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Interview: ‘Legends Of Tomorrow’ Cinematographer Mahlon Todd Williams
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DC's Legends of Tomorrow Todd Israel

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow burst onto The CW in January, 2016 – a spinoff of a spinoff (ArrowThe FlashLoT). These time-traveling legends were tasked by Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill) with capturing the evil Vandal Savage. The series, which also currently stars Victor Garber, Franz Drameh, Caity Lotz, Nick Zano, Dominic Purcell, and Brandon Routh, is just bunches of fun in time-traveling giftwrap.

What strikes one most about this series, are the settings in which our heroes spiral through. That magic is spun by the equally legendary cinematography duo of David Geddes and Mahlon Todd Williams. I got the unique opportunity to speak with Mahlon last week about filming in Vancouver, how he got started, and what it’s like filming this crazy, superhero, legendary, time-traveling show.

Check out the interview below.

As with all my interviews, I tend to ramble and ask inane questions first…

GoD: Hi! How are you?”

Todd Williams: Good. Good. We wrapped at about a quarter to 7 this morning.

GoD: So… What episode are you up to?

Todd Williams: We are up to episode 8.

GoD: Exciting! Don’t worry I won’t ask for any spoilers. Are you on the west coast?

Todd Williams: Yeah. I’m in Vancouver where we shoot the show.

GoD: I’m in Brooklyn (shake my head at myself because he did not ask me). Um… the whole CW films there, right? Everybody.

Todd Williams: Yeah, the Berlanti group. This seems to be their hometown now. Supergirl moved here. Flash, Arrow, and our show.

GoD: Supernatural I think.

Todd Williams: Yeah. There’s quite a few. And every year, they release a pilot or two up here just to add to the growing list of shows that they’re shooting up here.

GoD: I have no sense at all of how big Vancouver is, or what happens there. I always imagine that there’s so many of you guys there, that you all run into each other, in the street… hanging out.

Todd Williams: It’s sort of true. There’s a couple of hotels in the city that are basically packed with actors or technicians, that are up here working on the shows. You step into an elevator at the hotel, a lot of times you’ll find…

GoD: The Green Arrow is standing right next to you. Well, you guys work with him anyway, but…

Todd Williams: (Laughs) Exactly. Or people you haven’t worked with in a few years… you run into them. In he lobby of the hotel when you are going to meet someone, you end up meeting someone else. It’s pretty busy. This summer it’s been tough getting crew. It has slowed down a little bit, but I would say up until the middle of the summer, it’s been one of the busiest years the city has seen. There’s such a huge amount of stuff, and there’s a massive pool of technicians in Vancouver. Most people that are working on the sets in Vancouver tend to be from outside of Vancouver. I’m one of the few people working on film in Vancouver that is actually from Vancouver.

GoD: Oh wow! That’s so nice! And when you were growing up… I don’t even know how old you are (laughs) was it this many shows?

Todd Williams: (Laughs) No, no… there WAS an industry in town, because I was an extra when I first started out. I wanted to be a stunt guy at one point; I was a background extra. I worked on a bunch of shows, just a day here and a day there on a few TV shows, and some movies. I got sorta hooked with the industry doing that, and then just being a fan and watching movies. I was into photography in high school and being on set, I saw some of the work in the camera departments, and watched some behind the scenes documentaries. Part of the allure of getting into film, was watching a lot those documentaries. Especially the one that they put out for Raiders of the Lost Ark. That was probably one of my favorite movies, and the behind the scenes were crazy, because they went all over the world shooting and doing all these insane stunts. I went to school in Montreal for 5 years, and then I came back to Vancouver. When I started out in the city here, I got into the union right away… but I got in as an assistant. And the assistants tend to be second units that tend to do a lot of the stunts. And that’s what I watched the behind the scenes for. We’d be in Victoria, which are the islands right off the coast of Vancouver. There’s a highway that goes up the middle. There were 3 years in a row in May, that I was standing on that highway as an assistant working on crash scenes for 3 different movies, 3 different years, and they were skidding cars down the highway.

