Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Andy Strahorn. In this interview he talks about his work in film and episodic television, the transition of the industry from film to digital, the rising expectations in the world of episodic productions, and the impact felt all across the industry since Covid started. Around these topics and more, Andy dives deep into his work on the first two seasons of “9-1-1: Lone Star”.
Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.
Andy: My name is Andy Strahorn, and I’m the director of photography on “9-1-1: Lone Star”. I grew up in a small town in Australia. Out local movie theater had a single screen, and it showed movies three times a week. I remember seeing “The Empire Strikes Back” when I was eight years old, and that’s how it started for me. After I saw it, I knew what I wanted to do. I didn’t know exactly how to articulate that, but I knew that I wanted to do something with images.
Fast forward to high school, my first job in the film industry was as a cleaner to that cinema that I saw “Empire” 12 years earlier. In some weird way, in that small universe back in the country town in Australia, I’d come full circle to taking my first step into the film industry – even though I started as a cleaner, and then worked my way up to projectionist and what not. Then I moved town to Brisbane, worked my way from production assistant into the studio system at Warner Bros into camera. It took close to a decade to do that.
Every weekend, any chance I got, I would be shooting film. Those were short films and some ideas. The culture of where I come from, growing up in the country, has that element of learning on the job. That’s how I learned to do what I do. It was learning on the job through repetition. I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to shoot short films, and then independent features. A movie I did back in 2001 called “Undead” got a release in the United States, and several years afterwards I moved over here [US] and started this part of my journey.
One thing I find interesting about any technician, any head of department, or any creative is that there’s literally not one linear way of getting into the film industry. Every single person has an interesting story of how they found themselves in the film industry and where they are today. You can have passion, and drive, and all the rest of it, but you’re really talking about a career that is so fluid. It’s not like you do this 4-year degree, and then get the job, and that’s the way it happens. It’s too fluid. It vacillates too much.
My scenario is probably more common than not, but maybe not so much. It’s whatever you can do to get where you want to go. I think the backbone of that is keeping at it. It’s perseverance and working hard. I’m very grateful that my home country taught me that. The industry in Australia is a lot smaller, so your diligence and your commitment – as well as your talent – are constantly under the microscope, so to speak. There just wasn’t enough jobs, so if you weren’t efficient or skilled, you just wouldn’t get the call. I was fortunate to learn under those circumstances and to have that at the beginning stages of my career. There’s a lot of opportunity in the United States, and that puts you in a good position to seize that opportunity and to make steps forward.
Kirill: How has the transition of the industry from film to digital been for you?
Andy: It’s been an interesting time. I love film and I’m a total traditionalist in that sense. But what I’ve come to enjoy about digital in the last 10 years is the ability and the immediacy to creatively make lighting and color choices right there and then. When we did film, you would shoot, then you’d wait for the lab to process overnight, and then you might see something the following afternoon if you were lucky. What this does is it takes a lot of the guessing game out. You now have the immediacy of doing whatever you want right there and then with DIT.
I relish that. I can be in the moment creatively. I can make those choices in color, contrast or texture right there and then as I’m seeing it. You go down the pipeline with the studio, the producers, and the production company, and they can see the intention – rather than an interpretation – of the image right there and then. We work in so many situations and scenarios in present day. Cinematographers might be shooting in a different city with a different crew or a different post production facility. You might not have that shorthand that you ordinarily have in your hometown, as you’re trying to find that visual language in that new relationship.
The great thing about digital is the immediacy. I’m standing right there and then, I can put a bit more of this or take out a bit more of that. There is a control factor that we all want as cinematographers as it goes through the pipeline. We want the control the intent of the image. That’s the power of digital for me.
Film is obviously beautiful, but you need to see where we are and where the industry is heading. Digital is here to stay. It is a backbone now for most studios. We are playing by different rules, but it’s good to know that we can still shape the way we see the world. We want to protect the integrity of the vision as it goes through the system. That is what is important, be it film or digital. It’s all about that vision getting to the end result that you want, and trying to protect it as much so there’s less need for interpretation of the intention. It allows you to be true to yourself and have it the way you want to, rather than there being manipulation along the way.
