'Just get out there and do it' Lethal Weapon DP Andy Strahorn shares his cinematography journey
Andy Strahorn is an award-winning cinematographer known for his work on Warner Bros. series Lethal Weapon starring Damon Wayans and Clayne Crawford. Here the Australian DP talks Mandy News through how he started out, the challenges of shooting Lethal Weapon and offers up some advice to aspiring cinematographers.
Can you explain a little bit about how you got involved in film and television?
I started back in Australia in the '80s. I grew up in a small countryside town and always knew what I wanted to do. Back then opportunities were very few and far between, particularly with the industry being as small as it was in Australia.
I had a normal upbringing, went to school and at the end of High School thought: “Maybe my best bet is to try and get in from an early age”.
So I moved from that small town to a bigger town and then slowly hustled my way up from the bottom. It took a minute and every dollar I had. When I wasn't PAing I got into camera departments as a second AC (this is all before digital). It was the mid-'90s by the time this happened, so I saved every bit of tail film stock (which is usually the waste of a roll) and would constantly shoot on the weekends.
I taught myself how to experiment with film stock and light. I threw things at the wall and sometimes it was great and sometimes it was not so great. I kind of taught myself.
I was very lucky (and it was very advantageous at that time) that I met a couple of filmmakers who were doing a movie for no money, called Undead. That was with two twins called the Spierig Brothers. It took two years to come out because everything was done by themselves, the VFX work, the edit...the two twins literally did everything.
Lo and behold, the film got interest from the US and they jumped stateside. At that stage, I'd been doing commercial work for several years. I came to the States in late 2005 and started over here. You make your way up, try and meet who you can, shoot whatever you can and do a lot of independent film. Some of them are things you are proud of and some of them you don't necessarily talk about.
The perspective and the work ethic I learned back in Australia, having to be really diligent, really smart and pragmatic, served me well and I made a pretty good living being independent for some years.
Then I got an opportunity because somebody was sick on the TV series Justified. I came in and operated and then they asked me to be a camera man. Soon they threw me a scene and said “can you do that?” and then threw another my way. By the second to last episode of the final season, based on my work there, I got my foot in the door for Lethal Weapon.
I went and had a conversation, they liked what they heard and the rest is history.
When you made the leap from Australia to the United States was that a difficult process to go through?
It's difficult in the sense that you don't have infrastructure; you don't have friends or the support system you would in your native country. That being said, there is something liberating to know the only reason why you're there is to work, so you work day and night.
I did a lot of physical labour when I wasn't shooting to live - I moved furniture and things like that when I first got here. It's very humbling, but at the same time it puts a fire in your belly to work twice as hard once you're finished, to be diligent and to knock on doors, call up and connect with producers and directors that you've worked with, or met. To try to always be in the back of their minds should opportunity knock.
I think everything's relative with regards to difficulty. If you really want something bad enough I don't know if difficulty really comes into it because it's all par for the course. I have a few mates back home and I remember talking to them a couple of times and them asking “What did you do? How did you get your break?” and I just said “Look, you've asked the wrong question - are you prepared to move furniture?” They said “What's that got to do with filmmaking?” I said “If you're not prepared to do it, you probably shouldn't make the leap. Are you prepared to do anything within reason? Are you prepared to work hard to create the opportunity to start?” because I walked away from everything and started from zero.
One thing to say about the US is it's a very interesting melting pot of filmmakers from all over the globe. There are so many different flavours; the way the Australians shoot compared to the Europeans, or the South East Asians; the Spanish cameraman or American cameraman. There's so many different ways that we use colour, contrast, hard light and soft light...
The light in Australia is really relentless, really harsh. When I was there, I didn't know how to make something look pleasing to the eye in the midday sun. It took a very grassroots approach to turn it into something pleasing. In a weird way it was an advantage because you learnt to do a lot with a little.
With Lethal Weapon, (particularly with the fast turnaround time and the quality expected of TV shows in 2018) I think those days of frustration back home paid off. What was a pain in the ass back then is probably an asset now.
For Lethal Weapon, can you tell us a little about the choices that you make when you're shooting it and a little bit about the process of shooting the show?
We shoot on Arriflex and Alexas, as we've evolved season 1 we started to use minis and now we only use the minis. They are great for the size that they are and have such a high quality of image. They are the perfect camera for what we need to do because of the dynamic range – ultimately we're in an age where everyone is talking about Ks – 8k, 6k, 4k – and that's all well and good, but to me the dynamic range is the most important thing, not how many pixels you can put into something.
Being in Los Angeles, we constantly have a very interesting time, being very close to the water. We've always shot, for the last three seasons, from May/June to February/March/April. We go through the tail end of summer in the US (so really harsh light) to winter which has 10 hours of daylight. Depending on where we are, we may start off on the Westside which is closer to the water so you have marine light pretty much all the time, but then that will burn off by 11 a.m. and you've got hard sunlight. In a perfect world we would stop shooting that scene and pick it up another day, but that's not the way the studio works, nor would the producer appreciate that.
