Castles, Candlelight & Digital Cinematography: The Realities of Producing Fantasy Series 'Outlander'

"We wanted the overall look of the show to feel like you are living this Scottish experience," says cinematographer Neville Kidd.
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Starz’ new original series Outlander, adapted from the hit time travel books by Diana Gabaldon and headed up by Battlestar Galactica showrunner Ronald D. Moore, had its debut in August, inevitably drawing comparisons to HBO’s long-running fantasy epic Game of Thrones.

Shot on location in the Scottish Highlands, the lushly photographed Outlander follows Claire (Caitriona Balfe), a married British combat nurse from 1945 who mysteriously falls back in time to 1743 Scotland, where she is torn between her husband, Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies), and Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a Scottish warrior who comes to her rescue. Featuring gorgeous scenery and an equally appealing cast, the show delivers beautiful interludes set alongside complicated military intrigue and visceral action sequences.

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Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie Fraser (Sam Heugan) in 1743, with Rupert MacKenzie (Grant O'Rourke).

Cinematographer Neville Kidd shot eight installments of the first season’s 16 episodes—the season is split into two runs; the second half will air in early 2015—using up to three ARRI Alexa Plus cameras outfitted with Cooke prime and ARRI/Fujinon Alura zoom lenses.

“We chose the Alexa because of its phenomenal filmmaking look for digital cinematography,” Kidd explains. “The Alexa has a fantastic latitude and sensitivity, which helps us when filming in low-light conditions. And it’s a 35mm camera.”

The production team developed separate looks—daytime, nighttime, interior and exterior—for the two time periods using custom LUTs created with the input of DIT Grant McPhee. The looks were applied to the footage during color correction. “We made 1945 slightly desaturated—the opposite of what you would think—and we made 1743 more saturated, kind of a richer experience than 1945,” Kidd says. “I think we wanted to make 1743 a bit rawer than 1945, like you were really living and experiencing it, almost like all of your senses were slightly overstimulated.”

Capturing 2K footage shot at 4:4:4 resolution in ProRes format, Kidd and his team strived for an immersive level of authenticity whether inside a real Scottish castle, out in the countryside or on a local soundstage.

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“We wanted the overall look of the show to feel like you are living this Scottish experience,” the Scotland native says. “It was important, as a DoP, to make viewers feel like they are in the castle that the characters are in, to make them feel they are in 1743 Scotland.”

The logistics of filming inside a castle presented a unique challenge. “The main thing was making everything fit,” Kidd relates. “When we’re filming inside the real castle, we’re limited by real 15th century architecture. You can’t move the walls—they’re 6 feet thick—and you can’t change a door that’s only 5 feet tall. Or you want to bring horses through the gateway that’s too small. So we’d have to be clever in the way we filmed things. We’d have to work around the architecture.”

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For lighting, Kidd relied on a combination of candlelight and flickering LED lights. “We used a lot of real flame, but obviously you can’t get real flame too close to the actresses, so we developed other light to mimic flame and fire,” Kidd says, adding that one of his trademark touches is to ensure that not all the candles are lit. “Scottish castles are kind of drafty places; some of the candles would have been blown out, or perhaps not all of them were lit, so I always made sure that a few candles weren’t lit to make it feel authentic. I would give the art department a percentage of candles to keep lit. If it’s 100 percent of the candles, sometimes it seems too much like a studio show.”

To meet the challenge of matching a studio set with the look and feel of a Scottish castle, Kidd frequently employed a Steadicam. “A lot of times when we would do shots with a character going from one part of the castle to another—from the Great Hall into a corridor, through the storeroom and into the kitchen—the camera would follow them all around so you would get a feel for castle life,” he recounts. “So we’re mainly using Steadicam, showing a 360 view of the castle. And I was quite keen to employ this kind of method to keep it authentic. So you enjoyed seeing the castle as you would have seen it in 1743. And when you’re seeing it from all directions, it takes away from any studio set.”

Kidd also sought to bring the Scottish environment into the castle through lighting. “We plan things out to keep as much realism as possible. When we had an exterior scene and were going straight into the studio, the castle interior, it was important to match the daylight from one scene to the next so it felt like Scotland, not like a studio shoot,” Kidd says. “As storytellers, you really try not to pop the bubble.”  

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