EXCLUSIVE: Inside shooting Fear the Walking Dead with DP Adam Suschitzky

Adam Suschitzky is an incredible cinematographer best known for his work on AMC's Walking Dead spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead, joining for season four this year. He was nominated for a BSC Best Cinematography in a Television Drama award for his work on the Titanic series. Here Adam tells Mandy News about he came to work on Fear the Walking Dead, what adapting comics for the screen entails, as well as offering up some advice to aspiring cinematographers.

21st August 2018
/ By James Collins

fear the walking dead tv series dp adam suschitzky AMC

Adam, please introduce yourself and tell us how you got into the industry.
I’m a third-generation cinematographer; my grandfather and father were both cinematographers. From a very young age, I was travelling and visiting my father on film sets, which left a big impression on me. I was struck by the wonder of what everybody was doing behind the scenes of these extraordinary sets. It inspired me to, first of all, pick up a stills camera.

Photography was also a very major part of my upbringing. My father and grandfather shared a darkroom in our house, and I would creep in there from a very young age and marvel at the images that would come through the developing trays in front of my eyes. Image-making was a piece of magic, both at home and on set.

When I look back at some of my earliest memories, they are of film sets, funnily enough. I remember a thousand poppies on a Ken Russell movie that my father was making, when I was probably only two or three years old. Later, when I was around seven or eight, I would spend as much time away from school visiting my dad on The Empire Strikes Back. Of course, these memories of extraordinary sets and incredible people really cemented a love for filmmaking at a very young age.

In my late teens, I was taking photographs more seriously – and was very interested in the early photojournalists of the '40s and '50s – and felt, “Wow, perhaps it would be too boring to follow in my family footsteps, perhaps I should just be a photojournalist.” I decided that photography was really what I should be doing rather than pursuing film. I felt it would be very lacking in imagination to follow in their footsteps.

But, at the same time, just as I was leaving school, my father took a low budget French movie and, unbeknownst to me, showed them my prints. I think they were impressed and didn’t have quite enough money to hire an experienced person and so offered me the job of on-set photographer.

To be off in Northern France at the age of 18 with beautiful landscapes and sets and actors and interesting people around me was amazing. Suddenly I’m working on a film set myself and I realised that this is what I want to do, not photography. I couldn’t wait to try my own hand at it, and so began a path of assisting and a mixture of being a camera assistant and a photographer on set, until I went to film school in London, at the National Film and Television School, in Beaconsfield.

I spent a great three years there, in the early ‘90s, and arrived at a very young age, but full of enthusiasm, having had some experience of my own in the industry and a great deal of impatience to become a cinematographer and get onto my own path.

That’s a potted history of how I grew up and discovered filmmaking was my passion.

***** Read our interview with Fear the Walking Dead costume designer Jo Katsaras *****

Fast forward to today, how did you get involved with the Fear the Walking Dead side of the Walking Dead franchise?
Well, I’m incredibly fortunate to have found this group of people, they're a really inspiring team. 

Initially, I caught the eye of Scott Gimple, who is the overall show runner of both The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead. Last February, I had an interview with him. I think one of the DPs on the Walking Dead had some medical issues and needed some time off, and they were looking for a replacement. We just hit it off, and had the the most amazing conversation. We connected on all levels and, by the end of this conversation, he said “I’m not sure if it’s going to work out on this occasion, but I do have another AMC show I’m developing, and I’d love to think of you for it.” We parted company, months went by and I began to think “Well that was a very polite way of signing off, perhaps I won't hear from him again,” but all of a sudden, the call came, saying actually they would like to talk to you about Fear the Walking Dead.

I realised Fear the Walking Dead was the other AMC show that Scott was referring to. I had a fantastic phone call with Michael Satrazemis, who had been the longtime cinematographer on Walking Dead before becoming one of the lead directors. He told me that he was going to be the producing director on the new season, and that they wanted to completely reboot the show and start again, and would I come and help redesign the entire look of the show with him.

We just hit it off, again, really instantaneously. He said that he loved my work on Life on Mars – I did the pilot two episodes – and he went into great detail about the photography of those episodes. So that’s how I came to Fear the Walking Dead, with much excitement to enter a great franchise that had already established itself, but also with an opportunity to reshape and redesign it.

