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How They Filmed ‘The Man in the High Castle’ With a ‘Retro-Futurist’ Vibe

Emmy-nominated cinematographer James Hawkinson discusses Kodachrome, Expressionism and the trippy historical revisionism of Philip K. Dick.

“The Man in the High Castle”

At Thursday’s Comic-Con panel, Isa Dick Hackett (exec producer and Philip K. Dick’s daughter) promised that we will meet “The Man in the High Castle” in Season 2. Meanwhile, cinematographer James Hawkinson, taking a break from prepping in Vancouver, teased by phone that we can expect more alternate worlds opening up.

“Philip K. Dick didn’t believe in reality and it offers so many possibilities for parallel worlds,” offered Hawkinson (“Hannibal”).

This was alluded to at the end of Season 1 with the introduction of mysterious films and physical travel to an alternate timeline by Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tarawa).

It’s all part of the “retro-futurism” of the Amazon series that received craft noms not only for Hawkinson’s work on the pilot but also for production design, VFX and main title design.

READ MORE: ‘The Man in the High Castle’ Season Two Clip: Ridley Scott Introduces New SDCC Footage

In “The Man in the High Castle,” we lost World War II and the country is occupied in 1962 by both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. There’s no Sinatra, Elvis or JFK, and the country naturally listens to the blues. But there’s a resistance movement that fights the totalitarian rule and slowly unlocks the mystery of this upside down world.

“Philosophically, when I approached the project, I wanted an oppressive feeling to it… the shadow of Big Brother leaning over you in this totalitarian world,” said Hawkinson of his first period piece.

That explains why there’s more of “1984” or the legendary Apple commercial by exec producer Ridley Scott than “Blade Runner,” although Hawkinson admits that Scott’s use of Expressionism in “Blade Runner” was an inspiration.

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“The Man in the High Castle”

Shot in Washington and Vancouver, the story’s divided into three sectors: San Francisco, New York City and Canon City, Colorado (the neutral zone). Overall, Kodachrome of the early ’60s provided a nice vintage look to authenticate the period (they shot with the RED camera).

“San Francisco has more wood, New York City has more of an austere, concrete, Nazi vibe reminiscent of the Eastern block, and Canon City had more of a rural flavor typical of a Western,” Hawkinson continued.

But a happy accident occurred when shooting the sweeping San Francisco opening in Seattle: It was warmer and brassier-looking than they expected. “I had done light studies of that street and found there was warm sunlight slicing down one side of the street, while the other side had these wonderful blue/purple shadows with neon lights coming to life,” said Hawkinson. “I found out later that the reason the sunlight was so warm in Seattle that time of the year was because of massive forest fires in Siberia. And so the sun picked up all this warmth from the smoke. I found the experience very visceral because of this incredible light and 150 people in period clothes surrounded by period cars.”

The establishing shot of New York offered its own challenge with a 50-foot crane on 100-feet of track. “We’re creating this virtual world out in a parking lot, again with a bunch of extras and vintage cars and Mercedes taxis.” For chases in a train station and tunnels, he took an Expressionistic noir approach right out of “The Third Man.”

READ MORE: Why Amazon’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’ Isn’t Afraid to Go Too Far

Moving from the pilot to the series has provided a fine collaboration with cinematographer Gonzalo Amat. In Season 1, Hawkinson did the odd episodes, which has reversed in Season 2.

The cinematographer promises more sweeping shots that move past characters while avoiding such cliches as tracking with people’s feet. Fave moments include the Nazi-run game show and the cross-country drive culminating with a flat tire and assistance from a cop who can’t remember why they fought the war.

This mundane approach to totalitarian rule also encompasses the subplot involving SS officer John Smith (Rufus Sewell), a natural-born American investigating the resistance movement in New York.

“It’s like out of a Douglas Sirk movie,” Hawkinson said. “It’s so surreal.”

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