"For All Mankind" DP Stephen McNutt Featured in ICG Magazine
October 10, 2019

by Kevin H. Martin, ICG Magazine

Showrunner Ronald D. Moore went well beyond this event in creating the new Apple TV+ streaming series For All Mankind, positing an alternate timeline where the Soviets succeed in landing a man on the Moon ahead of the Americans. That left turn in history leads to decades of an unabated space race, and the U.S. struggling to catch up – much like the dawn of the space age when Soviet satellites and cosmonauts were orbiting overhead long before their American counterparts blasted skyward.

Stephen McNutt, ASC, CSC, shared Director of Photography duties for Season One with Ross Berryman, ASC, ACS. McNutt, an Emmy nominee for Moore’s Battlestar Galactica reboot, recalls the creative team reviewing past space features, as well as NASA archival footage.

“I was a fan of Kodachrome, and at first we were leaning toward emulating that look,” McNutt recalls. “But we decided keeping things cool, more in the range of Ektachrome [EF 150], with its cyan feel, was the best way to go. Ross and I both remember the period and liked that tonal range, feeling it would provide a realistic and natural look.”

“The Right Stuff [shot by Caleb Deschanel, ASC] was a movie Stephen and I both thought got things just right,” Berryman adds. “It didn’t feel like a period piece, but more like you were there. So rather than affecting the image, we preferred to let the wardrobe and art department convey most of that period feel.”

Other key creatives for the series included Production Designer Dan Bishop and VFX Supervisor Jay Redd, a selfdescribed “space nerd.” Redd’s first question for Moore was whether the series should be photoreal. “Ron said, ‘Absolutely – 100 percent,’” Redd states. “That only increased my excitement, because I cared very much about historical accuracy. I also suggested going for an analog feel – like the effects were shot through physical lenses, and not being afraid of natural flares or bounce light getting stuck between layers of glass.”

Redd says the approach throughout was exploratory, “often searching for the most dramatic way to show important technical aspects,” he relates. “That might mean going to ex-astronaut and consultant Garrett Reisman with a model in hand, asking if it was okay to rotate a ship much faster than would be done in reality. Hopefully, Garrett would concede that we could go a bit beyond without really breaking things too badly.”

McNutt notes that the series’ main camera system, the Sony VENICE, was a “game-changer,” owing to its extremely good latitude and ease of use for both assistants and technicians. First AC Stephen Pazanti, for example, appreciated the VENICE’s easy-to-navigate menu setup as well as the built-in eight-step ND filters. For lenses, McNutt says he didn’t feel it was necessary to go all the way back to Baltars, “so we used Cooke S4's throughout,” he adds. (Otto Nemenz International supplied all cameras and lenses.)

Color science aside, the big revelation for McNutt and Berryman was the ISO 2500 setting on the VENICE. “The image is so amazingly clean that you only ever see a bit of noise on plain gray walls,” McNutt observes. “Ross and I realized there were lots of creative opportunities for us when playing the ambient light levels. The first time we went to 2500 was in a conference room. There were lights above, but we wanted it to be lit softly from the outside, to just hit the backdrop with a soft light, so that the light would naturally come from the window. We had muslin for a slight return bounce from the opposite wall. I couldn’t believe how great it looked. To the naked eye, however, it was like they were sitting in the dark, and some of the actors were a little uneasy about that, but we felt it gave a nice texture to the whole scene.” Berryman adds that the 2500 ISO setting was used for perhaps 75 percent of the show, such as low-light-level scenes in the Apollo command module and the lunar lander.” 

DIT Mike DeGrazzio, who managed the image pipeline on set, relied on a pair of 25- inch Flanders Scientific DM250 monitors, while Video Village employed 17-inch Sony units. “They were all calibrated by Sony’s 24P Dailies,” DeGrazzio recounts. “Phil Squires made sure our video and show LUT’s were in line, so what we viewed on-site matched the daily suites. I used Livegrade Pro to create the CDL’s, running the raw camera image through two Flanders BOX I/O’s to manipulate the log image. Co-producer Elicia Bessette deserves a lot of credit for tying production and postproduction efforts together so seamlessly.”

