Lachlan Milne: A Cinematic Perspective
Posted on July 23 2021
Born in Australia, Lachlan Milne is a celebrated cinematographer who has filmed in multiple countries around the world. His work has premiered at the Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, Berlin, SxSW, Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals. Lachlan was the cinematographer for Hunt for the Wilderpeople, directed by Taika Waititi, which premiered at Sundance in 2016 and remains the highest grossing New Zealand film of all time. He also shot four episodes of Netflix blockbuster Stranger Things, which became the most streamed TV series in Netflix history. We caught up with multi-talented Lachlan, who has been a Billingham owner for several years, to talk about his work and recent successes including the Oscar-nominated Minari and Love and Monsters.
Please tell us where and when you were born, and a little bit about your upbringing.
I come from a city called Adelaide, which is the capital of South Australia. My father was a director when I was a child, so I grew up around film people. That’s what I’ve always loved the most about this industry. I find the people so diverse and such good humans. We moved as a family to Sydney in the mid-90s, so most of my formative years, you could say, were spent there. It’s a wonderful city. I didn’t quite realise that until I started travelling.
Did your place of birth and early years have any influence on your choice of career?
It was always ‘Dad’s work’ until I realised that I was on a film set. I used to help out where I could in the art department. Unfortunately, I got stuck with the ‘boss’s son’ most of the time, but it helped show me what everyone’s role entailed and how they went about doing it. I was always fascinated with the camera. Everything was shot on film then, so there was a mystery to how it all worked for me.
The trailer for 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople' where Lachlan was the cinematographer.
What or who inspired you to become a cinematographer? Who are your idols or role models?
For a time, I thought I might want to be a photojournalist. I love the honesty of the found image. Capa, Bresson, Nachtwey, McCullin – all these brilliant photographers were, and still are, huge influences on how I think about my work. I remember the first time I realised the storytelling ability of cinematography in a way that I hadn’t before. I saw the great Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours Blue at the cinema and it completely opened my mind. The use of colour, the way the camera moved or didn’t move, the use of visuals instead of expositional dialogue… everything about it excited me. I started looking at European cinema and that eventually led me to Andrei Tarkovsky, who I think is one of the greatest film makers the world has ever known.
Lachlan asleep on set as a 20-year-old 3rd electric. “The gaffer took it. I had to paint the truck floor as punishment.” Image credit: Les Frasier
Did you study cinematography or have formal training? If not, how did you enter the industry?
I completed half a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Sydney and was rejected from film school when I was 20. So I became a camera assistant as another way into the industry. I started on corporate videos and low budget commercials, and gradually got into doing movies for free – and eventually some larger budget ads. For me, it was perfect. I got to be on a many sets of all kinds and learnt by ‘doing’ – or by asking how to do it. Never be afraid to ask for advice.
The trailer for 'Love and Monsters' where Lachlan was the cinematographer.
You have worked on some outstanding movies and series including the highly-acclaimed Hunt For The Wilderpeople, Little Monsters, Stranger Things, Minari and Love and Monsters, to name but a few. What has been your most inspirational or notable project, and why?
Each project I’ve been involved with has given me something significant to take away. Wilderpeople taught me a lot about making a film for an audience, where everyone can get something out of it, regardless of their age. Minari was one of the most special experiences of my professional life. The care and consideration that went into that film by only a handful of wonderful people, all doing it for the right reasons, was just fantastic. I’m so happy to see how well people seem to connect with it. Stranger Things taught me to use colour in a way I hadn’t really before and Love and Monsters was fun doing so many visual effects sequences.
Lachlan Milne behind the scenes on 'Love and Monsters' by Naomi Sharp
You’ve been working with a number of respected film directors including Taika Waititi and Isaac Chung. Can you give us some insights into how they operate and your experiences with them?
Taika and Isaac are both exceptionally talented, and also the complete opposite of each other! Taika likes to improvise a great deal with dialogue and blocking, often doing different tonal performances within a scene so he has options editorially. Isaac is very considered and tends to know immediately when he’s achieved what he’s looking for. I love working with them both. I just change my approach slightly with each director. One thing they both do is put many of their own experiences into their movies. I think that’s why people relate so much to both of them. A large amount of content in their films is based on real events. I love that about them.