Tell us a little bit more about the Fear the Walking Dead team.
Filmmaking is wholly a collaborative process. Individuals with wonderful creative talents come together from disparate backgrounds, and sometimes those personalities get on fantastically well and extraordinary things occur with that group of people. Split that group up and send them off into other directions and sometimes those relationships don’t click so well.

I think everyone appreciates a wonderful team around them, when it happens. Filmmaking is an incredibly challenging craft and television making even more so. The demands of TV shows today really are like making a movie in eight days. When you’re fortunate enough to be surrounded by a wonderfully creative, like-minded, supportive team who are passionate individuals, like we have here, it’s very inspiring and from the top down everybody wants to be a part of this show, and everybody shares in their passion.

It’s an alchemy that I hope will translate to the screen. The passion is palpable this year which is very exciting.

What is the process of working on a Fear the Walking Dead episode, the approach and the turnaround that you have?

It’s a fabulous process. I was lucky enough to start working on North American TV shows four or five years ago and I feel like my career began again at that point. The North Americans are incredibly efficient at producing really high quality work at incredibly breakneck speed.

There’s a sense of great professionalism among everybody and an expectation and anticipation of what each member can bring. Although time is incredibly short – we only have eight days to prepare and eight days to shoot – we can produce incredible results. The process is very thorough.

The scripts tend to arrive on our first day of prep and we’ll have a very private and initial consultation with the heads of departments about what our instincts and demands might be for this episode. Then we start to break it down, and – particularly on this show – find locations. This series has relied almost entirely on different locations for every episode. We had one recurring location in the first half of the show, but now there has been a conscious choice to turn it into more of a road movie.

Each individual episode has its own signature look as a result, but it also puts a huge demand on the locations department to find new locations for every episode. We spend quite a lot of time driving in Texas, circling Austin and the surrounding countryside, trying to find just the right tone and the right attributes for each sequence that is written. We have amazing writers, who are showrunning this season, and their scripts are simply magnificent, so everybody wants to pull their hardest to do them justice and find the best images and locations we can.

Once we’ve found our locations, each department then plans out how it’s going to execute the sequences. In conjunction with the directors and the producers, we figure out what’s possible and what isn’t possible, and what our strengths and weaknesses are. It’s a military operation.

In fact, one of our key locations this season has been a baseball stadium that was run by a wonderful man who was ex-military. He’d never been on a film set and the first day he was there, his eyes widened and he said “My goodness, this is just an incredible operation, it’s so much like being back in the military, and yet you’re so creative at the same time.”

I think that’s exactly the balance that we all have to strike – this meticulous organisation and planning to enable a creative process to happen at breakneck speed. That’s the very unique combination of skills, I think, required to produce high calibre television.

***** Read our interview with Mission Impossible: Fallout DP Rob Hardy *****

What are the biggest challenges that you face on a show like this?
I think the challenge, for me, is to deliver the very highest quality material in as short a time as possible, and I think that everybody working at this level of television understands that you can’t work in a vacuum. You’ve got to work in a team and you have to deliver what’s asked of you within the timeframe allowed.

A movie might be able to be more flexible with the number of days and weeks it has but we have to deliver very precise timings each day and it’s worked out in advance and signed off by the heads of department on how long things will take.

The challenge is to always be able to give your absolute highest creative output but to a specific timeframe. I don’t really know any other art form that has such a relationship between commerce, time and creativity, and I think those are the three things that have to find an equilibrium on a TV set like this.

I want to find the best images I possibly can, but find ways to execute those at a very efficient level. That means incredible planning. It means absolute clarity with my team and an understanding of what’s possible and how far I feel I can push the look of a sequence with the equipment that I might need, the people that I might need around me and how we’re going to do that.

It takes a degree of experience to be able to pull that off within the timeframe.

Fear the walking dead dp adam suschitzky interview AMC
Fear the Walking Dead season 4

How many cameras do you use? There are lots of different types of sequences where it looks like you’re using new techniques or different techniques, possibly stuff that you’ve invented specifically for the show, or for that particular setup, how does that work?
Technique is a really crucial part of filmmaking, although one wonderful photographer once said, “You have to learn technique and then forget it.” I think what he means by that is that you need to absorb that information and that skill set, but then allow yourself to be free to create.

We have a very particular style that we’re working to this season and I’m fortunate to be working with our producing director, Michael Satrazemis. He’s an ex-cinematographer who’s very talented in his own right and now directing. He’s one of the best directors I’ve had the opportunity to work with and an absolute visionary. He brought a very specific look to this show and has been incredibly clear about it, right from the outset. He wants us to embrace a very unique camera style. Our style is to not move the camera, barely at all, and to justify any movement that we do. It’s been so exciting to work under that framework.

