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Stephen McNutt GALACTICA.TV interview
Written by Marcel Damen   
Sunday, 15 March 2009

In August 2008 Marcel Damen talked to Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer, Stephen McNutt for over an hour. He talked how he got in the business, meeting David Eick and how he got involved with Battlestar Galactica. They discuss the entire run of the series, his collaboration with the different directors and how he created this particular look we're now all very familiar with.

Special thanks goes out to photographer Dennys Ilic. Some of the backstage photos in this interview were provided by him for exclusive use here.

 

Below you can read the transcript of this interview. If you rather listen to the audio of this interview then click the "PLAY" button below to start.


 

You come from Kalamazoo, Michigan where you studied television production. Can you tell us a bit about that time and how you rolled into the business and what attracted you?

I guess I was looking for something I wanted to do. I was interested in photography, so I sort of picked up photography for a while. Then I started saying well maybe I can be in television. So I started doing some television production, you know, news stuff that kind of thing. I wasn't sure what the world was, so I started looking into that. And radio as well as a disc jockey or whatever you know. FM radio was coming in at that time. I found out that I didn't really like that world there. I stumbled across a film class and took it and basically starting making films from there. Because I got started a little bit late, I was in music for a while and dabbled around in a lot of different things. I started a film career toward the end of my undergrad studies. And then I decided in order to really do it - learn more properly - I would do a masters degree or graduate degree in it. So I went to Southern Illinois University and stuck it there for a while. They had a lot of equipment and a lot of sound rooms and flatbed editing tables and all kinds of projections systems that we could work with. It was good for me in terms of the equipment so that was a positive thing. I met some really nice people there. Then after that found my way to New York city and started learning my craft, just working as a focus puller and general camera assistant for quite a long time. I knew I always wanted to shoot. I wanted to be a director of photography. Ultimately I bought a camera, a cheap little old NPR (16mm Eclair NPR ) which I loved. I started shooting you know pretty much anything I could get my hands on. A lot of student films from Columbia University. I did a number of those and a few of my own projects I started building. And then through my contacts and friends I was referred to and recommended to do - to carry on for this director of photography that I knew he was leaving and going onto something else. He had shot part of a movie. So I took over and finished the rest of the feature for him - most of it actually - he only shot a couple of days. I finished that little movie, a feature film, and then went on ultimately and after about ten years of working my way up and learning things I wanted to learn, trying to get closer to the shooting position, I went out to L.A. Basically it was there that I became a director of photography. I started shooting more exclusively. I didn't assist at all anymore. I just started working and basically that was that. That's how I got there.

 

;Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt

Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt

 

Did you work specifically with anybody that you could point out as your mentor?

There was one guy that actually kind of brought me along, his name was Ernie Benz. He's actually Hungarian but he lives in England. He kind of gave me a break in doing an after school special - which then broke me into the dramatic world of New York because it was a pretty closed house - as an assistant. Then I worked with Ernie on a number of projects; movies of the week, miniseries, various things that he did. That just really cemented me into that world so that I was actually learning drama. So other than that, not really. I mean I worked with various cameramen. Cameramen that would be one thing, another person that was very important in my life was a guy by the name of Jonathan Sanger who I met in Los Angeles, just after I went there as a producer if that's what you're talking about. That too? Jonathan Sanger was running a small independent company called Chandler Films, which was being produced for allowing young film makers, young directors to submit scripts. I think Michael Afted and him put it together if I'm not wrong. I'm not sure if it's Michael Afted. Anyway, that was a while ago. I met him and I did a couple of projects for his company. Then when he started directing he hired me on to do some movies of the week and then I jumped into television and pretty much started my career there getting network approval for four or five projects. Ultimately I picked up a series back in New York oddly enough for a little while and then went on from there. Funny thing, I did SeaQuest DSV. From the New York show I met a guy named David Burke who was a producer, who then brought me onto SeaQuest. Then I met Ted Raimi, one of the actors on SeaQuest, and of course his brother, Sam Raimi, and Sam would watch the show and was interested in my work. He called me up and interviewed me for a show called American Gothic which is where I met David Eick. I stayed with David Eick a little bit and then did a show called Spy Game. Then we kind of lost touch for a little while until I was out here doing The Dead Zone. I had changed from film to digital a few years ago. It was little newer then it is now. Now it's becoming like a wall of digital, but before it wasn't too much. I was one of the only guys around that was shooting it, successfully anyway, in their minds. Because the studio didn't realize- When I made the switch from film to digital, the studio didn't realize it. So they couldn't tell the difference between the two mediums. At that time, that was a big deal. So anyway David Eick calls me up and here we go onto Battlestar.

Had you seen the original Battlestar Galactica series?

Oh, yeah sure! I mean I used to watch it when I was a kid all the time. The seventies? Sure, I liked it quite a bit. And it was fun to work with Richard Hatch. He did a great job I thought.

Did you also follow all the work of Richard Hatch in trying to get it back on screen again? And Tom DeSanto and all the others?

Oh, yeah yeah. I knew he had tried to do that and I know that he was probably a little bit upset when the new one came out with Ron Moore and those guys. Because he wasn't part of that thing and that was really going to probably, I would imagine, put a kibosh on his ability to pull the old series back up. Obviously because it was being re-imagined by someone else. But I was really glad that he was able to come on as Tom Zarek because obviously it was good for him I think. He did a great job. But yeah, I knew he was trying to revive it yeah.

 

;Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt

Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt

 

How were you approached for the new Battlestar series?

How was I approached to do it?

Yes, was that because of your relationship with David Eick? Did he ask you for that?

