Sam McCurdy is a cinematographer who has worked on various projects in both television and film, including Game of Thrones, The Descent, the pilot episode of Timeless, and most recently the Netflix series Lost in Space. We talked with Sam about his process for establishing a visual look for a series, his beginnings in the film industry, and much more.
Nerds and Beyond: When did you know you wanted to work in film/television, and how did you get started in the industry? Were there any filmmakers who influenced you?
McCurdy: From a very early age I knew I wanted to be involved in the film industry. I studied Graphic Art and Photography in college and photographed a lot of short films and music videos for friends while I was there. I got my start in the camera department as a loader and learned my trade through working and watching others around me. Like so many of my generation, the big influences in my wanting to be a cinematographer were movies like Star Wars and Indiana Jones. I loved that movies could be fun and enjoyable while still being able to tell a great story. I also had a real love for genre movies. I was a huge fan of John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper, but I found a real love for Dario Argento. I found his use of light very liberating with regards to how he used colors and theatrics in his staging. I also loved the big summer blockbuster movies like Die Hard and the Simpson/Bruckheimer movies. They had a huge influence on me, as they always felt so big. Something that always attracted me to cinema was being able to tell big stories in a big way.
Nerds and Beyond: Our audience is primarily viewers and fans rather than industry experts. For those who may not know, what is the role of a cinematographer on set, particularly on an episodic series versus a film?
McCurdy: The role of the cinematographer is an often mixed and varied one, but I like to think of it as the role that gives the pictures to the director, creating the mood and the feel the director is striving for. I’m primarily in charge of lighting and moving the camera in a way that best suits the story. That changes somewhat within series TV…We might often have multiple directors, so it is asked of us to maintain an aesthetic throughout a season of episodes, ensuring that each episode sits comfortably with the rest.
LOST IN SPACE (2018)
— One Perfect Shot (@OnePerfectShot) September 7, 2019
Nerds and Beyond: How did you become involved with Lost in Space? Was there a certain aspect of the project that appealed to you creatively initially?
McCurdy: I became involved with Lost in Space because I had just recently worked with the lead director, Neil Marshall, who is a dear and lifelong friend of mine. I’ve worked on a number of feature films with Neil, such as The Descent and Dog Soldiers, as well as episodic TV such as “The Battle of Blackwater” episode of Game of Thrones. When I read the script I realized very quickly this was going to be a fun job, and once I’d met with the producers, it became very clear it was indeed going to be a great project to be involved with. The idea of shooting a show set on other planets and in space appealed to me, as I am such a huge fan of the science fiction genre.
Nerds and Beyond: What visual influences did you go to for inspiration while designing the look of the series?
McCurdy: We looked at some iconic space films like Star Wars but also looked at movies like Interstellar and The Martian. We knew we wanted to ground the show in reality, as the focus of the show was and always will be the Robinson family. We wanted to have the feeling of something real and earthly for the show.
Nerds and Beyond: Lost in Space is a VFX heavy show, but the visual feel is grounded in reality with some spectacular locations. Was it difficult to balance the two while shooting? How closely do you work with the VFX team during the production process?
McCurdy: We work very closely with the VFX team and preview everything that is going to be in the show on a VFX level. We know the worlds and the planets we will revolve around and the monsters we will do battle with. It helps immensely when you do it this way, as it allows us to ensure all the live action fits in seamlessly with the VFX work.
Nerds and Beyond: Your previous work includes fictional pieces like Lost in Space but also documentary features like Le Mans: 3D. What are the unique challenges involved in shooting documentary projects versus fictional projects?
McCurdy: I still love working on documentaries. It teaches me to be quick and ready for anything. I think it’s important for anyone in any job to stay fresh, and I’ve been very lucky to be able to jump from documentaries to TV to feature films. Every job teaches me something new and allows me to grow a little more on every job.
