By Randi Altman
Cinematographer Learan Kahanov’s love of photography started at an early age, when he would stage sequences and scenes with his Polaroid camera, lining up the photos to create a story.
He took that love of photography and turned it into a thriving career, working in television, features and commercials. He currently works on the CBS drama Madam Secretary — where he was initially hired to be the A-camera operator and additional DP. He shot 12 episodes and tandem units, then he took over the show fully in Season 3. The New York-shot, Washington, DC-set show stars Téa Leoni as the US Secretary of State, following her struggle to balance her work and personal life.
We recently reached out to Kahanov to find out more about his path, as well as his workflow, on Madam Secretary.
Can you talk about your path to cinematography?
My mother is a sculptor and printmaker, and when I was in middle school, she went back to get a degree in fine arts with a minor in photography. This essentially meant I was in tow, on many a weeknight, to the darkroom so she could do her printing and, in turn, I learned as well.
I shot mostly black and white all through middle school and high school. I would often use my mother’s art studio to shoot the models who posed for the drawing class she taught. Around the same time, I developed a growing fascination with animal behavior and strove to become a wildlife photographer, until I realized I didn’t have the patience to sit in a tree for days to get the perfect shot.
I soon turned my attention to videography while working at a children’s museum, teaching kids how to use the cameras and how to make short movies. I decided to pursue cinematography officially in high school. I eventually found myself at NYU film school, based off my photography portfolio. As soon as I got to New York City, I started working on indie films, as an electrician and gaffer, shooting every student film and indie project I could.
What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology that serves your vision?
I could list artists or filmmakers whose work I gravitate to, but the main thing I learned from my mother about art is that it’s about a feeling. Whether it’s being affected by a beautifully photographed image of a woman in a commercial or getting sucked into the visuals in a wildlife documentary, if you can invoke a feeling and or create an emotion you have made art.
I am always looking at things around me, and I’m always aware of how light falls on the world around me. Or how the shape of everyday objects and places change depending on the time, the weather or just my mood at the moment.
My vision of a project is always born out of the story, so the key for me is to always use technology (new or old) to support that story. Sometimes the latest in LED technology is the right tool for the job, sometimes it’s a bare light bulb attached to the underside of a white, five-gallon paint bucket (a trick Gaffer Jack Coffin and I use quite often). I think the balance between vision and technology is a two-way street — the key is to recognize when the technology serves your vision or the other way around.
What new technology has changed the way you work?
In the area of lighting, I have found that no matter what new tools come onto the scene, I still hold true to my go-to lighting techniques that I have preferred for years.
A perfect example would be my love for book lights — a book light is a bounced light that then goes through another layer of diffusion, which is perfect for lighting faces. Whether I am using an old Mole Richardson 5K tungsten unit or the newer ARRI S60 SkyPanels, the concept and end result are basically the same.
That being said, for location work the ARRI LED SkyPanels have become one of the go-to units on my current show, Madam Secretary. The lights’ high-output, low-power consumption, ease for matching existing location color sources and quick effects make them an easy choice for dealing with the faster-paced TV production schedule.
One other piece of gear that I have found myself calling for on a daily basis, since my key grip Ted Lehane introduced me to. It’s a diffusion material called Magic Cloth, which is produced by The Rag Place. This material can work as a bounce, as well as a diffusion, and you can directly light through. It produces a very soft light, as it’s fairly thick, but it does not change the color temperature of the source light. This new material, in conjunction with new LED technology, has created some interesting opportunities for my team.
Many DPs talk about the latest digital sensor, camera support (drone/gimbals, etc.) or LED lighting, but sometimes it’s something very simple, like finding a new diffusion material that can really change the look and the way I work. In fact, I think gripology in general often gets overlooked in the current affairs of filmmaking where everything seems to need to be “state of the art.”
What are some of your best practices or rules that you try to follow on each job?
I have one hard and fast rule in any project I shoot: support the story! I like to think of myself as a filmmaker first, using cinematography as a way to contribute to the filmmaking process. That being said, we can create lots of “rules” and have all the “go-to practices” to create beautiful images, but if what you are doing doesn’t advance the story, or at the very least create the right mood for the scene, then you are just taking a picture.