Well, partly yes and also like I said partly it was because I was involved in the digital filming of The Dead Zone. USA (Networks) and SciFi were looking at my work. When they called my agent, I had known Harvey Frand as well, one of the producers. They called my agent and David of course was a friend and he promoted me to do it. But you know a lot of names get thrown around. And that's really basically how I was approached that way. He called my agent. My agent called me and said they're interested in talking to you about shooting Battlestar. And I said, "I'm in." You know I don't - I have no problem with it. I want to do that show with David, Harvey and all those guys. And then I met Ron for the first time. He just talked to me about his concepts and what he wanted to do. Basically that was at the meeting we met at the Southern Hotel in Vancouver and drank some nice scotch and talked about the project.

So at this meeting there was Ron Moore, David Eick and Harvey Frand?

Yeah, Ron was there, Ron, David and Harvey. They were all sitting there. We talked about the miniseries and what I thought of it. What my take was of the show. What can we do. How would we want to approach the series. We basically at that time decided it was going to be more of a zoom show. I think that the style of the photography was - obviously it was hand held for the miniseries - I haven't seen the miniseries in a long, long time. It was shot with 35mm out of pride. So they didn't do too much zooming the way we do it. Our style, we decided that. So Ron and I were talking about that. We were also interested in that style of photography. So we decided it was a zoom show. So we went with these certain cameras, lightweight cameras and zooms. We started working in that with Michael Rymer who was ready to go.

In what aspect? Had they already determined what the show should look like. What was your input on that?

Well, yes and no. I mean basically they wanted it to be really a gritty looking show. Ron basically only said a couple of things. He said, "If I don't see their eyes, I don't care." In other words he was totally ready to have black sockets in eyes. Once I realized he wanted - he would be willing to go that far, I realized that I could push the envelope there. Which is what we did. We did a lot of testing and a lot of showing to Michael Rymer what we can do with the digital cameras and how we can create the textures that we did for the show. We did a lot of testing in the first weeks, before we started shooting, until he was convinced that this was the medium for the show. Because at that point he hadn't shot any digital. So now he's a full believer. Because we were able to - It was really great because basically I - they just allowed me to do whatever I wanted to do. The word that we all used was just snotty. We wanted it to look just dirty and gritty and unstable. We approached everything from that standpoint. There were no rules. There was no fear of anybody saying, "Wait a minute that's too harsh." or, "I can't see their eyes." or, "Why is the camera shaking so much?" and, "Why are we flying and zooming and panning all over the place? Why are we doing that?" Nobody said that. We were able to be free. Michael Rymer took advantage of that. We had no rules in terms of actors, screen directions, eyelines. We didn't care, we just made the camera move. Obviously it added to the excitement of the show.

 

;Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt

Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt

 

What were your inspirations on the feel and look of the series?

I don't really know. I think it was more of the technical things that I had been playing around with up to that point in digital. I don't know if I had necessarily any inspirations. I mean, Alien, okay. Alien was probably my little thing that I liked the most, that I watched. Aliens. I guess that's probably all I watched. I might have watched The Fifth Element and a few others, Solaris, or whatever.

Bladerunner?

Bladerunner! Well I always watched Bladerunner. Bladerunner was very slick and very clean, well not clean, but beautifully done. We were going to be able to come up with some of that I suppose, but yeah of course Bladerunner with Eddie and all of that stuff. But I think... it was really going into the sets and working with the camera. The way I liked to work with them with manipulating the certain elements within the camera system that allows to get different effects out of it and different textures. Which led me day to day in creating new looks. I think we all have inspirational things that we look at but, I think that you just put them into your head as a big jumble and then you just intuitively grab onto something and just start making it look interesting. Then when we got positive feedback from things, we just went further. The whole Caprica thing just happened one day at the library when we were shooting. I think it was even episode three or four. I can't remember. But I was sitting there at the street when there was a scene where Boomer and Helo were on the planet yet. They're walking by this building and there's rats and all this kind of stuff running across, just before they go into the - They're traveling around, I don't remember the early days. And we were just sitting on the street corner and I pushed a button, and tweaked a knob, and I got this very harsh, blown out, warm look. And I said, "Well... that's where we're going to go." So we started shooting everything like that. Then the visual effects guy, Gary Hutzel, was great. He said, "This is perfect for me. I love this look. I'm going to model everything that you do. I'll match what your look is." So we started going in that direction. We did day for night. We did all kinds of wild stuff that first year.

You're basically color correcting everything you shot on the fly?

Yeah.

Then you made sure you were able to push the shots much further like that?

Yeah. That was I was doing. I was pretty much what they call "baking in" the image on set. Of course, they were able to manipulate. Most of the time, if they did anything, they just went further. Because you have more control on a telecine (editing) bay than you do in the camera. But they couldn't correct what I was doing and they didn't want to, that was the best part of it all. It's that we were able to create these worlds and they wanted me to keep going that way. I'll probably never have that experience again. Right now, I'm doing Virtuality and I'm keeping it very clean. Hopefully, we'll be able to do some interesting things later.

Because like that, the shots become very much part of the creative process instead of leaving it to the post production.

Exactly. That's what I think we're all trying to battle with right now as the digital world starts getting more and more out of everybody's control. Cameramen, including myself, are just trying to grab onto how do we do what I did on Battlestar, yet protect the studio's raw image. But also give them at the same time, real time dailies of real time footage of the look you want to give it, not just stills for post production. There's a lot of things going on right now to try to hang onto that, to be able to be a painter on the set. You can do certain things quickly. Most people will say, "Well doesn't it take a long time to do it?" No, it doesn't. Because basically as you're going, you're setting up a few basic looks anyway. You can drill those things in, throw it out, and change it a little bit. It doesn't take much time to do.