To avoid surprises in post, an onset HDR review was made possible via a 700-nit-capable Sony monitor. “That permitted rudimentary HDR onset viewing,” DeGrazzio continues. “It gave us an idea of how bright our highlights could be and what details could be extracted from shadows on the HDR feed. Colorfront provided us with the generator, inside a rack-mounted AJA FS HDR. We still favored the traditional look, but in some shots, like the lunar lander interior, we could utilize the HDR monitor to get an idea of how far we could go.”

McNutt elected to use smoke in all earthbound scenes. “Even though we liked the Ektachrome look, we weren’t dealing a reversal-stock look in terms of contrast,” he explains. “After researching the actual cigarette-smoke levels at Mission Control, we saw that when a door opened, clouds would pour out. So that justified our approach.”

Both cinematographers praised Bishop, who was able to recreate Houston’s Mission Control down to the nuts and bolts. “Dan wrote all of his impeccable art direction designs to the specs of that period,” McNutt marvels. “The consoles were authentic, but there was a huge hassle finding period monitors. The big screens used RP. It was a difficult set to work, so cranes were often the way to go.”

Lighting Mission Control was its own odyssey, where banks of lights were used to duplicate the look of the fluorescents in the real control room. “I told producer Steve Oster we needed all that in LED, with every single bulb on a separate circuit,” McNutt continues. “That let us light up what we needed and to reduce those lights as needed remotely, to give shape to the room. There was no other way to adjust these, since it would mean going in with a man-lift, and we didn’t have catwalks or green-beds –  it all happened from down on the floor. I have used honeycombs in my lighting since Battlestar, usually powder coated black. They come from Texas, where they’re made for NASA and jet planes. KinoFlo uses a version of them now, and visually, they resemble snap-grids. When I showed them to Dan, he loved them and wanted them put in their raw silver form into the overhead panels, which gave us some needed directionality.”

The series, shot entirely in Southern California, benefited from historic Mar Vista retro locales. “The abandoned Boeing facility in Long Beach stood in for an Air Force base and various NASA facilities,” Berryman states. “Hangars at Santa Monica Airport were useful after some substantial set dressing was done, and that was helpful with the realism, as opposed to settling for doing things green screen, which never quite gets you there.”

The hard-ceilinged location interiors complicated lighting, but even studio shoots, these days, can compromise setups. “Today, whether we are on stage or location, I’m finding that more often than not, walls don’t move,” notes Camera Operator Mike McEveety, SOC, “and it becomes challenging to get the shot the director wants. Rather than laying dance floor and doing the shot on a dolly, being able to move and adjust, we compromise by putting the camera on sticks and a slider.”

Depending on scheduling, the main unit would sometimes split in two. “Our B-Camera crew would be the A-crew on the double-up unit,” A-Camera 1st AC Stephen Pazanti reports. “Then we would add two new B-Cams on each. I was fortunate to be able to put together a top-notch crew. Second AC Jorge Pallares stepped up to the challenge of B camera 1st AC [early] in the season. He did an amazing job with the help of a truly professional B-Cam 2nd AC Arthur Zajac. Camera Utility Roberto Ruelas handled everything I threw at him through the season without a hitch.”

This all-hands-on-deck teamwork paid dividends when the crew began shooting the cramped capsule interiors, including the command module from last year’s First Man [ICG October 2018]. “We selectively beefed up the practical lights,” describes McNutt, “because it is difficult to shape the room since you can’t flag anything inside.” “Steadicam Operator Tim Spencer was able to give us some great stuff inside the command module,” adds Berryman, “where there is no room at all, so you could only take off one or two panels and shoot what was left. It took some wrangling and headscratching to get the angles needed to tell the story.” Toward the end, McNutt notes, “we were able to remove a few more panels and began using the snorkel lens system.”

