Interview: “Legends of Tomorrow” Cinematographer Mahlon Todd WilliamsJanuary 20, 2017
Whether it’s music videos, TV movies or television series, Mahlon Todd Williams has had the opportunity to be behind the camera and experience many different parts of the entertainment world during his career. Recently we had the chance to talk to Mahlon about how he got into the business, his love for photography and film and what it’s like working on a big comic TV show like Legends of Tomorrow.
So did you always have an interest in the world of photography or was that something you developed over time?
Mahlon: I took animation classes, made little animated films when was ten to twelve years old and when I was in high school I took a photography class and at that point I was quite interested in doing it. Once I got out of school I had about a million part time jobs until I figured out I wanted to go to film school but while I was doing that I was working at the cable TV company in town here and I would shoot as a camera operator, soccer games, lacrosse games and then eventually I got my application together and got into college in Montreal, Concordia University, and I did three years of film there. Since I’ve graduated school I’ve either been a camera assistant or a camera man, I haven’t really done anything else. I came back to Vancouver and got into the union right away as a camera trainee, I did that for two years, then worked as a second assistant camera man for about ten years and in between jobs I was still shooting short films, music videos and documentaries. Commercials were fun because you were always using new technology, such as cameras, lenses and techniques so for me that was cool, not to mention it was shorter amounts of time which gave me more time to do other things. In the early 2000’s I would be the DP of a TV movie and then literally the day after that finished I’d be back on a commercial, working as a second assistant loading film. That basically financed my career as a camera man and learning the ropes of what you needed to do as a camera man from guys whose work I loved.
Was there a ‘big break’ moment for you, or after a certain amount of time did you just realize that yes, I can make a career out of this, I can make it in this business?
Mahlon: I wouldn’t say there was just one, it was more like a dozen different things that sort of happened. One of the big things was when I was twelve or thirteen and went to Disney World for me birthday, I think it was during one of those tours at Universal Studios, and we were in one of those cars and eventually ended up on this dirt road and I’m sure it was a parking lot PA standing in the distance, and the guy on the radio who was giving the tour pointed out they were shooting Mandrake the Magician and I just about lost my mind. I thought it was crazy that I was so close to somebody making a film and that got my mind thinking that hey, somebody actually does this as a job. Another thing was, of all things, the documentary of the making of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I remember watching that many, many times and I wanted to be a stunt guy or I wanted to shoot second units, everything in that documentary just blew my mind. They were somewhere in a different part of the world, building these insane stunts and I didn’t understand that it was second unit or whatever but to me, that was film making, I loved the technical side of what I was seeing. Two weeks after I graduated film school, I answered and add while in Vancouver and got a job as a gaffer shooting music videos. This is where I learned a lot about lighting and setting up shots and while we worked twelve hour days, we had a lot of freedom to experiment, there wasn’t someone watching over our shoulders, so we started playing around with gels and complimentary colors, that’s where I learned all of those things. Then I got the call from the union that I had been accepted into the camera training program which was another step for me towards working on bigger productions, that’s where my focus was.
So I did about ten years of camera assisting, slowly progressing to bigger and bigger indie jobs, corporate videos, super low budget commercials, started travelling around the world shooting documentaries which was pretty amazing. At the time I was working with a producer in Vancouver for about five years, who then decided that he wanted to get into TV movies so that was my break into TV movie land and I ended up doing about twenty of those. He eventually got into a TV series called Painkiller Jane and I ended up doing twenty two episodes of that show and all of this work led to me finally getting into the union. Once you get in the union it doesn’t guarantee you’ll get any union work, it’s kind of a free for all so for another five years I continued to shoot non-union movies. Then I got a call from a director/producer that I’d worked with before, he was working on the TV series Alphas in Toronto and needed someone to do the second unit so I flew out there and it turned out to be not only a job for the entire season but it saw me take over the entire show for the finale episode because the main DP had to leave and go do Rookie Blue. In between seasons of Alphas I got hired to work on a music video and as it turned out it was for Drake and his song ‘Headlines’, which in turn led me to work on more music videos, this time for The Weekend.
How did you end up working on Legends of Tomorrow?
Mahlon: I’d heard for about a month through the grapevine that my name was in the mix to do Legends, and then I didn’t hear anything from anyone for months and I took off to help a friend shoot a documentary for about eight days. When I landed back in Vancouver I checked my messages and there was a message from David Gettis, another DP and he wanted to know if I was available so I phoned him back and said yes, of course I want to do the show, this is amazing. It’s a superhero show with time travel, so every episode we’re basically in different time periods so you really couldn’t ask for a better show to jump on board and everyone involved with it has been amazing, it’s been great. Again, getting this job goes back to what we were just talking about, it wasn’t something I walked into right out of school, I had to do the work, get my reel out there and even with that, it was a combination of my resume landing in the right hands at the right time.