 

;Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt

Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt

 

The colors are also very thematic. Each planet seems to have its own color theme, different rooms on Galactica and other ships seem to have significant colors. I'm curious as to how much you were involved in choosing that and if you think there is any significance behind it?

I think I was the only one involved. I mean I always lit to the scene. As the series went on, things changed. The first season was green as far as I can remember, inside the ship. It was orange and burnt and day for night blue, black high contrast at night. And then very dark and green and moody in the ship. Then as the series goes on and the story lines changed, things get a little softer. You're into the personalities now. You're off the planet. So I started adding eye lights and by keeping the color desaturated so you didn't have a lot of color in it. Unless I was in a scene where they went, "Geez you know, it would be really nice to have a little color in this one." So I did add a little color. I just did every scene the way I felt about it. Even from shot to shot sometimes, I would change it. Nobody knew I was doing it for the most part. They didn't mind, so I just kept doing it. Well, they knew I was doing it. They just left it to me. They didn't bother me. They just said go on. So it was good. I would change it and I would get harsher on some things, softer on other ones. Of course, some things demand softer, more color. Mary liked to be a little softer and she liked more color. She liked to be - you know, you don't throw her in bad light because number one, she's the president and you got to work with that stability. There's all kinds of different types of looks that you can do to create an emotion. Like in the ready room, the top hot lights are on the guys that are about ready to go out in the Vipers, to silhouettes and shadows during conversations. Everything was trying to enhance the spirit of the scene basically.

So did you talk about it in conjunction with the set production designer or with the directors?

Oh, yeah yeah yeah. Of course, of course. Richard Hudolin was spectacular. He would create a set. Of course, a lot of the sets were already standing so we were already in agreement with what was going on. But Richard would create these incredible sets. We never discussed much of what I was doing with Richard and I. Richard just would give me a great set and I would look at it and I would say, "Well this kind of what I want to do with it." He may help me in adding a little bit of this, take this out, and add a little light over there. Help build in some structure and some light sources. Like, for example, I created this little light called the silver bullet. It's a little like you see all over the ship. It's on the desks. It's on Adama's desk. It's on everybody's desk. Everybody's got one, that fleet issue light. It sits on the desk and its silver with these little black baffles on them? So I could hide them anywhere. I wouldn't even have to hide them, they'd be in the shot. That's why I designed them that way, they could be in the shot. They looked really cool. They would light Adama's face or whoever's sitting there. Richard, while he was designing the Pegasus, Richard took my idea of that light and created whole walls of lights down the corridors of the Pegasus.

That's cool.

That was very flattering I thought. But he also - he's just incredible. The sets are just easy to light and they're interesting to look at. And the director, of course, when I'm working with Michael Rymer or whoever - if a director wants to get involved with the look of something I have no problem with that at all. Like, for example, in the Orpheum theater with the five or the four of the five on the stage, we were going through a lot of different changes on that.  We weren't sure how we wanted it to be. I just knew I wanted to blow them out. I wanted them to just white hot so we didn't see who they were. It took us a little while to get through it and Rymer was looking and looking. Finally we sat down and I said, "Let me show you this." I cranked a few knobs and twirled a few dials, and there were these glowing embers standing up on the front stage. And we went, "Yeah, this is where we want to be." So yes, if he hates something I definitely go in another direction. If a director - most of the time Rymer in particular - other directors if they try to steer me away from the look, which none of them ever did, they were always very, very receptive to anything. Like there's a scene when Mary is being yanked down a hallway on a gurney. I can't remember what episode that was. It was Rob Hardy's episode. I just took the shutter and I was just twirling it. As you twirl it the light just pops hot, dot dot dot dot dot and it gets bright and dark, bright and dark and it was just flickering all over the place. I was just doing it by turning a knob as we were going down there, and you know, he didn't say anything. (laughs) It worked out great. I thought it looked cool. If it looks cool I'll use it. We were pretty free and all the directors were great.

 

;Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt

Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt

 

I was also wondering if the color grading is done in camera, how does affect things like the green screens?

On the green screens, well, let's just say the green screens are a little different even though I still push the envelope out of them. Most of those really don't have much color correction going on. All I do is work a mid-tone and clean it up a little bit. I mean I haven't done a special look like Caprica in a long time. We don't have any need to. We haven't been going to planets but been in the ship most of the time. The green screens I keep relatively clean for Gary and he'll enhance certain things in post production. But we're in the hangar deck usually for the green screens and then the Vipers flying around. That's basically - well it's clean only in the sense that we have to bring our dB gain down. We like to shoot at a pretty hot gain so that it's like the equivlalent of ASA 1000 or 1200 by shooting it at like 18 dB. That's what I've been shooting the show at. It gives it a gritty look, a grainy look, and then it distorts the color a little bit and turns the overall cast a little greenish hue, just to add to the whole thing. We let the cameras run kind of hot.

So how you do actually coordinate with the visual effects departments? Do you shoot the live action first?

Oh, yeah. Do you mean the green screens? Well the green screen is just behind the live action. So if we're on the hangar deck and they're walking with the set extension that goes into the thing, we have a big wall of green. Basically they are there with us, Gary, and Michael Gibson when Gary's not there. We just coordinate what we have to do. I bring the gain down lower to 6 if I can, try to put it together for them so that we can pull a good matte out of it and make it happen. It's all really shot together.

