Starring Rob Lowe and Liv Tyler, 9-1-1: Lone Star follows a New York firefighter who relocates to Austin, Texas. The hit new series on Fox is shot by Australian cinematographer Andrew Strahorn.
Interview by Lauren Mennuti.
AC – How did you get first involved with 9-1-1: Lone Star? What were your initial thoughts, relating to cinematography, when you read the scripts?
AS – My first involvement with 9-1-1: Lone Star came through my agent. I was shooting a pilot at the time, and she brought the show to my attention with interest for an interview to shoot the pilot then go straight to series. I was very interested as I had just come off several seasons of Lethal Weapon, and enjoyed the prospect of continuing another action series.
Growing up, the movie Backdraft (1991, cinematography by Mikael Salomon ASC) was a favourite of mine. Having the opportunity to shoot fire fighting sequences piqued my interest. After reading the pilot and the several scripts that followed, I was drawn to the themes of heroic actions, bravery and selflessness of the first responders who went about their day risking their lives to help others in need, and shying away from any fanfare or spotlight for what they do. What was important to me was bringing these themes and characters to the screen in a truthful manner.
Through cinematography, I wanted to present these men and women as larger than life when they had their uniforms and firefighting turnouts on, compared to when they took them off and were civilians who were vulnerable and faced the same challenges we all do everyday.
AC – What factors did you take into consideration when choosing what camera and lenses for a series like this?
AS – After initial discussions with series showrunner Tim Minear, and producer and director Brad Buecker, a factor that was very important to both of them was the idea of the camera being ‘loose’ and flexible to move anywhere the story and characters take the audience. Turns out that more often than not, the camera shots would pan in excess of 180-degrees in most scenes.
As a result, I decided to utilise the ARRI Mini(s) for the compact nature of the camera, as well as the fact that the deliverable to the studio was 1080p. There was plenty of resolution should we need a high resolution visual effects shot. Budget is always a factor, so it was important to be efficient enough not to bog down our digital intermediate technician (DIT) PJ Russ with long hours at the end-of-the-day transcoding, or the post-production pipeline.
Primarily I photographed the series with Zeiss Master Primes. I love these lenses, and this show was the first time for me in several years I got to shoot a series primarily on primes. We also had a full complement of Fujinon Premier Zooms in the camera package which were only used a handful of times during the season. I loved how the Master Primes handled the extreme exposure range of fire, particularly large explosions. The lenses had no aberration and beautiful colour rendition particularly at night when shooting around T2 – T2.8.
The combination of these lenses and the Minis gave the production the best of both worlds, small and mobile coupled with great resolution and sharpness.
AC – What was your collaboration like with Seth Reed and his production design team, early on? Was there an intention to break away from the visuals of the original 9-1-1 series?
AS – Production Designer Seth Reed was instrumental to the success of the ‘look’ of 9-1-1: Lone Star. Reed has an amazing instinctual feel for architectural design and space of a location or set, as well as a soft touch with colour. We shared similar taste and always leaned towards darker tones rather than normal ones. Reality for me is never clean nor bright, and Reed understood that clearly.
He gave me the palette to play in a world that maximised the ‘bleach bypass’ approach that I applied to the imagery. In conjunction with Russ (DIT), our go to looks for the show became a ‘copper sheen’ for daytime and a ‘silver sheen’ for nighttime. I always saw there being an element of warmth to the daytime.
Whenever I think of Texas, I think of warm hues. When I think of nighttime, there’s an infusion of coolness lending itself towards a silverish tone. Between Reed and I, there was a conscious effort to establish 9-1-1: Lone Star as its own show, and not a part two version of the original. The success of the original is unique to them, and I particularly did not want to recreate what already worked. Instead, I wanted to find a new visual language within the 9-1-1 universe. Looking back, I feel we successfully achieved our goal.
AC – Were you working from any specific cinematic or filmic references when developing the look of 9-1-1: Lone Star?
AS – All the creatives were acutely aware of the aesthetics of the original 9-1-1 series, and I was conscious of the visual ground that they and other existing firefighting shows had covered to date. Truth be told, 9-1-1: Lone Star naturally evolved through everyone’s input, little-by-little, with the production design, costuming, makeup design, camera movement and lighting.
If any film influenced me, it was the 1991 film Backdraft. I love this film in general and cinematographer Mikael Salomon’s work is astounding. What I connected with most in the film was the sense of emotion that his lighting and camera movement evoked while capturing iconic shots. For example, Kurt Russell’s character bursting through a smokey room with fire ablaze and appearing with a young boy in his arms. This shot stayed in the back of my mind, and was ultimately the backbone to my visual approach.
AC – Can you talk about your own, personal planning on the series? How did you plan for managing your camera department, as well as the workload?
AS – Being the only cameraman on the series, my time to effectively prepare for each episode pretty much happened either late at night or on weekends. The show was both one of the best experiences of my career and also one of the most demanding. I was consumed with Lone Star for the better part of six months. In part because the rescues and setups were so large that logistically it could not be ‘winged’ on the day, nor do I like to work like that.
I believe filmmaking can be instinctual, and shoot-from-the-hip so to speak. For me, my process is to gestate and chew on a script. Generally my process is to read the next script once at the beginning of every day. When I do this, I always seem to get something out of it each and every time. The breakdown of the themes and emotions become deeper and in turn become second nature in knowing the characters, the story, tone of the episode, etc. That helps me know where each and every scene is in relation to each other and what emotion I want to convey to the audience through lighting.
AC – Did you operate the camera yourself? Can you speak about your own crew in the camera department? Had you worked with any of them before and what was that relationship like?
AS – I had worked with the A-camera first assistant camera James Rydings and A-camera second assistant camera Kaoru ‘Q’ Ishizuka. I also worked with PJ Russ, for several years prior on the Warner Bros. series Lethal Weapon. I was in great hands with these blokes by my side. I have been lucky enough to work with Rydings for over a decade. These guys, along with some new faces in the camera department made up a phenomenal team. I have always worked from a position that if you surround yourself with men and women that are exceptional at what they do, then that creates the illusion of time and space for me to explore a shot or lighting scenario just a little bit more.
I respect everyone’s position, so I don’t micromanage, as I feel that when you empower people and value them inevitably there becomes an invested interest on their behalf and you have a much more valued contributor. This seems to work for me and attracts the type of artists and technicians that I can trust and enjoy spending twelve plus hours a day with in the thick of it. As a result, I had from top-to-bottom a great camera crew. Three full-time cameras, and my operators had a great sense of timing and action that allowed me to step away from the camera and concentrate on lighting and constructing the scene with the directors.
On my crew was also A-camera operator Steadicam, Brice Reid, B-camera operator and second unit cinematographer Joe Broderick and C-camera operator Dean Morin. Reid had a great sense of camera movement, particularly with knowing where to be to best capture the right mood of the scene. Broderick not only was a solid operator but an exceptional cameraman, he picked up the duties of additional photography and beautifully matched and continued the look of the show each and every time. Morin always found moments when wedged between the other cameras. All in all, I was very lucky to have the team that we had in Los Angeles and wouldn’t think about another show without these folk.
AC – Were you shooting mostly location work? Were sets built? How did you approach lighting on the series, both in the studio and on location?
AS – 9-1-1: Lone Star was mainly a location based show. Usually we would shoot six days on location and three days on stage. This would change a day here or there depending on the episode. My general approach to the lighting, irrespective of location or stage work, is to create a natural look for the world in which 9-1-1: Lone Star existed. This may appear to be slightly contradictory because Lone Star has a bleached bypass approach. In order to create a sense of naturalism to this setting, a thick digital negative was needed. This meant a substantial amount of lighting was needed in the mid-tones as the main contrast came from in the mids and not in the shadows, as that would have limited the amount of detail in the black turnouts or uniforms the firefighters wore. Because of this approach, I had to work a little harder in the lighting but the outcome was worth it.
AC – How much special and visual effects work were you planning for? How did that affect your cinematography? Was anything storyboarded, and can you talk about the working relation ship between yourself and PJ Russ (DIT)?
AS – Special effects are always an important element to be considered in a shoot, particularly with a show like 9-1-1: Lone Star where fire is such a central presence.
A burning flame, whether it’s a day or night scene, is a situation you can adjust to with regards to exposure and flame detail. Where it gets tricky is when there’s an explosion at night or low daylight levels. An important characteristic of fire or flames is the colour detail, and positioning the T-stop accordingly so that it also serves the scene. The devil in the details is where there is an explosion, and placing the camera positions accordingly for the beginning, the peak or middle, and the end of it.
Each of these placements are based on conversations and gut instinct of where the shots will be edited in, especially for the action sequence. Sometimes it’s a bit of luck and a guessing game. It is always interesting being back at a video village with the director and producers, and everyone is looking at a dark screen, until the action explodes. It’s a nice feeling knowing that the correct call on exposure was made and you live to fight another day.