Kirill: Is it difficult for you to talk about what you do for a living with people outside of your industry?
Andy: It’s just hard to quantify what is a director of photography or a cinematographer. It’s that person that helps a director, a writer, and a producer, that brings whatever the subject and the script is to life with regard to the power of a camera, and what does a camera say and do.
Sometimes I put it as simply as using blue to feel the sensation of a winter cold, and using yellow, orange or red to feel the sensation of a summer warmth. Then I talk about capturing that, putting the camera and the color and the contrast, manipulating all that and trying to get everyone’s vision through the tip of the spear which is the frame that I see. It doesn’t matter what happens around that frame. No matter what happens on the set around that frame, everyone only cares about what you see in the end product.
The cinematographer is the person that makes you feel, that invokes that emotion that you feel even when you turn off the sound. You turn off the sound, you look at the image and you feel sad for that person. Why is that? It’s the lens choice, the lighting, the texture, the way the camera moves that makes people feel a certain way. That’s what I tell people when they ask me this question. I choose lenses, lighting and contrast to invoke an emotion, to make people feel a certain way when they see an image in a scene in a movie. If you do your job right, people will feel it on a subliminal level.v
It’s not always the easiest question to answer. It’s complex. Cinematography is a weird combination of art and science, and you’re also dealing with money. Art in itself is the antithesis of money. Art is raw. It’s primal and instinctual. You can’t put a dollar price on that, but that’s the game we play.
You have 45 minutes for this lighting setup, and it’s in a room that had a certain scene in it that we shot last night. The scene needs to be moody, and the room has a certain physical size to it. How do you create the illusion of mood, drama and tension in a room of that size, with characters moving all over it? How do you shoot them in a truthful photographic way, but also flattering at the same time? That in itself becomes a logistical, technical scenario.
Shoots in the film industry are getting faster and faster than they were 10 years ago. You’re moving at such a speed, and you ask yourself how do you artistically get to put your stamp on that with all the other noise around you? We need to hit certain times, we need to keep moving, we need coverage. Look at films from 20-30 years ago, be it series of features, and you compare them to what we’re seeing today, we have more shots and setups. The expectation of the images is increasingly higher. We need more today than what we did back when I started in ’95.
You have these expectations and the needs from the production company and the studio, and you have to balance it with the artistic expression. How do I say something here with the image, knowing that I have to appease and do what I need to do over here for this production company, the studio, the director, the producers and the actors? It’s a juggling act between being truthful as an artist and working within the studio system.
Kirill: That was going to be my next question about the rising expectations from the production side, but also from the viewers. Maybe getting a little closer to the world of episodic productions and “9-1-1: Lone Star”, does it feel that you are shooting an 8-10 hour movie that happens to be split into parts?
Andy: Absolutely. Our shows averages ~900-1100 shots per 42-minute episode. That’s a lot of editorial cuts, and that’s a lot of footage needed to facilitate that. It does feel like each time we go to shoot that there is something unique about a scene. It always feels very much to be on the feature film scale, even if the schedule is episodic.
The show is based off action of firefighters and EMTs, and their lives at work and at home with loved ones, so there’s a balance between that drama and that scope. The weight of emotion from drama between loved ones and family members is offset with size and scale of rescues. There is this increasingly high bar that is being set each and every time because of the new challenges that arise from episode to episode.
Kirill: As you spent those long months of the show, how much of that time is spent on planning, on coordinating cameras and special effects, on managing the budget – before the action starts rolling? Do you see it as an overhead, or do you see it as integral part of your job?
Andy: Prep to me is the biggest, most integral part of it. Imagine racing a car. You can have the best driver and you’re ready to go, but if you have no directional map of where to go, you’re just going to be aimlessly spinning your wheels and driving in a direction without knowing if there’s any end in sight.