How did you actually find out they were going to shoot a series after the Mini?

My agent called me. I mean I knew that they had done the miniseries because I was working on The Dead Zone when they did it. I thought, "Wow, that's a great idea." I didn't really know who was involved in it. I didn't know who the producers were or anything. I just was working and I heard that they were shooting Battlestar Galactica. Then one day my phone rang and my agent said, "I just got a call from Harvey Frand about you and your availability to do Battlestar." That's the first time I became involved in it.

So the Miniseries was actually shot in film and the rest was done in HD?

Yeah, done in HD yeah.

Who decided on the change to video after the Miniseries?

They did. Which is probably, like I said before, one of the reasons why I was - they were really keen on me to do it because I had been shooting Dead Zone in film for two years and I had already done two or three projects in HD before that. Then the studio asked me for The Dead Zone, they wanted to change over into HD and I said, "Fine, I have no trouble with working in HD." So what I did with them is I shot some tests on The Dead Zone then I cut them into film pieces. So they were kind of juxtaposed? Then I flew down to Los Angeles and I showed it to the producers down there of the show, Michael Piller and Lloyd Segan. Then I said, "What do you think?" Then they said, "Well, yeah of course, this is a viable story medium. You can tell stories with this stuff." So they said, "Okay, we'll go to HD." So I did that and then what happened was, I guess, USA continued to watch the dailies for The Dead Zone and didn't realize, because apparently they were out of the loop, that we had switched from film to HD. Which then impressed Todd Sharp (Universal Studio's executive in charge of production), David Eick and Ron Moore and those guys saying, "Well, then he must know how to shoot this stuff, if no one can tell the difference between the two mediums." This was early on. People know more about it now. But it was still, that's the way they felt. They contacted me to see if I was willing to shoot it in HD. Mostly it was my experience in HD that probably got them to really get me to leave The Dead Zone.

 

;Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt

Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt

 

Can you explain what the basic differences are between the two mediums which is visible watching the Miniseries in comparison to the regular series?

I think we took it to another level in terms of just the grittiness of the show. I thought the miniseries was beautiful. You can see the difference if you watch it in terms of the set. I think the production designer and everybody, we told them to shift down. We made it darker, made it moodier, more intense than the miniseries, which was much brighter and much more white, more I can think maybe more 2001 (A Space Odyssey). Everyone seems to want to do 2001. I think they should leave that alone. It's hard to do that. Anyway we just made it - put into a new texture. I think I just created a new texture from the Miniseries. I think gave the visual style of it more of a character in the show, in the series. I think that's what it was needing. The Miniseries, like I said, was beautiful but we were moving on from the miniseries. They had just got blown up, they were on the ship.

Can you name some examples of shots done in HD that you never could do in film?

No, I don't think there's anything you can shoot in HD that you can't shoot in film.

How about the other way around?

No, I don't there's anything you can't do the other way around either. It's just going to be a different result. Film has a higher latitude. It can hold onto more detail. It's a higher resolution. HD is catching, very strongly catching up to it. But I would think I don't know if I would shoot Lawrence of Arabia in HD. I don't think I would shoot Legends of the Fall. Those grandiose, beautiful expansive wide angle films need to be, I think at this point in time, need to be shot in film because film can resolve the wide shots. Even though now, 65mm HD is starting to come out too. It's going to be larger sensors. But those kind of beautiful, very highly detailed things, I think would probably be best suited in film.

Let me ask you differently, which scene was impossible for you to shoot in HD, that made you wish to go back to film?

What scene?

Yes, what scene made you say, "Oh, if I could have done this in film it would be so much easier."

Oh, I don't think any. I pretty much don't think there's anything. Because for Battlestar, I use the limitations of that medium as a strength for the show. When things like if I was shooting a shot, and I was outside, and I was shooting it normally, and I wanted to hold the blue skies, and all of the things I might say, "Geez I would rather shoot this in film because I would really be able to hold onto all of this detail." But in that show, I didn't care about that detail. I threw all of that away. I wanted it to be blown out. I wanted it to be high contrast. So I thought I'm really glad I'm shooting digital because I can control what I'm doing. If I was shooting film, I'd have to leave it up to somebody else to do it for me and nobody would. And in the end, if I hadn't been doing what I do, the show would have been a totally different show. Because they won't spend the time, or the money, nor do they have the inspiration or the concepts of what I wanted to do. So they would be struggling, sitting there in the telecine room looking at a monitor going, "Well, okay let's just make it look normal." Because that's what they would have. They would have no way to do it, unless I'd be there with them, and I couldn't be there with them because we were still shooting. The best way to do it is to give them the final product. And then they only spent like four hours per episode color correcting. They didn't spend a lot of time. So I saved them a lot of money that way too. Now the show that I'm working on now, I'm pretty much keeping it clean but it's a clean show. It's not meant to be anything other than clean. So it's working out well for me. I thought we'd do our virtual worlds, then who knows, that will all be done in post production. I don't think there's anything that I - I'm really glad that I'm shooting HD.

 

;Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt

Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt

 

How about the scenes shot on Kobol or New Caprica? How difficult is it for you to work outdoors because you cannot control the weather of course?

Oh, well no. Well you can't control the weather in any medium. Kobol, I liked Kobol. I liked that place. We didn't spend a lot of time there, but that was fun. That was pretty much a normal type of looking thing. It was just maintaining it, being gritty and desaturated color. Basically we didn't shoot it much different than the ship. New Caprica was blue. Until we went to those flashbacks, I really enjoyed that because I was able - we were lucky, we jumped into a couple of really beautiful, sunny days. It was just very beautiful when they just landed on New Caprica. Of course, then when the Cylons came in, then everything goes dark and murky and blue and desaturated and unpleasant. The weather's fine. Like race guys, I like rain. I like all of that stuff, more than I like the sun. For this particular show, I'd rather not have sun for Battlestar.

