Interview: Michael Goi on Cinematography for ‘American Horror Story’

MICHAEL GOI takes us behind the camera as we explore what life is like as a cinematographer for television. Michael is known for being a longtime collaborator with Ryan Murphy – working on both the cinematography and directing for major TV shows like ‘American Horror Story’, ‘Glee’ and ‘Scream Queens’. 

Over the course of the past decade, Michael has won and been nominated for various Primetime Emmy Awards. He also wrote and directed the dramatic feature film ‘Megan Is Missing’ and is currently directing a supernatural horror film ‘Mary’ starring Oscar-winner Gary Oldman.

AC: How would you describe your directing style?

MICHAEL: I make a shot list for the entire movie or episode during prep. The shot list is to remind me what the important story and character elements are. It helps me read the script if I break it down into shots.When I actually start shooting, I never look at the shot list. At that point, I don’t have to. The important things are in my head.

I work quickly. You never hear me say “That was great! Let’s shoot another one.” If it was great, why shoot another one? If I loved the performance on a take, I ask the crew if everyone was good on their end with the technical side.

I always have the scene edited in my head, so that when I film an angle, I know what part of the scene it will be used for. I feel that when you shoot every single angle in every shot size possible, the scene lacks the kind of design needed to be more than just a bunch of shots edited together.

How do you approach working with actors on-set?

When you work with the caliber of actors that I do, you need to say very little. When an actor says “I got it” – I stop talking – because anything you say after that will only muddle the concept the actor has.

I always direct by standing right next to the camera. That way I can immediately speak to them in a conversational level of voice when giving them direction.

‘American Horror Story’ has just made the shift from shooting on film to digital – where do cinematographers currently stand in their choice between the two? 

The cost difference between shooting on film or digital video has become smaller, and I think we’re entering a period where cinematographers can once again choose which medium best suits the efficiency and artistry of the project. The kinds of looks I created on film for the first five seasons of ‘American Horror Story’ were a part of the visual lexicon of those seasons the same as Nelson Cragg’s use of digital video in season six of ‘American Horror Story’ was integral to the style of that season.

Can you explain some of the differences creatively between Episodic directing and directing a standalone film?

When you direct an episode of an existing show, the visual style and characterizations are relatively set. You still have some room to expand on the look and play with the characters as long as it doesn’t start to seem like a different show. When I directed the ‘Pretty Little Liars’ episode “Hit And Run, Run, Run” – I asked for a couple of wider lenses than the show normally carried. The cinematographer – Larry Reibman – was very open to trying new things, and we did some very dynamic compositions which increased the tension between characters because you could see more of them in the same frame at the same time.

On a feature film, the director has more say about the creative aspects of the project, both visually and dramatically. ‘American Horror Story’ was very different because we encouraged directors to constantly come up with things that the show had never done before.

Just looking back over the many seasons of ‘American Horror Story’ – when do you think there was the most dramatic aesthetic shift?

Every season, things have changed in major ways. “Murder House” had a very stately, moody elegance, “Asylum” had a whacked-out, nightmarish, monochromatic feel, “Coven” had a glowing air of magic and mystery, “Freak Show” had an antique look of decay and decadence, “Hotel” had a noir-ish, suffocating, insular atmosphere, and “Roanoke” had the air of reality television. We tried to make a different show every season using the same cast. I think it’s one of the most innovative programs on television.

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