With so many different things going on in Legends of Tomorrow, as the DP what are some of the challenges you face each and every week?
Mahlon: Well, we basically have a feature film we have to shoot in a TV schedule and depending on the episode, there are stunts or effects involved that take time to set up and creating the look of a different time period each week can be time consuming. There are twelve actors and if you’re doing standard coverage you have to do the master shot and then maybe some mini masters with half the cast in those shots, then two shots and then singles of everybody. Just the number of shots you have to do for the coverage is crazy and a number of times we’ll pull out three cameras so you’re not just lighting for one angle, it’s two or three angles and if you’re lucky they’re all in the same direction but trying to figure out two or three shots alone can be a little tricky. Then there is the logistics of it all and you combine all of that with a company move in the middle of the day, where you can lose an hour or two in the day, that’s also tricky, especially when you are trying to get a crew of eighty to work together as efficiently as possible. We try to keep it to twelve hour days. When you are in prep with the director, the AD, the designer and me, you try to figure out what kind of curveballs might hit you and sort them out in advance. There are some days where there is just so much stuff you end up getting into a fourteen hour day, which is as long as our days will go but yeah, every episode there’s at least one or two or days that will be fourteen hours.
As a director of photography, what are some of the differences between working on a movie and a TV show?
Mahlon: There are a lot of things that are the same but the one thing about a movie is it depends on how big it is. Even a short movie that you are doing in eighteen days, usually you get three weeks of prep on that. It gives you enough time to go find the location, go back with the directors, we usually take the script and figure out all the scenes we’re going to do, pretend to be the actors and sort of walk through what we figure the blocking is going to be, or if there’s specific blocking we work out the kinks at that point. On this show and on most TV shows, we have an eight day shooting schedule with an eight day prep so if you’re lucky, in the first two days you find your locations and they get locked in and then you have the rest of the schedule to do things, like the millions of meetings with wardrobe, makeup, effects, stunts and sort out all the little details we’re going to have to deal with. In between that, the director and I can sit in the office and go through what we’re going to do, how we’re going to do it. Some episodes, the day before we go on our tech survey we’re just locking in our location or we had a location and it fell apart for whatever reason and we found a new location.
Did you think you’d been in this spot, say twenty years ago, making a living doing something you love to do?
Mahlon: It’s funny, the one question I get asked all the time is about what my rates are or what the pay is like for what I do and it really depends. It can go from zero to as much as people want to pay me, I’m kind of happy with both and it really depends on the project. If it’s cool enough and I’ve got time, I’ll go do it. I love bouncing between projects, especially after eight months doing a show like this, it helps to keep things fresh and interesting. Last June, I worked on this country western music video that didn’t have much money in its budget but enough to send us down to Las Vegas to shoot for two days. It was a six person crew, total guerrilla shooting out in the desert and it was blast, it was wonderful to go back and so something that small, something where it was basically the director and I working together to make this video. It’s different elements, limitation, budgets but it’s still creating and you don’t have the pressure of eighty people, on the clock going into double time with the producers standing there. It was just the six of us standing in the middle of the desert, in one hundred and four degree heat, shooting this music video. When it’s free it has to be all about the people you’re working with and it has to be something a lot different than I have been doing.
Besides Legends of Tomorrow, do you have any other projects coming up in the near future?
Mahlon: A couple things have come through my door in the last month but I wasn’t able to do either one of those because of our schedule. We know we’re picked up for season three and that will start in July so I’ve got about four months to get something set up. Nothing is locked in right now so I’m not too sure and I’m only hesitant to say specifics because I’m slightly superstitious. It’s not just with you, friends ask me what I’m doing and as soon as I say I’m doing this certain thing, if the ink isn’t dry on the contract and everything is still in flux, money, financing, crew availability, you never know what could happen. We really only have a short amount of time so hopefully I can do a couple of music videos, commercials, maybe a pilot which would be pretty cool, possibly a small movie. Four months is enough time to have three or four weeks of prep and then three or four weeks of shooting, plus it would be nice to take a little break. Right now that’s my main goal, I finish on Legends of Tomorrow on February 15th and hopefully then I’ll get on a plane and find my way to a beach for two or three weeks to just relax. We’ve been at it full on since about July so it’s been about eight months of solid work, which is great but at the end of that it’s time to go take a bit of a break.
I want to thank Mahlon for taking the time to talk with us