Wednesday, July 18, 2018
  • Friday, Jul. 14, 2017
Emmy-Nominated DPs Share Insights Into "Handmaid’s Tale," "The Crown," "Transparent," "Man In The High Castle"
Cinematographer Colin Watkinson (r) lenses Elisabeth Moss for "The Handmaid's Tale" (photo by George Kraychyk/courtesy of Hulu)
Reflections from cinematographers Colin Watkinson, Adriano Goldman, ACS, Jim Frohna, James Hawkinson
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Prior to yesterday’s (7/13) announcement of this season’s Emmy nominations, SHOOT connected with varied contenders over a two-month stretch spanning different disciplines and as it turns out a good number of the artisans we covered in parts 1 through 8 of our The Road To Emmy series of feature stories ended up in the 2016-’17 circle of nominees.

This proved to be especially true in the cinematography arena as DPs Adriano Goldman, ACS, James Hawkinson and Colin Watkinson scored nominations in the Outstanding Cinematography For A Single-Camera Series (One Hour) category for, respectively, The Crown (Netflix) episode titled “Smoke and Mirrors,” The Man in the High Castle episode “Fallout” (Amazon), and the pilot for The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu).

Additionally DP Jim Frohna earned a nomination in a new Emmy category--Outstanding Cinematography For A Single-Camera Series (Half-Hour)--for the “If I Were A Bell” episode of Transparent (Amazon).

Here are several of the insights these DPs shared with us on their continuing “Road To Emmy.”

The Handmaid’s Tale marked Watkinson’s first time working with director/EP Reed Morano. Back in 1990, Watkinson had read the original book--of the same title--by Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of life in the dystopia of Gilead, a totalitarian society in what was formerly part of the United States. Facing environmental disasters and a plunging birthrate, Gilead is ruled by a twisted religious fundamentalism that treats women as property of the state. As one of the few remaining fertile women, Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is a Handmaid in the Commander’s household, one of the caste of women forced into sexual servitude as a last desperate attempt to repopulate a devastated world. In this terrifying society where one wrong word could end her life, Offred navigates between Commanders, their cruel Wives, domestic Marthas, and her fellow Handmaids—where anyone could be a spy for Gilead—all with one goal: to survive and find the daughter that was taken from her.

“I loved the book,” recalled Watkinson. “And when I got the call from Reed [Morano], I was already excited. When we started talking, we immediately connected on the story. She herself had been a DP and we had a similar vision. She wanted the backstory, the setting of Gilead, to have very composed lighting while maintaining an emotional camera on Offred, trying to get inside her head. We went hand-held camera for that reason. We planned shots together. As the director she would lead the way while still allowing for flexibility.”

The primary cameras deployed on The Handmaid’s Tale were three ARRI ALEXA Minis. Watkinson worked with different directors in shooting the first season, including Morano, Floria Sigismondi, Mike Barker, Kate Dennis and Kari Skogland. “Each director has his or her own method of how to shoot the show,” said Watkinson who lensed all 10 episodes. “That’s always the challenge, to help realize the director’s vision yet attain a tone and consistency throughout.”

Akin to Watkinson’s scenario on The Handmaid’s Tale, cinematographer Goldman found himself collaborating with different directors on The Crown (Netflix), lensing episodes 1 and 2 for director/series EP Stephen Daldry, episodes 3 and 5 for director Philip Martin, and episodes 7 and 9 for director Benjamin Caron.

While it’s always challenging to maintain a consistency throughout a series while being true to the sensibilities of different directors, Goldman noted, “You try to establish visual rules during prep.” And he did just that in concert with Daldry, who was instrumental in bringing Goldman on board The Crown to begin with. Goldman had shot for Daldry back in 2013 the feature Trash, a story set in Brazil where three kids make a discovery in a garbage dump only to soon find themselves running from the cops and trying to right a terrible wrong.

“When Stephen came back to Rio for the Trash premiere, The Crown was in the air,” recalled Goldman. “I had heard about his involvement and that [showrunner/creator/writer] Peter Morgan was prepping for the series. I expressed my interest and Stephen said, ‘If you want to do it, it’s yours.’ I was absolutely thrilled, recreating the period, the history behind all this, the challenge of delivering something that would eventually look different from other period dramas in Britain.”

Based on Morgan’s lauded play “The Audience,” The Crown chronicles the life of Queen Elizabeth II (portrayed by Claire Foy) from the 1940s to modern times. The series begins with an inside look at the early reign of the queen, who assumed the throne at age 25 after the death of her father, King George VI. As the decades pass, personal intrigue, romance, and political rivalries are revealed which played a major role in events that shaped the latter part of the 20th century. 