GoD: That’s cool! [I’m just an eloquent wordsmith]

Todd Williams: Yeah. That stuff. It’s a lot of fun. Especially the days where you’re doing a big stunt, you go out and you’d set up for like 6 hours to do one massive stunt, and then you sort of clean up and reorganize, and then if you were lucky maybe, just before you finish your 12-hour day, you would do the stunt one more time. But, it would take about 4 or 5 hours for all the effects to be re-rigged and the cars need to be reset, and the cameras need to be reloaded.

GoD: I can’t even imagine because I don’t usually visit sets, but I recently interviewed another cinematographer for a show in Brooklyn, and it was just an 8-second scene… and it took 4 hours. It was like 2 hours with the stand-ins, and then the actors came. In Brooklyn though, people are not really fazed.

Todd Williams: I think that’s what the actors like about Vancouver. You can be shooting downtown, and there are people watching a little bit, but it tends not to be super crazy when it comes to massive crowds of people watching stuff that you’re doing. It depends on the show. I had friends who worked on the set of Twilight, and let’s say they had to shoot a scene in a bakery [I immediately picture Robert Pattinson buying red velvet cupcakes]. They’d put 3 different bakeries on reserve to make it look like they were shooting in all of them, and then when the day would come they would go and shoot at one of them.

GoD: That’s smart.

Todd Williams: Yeah, but that gets super expensive because they would have to pay for each of the occasions. That movie had a crazy amount of paparazzi and thing to do with the show.

GoD: All The CW shows are crazy popular right now. They’re like taking over.

Todd Williams: For sure. The main producer, Greg Berlanti, who does our show, he is the head producer on Supergirl, Flash, Arrow, our show, and the Archie comic. Then he has a show in New York – Persons of Interest.

GoD: I thought of another show that films there, and I was invited to the set, but am afraid of flying… The Magicians?

Todd Williams: Oh yeah, they are.

GoD: SyFy is a little smaller. The CW doesn’t give me screeners. I think we’re a little too small, but SyFy does. But I can’t go. I’d have to take a train. It’ll take me 5 years. But let me get to the show we are supposed to be talking about. This is how my interviews usually go. I’m like, “Let’s just talk and see what he/she wants to talk about.” [We both laugh] So Legends of Tomorrow… and Arrow, The Flash, and Supergirl… they are superhero shows that each have a very different feel, but Legends of Tomorrow is most like The Flash to me – probably because it’s a direct spinoff, and there are a lot of special effects, so one, how do you manage that? Not sure if I’m asking that right. How do you picture the scene without the scene being there? There has to be a lot of green screen.

Todd Williams: Yeah. There’s a lot of green screen, and there’s also a lot of CG. When the guys are shooting the guns, sometimes when the characters, like when The Atom is shrinking, all that is in the script. I usually have to read the script a couple of times, because the first time it’s more of a technical pass. I zip through it for super basic things, like what’s day, what’s night, where the ship is. For me, the front of the ship is always important. It’ll say that the scene takes place in Rip’s parlor, and it’s daytime or nighttime, and then we have to figure out, “Is the ship in the temporal zone?” Then there’s like this certain technical things that have to happen in the front of the ship when we’re shooting there. Or if it’s landed somewhere, you need to find out what time period it is. Like last year, I did the Jonah Hex episode…

GoD: [I politely shout my interruption] “The Magnificent Eight.” Yeah. That was one of my favorites.

Todd Williams: Oh cool! [We’re best friends now] Yeah. We got great reviews on that episode, and that was not an easy episode to shoot. We had a lot of really cool sets and there’s a couple of locations that you have to sort of drive out of town to get to, but it was fun to shoot it. Stuff like that in the first pass for me… when you go through it, just locking into my head, what time period we are going to, when do you come back to the time period, if you are in and out of the ship. In the script, when you have to go to night or day, and sometimes if the back of the cargo bay opens up and you actually see it, and you have people leaving and coming back on the ship, it becomes critical to know what time of day it is. Are you in the middle of the city? Are you in an open field? Then that’s sort of the first thing to highlight, then talking to the director, like Marc or Phil down south, about where the ship is supposed to be. Then, if you start to see out the door, then 3 other questions start popping up. The ship is inside the soundstage. As soon as that door opens up, are we actually seeing out the door or are we out the door looking into the ship? Because if you are doing that, it’s a lot easier if the ship is a certain size. But if you are inside looking out, then it becomes the green screen.