My approach, particularly with that show, is starting off with my concept of it and what I remember from the movies, which it obviously pays homage to. Lethal Weapon 1 and Lethal Weapon 2 were such slick Hollywood movies. They’re funny, they have action and drama and they’re just fantastic. Our approach going into season 1, was having those different flavours.
The creator, Matt Miller, wanted something of a homage and a postcard to Los Angeles – to really show it off. We're in the age now where, depending on budgets and so forth, sometimes shows are moving towards what we call “Rebate States”, where there's more money to be offered if you shoot in that state. So you might shoot Los Angeles in Atlanta. Atlanta doesn't look like Los Angeles and they have a thriving industry out there, so it definitely cost them a bit to shoot here in town.
Whenever we're in Los Angeles, I always try to give it a different flavour. I try to play with different views. I also try to give the show a hyper-realistic look. It's trying to be natural to that world but saying to the audience “This is the world and this is what natural looks like in this world”.
The first thing I do is break down the script - the first draft, whether that be the network’s or the studio’s. I grab a highlighter, read through it and just mark it up and start thinking about looks. The more looks I see, the happier I get because then I have this landscape that has diversity to it. You start to create this universe which now feels believable.
On top of that, we play with a lot of colour – sometime very subtlely, but nonetheless I think it just adds to the believability: sunrise or 7 o'clock in the morning has a different hue to 8:30 a.m., which is different to 10a.m., and then 4 p.m., to 5 p.m., to 6 p.m., to 7 p.m. all have different shades.
In this season we have Seann (William Scott) who's a new character, and he has different requirements – he's very lean. Both were very good looking guys so they could take any light but at the same time trying to create a world that you can flip, literally within three seconds from action, to poverty, to drama is not easy.
With this being an action show with so many explosions and things, are you having to create new methods of shooting things to be close to the explosions and things like that?
We are lucky enough that we have some great personnel – my gaffer, Cooper Donaldson; Craig Riley, my key grip; Tim Trella, our stunt coordinator/action unit director; Brendan O'Dell, our special effects supervisor and coordinator.
Between those four we are very lucky that we have feature film experience and are used to big footprints and big staff, but working at a television pace. It's interesting between the four of them, the rotating camera men and myself, what we bring to the table. How do we try to elevate, do so many different things and be safe?
But we're always thinking of the big picture – how do we make this look as big as it can be, but obviously serve the story at the same time? Let's be honest, Lethal Weapon has always been fun, right from the beginning, so that's in the back of our minds always. For the most part, we are lucky enough that we get the opportunity to use these toys, whether we use the pursuit arm to put the camera on the crane on a moving vehicle so we can get close to the action without anyone getting injured or whether you use a movie bird, or a technocrane, or crash cameras, or things of that nature.
We shoot an explosion almost every episode: how do we tell it differently? How do we get the best shot? Between the five or six of us, we try to work that out. The evolution of that is something that is, I think, imperceptible. We've been together for the last two and a half years and it is somewhat second nature and instinct, but at the same time we are always trying to say “OK, we've done that before, how do we do this differently?”
What advice would you have for aspiring cinematographers DPs and people wanting to get involved in the camera department?
No matter what, just get out there, do it and practice.
Whether it's a curse or whether I'm just so aware of it now, every time I walk outside or wake up or just look at light I think “If I was on stage how could I recreate this?”.
I think it's important that we all try to look for answers in someone else's path or in the way someone else approached something but, ultimately, we’re all individuals and we all have our own path, whether that's in lighting or in life. What I suggest to people is don't get hung up on how this or that person did it, just get out there grab a camera, start teaching yourself and do it as much as you can, as often as you can.
You're going to make mistakes, we all make mistakes every day, but you're going learn more about it if you just do it every day. It’s repetition, like muscle memory. Before you know it you look over your shoulder and you've learnt so much.
Work hard because I always think it’s rewarded. I think that will always come through no matter what you do. If you want to be a DP, you get in as a camera assistant and work as hard as you can as a camera assistant. People will notice, they will give you more work and then you can start to watch, like I did. I used to watch the cameraman I used to work for, why they made the choices and watch how the light reacted, where they put it, what it did and the effect. I would go home, try that and think “Do I like it or do I not?” and then just find my own style, my own aesthetic, if you will.
You'll hear a lot of “No”s, but sooner or later, the odds are in your favour. You might hear 99 “No”s but one “Yes” and that's your opportunity. You should treat every opportunity as if it's your last. You never know who might watch you and go “Hey, what are you doing? Come over here and shoot this.” Then you'll be off and running.Tags: