The Walking Dead‘s director of photography Rohn Schmidt describes the difference between shooting the prison and Woodbury and explains why he’d rather be stuck in a prison with inmates instead of walkers.
Q: There are two main set-pieces this season: the prison and Woodbury. Which most excites you as a cinematographer?
A: I guess you could say the prison. As a cinematographer and just by nature, it means you’ve got very strong graphics there. Last year, we had Randall tied up in the shed, and it was just this very sharp, angular, graphic, black-and-white lighting, and I kind of saw what the prison was going to look like, so I was looking forward to it.
Q: Do you have any visual tricks for distinguishing the two locations?
A: Yes. I tried to create a contrast between the town of Woodbury, which is kind of like a fantasy world with a dark undercurrent to it. It’s kind of a little bit too pretty, so we’ve been using lower film stock to have less grain and look less gritty and raw. Then when we’re doing the final color for it, we’re adding a little bit more flesh to the skin-tones of the actors… And then that contrasts with the prison world, which is very monochromatic, and it’s still just a little dark and scary there. And the actor’s faces are a little less colorful.
Q: Most of Season 2 was shot on location and outdoors. What’s it like to finally be on a sound stage sometimes?
A: I love being on location. There’s a great kind of energy, and realism and there’s this authenticity there. That’s what I really try to recreate on the sound stage is to just find ways to make things a little bit reckless, to do things that are not so perfect because it feels more real… I might flare the lens or have it a little bit too light or a little bit too dark. But, I have to say, a couple times we’ve been rained out of our exterior locations and now we have a place to go to instead of just shutting down for the day. Or even if it’s just too hot, it’s nice to just have a little relief in the air conditioning.
Q: The barn-burning in the Season 2 Finale seems like it would be a cinematographer’s dream. What was it like to shoot that scene?
A: Fire is always so dramatic and fun to shoot. It’s tricky, it’s dark, and it depends on how you expose it, it can look kind of white and not really threatening, and we certainly wanted a rich, red golden fire there. The way you achieve that on film is you have a very deep stock. It takes a lot of exposure. The scene looks as dark and in shadow as anything, but there’s probably three times more light there. You’d walk up and think, “Oh my gosh, that is absolutely ridiculously bright,” and by the time we exposed it correctly, it came out just right.
VIDEO: The Making of The Walking Dead Season 2 Finale, “Beside the Dying Fire”
Q: This season, we know the walkers are continuing to travel more in herds. Does this change how you shoot them as well?
A: Absolutely… It’s kind of interesting now where they’re becoming kind routine. Like swatting flies almost. Yes, they’re dangerous, but the characters are used to them, they know how to deal with the zombies. It’s more like a chore for them, and we shoot it like that sometimes too. Let’s hack this one, machete this one, and away we go.
Q: What’s the number one photography trick that gives The Walking Dead its creepy, cinematic feel?
A: We try not to be too gimmicky with the photography, and that includes the lighting and the framing of the cameras. By grounding it in familiarity and a reality, then it gets scary because it’s not too pretend. And that said, here’s the contradiction: it is based on a graphic novel, which has really fantastic art in there. So in almost every episode, and hopefully in each scene, I do like to indulge in what I call graphic novel shots — so something that’s a little extreme, the camera’s got a very wide lens or very high light or very low light. We try to use that as a spice, rather than a main dish.
Q: Would you rather be stuck in a prison with walkers or inmates?
A: I think the inmates. I’m very much a man of reason, so I’d rather have someone I could maybe talk with and negotiate with.
The Walking Dead returns Sun., Oct. 14 at 9/8c on AMC.Read More