Prep is where all the heavy lifting in my work is done. Once you get to the shoot, it’s muscle memory. You’re moving at such a pace, especially on this show. I’m lighting whilst I’m also thinking about the next setup and the next setup past that. You’re working on multiple layers because the time is compressed. There’s only so much time available for execution. You have to work thinking further ahead in order to facilitate.
You give yourself the illusion of time, to trying to stop for 30 seconds and creatively make a decision based off the rehearsal. We all read a script and see what we see as cinematographers, but when you see the actors say the words for the first time in wardrobe in the setting, sometimes that can change everything. Maybe this wardrobe amongst this set dressing is a little too dark or a little too light. Maybe I need to change what my intentions were for using color for this scene because it’s going to work against me.
That all comes back to prepping, seeing the locations, seeing the wardrobes and making those decisions based on that. On a show this big we have riggers, rigging electrics and rigging grips. They work ahead of the production crew, setting up as much as they can prior to production crew coming in to execute. It’s a lot of foresight of working 4-5 days down the track of committing to scenarios whether it be platforms or camera cranes. This way, when you come in on the day, you’re expediting that use of time to achieve more because of that foresight which relates back to prep.
Prep to me is where I work twice as much than I do on the day of the shoot. When you’re shooting, you’re looking at what’s two inches in front of your nose. But before you shoot, you’re looking at the whole scenario, and then working with the production and budgets on what we can afford to do, how do we achieve creatively, what are the expectations, etc. That amount of time usually is well spent thinking laterally. If you can’t do what you want to do first, how do you still achieve the essence of what you want to do going about it a different way – be it financial or maybe time restraints on the day.
I love my time in prep, because that allows me to make the show in my head prior to going on and physically executing it. The more I do that, the more of those small moments of time I get to be creative every day – because I’ve done the homework. I know what’s happening, so that allows me to do what I really want to do. I might not always get exactly what I want, but as long as I believe you achieve the essence, then you’re still truthfully shooting the show.
Kirill: How much do you want to capture in camera vs what happens later with visual effects? How do you find the balance?
Andy: Everything has its place. One of the great things that have come from visual effects is not necessarily putting people in harm’s way that couldn’t have been done a long time ago. That’s a great side effect that we get from that.
I generally love to do as much as I can in camera, especially with interactive lighting and fire. We had scenarios where we couldn’t do it practically, maybe because a location or a setting that we couldn’t set ablaze with firefighters. Then it becomes a blend of visual effects for flames in the background, special effects in the foreground and my interactive lighting to work on the characters. That way we can see flame and fire, but at a safe distance from the actors. You’re a conductor, coordinating those needs to blend in to get the best elements possible, sort of a cherry on top of the work that you’ve already done.
You walk in and you have a certain picture in your mind. And that lends itself to detailed conversations with the VFX producers and the producers about the interpretation of that, about what we can and cannot do. It might be limitations of time or money, and that decides which elements are done in VFX. It’s a hand-in-hand conversation nowadays. VFX is as important as electrics or grips to me.
Kirill: Is there a scene on the show that was particularly challenging or satisfying to work on?
Andy: The explosion during the introductory scene of the pilot was interesting. It’s the introduction to the catalyst of why this new crew was put together. There was a fire at this fertilizer factory, and characters that we come to know in the first five minutes are no longer there, and that’s how the show starts – with the firehouse rebuilding.
That was an interesting scenario. It was an abandoned plant out at Paris, California and it was the first big sequence that we shot. It was a challenging sequence and highlighted my experience of “Lone Star”, of what the expectations and scope and scale was. It was a couple hundred meters by a couple hundred meters area to be shot at night with fire ablaze, and then a massive explosion culminating in the end with stunts. It was a particular challenge with regard to lighting the area in a way that was functional and pragmatic, but also one that felt tonally right to the setting of the disaster and the firefighters coming to put out the fire.