You usually shoot multiple axes with two cameras, Tim Spencer and Ryan McMaster?

Yes! Two incredible operators. I was going to bring their names up. Yeah, we have multiple axes, multiple, it doesn't matter lots of times even though we have to wrangle Tim back in once in a while, because he wants to jump all over the place. We pretty much try to shoot a ninety degree angle off of main camera. When we set the main action to one camera, Tim will usually go to a ninety degree angle and shoot what we're doing and work that parameter. And every once in a while they'll allow us to go further than ninety. And then we'll change up, we'll shoot it and go tighter and tighter and tighter and tighter and then they'll say, "Well, we're bored with this angle, let's find another one." We shoot a lot. All of the actors, almost all of the time, are always on so there's never any laziness when it comes to actors. They're always right up on top of it, because they're great anyway. None of them would ever think of doing it any other way.

I also heard that they often need to move in the most awkward positions to get the shots.

Oh, yeah. Yeah they definitely, definitely do. In the first season, literally with "33" it was like, they were actually running into each other to try to get the shot. Because everybody had a basic parameter of what they're were trying to do. But as we kept rolling and rolling, they all saw, "Well if I go over here to the right a little bit I can get a little bit nicer angle." And then the other guy was, "Well if I go over a little bit to the left over here I can get a nicer angle." Then literally, they would run into each other. Especially in the CIC, they ran into each other a lot. But yeah, they gotta get into it. Tim will be down on the ground. Both of my operators now are about 5'8" they are not very tall. That's a perfect height for an operator so they can hold these cameras erect with the full strength of their body and not have to bend anything to hold it. A lot of running, they got to get a lot of boxes and they get up high and they get down low. Oh yeah, it's a lot of contortion holding these fifty pound cameras.

At least you could hold them, if you have the 35mm's it's impossible to hold the camera for zooms.

Exactly. With zooms, it's impossible. Absolutely. Well I'm working now with Peter Berg, we've just finished Hancock. I'm under the impression, or the understanding, that he had his operators working with a Platinum Planaflex. One with a 11:1 zoom on it, and the other 4:1. And I'm going, "Man, that's asking a lot." And of course, thirty five percent of the show is soft I hear. I haven't seen it. Which brings up the focus pullers. We have two, Rob DeVitt and Chris Thompson. These guys are pulling focus on 200mm lenses while walking across the floor with moving cameras and moving actors. They've done a remarkable job. They got through the first season, looked in the mirror and what they had to do. Now, they have a hard time standing still. It needs to be - and this medium is perfect for it - of course though they have cameras like the RED that's coming out (RED ONE is a next generation compact UltraHD camera with 66dB dynamic range) and various cameras that have 35mm lenses that are lightweight and you can hand hold them. But again, you have to go with - they'll have to come out with some more lightweight zooms. Otherwise, you'll be shooting 16mm or two thirds HD.

Can you explain how you normally work on a Battlestar episode from start to end?

What does that mean? How does it work?

 

;Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt

Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt

 

How do you start doing your lighting, your scenes...

Oh, sure okay. Well, basically starts when we drive in, park our cars and go have breakfast. And stand around talking with the other crew. Then at seven o'clock or whatever time we call, or call in, the AD's yell at us and we all go into the set and settle down while the director works with the actors. They'll talk and discuss what they would like to do and where they'd like to go. And then every once in a while they'll say, "Is this okay if they come over here?" to me and I'll say, "Yes, as long as they don't go over here. I can do this. I can do that." "Would it kill me to do this? Can we have them walk over here? Can we have them do this?" And of course, the way we shoot the show is they can go pretty much anywhere they want. There are very few marks on the floor and very few rules and restrictions. So after the director and everybody says, "Yep, well we're happy with this." We do put a few basic marks on the floor, if we do. Then they say, "Okay, the actors go back to makeup and hair and wardrobe." And then I standby. We know where the cameras are going to go here, the cameras are going to go over there to start with. We'll start with a big wide shot over here with the "A" camera and the "B" camera will be over there with a medium shot, because we can't get too tight because the sound can't boom the wide shots. So we have to stay with a wide shot and a medium, more of a medium shot. Which then allows the boom to get in to get the sound. And then we go tighter later. And then basically, I just start lighting it up. Then we rehearse it with our stand-ins a little bit. And then, the actors come in and I hope I'm settled because if I'm not, they're just going to want to roll anyway. Very rarely they say, "Okay, well we'll bring them in, we'll rehearse a little bit, and then we'll send them away so you can tweak a little bit, and then they'll come back." They'll just go in there and say, "Okay, roll camera. Roll sound." You know? Before even, before you even have a chance to look at it. (laughs) So that's been really fun for me because I've gotten to the point, I think I've gotten a lot better at that, of being correct at my initial lighting so when we roll we're ready to go.

How is your job different depending on the director? Do some give you more freedom than others?