GoD: And is the script that detailed? Does it tell you exactly? Or does it leave more for you to decide?

Todd Williams: Sometimes the writers will have details in the script that may not say green screen, but it will dictate that you have to do it, especially if you’re in a time period. We’ve got backdrops that go out the back window, and they’re modern cities. This season we had to track down one and have it shipped.

GoD: Are you allowed to tell me which one? You don’t have to.

Todd Williams: Chicago, but I don’t think I can tell you much more. A lot of times it will be more of a description. You’ll flag it when you are going through the script. It either has to be a backdrop, or a green screen, or cg, or a tracking shot, and they’ll cut out the windows. And in post, the guys will digitally drop something in. And each of those… once you have the list of 5 or 6 things, there’s a price attached, to each of those. As it goes along in prep, sometimes things will change in the story, or how much effects, or how big of fight scene that we’re doing. You could have the same effect, like having the city out of the window, and it’s less money to use a backdrop than green screen out the window. Like the episode we’re doing now, there’s probably about 8 scenes with a window in it. There’s a cost to that. If you multiply that about 4 or 5 times per scene by 8 scenes, then the cost seems a little too much. Also there’s a bunch a big fight scenes that had a lot of effects in it, so what we do, the art department will track down the right city, the right time period, the right backdrop. That hangs out the window, and we can shoot those scenes. We can show that a million times, and it will cost the same amount to rent for the day. We can put that money into the big action scenes in another portion of the script. It’s a bit of a recipe. Some of it is based on a financial equation. Some of it is also if we know there is a big action scene coming, with the big sort of Act 5 craziness, which usually happens…

GoD: [Laughs] Every single episode.

Todd Williams: Exactly. They really want to turn it into something special. And we’ll try and figure a super creative way to tell the story with the window or the door opening in different ways. We will still make it look cool and still tell the story, but make it financially a better version of it, and take that money and use it to do a bigger and better action sequence, more like a feature film.

GoD: I know with these shows there’s a bank of directors. I see the same names across bunches of shows. But it’s only you and one other person, right? And I wanted to ask if it’s because when they’re shooting, you’re editing. Is it like for scheduling purposes? Or to give you a day off?

Todd Williams: It’s kind of a combo of that actually. That show is so big. Even if I got offered to shoot all of the episodes, I couldn’t physically do it. Dave Geddes is the other cinematographer on the show. He was hired first. Dave was the one that contacted me to see if I was interested and available to do the odd episodes, while he did the even episodes.

GoD: How efficient!

Todd Williams: And what that allows is… I’m shooting now and our episode will finish next Tuesday, and the main crew… they shoot every day. And then Dave will take over with Dermott [Downs], who’s directed a bunch of our episodes, plus Flash, Arrow, Supergirl. Dermott is a great guy, started out as a cinematographer. he actually started out as a child actor. If you ever see the original version of Escape from Witch Mountain, he’s the bully kid with the crazy curly hair. He started out as an actor, then segued into a cinematographer. Then 5 years ago he moved to directing, and now he’s a straight up director.

GoD: I know that the director and the cinematographer are basically partners for each episode, because you’re directing the set and the scene, so it seems like a natural thing to do.

Todd Williams: Yeah, exactly.

GoD: I wanted to ask… why did David [Geddes] contact you? Did you guys work together before? Is it because he knew you had a similar style that wouldn’t interrupt anything… any continuity?

Todd Williams: He was given my name by one of the gaffers of the show, Richard Bucky. David got the gig and was about to go into prep for the show. He needed someone who was used to the pace of the show, was used to action, used to doing a very stylish show, and my name was put forward. He checked out my demo reel and looked at my resume. He gave me a call, and it was more of a phone interview, because he was so busy. We got on the phone and talked. He talked about the style of the show, and what we were up for. He was super excited about this show. You know Flash and Arrow are very cool shows, with the intricate and interesting worlds that each of those shows created. The thing that most interested me about Legends of Tomorrow is just the whole time-travel aspect. We didn’t know quite where we were going to be heading before this season started, only the first few episodes at that point, which basically opened the door for the writers to write into any time period, and it’s cool creating… You know, I’ve had to create Russia in the 80s, Germany in the 70s, the Western – the 1870s in the states.