The energy of the sequences and the way we shot on that one was to have the camera move with the firefighters. The camera is almost an extension of the firefighters. There’s an energy and adrenaline with that. Moving the camera so much and lighting in a way that allowed that to happen without the viewer seeing was an interesting challenge. We were moving with the characters but still retaining the feeling and the mood of the scene, and of the impending danger. The size and the scope of it is huge. You see these little firefighter trucks in front of this huge factory, and it was a lot of fun to have that sheer size and scale straight out of the gate. It set the tone and the expectations going forward.
Another one that holds dear to me, obviously for a different reason, was that we were lucky enough to shoot at the 9/11 memorial in New York. That was a touching moment to be there. I hadn’t been at that site before, and it was symbolic and touching for everybody. That holds dear to me because the whole story of the primary character is based off his survival from that day. We were very lucky to be there and to, hopefully, do justice to the site and to the idea of the memories of those first responders.
Kirill: When and how did Covid restrictions hit you on this production, and how did you manage your 2020?
Andy: We came back in August-September last year, and the world was still adjusting and dealing with loss on every scale. We were very lucky to see each other again and fortunate as the crew to be allowed to work. I still feel this every day; I’m very lucky to do the job that I do. I get to play in the sand pit, and I get to be an 8 year-old boy again every day, and it’s so cool. Everyone was aware of how lucky we were to have a job and to come back to work. Everyone felt thankful and fortunate.
And then, once we were past that, we started getting into thinking how we even shoot the show now. How do you shoot a show when you’re 6 feet apart, you’re wearing masks and visors, and you have to disinfect rooms and what not? When cast comes in, the crew is off the set. They come in a particular way, and there are different zones where you can hang out. It was definitely an acclimation.
The one interesting thing that I’ve seen and experienced in this industry, one that seems to be an inherent nature with it, is that it has the ability to constantly evolve. When you’re shooting a show, whether it be a feature or series, the ground that you’re standing on is constantly moving. Could be because the Sun moves. Could be because of availability. Could be because of money. Could be because of weather. There’s so many different elements, and no matter how planned you are, that will throw everything in a tailspin every day.
It’s the people that I feel are the most successful in whatever careers as heads of department in the industry that have the ability to adapt, because we all have the same problems. The thing that was interesting was the ability of the industry to acclimate so quickly, to adapt and keep marching forward. The first 4-5 weeks it felt weird wearing these masks and face shields, and feeling like you cannot properly do what you did ordinarily the year before. But now it’s second nature.
Per new regulations, we work less hours now per day, but we do the same amount of work as we did last year. So we’re doing a lot of work in a shorter amount of time, that’s for sure. It was an interesting beginning, but talking to friends and fellow artists, it’s amazing how adaptable not only our industry, but every industry, has been to marching forward. And as a result, there’s a lot of good things that have come out of this. We can learn a lot from the adjustments we’ve made this year trying to turn a positive into a negative, and take some of those and maybe keep them going forward.
So from that end, it has been an adjustment, but we’ve all adapted very quickly. It’s just second nature now. 2020 seems like an eternity ago.
Kirill: Speaking of adapting, do you see a world where movie theaters do not exist?
Andy: I think that it’s part of cinema. The power of cinema is the event of going, and I think that will never change. Take the lockdown in California and the pop-up drive-ins. I hadn’t been to a drive-in theater in 25 years. There are still some around, but these were pop-up ones in car parks, and they were packed out.
The movies that were playing were available on your TV through Hulu, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and others. You could download it, sit in the comfort of your couch and watch it. But when you turned up to these things, they were packed. People were in their cars for two hours. Living in LA, it’s a part of life to sit in your car for two hours – but you don’t look forward to it. You don’t eagerly jump in the car to sit there for two hours. It’s a means to an end to get somewhere in LA. What that says to me is that the event and the social outing of going to the movies is still stronger than ever. Obviously, once things improve, the attraction of going back to movie theaters will definitely be there.
