Paul Cameron is a distinguished cinematographer who is now making a move into the director’s chair. IBC365 spoke to him about his latest project, Special Ops: Lioness, a military drama for showrunner Taylor Sheridan.
As cinematographer, Paul Cameron ASC, has helped lay the template for the look of modern action films. Collaborations with accomplished directors include: Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Déjà Vu), Len Wiseman (Total Recall), and Dominic Sena (Swordfish, Gone in Sixty Seconds) among others. His cinematography for director Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004) was one of the first major studio films to embrace digital cinematography.
Now he has moved into the director’s chair, helming two episodes of Special Ops: Lioness, the latest series from acclaimed writer/showrunner Taylor Sheridan, starring Zoe Saldana, Nicole Kidman, Michael Kelly and Morgan Freeman.
“After shooting a lot of movies with A list talent I am used to being around high-end actors and functioning in a high-end way,” Cameron told IBC365. “On some films where I’ve been a DP there’s often been more communication between myself and the actors then they had with the director. So, I feel comfortable speaking with actors about performance.”
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He said he learned about working with people on set from Tony Scott. “I noticed how Tony befriended actors and won them over and then, when he had conversations about scenes and intent or character arcs, he can hit on them in a much more playful way since he has this bond.
“That taught me a lot. Making TV drama you have so little time with actors to build their trust and confidence in you so that they feel they can experiment and try things.”
The acting talent attached to Lioness wasn’t the only reason Cameron wanted to get involved. Sheridan’s scripts were another pull as was the hook of the story which is based on an actual US military program.
“This is about a faction of the CIA which was formed during the military experience in Afghanistan, when confronted with the problem of how to deal with female prisoners. The CIA decided to create a unit of women to handle captives. Our story is about a Special Ops division of young female intelligence agents attempting to infiltrate terrorist targets.”
Cameron was part of the initial conceptualising, scouting, and narrative development of the Paramount+ original, setting the look by photographing the first two episodes and directing two more.
They shot on location in Virginia and Baltimore, in Mallorca and Morocco, doubling for Yemen. Zero Dark Thirty [photographed by Greig Fraser ACS, ASC] “set the bar very high” for its realistic depiction of special ops forces dealing with terrorism and was a key tonal reference.
There are also parallels to Homeland, starring Claire Danes, but the Lioness filmmakers chose a different visual path than either of those productions.
Cameron shot large format, pairing the Alexa Mini LF with Canon K 35 and vintage Zeiss Distagon Primes.
“We used two sets of Zeiss 2 Distagon, one with the optical coating removed from the front and another set where the coating is removed front and back. This lent the image a beautiful halation and radical flaring. We see so many shows that are photographed digitally that feel digital so we wanted to deconstruct the image as much as we could.”
“We did discuss doing all the car photography in an LED environment but I will never go into a volume stage without either shooting or supervising the plates I will use in that environment. The producers were very comfortable with shooting on green screen and getting plates later which is also a very tenuous scenario for me because I do like to light for the plates and it’s difficult to rely on gathering plates later.”
In the director’s chair
It’s not unheard of for a cinematographer to slip into the director’s chair. Nicolas Roeg is perhaps the most celebrated example. Wally Pfister (Dark Knight Trilogy) helmed Transcendence and Steven Soderbergh shoots his own movies under a pseudonym, but such crossovers are exceptions.
Cameron previously directed episodes of HBO’s Westworld and said directing is a natural progression. “I’ve always been very interested in the script and I love to discuss storyline and script development in preproduction.
“When I got the call about Lioness I talked about directing right away because they only had two directors onboard. Taylor is also very comfortable with DPs stepping up to directorial positions.
“I knew I’d have a great relationship with Zoe and Michael but I’ll admit to being a little nervous about directing Morgan Freeman. But he was a sweetheart, an incredible professional and just very available and open to discussing scenes.”
For reasons of logistics, including location shoots on three continents, he ended up working with three DPs on the episodes he directed.
“When I go to location and scout I find that being a director is very much like being a DP. I see the scenes, I see the dialogue and see the actors come into the space, how a scene manifests and how it resolves,” he said.
“Working with DPs means I can offer very specific ideas about how to handle things. It is difficult at times not to be the DP when I direct but it’s also an incredible relief not to have to worry about rigging or changes of weather as much as I would normally. Not having to micro-manage all of that was good.”
There are more directing roles in the pipe including a feature Cameron said he is developing and a limited series to be shot in the UK in 2024 for which he has been asked to direct all six episodes.
“Another thing I learned from Tony Scott was using multi-cam,” he shared. “There are so many interesting places to put a camera but people use multi-cam just for coverage, for matching close ups, for example. Tony used multi-cam to get a certain type of an emotional shot that, when you cut it in to the scene, has great impact. It could even be a shot that most other directors would throw away as a transitional shot.”
I tried to do something similar in Lioness in the episodes I shot and those I directed, choosing intimate shots, different angles, profiles, reflections or specific rack focus shots.”
Cameron, like much of Hollywood, is playing a waiting game while the writer’s strike pauses production. Once resolved, he thinks that the flood gates will open in the same way that pent up demand rushed through industry after the pandemic.
In the meantime he has had time to reflect on the advance of Generative AI into the creative arts.
“It is frightening in one respect because this is lighting and photography created by a machine,” he said. “I’m just hoping it’s not all or nothing and that we’re not going to have an AI design the look of the show and a DP just goes and shoots it.
“For me the question is how do we still empower the cinematographer to have a voice in terms of the conception and visualisation of the show. I’d like to be positive and ask if we can employ AI to do things that DPs couldn’t do before perhaps because of budget constraints. Things like creating massive lighting sets ups or testing or large scale VFX.”
He likens the introduction of Generative AI to the switch from film to digital cinematography. “The principals of understanding how to light and expose film to get a certain look remained constant,” he said. “So, so long as someone is driving AI by making creative choices when it is deployed then perhaps we’ll find attributes that are surprisingly empowering for cinematography in future.
“The same goes for directors. On the one hand, we’re all afraid of this idea of having stories written by AI. We want the connection with writers and with real voices of real people to be sustained. Telling stories is a part of folklore and passing our history down to generations. The question is at what point does that get interpreted by AI? What is the real purpose of having an AI choose where to put the camera and interpret the intent of the script?”
“AI is image making and it can be astounding but I don’t believe it captures reality,” he adds. “AI is image making without the moment of capture and that, I think, will always be the difference.”
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