There are definite things I do because I simply prefer how it looks, but if it doesn’t make sense for the scene/move (based on the directors and my vision), I will then adjust what I do to make sure I am always supporting the story. There are definitely times where a balance is needed. We don’t create in a bubble, as there are all the other factors to consider, like budget, time, shooting conditions, etc. It’s this need/ability to be both technician and artisan that excites me the most about my job.
Can you explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project?
When working in episodic TV, every episode — essentially every eight days — there is a different director. Even when I have a repeat director, I have to adapt quickly between each director’s style. This goes beyond just being a chameleon from a creative standpoint — I need to quickly establish trust and a short hand to help the director put their stamp on their episode, all while staying within the already established look of the show.
I have always considered myself not an “idea man” but rather a “make-the-idea-better” man. I say this because being able to collaborate with a director and not just see their vision, but also enhance it and take it a step further (and see their excitement in the process), is completely fulfilling.
Tell us about Madam Secretary. How would you describe the overarching look of the show? How early did you get involved in the production?
I have been a part of Madam Secretary since the beginning, minus the pilot. I was hired as the A camera operator and as an additional DP. Jonathan Brown, ASC, shot the pilot and was the DP for the first two seasons. He was also one of our directors for the first three seasons. In addition to shooting tandem/2nd unit days and filling on scout days, I was the DP whenever Jonathan directed. So while I didn’t create the initial look of the show, I worked closely with Jonathan as the seasons went on until I officially took over in the third season.
Since I took over (and during my episodes), I felt an obligation to hold true to the original look and the intent of the show, while also adding my personal touch and allowing the show’s look to evolve with the series. The show does give us opportunities every week to create something new. While the reoccurring sets/locations do have a relatively set look, every episode takes us to new parts of the world and to new events.
It gives the director, production team and me an opportunity to create different looks and aesthetics to differentiate it from Madam Secretary’s life in DC. While it’s a quick schedule to prep, research and create new looks for convincing foreign locations every episode (we shoot 99% of the show in New York), it is a challenge that brings a creativity and excitement to the job that I really enjoy.
Can you talk about what you shoot on and what lenses you use, etc.?
The show is currently shooting on Alexa SXTs with Leica Summicron Prime lenses and Fujinon Cabrio zooms. One of the main things I did when I officially took over the show was to switch to Lecia Primes. We did some testing with Tèa Leoni and Tim Daly on our sets to see how the lenses treated skin tones.
Additionally, we wanted to see how they reacted to the heavy backlight and to the blown out windows we have on many of our sets. We all agreed that the lenses were sharp, but also realized that they created a softer feel on our actors faces, had a nice focus fall-off and they handled the highlights really well. They are flexible enough to help me create different looks while still retaining a consistency for the show. The lenses have an interesting flare characteristic that sometimes makes controlling them difficult, but it all adds to the current look of the show and has yet to be limiting.
You used a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema camera for some specialized shots. Can you describe those?
The show has many scenes that entail some specialized shots that need a small but high-res camera that has an inherently different feel from the Alexa. These shots include webcam and security camera footage. There are also many times when we need to create body/helmet cam footage to emulate images recorded from military/police missions that then were played back in the president’s situation room. That lightweight, high-quality camera allows for a lot of flexibility. We also employ other small cameras like GoPro and DJI Osmo, as well as the Sony A7RII with PL mount.
Any challenging scenes that you are particularly proud of?
I don’t think there is an episode that goes by without some type of challenge, but one in particular that I was really happy with took place on a refugee boat in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.
The scene was set at night where refugees were making a harrowing trip from the north coast of Libya to France. Since we couldn’t shoot on the ocean at night, we brought the boat and a storm into the studio.
Our production designer and art department cut a real boat in half and brought it onto the stage. Drew Jiritano and his special effects team then placed the boat on a gimbal and waterproofed the stage floor so we could place rain towers and air cannons to simulate a storm in the middle of the sea.
Using a technocrane, handheld cameras and interactive lighting, we created a great scene that immersed the audience in a realistic depiction of the dramatic journey that happens more often than most Americans realize.
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.