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Sci-Fi and Comic Book Shows Are Getting Serious Awards Attention: How Bold DPs are Changing the Race

Some of the best cinematography this season came from the dark and daring "Legion," "Stranger Things," "Westworld," "The Handmaid's Tale," and "Taboo."

Westworld

“Westworld”

John P. Johnson/HBO


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Call them the DP disruptors: “Legion,” “Stranger Things,” “Westworld,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and “Taboo.” It’s one thing to be for cinematography to be cinematic, but quite another to provoke. Here’s a look at the cinematography that was used to explore the impacts of tyranny and hate, of societies turned upside down and against humanity.

Legion Season 1 Chapter 1 Rachel Keller Dan Stevens

“Legion”

Chris Large/FX

“Legion”

After re-imagining “Fargo” as a nightmarish crime anthology, Noah Hawley stripped the superhero iconography out of Marvel’s “Legion” by concentrating on schizophrenia and paranoia. Dan Stevens’ troubled mutant, David Haller, proves to be an unreliable narrator, unable to grasp the difference between reality and imagination, who meets the girl of his dreams (Rachel Keller) in a mental hospital and discovers that his psychological instability is a result of special telepathic power.

Cinematographer Dana Gonzales (“Fargo”) liked a story that demanded a shift from naturalistic to heightened. “And there’s a love story in there and for me that’s one of the most important parts of the show,” he said. He took inspiration from Stanley Kubrick, particularly “A Clockwork Orange” (Haller is a patient of the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital).

Using Arri Alexa cameras and alternating aspect ratios for objective and subjective points of view, Gonzales reinforces Haller’s precarious predicament (chased by government agents and haunted by confusing memories). He even utilizes the same lens that Kubrick used in “A Clockwork Orange”: the a 9.8 Kinoptik captures some of the character’s most bizarre moments. He also turns the camera upside down for a strange-world disorientation, when they kiss and switch places.

Stranger Things

“Stranger Things”

Netflix

“Stranger Things”

The Duffer Brothers took inspiration from Steven Spielberg (“E.T.”) and Stephen King (“Stand by Me”) in creating their ’80s sci-fi thriller about the intersection of parallel worlds that threatens to destroy the town of Hawkins, Indiana. Cinematographer Tim Ives took his cues from “E.T.,” using the Red Dragon and Leica Prime lenses for a softer, filmic, less contrasty look of the ’80s. And, also in a nod to Kubrick, Ives divided compositions into thirds. The Duffys even wanted grain added in post to further the retro experience.

One of the highlights was the clever use of Christmas lights as a communications link between a mother (Winona Ryder) and her son (Noah Schnapp), who’s trapped in the Upside Down dimension. This was achieved by rigging each individual light bulb from a dimming board.

For the black void between the two worlds, Ivers and the team created source lights with no sense of direction by spacing the lights in quadrants and putting heavy gray cloth on top. There was also a tank filled with water to get the reflective tone, all to instill a greater sense of chaos.

“Westworld”

“Westworld”

In the re-imagined “Westworld,” Jonathan Nolan and co-creator Lisa Joy took a more dystopian approach to Michael Crichton’s adult theme park, with a lot more graphic sex and violence. In fact, there are two distinct worlds: the wide-open, bucolic beauty of the western town, and the cold, antiseptic programming center, where the androids are created and the narratives concocted.

For cinematographer Paul Cameron, who shot on 35mm film for greater analog warmth (removing the coatings from the Arri Zeiss master prime lenses to add softness), the clash of the two worlds was the driving creative force. The sweeping landscapes were inspired by Monument Valley in Utah, where John Ford shot his most memorable westerns. And he provided a classy elegance to the environment.

By contrast, the programming center was patterned after L.A.’s Pacific Design Center and visualized as 30 floors. The farther down you go, the darker and more ominous it become, concluding with the basement where they decommissioned the android hosts. Cameron played off the metal, glass, and shadows for the inherent creepiness.

"The Handmaid's Tale"

“The Handmaid’s Tale”

Hulu

“The Handmaid’s Tale”

Margaret Atwood’s chilling dystopia takes on more relevant force in the Hulu show. The color red, worn by the Handmaids, becomes the key visual component, symbolic of both menstrual blood and political rage. Reed Morano, the cinematographer-turned director who helmed the first three episodes, established the color-coded palette with cinematographer Colin Watkinson and costume designer Anne Crabtree.

Watkinson shot Gilead with the Alexa Mini and vintage Canon K35 lenses for a painterly look reminiscent of Vermeer. He used atmosphere to create depth in the frame, and would light from outside the room. The neutral background and use of gray diffusion complemented the red for the Handmaidens and teal for the Commanders’ Wives. And the way he lit each room was never the same because it was more naturalistic.

The cinematographer also used drones for the “salvaging” execution ritual at the end of Episode One. He wanted a god’s-eye view of the Handmaids filing through the green landscape in a procession and could cover more ground with the drones.

Taboo Tom Hardy Season 1 Episode 5

“Taboo”

FX

“Taboo”

Early 19th-century London becomes a dark and hellish nightmare for James Delaney (Tom Hardy, who also executive produced the BBC One/FX series). The adventurer returns home after a decade in Africa, inherits a tainted legacy, and battles the East India Company as well as his personal demons. Cinematographer Mark Patten drew on the works of J.M.W. Turner, Francisco Goya, and William Hogarth for a dense, painterly look.

Turner supplied the soft light and mist of the period, Goya inspired the menace and mayhem, and Hogarth offered the decadence. Patten used the Alexa, modified by Panavision for its Primo spherical lenses and changed aspect ratios, to heighten Delaney’s perspective. The camera even follows him like a voyeur. Everything was naturally lit through windows, and candlelight provided texture to the skin.

Mainly, Patten was able to go as dark as he pleased and to experiment with Delaney’s mindscape of misery. “All of the madness in this Prince Regent’s world falls off against the whorehouses, working men, dock men, and the serenity of the river,” he said.

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