Lachlan Milne and Taika Waititi - Image copyright: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle
Which award are you most proud of?
My Critics’ Choice Movie Awards nomination for Minari has been the most satisfying, for sure. I feel that film best reflects how I like to shoot.
The trailer for 'Minari' where Lachlan was the cinematographer.
What has been the most demanding movie or production you’ve worked on, and what were the biggest challenges technically? How did you address or overcome those and what did you learn from the process?
Each project has its own inherent difficulties. Sometimes it’s financially driven, sometimes it’s schedule or often it’s both at the same time. The issues we had on Minari were different to those we’d encounter on Stranger Things mostly because of the scale of each show. The way I approach a job changes every time, I think. Stranger Things is very logistics heavy. We’re often lighting multiple sets on the same stage at once, so they’re ready to walk into once we shoot the first one out. I tend to use the time during shooting to prep the next day with my grip and gaffer. It’s also the only time I haven’t operated ‘A’ camera, solely because there’s so much to do outside of the actual day-to-day filming. Stranger Things made me a better multi-tasker, for sure. Lighting for four shooting units at the same time and pulling it off is super-satisfying, but I don’t recommend it if you want to live past 40!
Behind the scenes of Stranger Things - Image credit: Tudor Jones
You mentioned that Stranger Things taught you how to use colour. Do you have any tips for our readers about when coloured light can add to a scene? And any advice for making it work well?
Season 3 of Stranger Things was all about colour. From the wardrobe and makeup through to the lighting, we wanted to remind everyone just how saturated the mid-1980s got. It was a really liberating experience photographically for me to be able to throw myself into it. The mall in particular was so beautifully set decorated with custom built neons that I had to lean into that when it came to the finale. I’ve always loved colour contrast, especially when it comes to night scenes. I use a lot of practical fixtures* in my work, primarily because I want it to feel as honest as possible, if that makes sense? I like to know where the light’s coming from, so I often frame fixtures in shot so I can justify a light source on the actor standing next to it. If you take the trailer in Minari, I put all those fixtures near where most of the action was going to take place, so I always had a motivating source to light from. I rated the camera around 4000k so the pracs* would feel warmer to the camera than to the eye. In the kitchen, we hid some LED ribbon and pushed it more into a blue/green world so there’d be some contrast between the two spaces. I really wanted to use colour contrast to highlight that not everything matched. I felt that being a second hand trailer in the mid-1980s it had been a bit neglected and that any maintenance was just to ‘get by’. Sometimes just using one colour can feel too polished and lit – never be afraid of using more than one if you want things to feel a bit more ‘found’.
*Note for readers - 'Practicals' are lighting sources that you see within the frame of the shot such as candles, room lights, neon signs, TVs etc.
Lachlan Milne. Photo by Jason Bolin.
You mentioned a passion for stills photography and this shows through in your Instagram. How much do you find that art-form influences your cinematography and vice versa?
As mentioned above, for a while, I thought I wanted to go into photojournalism. When I was 15, I discovered the Magnum collective of photographers and it blew my mind. Capa and Bresson led to Don McCullin and James Nachtwey. The storytelling component of the single image has always fascinated me. It’s a totally different way of thinking to cinematography despite being so related. Street photography is still a huge part of my life and I’ve always got a camera with me. I love the spontaneity of it. It’s diametrically opposed to filmmaking, which often tends to be very considered and rehearsed. Shooting reversal film when I was growing up taught me exposure ratios and reacting quickly in order to get the shot, and I’ve taken that into my professional career. I still love operating hand held and reacting to actors, though. The stills I enjoy taking the most are the unplanned, honest moments that show something normal in a peculiar or weird way. I like keeping both worlds separate, if you know what I mean? I feel that my photography is all mine and is still the best example of what I’m really fascinated by.
Image credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle
Which equipment do you use in your cinematography, and why?
The gear I use always varies from project to project. I’m a huge believer in the right tool for the right task, and I’m always looking for different combinations that might bring something new to my work. In the digital age, lenses have almost become like film stock used to be, in the sense that they have a big influence on the look of the job. I’m always shooting tests to pitch ideas to a director, so we can both agree on what feels right for that particular show.