GoD: And then “Leviathan” far, far into the future. It was like Terminator.

Todd Williams: Yeah. We’re not doing a hospital show or a lawyer show. You can still make it look cool, but you’re going back to the exact same office space.

GoD: Here is the OR, here is the front desk, here is the…

Todd Williams: It’s been cool, and just alternating… you’re working basically every day of the season, even though there’s two of us. The good thing is that we’ll shoot 9 days and then you go into prep for 9 days. So prep – there’s a lot of meetings and there’s a lot of discussions. We’re going through the script, and trying to find out how things make sense with the story. We’re trying to find the proper locations based on what’s in the script. And if you can’t find one, the set designer will end up building something for us. Things may change in the story while we’re in prep, and that may change the location. Like something may say things take place in a corner store in some town, and it moves from that to outside, or moves from day to night. It’s still the same story, but makes sense to have things that took place in one location take place in a different location. Sometimes we find a location that works really well and use that twice, or use a portion. Or you go into a building and one room looks like a bar, and one looks like a doctor’s office, and we’ll shoot the 2 different scenes in one day so that we don’t have to move the entire crew. We just push the carts down the hallway, and helps us tell the story. As far as alternating with Dave, it does give you a little bit of a break…

GoD: And you don’t have to rush through everything.

Todd Williams: For sure. In this season in particular, I haven’t worked with any of these directors before. In prep, you are getting to know the director, looking for locations, looking at what’s possible, the rules the characters live by, what can you do with the characters, and walking through the sets and explaining basic things. Like on the ship you can talk to Gideon and Gideon will respond. Just basic things like that. A Lot of times you don’t think about until someone new comes on, or people are like, “When you are in the hall, can you talk to Gideon, or do you have to be by a computer screen?” Logic questions come up a lot and we go through it. Sometimes there’s stuff that is written in the script that cannot technically happen on our show because something in a previous episode has come up. Something that isn’t supposed to work on the ship so you can’t use it in the script. Some shows have one cinematographer in every episode, but I got brought on by Dave. Dave created the pilot and part of my job is to stay within the parameters that have been set up by Dave and Marc and Phil.

GoD: Even so, the parameters are still very broad, with where you can go on the show.

Todd Williams: For sure.

GoD: Any other projects that you are working on now? Or are you waiting for the season to be over

Todd Williams: I’m waiting until we go on hiatus. I’ve had a couple of phone calls with producers. If it works with the breaks that I have – whether it’s a music video, a commercial, a movie, or a pilot. I’ve shot all of that before, so it will be nice. Music videos are fun because they are short but you can be really creative. I paint when I go home to relax.

GoD: So although you love shooting all of the characters, one of your favorite characters to shoot is…

Todd Williams: Last season, it was Wentworth, especially when he met his 8-year old self. Dominic [Purcell] is great to shoot scenes with too. Him as a person, and his character are so dynamic. Victor Garber is great, him and Franz’s [Drameh] scenes – those guys have a nice dynamic. It depends… the Jonah Hex stuff was a blast. The time period and the costumes, and you’re standing on set and it’s crazy, and we’re in the middle of a bar fight scene. And it’s something that you’ve watched as a kid or as an adult. There are a couple minutes when you’re shooting, and you sort of realize where you are, and that you are pretending to be in the middle of a fight scene in the 1860s. And that’s such a super iconic western thing to do, and you realize that this is your job.

GoD: I was totally a Snart person, but now that he’s not on it… I mean, Mick Rory always had great lines, but now he’s my favorite. He’s the only one really doing it. So he’s the only one standing out.

Todd Williams: He’s so great. It’s a bit of a twist for his character that Wentworth [Miller] isn’t around. You can guarantee that any time period he’s always gonna be a fish out of water and it’s fun to shoot it too. There’s a lot of good comedy in any scene that he’s in.

Between what I learned from DC’s Legends of Tomorrow‘s Mahlon Todd Williams and Gotham‘s Crescenzo Notarile, I’m ready to start my new cinematography career. Need an intern, guys?

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow airs Thursday nights at 8:00pm ET on The CW.

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