Pazanti says the Sony Rialto camera extension system, provided by Sony’s Dan Perry in beta form, was helpful in these scenes. “The Rialto is a tethered system that allows the image sensor block to detach from the camera body about 10 feet without loss of functionality,” Pazanti explains. “This helped us get shots in tight quarters that wouldn’t fit the whole camera body.”

The Rialto came into play while production was still considering using a Frazier lens. “Then we found the Venice has a kind of detachable retina,” Spencer acknowledges. “It can’t hold motors, so we had to jury-rig that. It was great to be able to take the lens off, but if there’s no way to put a motor on it, you can’t pull iris or focus.”

Extensive use was also made of the Century Precision MK2 snorkel lens system (also provided by Nemenz). “This was the most I had ever used a snorkel,” Pazanti admits. “At times we had two in use [simultaneously], with the cameras mounted on Technocranes [provided by Cranium Cranes] that helped get into the small windows in the space modules and to attain a floating or zero-gravity look. Tim and Mike were very creative in their use of this tool.”

The higher ISO of the VENICE offset the four-stop loss linked to the snorkel, giving the AC’s a better shot with maintaining focus. “My SmallHD 1303 HDR focus monitor gives me excellent image clarity with 1500-nit brightness,” adds Pazanti, who pulled focus remotely with a Preston FIZ3. “It has many settings available to assist with different aspects of lighting, such as peaking and backlight levels.”

Unlike Apollo 13, shooting Zero-G scenes on NASA’s “vomit comet” aircraft was not an option, making old-school ingenuity the norm for all microgravity setups. Objects floated on monofilament wire among the actors helped to complete the illusion. Spencer notes that, “we had fantastic directors on every episode who brought a lot of good ideas. Sergio Mimica-Gezzan used to be Spielberg’s First AD, and he had also worked on Ron’s past shows. He came up with the idea [during prep] of flipping the capsule up ninety degrees and putting the actors on parallelograms – a kind of teetertotter – while mounting the cameras at a ninety-degree angle. They’d go on three-axis heads attached to cranes. At first, I didn’t quite understand the notion, but once the camera’s sense of up and down becomes confused, you open up to the possibilities. We even began to order in more equipment to take things further or to achieve a specific tough-to-get angle.

“And being in L.A. was a godsend because you can get anything within thirty or forty minutes,” Spencer continues. “To light the surface of the moon, Stephen had wanted a backup in addition to his Softsun. But when we got going there was only one, and of course, it burned out. We were close enough to a replacement that we could race to get one instead of having to come up with some partial solution to keep shooting.”

The lunar surface set was built on Sony’s Stage 27, once home to The Wizard of Oz. McNutt’s 100,000-watt SoftSun was placed in one corner of the set and raised via scissor lift to an appropriate height, creating a strong single-source key, used mainly to backlight the actors in space suits. Key Grip Curt Griebel set up a giant black duvetyn iris that could move side-to-side or close and open up to focus the light and shadows. Rather than playing the light as a straight white, it came through in the 3800-4300 Kelvin range, with both cinematographers using just the lightest touch of fill, if necessary, at the same color temperature.

Reflections in the helmet visors of the astronauts proved problematic. “We surrounded most of the stage with blackout material and had the crew wrapped in black so they wouldn’t show up,” Berryman recounts. “We were on a crane the whole time, which cut down on dealing with crew footprints, but even so, it only worked some of the time.” In most instances, the visors were removed with post VFX replacing them and adding appropriate reflection imagery, which was often shot on a 6mm fisheye or created digitally. To give the impression of the moon’s one-sixth gravity, both actors and stunt performers were rigged with wiring to enable them to “bunny hop” over the terrain. Scenes not requiring dialog were shot at 32 frames per second. 

For All Mankind serves up a lot of visual effects – from the Earth to the Moon – with both space vessels and aircraft. “It was a dictum from Ron Moore that we not be too flashy with camera movement when shooting green screen cockpit work,” Berryman shares. “The idea was to shoot like there was an actual rig mounted on a jet. He was very emphatic about that, which restricted us in a good way, with no 180-degree moves around the cockpit. Locking things off made it seem more credible than flashy, which is important when creating an alternate history.”