The unfortunate part is that a lot of movie theaters that didn’t have the sustainability have been lost because of the shutdowns. But those that have survived, will come back. You look back at the last 100 years, and you see that people have enjoyed going to the movies. It’s a really interesting event. No matter what’s happening in your life, you go sit in a dark room with others and you watch a screen. It’s escapism. For two hours you might not think of anything else but what you’re watching. That’s the power of cinema.
Kirill: Probably the second season of the show is still fresh in your memory. How do you compare looking at something that you just did vs going back to what you did 15, 20, 25 years ago? How does your perspective change?
Andy: It changes greatly. You’re looking at it through a different lens. You get your first provisional license and that’s a certain experience. And then you compare it to the experience of driving 20-30 years later, at night, in low light, in rain, with the Sun in your eyes. It’s all those times and moments that you’ve learned during the years.
I look at light very differently from when I started. In an almost philosophical way, light can say so much, without even saying a word. It can invoke so much feeling and emotion.
When you’re young, you try to go out there with a mindset of having a plan and being prepared. Then you learn that it’s OK to not have that full control because you’re never going to beat Mother Nature. You’re never going to overpower the Sun. So how do I use what they’re giving me, and augment that to achieve what I still want to do? It’s a learning process.
There are so many ways to look at color. One thing that’s really interesting about light is the way it bounces off a white wall vs a red wall or a brick wall or a black wall. You see that shifting color and you try to replicate that artificially if needed. It’s about fine tuning, looking at depth and details of how you approach camera movement, how you approach contrast. I see things differently now.
I see light more now in the terms of shadow detail. That’s where I am today. My approach now is based off the quality of shadow. We’re in so many different scenarios on locations that you can’t control. The building is white, or maybe some other color, and I need to see the quality of the shadow that is already existing. Or maybe it’s going to be augmented or artificially introduced. Is it hard light? Is it soft light? Is it underexposed? Is it ambient? Is it directional, hard light?
With anything, hopefully practice makes you better at it. That’s how I approach things from today. Now that could change tomorrow and evolve into something else, but that’s the way I look at it. It’s the quality of detail and shadow between the mid tones and the negative of the image.
Kirill: If you won the lottery tomorrow and you didn’t need to work one more day in your life, would you still want to be in this creative field?
Andy: Absolutely. When I started, I had more film stock in my fridge than I did food. It was not surprising to the roommates i was living with back in Australia at the time, but at the same time it didn’t get much support.
As people, we all go through this life and we try to live at the best we can. We try to make good choices and decisions, and we try to be the best versions of ourselves. I’d like to think that we all think that, at least, and that might be a little bit idealistic. I don’t think of anything else while I’m doing it. I get to play. I get to be that 8 year-old boy in a cinema again.
The one thing that I love about being a cinematographer is that you get to see the movie before anyone else. You get to shape that, and what could be better? If you could somehow live and not have to worry about food and mortgage or anything else, I’d still do this to the day I die. I feel very lucky and blessed to have the ability to do what I do. I know that I’m fortunate, and that this is a privilege to do what I do. I’m also aware that I shouldn’t love what I do as much as I do, but I do [laughs].
When it’s 9 AM on a Monday, some of my friends that have other jobs that they might not like, they wish it was Friday 5 PM. To me, on the weekends, I’m looking forward to Monday because I get to play again. Some days aren’t always the best, but the majority of them are really quite amazing. Where else and what other career can you be where you see thousands of sunsets and sunrises, and you see the way darkness plays and the night sky? I am so lucky to get to experience that in my lifetime, to live the most out of my life by doing that.
And here I’d like to thank Andy Strahorn for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography, and Leni Weisberg for making this interview happen. The second season of “9-1-1: Lone Star” is streaming on Fox and Hulu. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.