Shaping The Crown, however, involved making changes to original plans. For example, Goldman said initially they had intended to mix original and archival footage. “The use of Buckingham Palace was never an option for us so we thought the best option was to mix in some of the incredibly interesting archival footage we had. It was to have been a mix of archive and fiction footage. But ultimately, even though we liked that idea and loved the archival footage, it didn’t feel quite right to make something we didn’t totally shoot. So even on the BBC monitors shown in the series, we shot original material. We shot our own archive footage, even black-and-white stuff. We focused on trying to reproduce the period the best we could--for the wedding, the coronation, other official events. The big challenge was how to deliver scale without using archival footage.”

There was also a major change in the originally envisioned approach regarding how to best lens the actors. At first, the thought was to shoot from a distance, in a documentary fashion, as “if we were hidden in chambers at Buckingham Palace,” said Goldman. “But ultimately the decision was to do the opposite, to be physically close to the actors--and the characters they were portraying. We wanted the audience to feel they could almost read the characters’ thoughts. We wanted the audience to see every pore, to feel the texture of the Queen’s skin, to feel the costumes, the fabrics...Another challenge was kind of a tricky combination. So much about the Queen’s world is about protocol and formality. Yet Stephen wanted to show this world in an organic, believable way. He never wanted a ‘Cinderella’ look. That’s why being close to the characters made sense. We wanted to create a feeling where these characters are accessible, and the tone is more intimate.”

Goldman said he’s proud of the approach to--and the overall look of--The Crown. “We’re working for the actors. Claire and I became close friends. What she does is amazing. The realism that Peter Morgan’s writing delivers and her performance, all the performances, made this job a joy. There’s a real freshness to this show. More than anything it all stems from the dialogue, the sophistication of the writing, and Claire’s performance.”

Goldman deployed the Sony F55 shooting in 4K, with vintage Cooke Panchro lenses. He also used a light diffusion filter called Glimmerglass. All this--including being in close proximity to the actors--contributed to what the DP described as “a more filmic, more romantic period look. 

Last year “The New World,” the pilot for The Man in the High Castle, garnered Hawkinson his first Emmy win as well as his first ASC Award nomination which is based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 alternative history novel. The Man in the High Castle explores what would have happened if the Allied Powers had been defeated in World War II. The U.S. and much of the world end up divided between Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.  The eastern half of the U.S. is controlled by Germany while the Pacific Coast is under the aegis of Japan. The Rocky Mountains, though, have become a neutral zone and the headquarters for a resistance movement which is headed by a mysterious figure known as “The Man in the High Castle.”

Hawkinson observed that a major creative challenge posed by the series from a cinematography standpoint is “to create a vintage yet futuristic look.  My whole goal was for it to be nostalgic in terms of looking like the early 1960s while at the same time appearing futuristic with the impossible technologies that are featured in the show.” 

Building this new world entailed creating an authentic 1962 even though it’s a fake 1962--one that never really existed. It’s a retro-futuristic world, related Hawkinson.

Hawkinson deployed the RED Dragon on season one of The Man in the High Castle, then shifted to ARRI’s ALEXA for seasons two and three (which is currently being shot). He’s enjoyed good results with both RED and ALEXA during his career.

Asked to define the look of The Man in the High Castle, Hawkinson came up with the phrase “expressionistic noir.” The DP recalled, “I came into this project thinking of Blade Runner and the world created for it by Ridley Scott--so full of texture, smoke, steam, light and haze. These were elements that factored into how we evolved the aesthetic of The Man in the High Castle.” 

In season two, continued Hawkinson, “We took advantage of any opportunity to heighten that expressionism, the noir-ish aspect while conveying a post-war American paranoia, imbuing the show’s look with the feeling of fear experienced in a totalitarian society.”

Hawkinson added that The Man in the High Castle is special to him personally and professionally not just for the Emmy and ASC recognition but also because “it’s the first period piece I’ve really done. It’s artistically significant for me, being able to explore the vintage aesthetic of a story.”

The decision by the TV Academy to split cinematography for a single-camera series into one-hour and half-hour show categories this year has proved fortuitous for DP Frohna, enabling his work on Transparent to be more readily recognized and now yielding his first career Emmy nomination. 

Frohna said the opening up of the cinematography category makes sense in that there’s “a whole new generation of these half-hour shows telling different kinds of stories. There’s been an explosion in the episodic world that takes the 30-minute format well beyond sitcoms.”

Frohna deployed the Canon C300 Mark II on Transparent. “Way back when we started out on Transparent, the first generation of that camera had just come out. We loved the quality and the small compact size. The smaller the machine, the better the intimacy factor we’re going for. I operate a lot as well, am able to move around the actors more freely, with long takes to soak in their characters.”

Frohna frequently utilizes Zeiss Super Speed lenses on Transparent along with vintage Leica lenses dating back to the 1930s for flashback sequences. 

This is the ninth installment of a 15-part series of feature stories that explores the field of Emmy contenders spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, animation, visual effects and production design. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy ceremonies on September 9 and 10, and the primetime Emmy Awards live telecast on September 17.

MySHOOT Profiles

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Carlos Cuaron