In general, storyboards would be utilised on big set pieces. A guide was helpful for following meetings going through the storyboards to discuss how much of a set, or how much was visual effects versus practical, for example. I like storyboards since it gives all creatives an idea of where a scene is heading and acts as a starting point to further conversations. The more communication, the better understanding of what is needed interdepartmentally.
My digital intermediate technician on set, PJ Russ, is an artist and a collaborative ally. At times I could have a swatch of colour or a textural element and Russ would know how to recreate that. Having a DIT on set is invaluable. The ability to live-grade on set, and let everyone know what the series is going to look like and make adjustments accordingly, in my opinion, is fully utilising the possibilities of the digital realm.
AC – It looks like you were working with multiple directors (seven different directors?) across multiple episodes of television? What was this like and how did you manage different directing styles on different days, while trying to achieve one coherent television series?
AS – It is always an interesting situation. On one hand you want to embrace the ‘fresh pair of eyes’ and be open to the ideas of a new way of approaching a show. On the other hand, I am the custodian to the showrunners’ vision and the aesthetics that I helped to establish. It’s always a diplomatic exercise in being a collaborator with a director whilst not suppressing creative ideas that they may have to push the boundaries of the show’s style. Nonetheless, the practice of listening to each director as they lay out their plan always serves you well in understanding them.
AC – How involved were you in post-production on 9-1-1: Lone Star? Were you involved in the grade? Who was your colourist, and what was your approach to colour?
AS – I was 100% involved in the post-production pipeline. I have always been a fan of having good communicative relationships with the post-production producers, editors and the dailies colourist. Because I utilised the DIT on the series, dailies colouring is mostly relegated to copy and pasting the Colour Decision Lists (CDLs) we establish on set, albeit if I get caught due to time parameters or trying to match three cameras during a scene shot at sunset.
Julio Giron is the colourist on 9-1-1: Lone Star, who has a sensitive touch to contrast and colour density. After a couple of sessions, Giron quickly grasped the world of Lone Star that I was looking to create, which made for a wonderful partnership.
Where I feel the success of a DIT really shines is when there is no miscommunication with seeing the direction of each day’s photography. Given the prior communication I established with dailies, those original CDLs make their way through to final colour, so Giron knows exactly the direction of the show and each look and scene before I arrive for the final grade. At that point we are really fine tuning each and every shot and utilising the precious hours available to put the final polish on each episode.
AC – Do you have a favourite shot or sequence in the series?
AS – There are so many… It’s hard to isolate just one shot or sequence! I guess one that is most memorable is from the pilot episode. We shot Owen (Rob Lowe) at the 911 Memorial, Ground Zero, at night. Without a doubt the most reverent place I had been to thus far. You cannot help feeling a sense of pause and reflection of where you were on that terrible day. Weirdly enough, on that day in 2001 I was in Brisbane, shooting a horror film called Undead, the very film that brought me to the United States. This scene really meant something on a personal and professional level to me. In some unusual way I had come full circle from Australia to the United States and it started with that event.
AC – Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, would you have changed anything shooting the series?
AS – I think the benefit of shooting an episodic show is that over the course of a season, you have the opportunity to explore and refine the photography or ‘look’ of it. This means you get to know the sets, actors’ faces, wardrobe, colours etc. I like to explore and constantly refine colours and light.
At the beginning of the season following shooting the pilot, I started to explore colour shifts in the shadows and highlights. Because of the CDLs that Russ and I had established, the colour is inherently desaturated, so key and backlight sources had varying degrees of straw warmth added to them, whereas ambient and shadow areas had coolness in colour temperature blue.
The further we got into the episodes, the more this approach of lighting with various density levels of coolness and warmth gave us the correct colour separation for the grade to be pushed a little each and every time. Dealing with fire and then the black turnout fire protective gear the actors wore presented a challenge. As contrast is the foundation of the look of Lone Star, I lit the show heavily in the mid tones as a result. When the look is applied, the mid tones were crushed and the shadows played naturally without too much tampering and still gave the overall image a heavy contrast look with detail in the shadows.
I liked the aesthetic and felt this approach gave the right design for an action packed show about first responders.
Andy Strahorn is an award-winning cinematographer known for his work on ‘Undead’ (2003) and the Warner Bros. series ‘Lethal Weapon’ (2016-2019).