajpai on board to grade and he’s one of the best television colourists out there,” McMicking says. “I thought he did a great job shaping in subtly delineating the different times, and helping to shape the drama and emotion of the scenes.

McMicking dearly loves the sequence that Saulnier designed for episode one, where Hays is following tracks and straw dolls through an eerie winter landscape of Devil’s Den culminating with the discovery of Purcell’s dead body. “I feel like the tension building in that sequence is pretty masterful, and the final shot of Wayne calling in for back up on the top of the mountain at dusk was really beautiful to me.

“The first meeting of Hayes and his future Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) in a classroom in episode one was also a pretty great moment,” says McMicking. “I think their performances here were wonderfully played and full of sexual tension.

McMicking continues talking about his favourite scenes in the season. “A couple of scenes directed by Sackheim, set in the VWF bar that always stick with me,” he says. “One with Hays and West as West convinces Hays to come back to the force, and another with Hays and his wife as they reconcile their differences. Everything seemed to come together so well in these scenes; performance, lensing and lighting.

At this time, McMicking has just watched episode seven again, directed by Sackheim. “It’s really so good,” he says. “The entire episode is really great, it hums along, and the story telling is superb.

I’m honestly really proud of all our work on this show,” says McMicking. “Having a little distance from it has been good, and I’ve been able to sit down and watch a new episode each week with the anticipation and excitement of a new viewer. When I can detach myself like that from something I’ve worked on, and become completely immersed in the characters and story, I know it can’t be half bad.

I’ve got no idea what’s next,” says McMicking. Since True Detective the cinematographer has been back shooting commercials. “There have been some really wonderful offers out there since the release of the show and I’m reading a lot of scripts. But I guess I’m biding my time until I find the right one; just trying not to rush things.

Germain McMicking ACS has been working extensively within the commercial industry for the past decade as well as shooting documentary, and narrative film and television works.

James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.

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