Oh, yeah. It depends on what show you're at. In this particular show, no I think they all pretty much gave me the freedom. My whole goal was to give them freedom and they knew that. It's a pretty halved set. It's not - it doesn't take us a long time to get the set lit. Unless we do something extremely new where we have to spend some time. The very first time that we get into a new set, we have to light it. We can throw a bunch of lights. Like my rigging gaffer when we went to the Demetrius, I think it was, it was the ship that Katee [Sackhoff] was chasing down with Helo and they shot what's his name? Gaeta? In that ship, I had my gaffers, my rigging gaffers, "This is the way I want you to hang the lights." So they hang a bunch of lights and then when we go in, we'll have to light it. Takes about two hours sometimes, it can take even up to two or three hours depending on how much time, how much you need to do. Then after that, it's all really fast. My whole goal, from the director of photography standpoint, is to be able to walk in there, light it as quickly as possible after it's all set, and get the director as much time with the actors as possible. Because it's mostly about that, right?

Do you have favorite episodes that you liked shooting?

Well, I liked all the stuff on New Caprica. I liked "Exodus". I liked "Occupation" a lot. That was probably some of my favorite ones. I liked "33". "33" was a really exceptional one for me. I loved that show. I loved Helo in the rain. That was an interesting time because that was when they first understood what we could do with HD, only because you could see it. When Helo is running in the rain, Boomer comes in, Six comes in towards the end, well there's no light on the outside. We were losing our light. I'm inside this little tent working on the dials trying to open it up and open it up and it started getting darker and darker. But because of the way I was working with it at such a high dB gain I could make it look like day in the HD. Even though while you can do that in film too, you can't go as far before it starts falling apart. And there really is no grain in the HD, where there is in the film. And when film starts to get underexposed it just collapses. So I remember being there and having a little, small light with like twelve layers of diffusion and nets in front of it, because it's getting so dark. All I wanted was a little eye light on Six. Rymer kept sticking his head in the tent saying, "Looks like day!" He couldn't believe that it looked like day. That was a fun thing. And “33” was one of my favorites. I want the "33" clock, but I don't know if I'll get it.

 

;Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt

Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt

 

Maybe you'll have to go into the auction.

Yeahhhh, well I told everybody, "I want that clock!"  I don't know. I'll give you 33 bucks for it. (laughs)

Sounds reasonable. So how about worst episodes? Or what was the most difficult scene for you to shoot?

Um, I don't know. I think, not worst, but I don't I know I think... the Cylon basestar... was one of my... I didn't like it! I mean, in the end, it looked really interesting because I had to push it really far in the camera. I went just 24 dB so I could just make those blue lights just, just you know... be... really different looking. Intense and blue but less than glowing, so you feel the power of the ship through the glass, through the lighting and on the walls and stuff. But it really needed, for me, it needed heavy digital manipulation for me to make the set. Even though, again, Richard Hudolin did a great job but it's a tough concept to do a Cylon basestar. What do you do? How do you make it look? How do you make it feel you know, you know, interesting. Then they had no furniture. (laughs) Nothing, just walls and the hybrid and all of that stuff. So you go okay well what we can do, we have to make it extreme. So we made it extreme! Then it became not only one of the easiest sets to work in, because it was just throbbing with, you know, distortion if you will. But if you took it all the way down to zero and made it look normal, it wasn't a very interesting set. Not that, you know, no, no disrespect, it was a great set. It was just that for me, photographically, it was a challenge to bake that. So I guess - you know - I don't know. Did you like it?

Um, yeah. I kind of liked it.

Yeah, most people liked it because it was fun. The hybrid was fun. I liked the hybrid quite a bit. Other than that, I mean, and even then I guess, there's nothing in there that I didn't like. I had a little trouble with Baltar's lair. That was hard for me to get my head around. Because it was - the style of the room was difficult to light. I don't think there was any episode or any set in the whole show that I didn't like. There just wasn't any.

HD video also has extreme sharpness and I heard you designed a combination filter that helped soften things?

Yeah, yeah. No I built a - well the reason why I built this common combo was because I was having too many filters in front of the lens and it was causing reflections. If you'll  go back to the series and "33", that first year, you'll see when they are in the hallway a lot of multiple reflections from the side lights, the fluorescent lights that are on the side. I liked them. I left them in as part of the texture and so it was just one more element against cleanliness. But I just didn't like them all the time. So I had three filters in front of the lens, so I said well all I need is two filters. So I took off - I took two of them and combined them, like get them to combine them for me. So they were one filter in which then I had less glass, so basically yeah. And again, yeah it's sharp. You know, it's not necessarily the sharpness I'm finding, it's more of the color depth I think. With the camera I'm working with right now, I have a lot of the same filter packs on it, but it doesn't have the same feel on the faces. We're evolving and they're evolving in the HD world. The lenses are getting better. The cameras are getting more, I don't know what the word is, more filmic I guess because you don't have - they don't seem to be quite as harsh. That one needed it.

HD video more cost effective in comparison to film? Did it also mean you were allowed to experiment a bit more on the series?

It's cost effective, but I don't know if it's cost effective in the end. I think probably it is. It allows us to shoot a lot. I think we figured the first year, we shot an equivalent of like four and half million feet of film in HD and to tape. I think we went well past that after we went on, season to season. But we just shoot a lot, where in film you might say, "Okay, cut, cut, cut." You know, you don't have that ability to run and start over again. "Okay go back to the head and start again. Okay, now start again. And reset it and start again." So the actors can get a momentum and get a feeling for what they're doing. So cost effective may or may not be, I suppose it's probably cheaper in the end. But what it does allow you to do is to create a really nice environment for actors, and the director for that matter.

You've now did four seasons of Battlestar Galactica in HD video and you have obviously learned a lot along the way. When you look back at the time you started using it in the first season. Do you regret not having some of the knowledge you have now for some scenes? That you could have done so much easier now?