Nerds and Beyond: One item on your resume that stands out to any Game of Thrones fan is your credit as cinematographer for the iconic episode “Blackwater.” What were some of the best and most challenging aspects of shooting that battle sequence?
McCurdy: It was such an incredible experience working on “Blackwater.” Probably one of the toughest, both physically and mentally, jobs I’ve ever done. Shooting in Northern Ireland in the winter was at times quite extreme and was one of the toughest weathers I’ve ever shot in. The wind and rain never stopped and everything about “Blackwater” was huge. The number of horses, extras, and stunts that we used every day were vast, and the whole scheduling of it was a mammoth task for the producers and ADs. Game of Thrones is one of those jobs that lives on adrenaline and the choreography of the schedule brings it to life. I’ll always remember fondly the one day that it didn’t rain so we brought in our own. It was the day Peter Dinklage gave his speech to the troops when they were readying for battle, and everyone on set was just soaked and couldn’t believe how much rain we actually ended up pouring on them on the one day it was totally dry!
The Descent (2005)
Director: Neil Marshall
Cinematographer: Sam McCurdy pic.twitter.com/k65m55a1US
— Cinematic Artistry (@Cinemartistry) September 26, 2017
Nerds and Beyond: Over the course of your career, which project have you learned the most from and why? Which project are you most proud of?
McCurdy: I like to think I try and learn a new way to do something or a new way to light something on every job. In terms of individual jobs, The Descent taught me a lot about how to photograph something simply, which I have always kept as a great rule throughout my career. Game of Thrones taught me how to remain calm and stay on top of everything, especially when you have an army of crew all waiting on your every word for what to do next. On Lost in Space I have learned to light with LEDs, which might not sound like much but we have saved so much energy and electricity and waste on Lost in Space. It is one of the proudest things I have done in terms of starting to find a more balanced way of dealing with the fuel and electrical waste on set.
I couldn’t possibly say which project I am most proud of, but there are three jobs I will continually hold close to my heart. I will always be so proud of my work on The Descent because it was so much fun and became such a classic horror movie. To know that people will always hold this movie in such high regard will always be a great feeling for me. Working on A United Kingdom taught me how to be controlled, how to truly tell a story, and that what we do should be done with care and attention in order for the final result to truly be of worth. Lastly, Lost in Space reminded me why I got into this amazing industry in the first place — it’s about telling a good story in a fun way for the audience to enjoy!
A United Kingdom Official Trailer 1
Director: Amma Asante
Cinematographer: Sam McCurdy pic.twitter.com/xkbqvhB0Pq
— Motion Picture Arts (@MPAs_Gallery) December 8, 2016
Nerds and Beyond: You’ve had the opportunity to work in several different genres, with sci-fi and horror being recurring themes in your work. Do you prefer one genre over the other, and if so, why?
McCurdy: I’ve always been a big horror fan. I loved it as a teen and will continue to love it as I get older. Horror has a great way of reinventing itself and just when you think it’s dead and buried, it comes back stronger than ever. I feel the same about sci-fi. It has a great way of reinventing itself. Both genres often reflect the times we live in and the state of society. If I can continue to work in both genres I will continue to be a very happy man.
Nerds and Beyond: What advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue a career as a cinematographer?
McCurdy: The best advice I ever had was to just go out and learn what you like — not what others like or what others do or what others want, find what you like then go out and learn from those around you! Get into the camera department as quickly as you can. You will learn more from spending days on set than you will ever learn from trying to copy others. Ask questions. Always ask questions to everyone around you. Cinematographers are really nice people who love nothing more than answering questions, I promise you! If I hadn’t bugged the hell out of the people when I started working I wouldn’t be where I am today. Every cinematographer I worked with was happy to answer all the crazy, simple, obvious questions I ever asked. There are no stupid questions!
Nerds and Beyond: Finally, for anyone interested in seeing more of your work or following your future projects, where can they find you?
Thanks to Sam McCurdy for answering our questions! The first two seasons of Lost in Space are available to stream now on Netflix.