And while verisimilitude was essential for credibility, there were artistic and cinematic considerations at play with the VFX. “Space is pretty monochromatic,” Redd explains. “The moon is essentially black and white, with a few tone shifts. To make sure these images don’t come off like black-and-white photography, we expanded the palette just a tiny bit, shifting the hues. We let the color of sunlight play warmer, and used the foil on the LEM to play color. Depending on the scene objectives, we might cheat in a bit of fill. When portraying night in space, you still have to be able to see something. The Earth could play as a big blue bounce card – Earthlight!”

To maintain the live-action feel, Redd had his CGI vendors create digital versions of the physical filters employed by Production. “There’s a very limited filter selection,” he adds. “And we didn’t want our space exterior stuff to feel or look different from what Ross and Stephen were doing. Plus, we rendered most all of our scenes with a feeling of indirect diffuse light, like the wonderful global illumination you get from real surfaces. We used the photoreal ray tracer renderer Arnold, as well as RenderMan.” Rather than assigning vendors to specific episodes, Redd broke up the work by type.

“Pixomondo did most Earth scenes, including Saturn V launches, while Method Studios handled space and lunar stuff,” he states. “We ran simulations to create variations in how the engine burns look, both in full gravity and Zero-G – most of what we did was create variations in color temperature and trajectory, based on fuel types and no atmosphere. How the engine burns on Earth looks very different in space. Lunar gravity was another area we tried with slightly higher and lesser gravity, to see if we can capture the beauty of the way [lunar dirt] regolith gets kicked up by boots or during liftoff.”

Boutique house Rogue One took care of wire-removals for Zero-G and one-sixth gravity, plus various monitor burn-ins. “We had dozens of TV’s and monitors displaying real footage plus created imagery, to help with the journalistic aspect that was key for Ron,” Redd continues. “Our imagery had to look period-appropriate, which meant going down some rabbit holes to figure out arcane bits about Westinghouse cameras from 1968, and seeing how the video channels broke up on the edges and even what kinds of glass were used. Other factors included the frame rates and frame drops on imagery broadcast from the Moon. We’re a 4K show, but Ron agreed it would be fun to break the image up, even on material we created, adding chromatic aberration to help match to the archival footage.”

McNutt weighed in on Sony’s L.A.-based grading effort remotely from Vancouver and admits there is still concern over the HDR version. “Those HD highlights can pop in a way that can let an artificial look rule things if you’re not careful,” he cautions. “HDR is in its infancy and it might serve to take the viewer out of the fantasy.” McNutt has yet to view the final HDR version, so he says, “we’ll see.”

Redd’s concern during finishing focused more on compression issues. “It’s tricky with macroblocking to figure out how the compression will play on various streaming services,” he acknowledges. “When we’re in space, with ships against endless black, I might art-direct a bit of sun halation into the frame. That creates a subtle gradient, but in a compression scheme, it can turn into banding. We might put a bit of extra grain to cut into that; there’s something beautiful about the dithering with grain as it breaks up those gradients into something more palatable.”

In future seasons, McNutt hopes the series will show the advances in technology. “Our moon-base reflects an industrial approach,” he concludes. “But as we progress, there may be more selfilluminated sets, as in other space movies. Sunshine was one that had some stunning visual interiors, and that development will make things more visually interesting.” Redd says they saw a lot of NASA art for rockets and equipment that never wound up getting built, “so future seasons might take inspiration from that,” he concludes. “For this one, we all got to be kids again, playing with space toys, figuring out how a ship would turn when making translunar injection. I’m a huge fan of models and miniatures – they were a big reason I got into visual effects – so for me, it was Christmas every day.”

For All Mankind premieres on AppleTV+ November 1. 

Director of Photography: Stephen McNutt

ICG Issue