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McDonough Brings Anamorphic Look to Fear the Walking Dead

In Fear the Walking Dead, AMC’s spinoff to the hit series The Walking Dead, the zombie apocalypse has just begun to affect Los Angeles. In the six-episode first season, L.A. residents try to survive as the military loses containment and the power grid goes down. Leading up to the pilot, cinematographer Michael McDonough, ASC, BSC saw an opportunity to employ the anamorphic format for a series.

I wanted to bring the anamorphic look to the show, specifically Panavision anamorphic with the front anamorphic elements. To me, that's the anamorphic look.

“I've been trying to push anamorphic in TV for several years, and this pilot was the first chance to try it out,” McDonough says. “I wanted to bring the anamorphic look to the show, specifically Panavision anamorphic with the front anamorphic elements. To me, that's the anamorphic look. I also wanted to go anamorphic because even though the network was going to require a 16-by-9 image, I knew the texture of anamorphic would give us those classic flares as we planned from light sources in frame.”

McDonough, a native of Scotland, and director Adam Davidson crafted a look for the show to stand apart from The Walking Dead – one that was grittier and more urban with a richer, more varied color palette. “Because of the premise, we wanted to be in with the characters in a docudrama style,” McDonough explains. “We were dealing with the high contrast of L.A. and light sources in frame that flared. The way the image separates the background when it goes out of focus with Panavision anamorphics is really beautiful. We went with some zooms and the G-Series for the pilot, and we absolutely loved it.”

For season two of Fear the Walking Dead, cinematographers Patrick Cady, ASC and Robert Humphreys, ACS came aboard to split time with McDonough, allowing each more prep time. Also, the production moved south to take advantage of the Titanic water stages at Rosarito Beach in Mexico. What better way to avoid hordes of zombies than living on a yacht in the ocean?

Along with the move, McDonough switched to small ARRI Alexa Minis for practical purposes. Alexa XT Plus bodies serve as backup. “Knowing that we were going into this with a realistic, messy aesthetic, it's almost like we were a news crew following our characters around,” he says. “Fifty percent of the show we shoot handheld to keep that sense of being right there with the characters, to have the audience standing over their shoulders. The camera even will get to a point in a scene a little bit late, and that's a positive for us. With Minis, the operators can keep that camera active and agile. We've been filming in boats, around water and in tight spaces, and we try to keep the cameras as stripped down as possible.”

McDonough also knew that securing multiple sets of G-Series anamorphic lenses for 15 episodes would be difficult. “I’ve used many other anamorphics, but Panavision is my go-to company,” he notes. “I do love the front-mounted anamorphic element of Panavision. I love the color that is applied to the flares, and the quality you get with that front element, so I thought we could go with some older glass. We got some B-Series, which is glass from the 1960s that looks really fantastic, and [VP of Optical Engineering] Dan Sasaki mounted Zeiss rear elements to bring the contrast back. Even with cropping the 2.40 image, the quality is there.

“With the nature of TV,” he adds, “I've had to carefully craft a package so that we have everything we need, but I only have one-and-a-half sets of lenses with some doubles in the mid-range. We are trying to be as economic as possible to make anamorphic work in TV.”

When working in and around the water sets, McDonough utilizes a 50-foot Technocrane on a barge fitted with a 50-500mm anamorphic zoom. He shoots at a little deeper T4 as much as possible, mounting Polarizers on the front of the lenses for all the water and sky work. Hollywood Black Magic filters bring some of the contrast back on exteriors. Pearlescent filters find their way into interior work.

He also picked up a couple close-focus anamorphic lenses Sasaki had crafted for Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC for a project that ultimately went spherical. “I grabbed those 32mm and 42mm lenses to get those nice wide-but-close shots on characters,” McDonough points out. “That was new for season two.

“Panavision works hard to get me the gear,” he continues. “They are there for me. Whether it is working with [EVP of Global Sales & Marketing] Bob Harvey and Panavision in Woodland Hills or [Director of Marketing] Hugh Whittaker and Panavision in the U.K., I've always had a great relationship with those guys, and I think it’s indicative of that relationship that I'm able to bring anamorphic to a TV show.”