No. Ah, no. I mean no, I don't think so. I don't think I've changed my concept much. Knowledge now is only about the development into the future. We're actually restricting ourselves more now than we were with that camera. That camera allowed me to do things that are almost impossible to do with new camera systems until they figure out how to bring it to the cinematographer. It was really exciting to be breaking new ground, at least for me, and experimenting. I mean I wouldn't have done it any other way. No, I think the evolution of it was perfect. I wouldn't change it a bit. I think what I know now wouldn't change it at all, except that it might not make it as interesting. Because it was all about the discovery of it.

What do you feel are the most important things you've learned in the series?

Lighting for two cameras. From lighting every shot to be a master, from the beginning of the scene to the end of the scene. Lighting for large movement and putting that puzzle together in your head when you watch after rehearsals. To be able to know how to light it and to reach a certain style that you want and allow the camera to cover large ground without anything on the floor. That's probably the most important thing. Yeah to be able to light freely, for the actors to move freely.

 

;Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt

Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt

 

We've just learned you got an Emmy nomination for "Outstanding Cinematography For A One-Hour Series" for Razor. You were also nominated for a CSC Award last year for "Occupation".

And also this year for "Maelstrom". Nominated. Nominated. Nominated. (laughs)

Nominated, not won yet.

Oh, no. Science fiction is a very tough category because people don't think that it has value. I mean you look at the acting on this show with Katee and Mary and Eddie and all of them, you know, James Callis. And you go, "My goodness, this is some really great acting." And then you see some shows, I won't mention the names, but some of them that have been nominated for best actors and best shows are pathetic. I mean they don't even come close to the quality of the acting that these guys have. Some of them are outstanding! Look at The Sopranos, you look at those kinds of shows, those are brilliantly done. But there are other shows out there, that are nominated every year, whatever that the acting is just not in the same league. But because it is science fiction, sadly enough that the critics and the people out there, I guess they just say, "Well, this isn't really a television show. This is about science fiction. This isn't really a drama. It's about space." So that's the reason why we don't get as many awards exactly as we should. Until you start watching it, and then when you start watching it, you start realizing it's an incredibly powerful drama that just happens to be in space. So, I'm hoping. I mean I'm hoping that the Emmy comes my way. I think that would be nice. But if it doesn't, I think the nomination is more than half the battle. And that was very nice that they did that. At least you're a winner for two months before the award dinner. Everybody's a winner for two months. (laughs)

Did you actually feel this was your best work on the series or would you rather have had another episode?

Ah, you know Razor, I thought Razor looked great. I really, really was pleased with it. It's one of the things you don't - I don't know. I don't necessarily look at it that way. Quite often, I'm working and I'm going, "Geez, I'm not doing a very good job on this episode. I feel like I'm missing something or I'm not doing this properly or maybe..." You know, I'm looking at it. I go through a lot of that kind of stuff periodically. And then as time goes on you see that it's a totally intuitive type of thing. And then, of course, the studio calls you up and says, "This is the best show ever. This is the best season ever." They say the last, this last fourth season, is the best looking season on the lot. And I'm going, "Well, oh, okay. You know I don't - I guess we're still doing okay." But yeah, it's hard to know what's your best work. Because every day, you're trying to do your best work.

You said you particularly liked "Occupation".

Yes, I did like that. I liked that a great deal. I liked Razor too, because Razor had some really cool things in it, but only on the DVD version. Because the broadcast version they didn't let half of it out, because they wanted to save it I guess. "Occupation" was with Sergio Mimica-Gezzan as the director and the other one ("Precipice") was with Félix Alcalá and also Razor was Félix Alcalá. Félix got an Emmy nomination for directing on "Exodus, Part 2", I guess it was. Those were good because they were location work. We weren't on the ship. We were outside making it work, and designing, creating this world with the Cylons. I liked those two episodes a great deal.

How about "33"? Would you have rather you were nominated for that?

Uhhh, yeah. I think that would have been a good one. I think that was really, really extreme and think it would have been a good - but then it was all new, that was the first one. They weren't going to allow that. That wasn't something that they would have done, but they should have!

Yeah, it would have encouraged everybody.

That was the one I think, one of my favorites. Because it was just totally raw. As you go through anything, you start softening, you start modifying your look. You're seeing a room for the fiftieth time. You're saying, "I'm bored with this room. How do I change it? Everything looks the same now." Where "33" was, everything was new and it was really, really fun.

And you're doing the ground work.

Yeah, that was good.

You said you were now working on a new Battlestar movie? Is that shooting in August?

Yes, I think we start shooting on the 25th. I think we do anyway. It's going to be interesting I think, I haven't got a script yet. They were supposed to send me one but I didn't get it yet. I haven't gotten it yet. I don't even know the story line. There's like three or four of them. Also some of them were rejected, some we're waiting to find out what it is. I hear a lot of the actors are involved.

In somewhere between Season One and Season Two you said?

Yeah, my information right now is that the story line takes place between season one and season two, and what and where we are at that point. So I believe we're still on Caprica, are we not? We didn't get off of Caprica I don't think until season two. I don't think anyway, not completely off when Helo comes in. Maybe we go back to Caprica, maybe not, maybe I'm wrong.

Definitely before "Pegasus".

Definitely before "Pegasus", yeah. But "Pegasus" was kind of an anomaly. That was an interesting - that was fun. I liked the Pegasus.

All we know is that it could be "Pegasus" but from another angle.

