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Unit Photographer Chris Large, who shoots episodic still photography for AMC's Hell on Wheels, talks about collaborating with the special effects team and capturing gunfire on camera.
Q: You've worked on several Westerns, including AMC's Broken Trail. Is that how you got this job?
A: With my background in Westerns -- I've done about 20 different Westerns -- Hell on Wheels seemed like a pretty good fit for me. For Westerns, there is a very specific shooting style needed. Half the time, they're on horseback and shooting up at an actor isn't the most flattering angle. You spend a lot of time on a ladder or platforms so you can shoot the actors on horses straight-on.
Q: How many cameras do you use in a typical shoot? What do you use each one for?
A: In my kit, I carry four bodies. Generally, I have at least three cameras around my neck. I have one that is almost to be confused with a point-and-shoot, but it's very light and totally quiet. One of my main cameras will be in a "blimp," which is a soundproof housing. I'll have another body with a 24-120 mm zoom on it. The fourth body will have the equivalent of 100-300 mm zoom on it. With a show like Hell on Wheels, it's such a broad campus. The set is so big and the action can take place way in the background up to a close-up all in one continuous take. It's nice to have a wide variety of glass on me at all times.
Q: How do you deal with smoke from the guns being fired?
Composer Kevin Kiner, who writes and records the soundtrack to AMC's Hell on Wheels, discusses his love of unconventional instruments and reveals why he played bass harmonica in bed.
Q: What drew you to Hell on Wheels?
A: Both Gustova Santaolalla [the composer of Hell on Wheels' Main Title Theme] and myself were approached about it. I worked for Gustavo and it just seemed like a natural fit because they were looking for something really soloistic and similar to things in Babel and Brokeback Mountain that were very sparse and interesting while using unusual instruments to evoke a Western kind of feeling.
Q: Gustavo Santaolalla mentioned that your work was inspired by some of his Western tracks. Can you tell us more about how that happened?
A: Yeah, it definitely was. Gustavo composes a bit differently from most traditional film composers. He'll just go into the studio and just record a bunch of tracks that he's inspired to record... Sometimes from a story or a script or just an idea. And a lot of those tracks were the genesis for what wound up being the score to Hell on Wheels.
Q: You've composed music for scifi TV shows like Stargate and Star Wars: The Clone Wars. How would you compare working on those to Hell on Wheels?
Director David Von Ancken, who helmed the Season 2 Premiere of AMC's Hell on Wheels, discusses Season 3's new direction and what it means to have a "N.A.R." philosophy.
Q: What's the best part about directing a show like Hell on Wheels?
A: Having to keep your head up for unexpected opportunities that come and go very rapidly, like changes in landscapes and changing environments. That's something specific to not being in a studio and not being in an urban location. Weather, environments, and even actors act differently when they're out there. I like Hell on Wheels to be as N.A.R. as possible, meaning no acting required, so if it's supposed to be cold, we try to make them cold... I like to make it real.
Q: You directed the very first episode of Hell on Wheels. How has the series evolved since then?
A: The first year was figuring out our show. I think now, with our new show runner and writer team, there's a new direction really focusing more on character as far as I can tell. And we're incorporating the spectacle of being out in big sky country... I find it really exciting.
Q: Has your approach as a director changed over the seasons?
Marvin Rush, Director of Photography for AMC's Hell on Wheels, compares the series to Star Trek and breaks down the show's signature shot.
Q: You've spent a lot of your career working on Star Trek. What attracted you to Hell on Wheels?
A: It was an audacious mission to build a ribbon of railroad across a very hostile land, much like going through space... The people who did it had grit and determination and were willing to work under difficult circumstances. It was called "Hell on Wheels" for a reason, so that was intriguing for me. And also, even though it's a Western, it's a genre that's not a contemporary time. So, I had spent a lot of time doing genre shows, and I liked them, and I had never done a Western before.
Q: Are there any similarities between shooting scifi and a Western?
A: Well, I'd probably be straining to find a connection there. I'll tell you the thing that's interesting about lighting a Western -- and really it's an interesting problem and dilemma to face -- in that time, there's no electricity, so there's no electric light. There's only two kinds of light in this world: There's sunlight and moonlight, and then you have to light something on fire... Candles, lanterns, and firewood, you know that's it. So the color palette is very interesting.
Q: How do you work around the fact that there's essentially no electricity in Hell on Wheels?
Bill Ives, the Art Director for AMC's Hell on Wheels, breaks down the show's aesthetic and explains the anatomy of a train crash.
Q: Hell on Wheels is committed to historical accuracy. How does that inform your work?
A: We've always said from the beginning that we want to be as historically accurate as we can, but we're also not making a documentary. We're as true as we can be, but we certainly take liberties with it. We're really good with our set decoration and props department -- they're always spot on -- but some of the materials that we end up using in construction may or may not be exactly right.
Q: How would you describe the aesthetic of the Hell on Wheels set?
A: The first season kind of played out really interesting where the location that we used was super-muddy... It was sort of hard to even handle materials. Just moving stuff from one place to another, it would almost end up distressing itself and aging itself... So we tried to follow that in the next two seasons, where it's really down and dirty.
Q: It's pretty unique to work on a show where the sets change so drastically from season to season. How have you adapted to those challenges?
Brian Kent, (armourer for AMC's Hell on Wheels) speaks to AMCtv.com in this interview about Anson Mount's impressive cylinder swap and the importance of respecting firearms.
Q: Can you tell us about the main duties of an armourer?
A: As an armourer, when I receive a script I visualize how the shot is going to play out and what kind of ammunition and supplies we're going to need. I look at the actors to make sure we have appropriate firearms that they're cast as having, and then we have a back-up. In case something happens, we can swap out the gun and make sure there's no hold-up in the filming and production.
