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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: Finding Lenses (and Cameras) to Create the Unfamiliar World of Gilead

Director Reed Morano and Cinematographer Colin Watkinson on creating the unique look of the hit Hulu show.

The Handmaid's Tale  -- "Offred" -- Episode 101 -- Offred, one the few fertile women known as Handmaids in the oppressive Republic of Gilead, struggles to survive as a reproductive surrogate for a powerful Commander and his resentful wife. Behind the scenes with Moira (Samira Wiley) and Reed Morano, shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

Reed Morano directing “The Handmaid’s Tale”

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“The Handmaid’s Tale” presented a brain-twisting production challenge for cinematographer Colin Watkinson and Reed Morano, an executive producer and director of the first three episodes. The show takes place in a near-future Gilead, where enslaved women forced to reproduce for the aristocracy wear costumes that reference a puritanical time — but the show isn’t a period piece. They needed to create a world that was “other” and could serve as sharp contrast to present-day flashbacks.

Morano and Watkinson explain how they achieved the show’s unique look.

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Compositions

Watkinson: Reed had a very specific directorial look book with very clear indications of which way she wanted to go, and how we were going to separate the worlds with compositional and shooting style.

Morano: I didn’t want it feel like a period piece. That was my fear with the costumes and everything. I pushed very hard that all the uniforms in Gilead had modern elements to them. Period would defeat the purpose. There are women in the world who experience these things today, and this story is a warning it could happen here just like that. It needed to be and feel other.”

Watkinson: Gilead was going to be incredibly formal, tableau-like compositions with a very considered static camera, the camera only moved when it was deemed to moved. Tableau, Kubrick-esque type frame is what Reed asked for, but with off framing, lots of headroom, and sometime asymmetrical as well.

The flashbacks were to be what Reed called “cinema verite” — a very visceral type of camerawork, to really put you in the moment. We wanted the flashbacks to feel as real as possible. The reason being even though they are flashbacks in the story, you are looking at today in the world and we wanted people to feel,”That’s right now.” That’s what I think makes it more horrific as you go along. The world changes so quickly. You’ve got to look up from your phone because tthis could happen quickly and right in front of your face.

A POV Show

The Handmaid's Tale -- "Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum" Episode 104 -- Punished by Serena Joy, Offred begins to unravel and reflects on her time with Moira at the Red Center. A complication during the Ceremony threatens Offred’s survival with the Commander and Serena Joy. Offred (Elisabeth Moss), shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

“The Handmaid’s Tale” Episode 104

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Morano: The book calls for us to be in Lizzy’s [Elizabeth Moss, who plays Offred] head, which sometimes comes with voiceover. Trying to put yourself in someone’s head — how do you visualize that? One of the ways I always thought we’d visualize that was by putting the camera physically closer to her for her close-ups, be on a wider lens because it feels a little bit more uncomfortable and there’s something a little bit more unsettling about that. It makes the audience close the person in much more uncomfortable way.”

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Watkinson: We adopted a particular lens for Offred because being a POV-type show, we wanted to be inside Offred’s head and make the viewer feel like every nuance Elizabeth made we’d be capturing. They’d be close enough to feel every movement. We were shooting on Canon K-35s for most of the show, but we had a 28mm Zeiss 2.1 that had a perspective that was different on either side of it. It’s very particular. It was her special lens.

Morano’s Handheld

The Handmaid's Tale -- "Late" Episode 103 -- Offred visits JanineÕs baby with Serena Joy and remembers the early days of the revolution before Gilead. Ofglen faces a difficult challenge. Behind the scenes with Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and Reed Morano, shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

Director Reed Morano goes handheld

Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Morano: As a cinematographer myself, I knew to stay out of Colin’s way. I told him, “I’ll treat you better than you are use to being treated by other directors. There is one thing I do want, though.”

Watkinson: In our first interview she broached it right away. “I like to get the camera on my shoulder and operate.”

Morano: Most good operators know you don’t want to do some kind of change while an actor’s delivering lines, but it’s hard to not know what you can get away with if you aren’t the director. If you are directing and you are the one cutting it and telling the story, you can take more risks with the operating.

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Watkinson: There’s a special process going on there. She has unique vision and style. She brings an immediacy and a real feeling with her camera. I tried to get a feel for how and when she’d want to go handheld to access those emotions, and tried to emulate because we’d need to try to copy that with other directors after Reed left.

Interior Depth

The Handmaid's Tale -- "Late" Episode 103 -- Offred visits Janine’s baby with Serena Joy and remembers the early days of the revolution before Gilead. Ofglen faces a difficult challenge. Offred (Elisabeth Moss), shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” Episode 103

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Watkinson: I was constantly impressed by [production designer] Julie Berghoff’s paint work. Not only did she have the color right, but the depth of the color she’d create on the walls was amazing. You’d walk up to walls and admire the depth — there was color on color, but all the same color. I really feel that you feel that. The backgrounds are little bit dark, there’s a fall-off to them, and the light catches them because there’s so much texture. It was such pleasure to light, because I want to feel that depth in darkness.

I stole a term that exists in the 3-D world: They call it “volumetric lighting.” I wanted layers in the light. I saw (Morano’s feature) “Meadowland,” so I knew Reed really liked atmosphere. I wanted textured light layers, to go with the layer’s of Julie’s background and the layers of the costumes.

I want you to feel the light coming from the outside, so it’s based in a reality, but it’s a hyperreality. I used DF-50 to put a lot of atmosphere in the air, with 10K mol beams that create a sharp line then fade away. You can play with how strong that beam of light is based on the angle. Then there’s options of using blinds and other things to play with to create more layers.

Exterior

The Handmaid's Tale -- "Faithful" -- Episode 105 -- Serena Joy makes Offred a surprising proposition. Offred remembers the unconventional beginnings of her relationship with her husband. Offred (Elisabeth Moss), shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” Episode 105

George Kraychyk/Hulu

Watkinson: We knew Gilead had this throwback element. We knew it had to have a certain softness to it to match that otherness. We were always going to use vintage lenses, testing to figure out which ones got us the exterior softness was crucial.

We wanted shallow and soft look for the exterior. The lenses we used were very fast. They were 1.3, 1.4 lens and we would play the daytime shots as wide open as we could to really drop the depth of field.

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We were trying to do anything that put movement in the light. We let light hit the camera — were totally happy for veiling to happen, so the light could hit the lens. Flare was part of the look. Then we’d push color into the blacks and highlights in the grade. We had a power DIT on set, to give it that otherworldliness. We shot on three Arri Alexa Mini, which did a great job with our colors and was perfect for going handheld, but also was 4K, which Hulu demanded.

Editor’s Note: This feature is presented in partnership with ARRI, a leading designer, manufacturer and distributor of motion picture camera, digital intermediate (DI) and lighting equipment. Founded by two filmmakers 100 years ago, ARRI and its engineers have been recognized by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for contributions to the industry with 19 Scientific and Technical Awards. Click here for more about ARRI.

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