I think lots of TV shows move the camera arbitrarily and the more you think about it, and the more one works in this structure, the more alarming it is when you look at other people’s work and you see the degree of movement that happens without real consequence or without really feeling how connected that might be to the story, just to create an artifice of energy or tension.

The stillness with the camera is something that we’ve all had to work at, and every director coming in gets quite a shock when we describe this style that we’re working with. They all get very excited and they all find that, by the end of it, it’s incredibly rewarding. In fact, you could say that this is a very classical style, it harks back to much earlier Westerns, when the cameras were heavy and difficult to move around. In the ‘60s or ‘70s, those Westerns were quite still and very photographic as a result.

What it does is allows the audience to really focus in on the performance and the photography becomes incredibly discreet and considered. Every cut leads to the next cut, there’s no fat in the structure of any scene. I feel it produces a very intense style, and when the camera does pan or tilt, or very occasionally track a small amount, it’s such a statement that hopefully has an impact in conjunction with the drama of that moment.

To go back to your question, I break down the script and when each new script arrives, I go through, scene by scene, and figure out exactly what equipment I might need. We have a certain package with us that we carry, and then there’ll be specific lens requirements or crane requirements or certain pieces of equipment that we need to bring in specific to certain scenes.

One tries to keep the entirety of the show in mind, so that no scene or sequence or shot jumps out. With a TV show, you’re trying to build a 16-hour feature film and you want every sequence to feels like it belongs to that style. 

When The Walking Dead aired people commented on how certain scenes looked like scenes out of The Walking Dead comic books. Do you feel like working on a show like Fear the Walking Dead, where there is no comic book to follow, that you’re a lot freer to look at new ways to do things?
I love comic books and came to them quite late in life, but I find them very inspiring and I will look for inspiration from all quarters; paintings, photography, music, art and literature. Comic books, when they’re really well made, are a great source of inspiration but can be constricting if you’re adapting one, if you so choose to see it that way.

The Walking Dead is such an inspiring show and has always been so brilliantly made so I have no problem reaching for inspiration from that team of people. Particularly the pilot shot by David Tabizel. It was just outstanding and completely a piece of cinema. But our show, it’s related and the world is obviously connected, and now even the crossover of Lennie James is very much connected. It brought the timeline together.

One feels a closer relationship, and yet the show runners, Andrew and Ian, who’ve come on board this year, have just brought this genius approach to their stories which is firmly rooted in comic books but also has this sense of brothers Grimm or a great novel or Western to it. They have the ability to embrace the very best of contemporary and classic storytelling in each of their scripts.

What they’ve done, increasingly, is focus in on the characters and not been tied too tightly to any one particular reference. I think the sense of the Western runs quite deep in this show, style-wise. Really, we’re inspired by the script and inspired by Michael’s vision for the show.

Are you close to wrapping up now?

Yes, we’re on the home stretch now. I’ve been shooting the even numbered episodes. I did what we’re calling the pilot episode for this season – episode one – too.

I would like to mention my co-cinematographer Cort Fey, who’s a fantastic DP in his own right. That’s another aspect that I haven’t touched on but is really interesting, that we alternate. It means that when he’s prepping, I’m shooting, and when I’m prepping, he’s shooting. We bounced ideas off each other when we came to build the look for this. 

We’re all very excited about what we’ve created at this stage and can’t wait for the fans of the show to see what we’ve done because there are so many wonderful gems to come.

We normally ask what’s coming next. Is your head completely in this at the moment or do you have an upcoming project planned for after this?

Well, I’ve been approached about several things, which is very exciting, but of course I’m very passionate about this show and there’s quite a lot of talk about next season, which hasn’t been confirmed yet.

I feel whatever I do next is going to be informed by the great experience I’ve had. I feel like I’ve really developed as a cinematographer on this piece and found a group of people who’ve been truly inspiring. I feel really lucky.

What advice do you have for people wanting to get involved in the camera department and then become a DP like yourself?
I would say keep to your dream, work incredibly hard and be as passionate as you can. You will get there. It’s a long road for some people but, with passion and commitment, anything’s possible. I think the rewards in this creative industry are just fantastic, so keep a hold of that dream.

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