What’s in your kitbag currently?
Everything, I think…!
Hadley Large Pro Camera Bag, Fujifilm X-T1 with f1.4 23mm lens, Fujifilm GFX 50R with f3.5 50mm lens, Canon EOS R with f4 Sigma 24-105mm lens and 13 inch MacBook Pro.
We know that you have been using a Billingham Hadley Large Pro for the last seven years. What was your reason for choosing a Billingham, and how did you find it useful in your work?
My search for the perfect camera bag went on for years. I needed it to fit at least two bodies with lenses, a bunch of accessories and a 13-inch Mac Book Pro. It also had to be weather-proof, and most importantly still be compact enough to fit in the overhead compartment on a plane without damaging anything or looking too big. I bought my Hadley Large pro on a job in New York City about seven years ago. It was the answer to everything. Apart from my filter case, it’s the only other equipment I take on set with me everywhere I go. It’s the best bag I’ve ever had.
You now have a Billingham Eventer. How will you be using this day-to-day?
I’m going to swap my two bags around and use the Hadley as an overnight bag now. I love the design of both, and my Pro still has a lot of life in it!
Lachlan Milne with Billingham Eventer Camera Bag (Black Canvas Tan Leather) Photo by Ben Spaner.
How has the pandemic affected cinematography and other creative industries over the last 15 months?
Filming during a pandemic can be pretty tricky. This year alone I’ve shot in Sydney, Lithuania and Atlanta during the COVID-19 period and each place has had a different approach. I’ve been tested three times a week since Christmas and we usually wear goggles and face masks on set. The nature of how I’ve been shooting hasn’t really changed. It’s just had a whole bunch of new safety rules sprinkled over it, which come with their own idiosyncrasies. The worst part is trying to operate or look at a monitor with fogged up goggles, and taking them off only to be told by someone in a vest to put them back on!
The trailer for 'Stranger Things' Season 4. Lachlan was the cinematographer for some of the episodes.
The movie industry is evolving rapidly. What developments and innovations do you think we might see coming in the world of cinematography?
You’re totally right. Cameras are essentially computers with lenses on them nowadays. One thing that really excites me is the giant leap LED technology has made recently. On larger shows, we almost exclusively use LEDs of all shapes and sizes that we run through a lighting desk. Infinite colour combinations, all dimmable and programmable, often with no cables – I love that. What I’m hoping to see soon is some higher output LED Fresnels. Something that feels like a tungsten T12 but doesn’t burn hot, is dimmable and can be any colour you’d like. LED also helps us cut down on power consumption significantly, which is in all our interests.
Lachlan Milne. Image credit: Melissa Lukenbaugh
What advice would you offer ambitious young cinematographers looking to enter the industry today?
One trap that’s easy to fall into is comparing your success – or more commonly lack of success – to that of your peers. Don’t be too hard on yourself if things don’t happen as quickly as you’d like them to. It’s a long game and there’s a lot to learn, so stay the course and don’t get frustrated when you see someone else catch a break. Your turn will come.
We’ve heard that you have been working on a new movie with Taika Waititi called Next Goal Wins starring Michael Fassbender and Elizabeth Moss. Can you give us any further details on this?
I’ve seen a rough cut and it’s fantastic. Michael Fassbender is brilliant. COVID has been such a handbrake for so many films and ours is just another one caught up in it. I’m excited for the world to get another film from Taika though, especially after what we’ve all been through these past 14 or so months.
Lachlan during filming of Minari. Image credit: Melissa Lukenbaugh
What other exciting projects do you have in the pipeline?
I’ve been reading some wonderful scripts recently. I haven’t stopped working since Christmas, so I’m really looking forward to getting out of quarantine, seeing my kids and just being normal for a little while again. But there are some exciting things hopefully coming up later this year, for sure.
How can fans of your work find out more about you?
They can find lots of information at:
Web site: www.lachlanmilne.com
When you’re not working on the latest blockbusters, what’s your greatest passion or pastime?
I still take a lot of photographs. I always have at least one camera with me. I’ve just picked up a Fujifilm GFX50R, which I’m excited to get to know. Honestly, I like trying to switch off and be present with my family as much as I can between jobs. I’m on the road so much that I want to make it count when I’m not.
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