Yeah, could be something else. I'm not sure. But we'll see how it all turns out there. I think that this has been a remarkable group of people, this cast. They have been very friendly. They've never been anything but just part of the crew. Of course, Katee [Sackhoff] will want, you know, she'll want to get off early, or Eddie is still on the phone. We're waiting for Ed to come out of his trailer. But nobody has ever done anything that's mean or angry at all. It was always in good fun. All of these guys have got lives. This is the thing this last part of the year, when it's been very tough because everybody is doing something. Grace [Park] is off doing The Cleaner. Tricia is down in Florida doing Burn Notice, I guess it is. Katee [Sackhoff] was doing Nip/Tuck and then she's going and doing something else. And Tahmoh [Penikett], he's off in The Dollhouse, I guess it is. So, all of these guys are out running around doing things. Jamie [Bamber] is going back to England and doing Law and Order in London. So everybody was like flying all over the place and the ComicCon thing became even a real drag for us because we couldn't get anybody. We didn't have any actors to shoot because they were all running all over the place this last leg of the season.

How was your last day on set?

Ah, sad, but chaotic! Because we haven't really resolved it yet. I think most of the people don't really - the last three shows because they actually had taken the last two episodes and made them into three. So there's going to be an extra episode.

I even heard they probably make it into four.

No, I don't think they got enough for that, but I don't know. It's possible. Yeah, it was difficult because we were really stretched to shoot it. They gave us - they wanted more so they wrote more. They wanted three hours but they didn't want to really completely pay for the extra hour. And they didn't really want to give us much more time, so we were really pretty stressed out. And then the actors were coming and going. And they were wrapping one moment and it was like, we never even sent Eddie [Olmos] off. Never even gave him a show wrap. Because he was - his schedule, the scene that we were ultimately going to shoot with him, him and Michael Hogan, they dropped. And the last night, they just said, "No, we don't need that scene. Let's not do it. It's a wrap." So we never said goodbye to Eddie [Olmos]. (laughs) So what we'll do at the end of this two hours, we'll send him off in style. Because I'm assuming he's acting in it as Adama and we'll show wrap him for good then. There's another thing, it was a little anti-climatic because we knew were going to do another Battlestar and we knew that it wasn't really the end of the show, it was end of the series. Everybody was very, very sad and all and also somewhat glad to say it's time to move on.

 

;Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt and producer/director Michael Rymer

Battlestar Galactica's cinematographer Stephen McNutt and producer/director Michael Rymer

 

It was time to move on because it was also six years of your life is a long time.

It's a long time, yeah exactly. But that's what we do and we don't mind it. As long as it's interesting and you're telling good stories and you're having impact on people and people like it and they like to watch it and you can build a fan base. What more do you want to do? When you get bored with it, it's time to move on. I think Ron [Moore] just wanted to tell the story, be done with it, then move on to these other shows that he's got so much else going on with Caprica and with Virtuality.

So you're now working on Virtuality? Is that the only project you're working on?

Yeah, yeah. It's the only one I'm working on now.

How about other future plans?

Future plans I don't know. I mean I'm going to wait and see what happens with both Virtuality or Caprica, to see if there's any life in them. There's a couple of other potential projects in September and October. Other than that, I just go day to day and look for a job.

You're still hoping the other two movies get green lit?

Yeah, no that would be great. I would love to see that happen. I mean the confidence is not high with me that that's going to happen, with the knowledge that I know. But yeah, that would be great. But they're going to have make them back to back. And I don't think they're doing that. I think they've got one script that they're working on right now. I'm really am convinced that - I mean what did Harvey say to me the other day? He said, "It's possible. Anything could change." CIC might not be in this next show, so they may start taking it apart for auction. So if that's the case, then I don't plan - I don't think they're going to have anymore. But again, I've heard them say that.  And then, "Well, we just got a call from the studio and they just said, 'Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Maybe we should do two more." You know that happens all the time, these guys they don't like to make decisions.

They said they were also auctioning off the Vipers and the Raptors and everything. So...

Yeah, some guy bought them apparently.

Okay, they bought them already?

Like I said, it's some guy. I don't know if that in fact went through or whatever, but some guy from Minnesota or something was going to buy them and put them on for people to take pictures with them. I don't know. (laughs) I don't know! I said, "Well, that's a good idea!" Make sure they're strong enough.

Tahmoh said he wanted to steal a Raptor when the show wrapped. He said he's going to bring a trailer in and put the Raptor on it and put it in his backyard.

(laughs) Yeah, no he'd like to do that. I don't know where the heck he would put it. Eddie is a huge fan of the show and he's just so proud of it, I can't tell you. He's realy, realy proud of it. Because he saw what socially it was talking about and it was just a really, really good personal drama. The first one, I loved the first one, but it was little bit more in the style of the time, which was less edgy. But I really did enjoy that, except for the dog. They did have a dog in that one, didn't they? Was that him or was that Buck Rogers? Didn't they have a dog with Boxey? Boxey had that little dog. Daggit? Or whatever it was.

It was called Muffit. Yes, Muffit the daggit.

Muffit, yeah, yeah, yeah. I never did like that dog. I didn't like it because I knew it was a toy.

They had it in the new series as well, but the scenes got deleted.

You mean in this one?

Yeah, in this one. Yeah.

I don't think we ever had the dog. We had Boxey. We had him, in the beginning. Couple of episodes. I wish they had would have kept him. I don't know what was going on. I guess they just wanted to go in another direction.

I heard Connor Widdows, who played Boxey, he aged too fast for the series. Because there was a huge gap between the Miniseries and the actual series. He became too old for that.

That might be it. Oh, so he started getting too old. That could be. The kids grow quick.

I'd like to thank you for taking the time to answer all of these questions.

Sure, I hope I did all right. 

 
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