DP Sam McCurdy on Bringing Noir to ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Lost In Space’

We chat with the cinematographer about the lovely landscape of darkness needed to bring big screen art to the small screen.
Lost In Space Season Screenshot
By  · Published on April 30th, 2020

What is cinema? What is television? With each passing day, the line between the two becomes blurrier and blurrier. Considering that most of us are trapped indoors these days, with zero access to the theatrical experience, everything we consume comes through our televisions or phones or tablets or wristwatches. We spend an exorbitant amount of time debating the delivery system, but behind the scenes, the question of movies versus television is less and less relevant.

Cinematographer Sam McCurdy certainly doesn’t have a dog in this hunt. He shoots stories. ‘Nuff said.

While he was coming up in the business, making flicks like Dog Soldiers, The Descent, and The Hills Have Eyes 2, McCurdy was also cranking out work on the small screen with episodes of Teachers, Wire in the Blood, and The Street. These days he spends most of his time filming shows like Game of Thrones, Lost in Space, Carnival Row, and Pennyworth, but he’s always one phone call away from knocking out a film like Emperor or A United Kingdom.

We may care about the classification of narratives and mediums, but McCurdy sure as hell doesn’t, and neither do most of the folks who hire him for gigs. The reality is there is nothing small about the small screen anymore. What you have in your homes can rival many boutique theaters, and if the big screen experience wants to keep its grip on your dollars, they’re going to need to be a whole heckuva lot more clever in nabbing your attention.

“From my side,” says McCurdy, “there certainly has been an encouragement from producers and showrunners to deliver what’s colloquially called home cinema. They want the big screen look, and they want the big screen feel. We’re making television for people who have sixty-inch sets in their house now.”

The paranoid fear that television is getting tinier and tinier is absurd. While we may catch a show here and there while lying in bed with our iPhone jammed to the bridge of our nose, many are transforming their apartments into complex dens of glorious surround sound, where the no-talking policy is enforced strictly based on the mood of the host. The popcorn comes as wet with butter as your doctor will allow.

“A few years ago,” McCurdy continues, “there was a concern that we were making shows for laptops, or for handhelds, or smartphones. Now we’re thinking about the widescreen that sits in the corner of the room. We want them to experience it.”

HBO takes their acronym (Home Box Office) very seriously. They have confidence that their audience knows the conditions required for their presentation. Find your settings and get to work. They’re bringing cinema to your couch.

“I remember going in for the first day on Game of Thrones [on ‘Blackwater’],” recalls McCurdy, “and sitting down with Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff]. The only notes they gave me were, ‘Game of Thrones can never be too dark.’ And that was it.”

These orders were a radical departure from what McCurdy had heard before. Shadows became friends. Darkness his ally. Medieval noir, yer god damn right. As the technology of home entertainment evolved, a trust formed between the creators and the audience. You don’t need bright lights to keep pace with the story. You don’t need to squint to see more. All of the story is there in the image.

“This is a new experience in television,” he says. “A show can never be too dark? This is incredible for somebody like me. To be told, ‘There are no real restrictions. We believe in the story. We believe in what we’ve done so far.’ I was given carte blanche to do what I wanted. This trust implores you to do your best work but also to keep it in tone with the rest of the show.”

Shaking bad habits can be challenging. For decades, television looked one way. If a studio was going to spend money on a set, they sure as hell wanted their audience to see that set. Treating the frame as an artistic expression felt counter to the advertisement space they were selling.

“We got so caught up in network television,” says McCurdy. “During the ’80s and the ’90s, studio-based programming relied on people being able to see everything that was going on. It was a transition period for technology. Maybe half of the households in the US or the UK or whereabout had LED screens, but the rest were CRTs. We just got caught up in it.”

With equipment that can challenge the theatrical experience, cinematographers must embrace what was once considered impossible. If the people don’t like it, they won’t watch. It’s a simple equation to comprehend.

“I applaud Game of Thrones,” he continues, “amongst many others, for being moody and allowing us to express ourselves a little more. They had the common sense to see that they could push into people’s front rooms. They could push the limits of what people had become accustomed to, and the show became the biggest show on the planet. So, it obviously worked.”

Ah, but there are some naysayers out there. Last year, during the eighth season episode of Game of Thrones entitled “The Long Night” (shot by Fabian Wagner), many complained that the action, as well as the characters, were impossible to see. The series had taken its philosophy of darkness too far, creating a muddy mess of an hour. McCurdy scoffs at the criticism.

“HBO’s initial response to everything was it can’t be too dark because it’s exactly how we wanted it to be,” explains McCurdy. “That’s the perfect answer. Whether there were a few people out there who thought it was too dark or whether it was a few people out there who were watching it on a laptop as opposed to a television screen or watching it on their phones or something like that. Okay, fair enough. It might not have been to everybody’s tastes, but we’re dealing with a very different area of aesthetics.”

If we’re going to make our homes our theaters, we need to embrace the tools for what they are. You cannot operate your television without adjusting the factory settings. Motion smoothing is a dragon we must slay.

“It’s one thing not catering to people’s tastes,” he continues, “it’s another thing people not understanding what you’re doing with the show. Those of us who love Game of Thrones as a show, we were very happy with what it looked like. The mood that was created in that particular episode was incredible. I swear, if that episode were shown on a movie screen, there would have been no complaints whatsoever.”

The constraints have lifted. With the freedom must come an outburst of creativity. That’s easier said than done.

“With this new era of big-scale television,” says McCurdy, “while it’s still important to make sure you get that big cinema feel for everything, it’s also important to make sure that we give ourselves the time to be creative. The only way we can do that is by not man-managing every single one of our departments by ensuring you get your view across and your ideas across really quickly to everybody.”

We tend to think of cinematography as a one-person job, but like everything on a movie, a team is necessary. When starting a long shoot, McCurdy assembles his gang to move with his mindset, and if they’re to achieve cinematic perfection on Netflix, then they must be on the same philosophical page.

“On Lost in Space,” he says, “I would say to the grips and the gaffer, ‘This is how I want it to look, this is how I want it to feel. All these things should be dark, and all these things should be light.’ So, on a day-to-day basis, they just knew instinctively that they could be darker or they could be lighter, or they could put more of this in or more of that in, or more camera movement.”

When you’re shooting television, schedules are tight. The next episode is coming, and there is little room for mistakes or roadblocks. The way to make through it is to divulge as much information to as many people as possible, fostering an environment where everyone is working toward the same goal: big screen on the small screen.

Lost in Space Season 2 is now streaming on Netflix.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)