Q: How do you decide which character gets which gun?
A: Sometimes it's written into the script and we try our very best to accommodate. Most often, I'll come up with a couple of examples that I think would be period correct. [Prop Master] Ken Wills and I go and take the guns to the actor and the director, and between the collaboration between the four of us, we come up with a gun that's suitable.
Q: Tell me more about The Swede's "Beauty."
A: It is a side-by-side percussion shotgun, and it's a period shotgun. It fires two rounds out of either one of the barrels. It's very short in length and it has great personality somewhat like The Swede himself. Him having a classic piece like this just fits in with his character so well.
Q: Cullen had a Griswold in Season 1, and a Remington in Season 2 (which Anson admitted to preferring). Which do you prefer and why?
Edsel Hilchie, a Locations Manager for AMC's Hell on Wheels, reveals the lengths to which he's gone to land a good location.
Q: Hell on Wheels is set in in the 1860s, before cell towers and telephone poles were everywhere. How difficult is it to find locations that fit that setting?
A: That's one of the beauties of Alberta. You can find a lot of locations like that there. I actually just, oddly enough, was out scouting another feature film there that's set at the turn-of-the-century, and what was blowing away the executives and all the people from the studio was that they could film without having to CGI out the telephone poles and all that.
Q: What makes Alberta believable terrain for Hell on Wheels?
A: Our geography is identical to the American West. There are places where I can take you in Alberta that look like Nevada; there are places I can take you that look like Kansas; there are places I can take you that look like Wyoming.
Q: What are the most important things you look for when scouting for Hell on Wheels?
A: What it comes down to is giving them a landscape that has a variety of looks that they can work within. You shoot a lot within the town and you shoot a lot within the railway tracks, so you want as much variety of landscapes and looks as you can get. If you look this way, you've got one look for the camera, and if you look that way, you've got another look -- without moving two miles down the road. Everything has to be within close walking distance.
Q: How do you work around the crazy weather?
James Dugan, who plays Carl (the bartender) on AMC's Hell on Wheels, talks about what he has in common with his character and his scenes with Common.
Q: You taught drama at the University of Calgary. What do your students think of your role as Carl the Bartender?
A: I'm retired, but I'm still in touch with many of my students. And they were very excited and very proud, and would say to other students, "Hey, Jimmy here, you know, is on Hell on Wheels!" They are always impressed when their teachers actually work. [Laughs]
Q: Did you construct any kind of back story for Carl?
A: The first thing I did was I made up a back story. I decided that he was Southerner who had owned a little tavern that was destroyed and burned down by the Yankees. So, after the Civil War, like many displaced Southerners, he got the first job he could on the railroad.
Q: How do you think you've managed to make a bartender into such a memorable character?
A: I spent a lot of time with the script...thinking about each scene and the character and what my attitude was toward that character. Carl really liked Bohannon, -- he really respected him because not only were they fellow Southerners, he spoke to me when he came in the bar. That's something that Anson just added.
Q: Do you have any bartending experience yourself?
In this interview for AMCtv.com, Ryan Robbins, who plays Hawkins on AMC's Hell on Wheels, talks about bonding with Anson Mount over 1860s weapons and the technical side of his character's execution scene.
Q: You've done a lot of scifi TV shows. What drew you to Hell on Wheels?
A: I've always loved a good Western. I started watching the show for Chris [Heyerdahl] and got hooked immediately. It's such a good show and AMC is an amazing network. I jumped at the chance to be a part of the family.
Q: You said on Twitter that Christopher Heyerdahl is one of your all-time favorite co-stars. Why is that?
A: Chris and I did Sanctuary together for a total of five years and we became really good friends. I always tell people that Chris was there when my daughter took her first steps. He's just a great guy and an incredible actor.
Q: What is the training like to use 1860s guns for a show like Hell on Wheels?
A: I love history and learning how to use those particular tools, which is effectively what they are. I felt like Anson [Mount, who plays Cullen Bohannon] was the same way. We would sit down together and take the weapons apart and put them back together. It ended up being really beneficial. In that shootout in the end between Cullen and Hawkins, we ended up working it out much differently than it was written because those old pistols, you can't just simply reload like you would now. It's a big process.
Q: Was it your idea for Hawkins to fumble reloading his gun?
In this exclusive interview for AMCtv.com, Carol Case, costume designer for AMC's Hell on Wheels, talks about overcoming weather challenges and the art of designing around gunshot wounds.
Q: Who's more challenging to design for -- the men or the women of Hell on Wheels?
A: It's a little bit of both, really! The ladies are obviously more fun for the girl in me with all those petticoats and silks and all that. Because Hell on Wheels has so many men, it's interesting and challenging to keep being aware of the character in each outfit. So many of the guys have just pants, shirts, vests, coats, boots, and hats -- so to make distinctive choices within that is quite a challenge.
Q: Do you collaborate at all with the hair and makeup team?
A: Yes, we all collaborate and try to get one look together. It would be no good if I designed a beautiful costume and then a character came out with an inappropriate hairdo. Even with the blood and gunshot wounds, we'll work together to figure out the best place for them to be and how to make it look authentic as possible.
Q: Was there any specific character that you were particularly excited to design for after reading the scripts?
A: I think the one I liked designing for the most was probably The Swede because it allowed a lot of creativity. Chris Heyerdahl is great because he's lots of fun to work with and he's collaborative. It was a very rewarding project.
Q: Hannah's dresses are especially detailed. How do they differ from, say, those of Lily Bell?