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‘Westworld,’ ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ ‘Stranger Things’ Battle for Cinematography Emmy

Sci-fi and dystopian visual worlds will have the greatest impact on the cinematography series race.

Evan Rachel Wood in "Westworld."

Evan Rachel Wood in “Westworld”

John P. Johnson/HBO


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This year’s one-hour series Emmy contenders for cinematography are marked by some bold sci-fi and dystopian disruptors: “Westworld,” “Stranger Things,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Man in the High Castle” (last year’s winner), “Mr. Robot, and Sense8.”  With dazzling visuals, they explored the impact of tyranny and hate, of societies turned upside down, struggling for a greater humanity.

That leaves “The Crown” as the lone historical drama. But it too was a disruptor of sorts in the way that it showcased the symbiotic relationship between the monarchy and Parliament in post-war Great Britain, steered by the young Queen Elizabeth (nominated Claire Foy) and the old warhorse, Winston Churchill (nominated John Lithgow).

But don’t be surprised if it comes down to a race between the dueling dystopias: “Westworld” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

“Westworld”

The clash of two worlds envisioned by showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the fantasy-driven theme park and the sterile programming center, allowed cinematographer Paul Cameron to establish the visual style in the opener, conveying best and worst in behavior. He shot on 35mm film to best capture the analog warmth of the western town and the labyrinthian headquarters where the robots are manufactured and rebuilt.

Westworld

“Westworld”

John P. Johnson/HBO

The sweeping landscapes were inspired by Monument Valley in Utah, where John Ford shot his most memorable westerns. And Cameron provided a classy elegance to the environment. By contrast, the programming center was patterned after L.A.’s Pacific Design Center and conceived as 30 floors. Cameron played off the metal, glass, and shadows for the inherent creepiness.

“The Handmaid’s Tale”

Margaret Atwood’s chilling dystopia took on more relevant force in Trump’s America The color red, worn by the Handmaids, became 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.

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

George Kraychyk/HuluHulu

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.

“Stranger Things”

The Duffer Brothers took inspiration from Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, among others, in turning the ’80s upside down with their sci-fi thriller. 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.

Stranger Things

“Stranger Things”

Netflix

And, also in a nod to Stanley Kubrick, Ives divided compositions into thirds. 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 visually elevated “Stranger Things” beyond pastiche.

The Crown”

Showrunner Peter Morgan’s brilliance was helping us understand what it was like being an outsider for Elizabeth and Churchill, and how they came together to save Great Britain in the second half of the 20th century. Brazilian cinematographer Adriano Goldman quickly established the look of show with the wedding scene. History, formality, protocol were addressed, but with warmth and intimacy. Shooting with the Sony digital F55, he added period Cooke Speed Panchro lenses, providing a great range of latitude for beautiful highlights and detail in the shadows.

Matt Smith and Claire Foy in "The Crown."

“The Crown”

Alex Bailey/Netflix

In Episode 2, with Elizabeth and Philip (Matt Smith) on a four-continent tour, Goldman contrasted the warmth of the wild as the couple’s last escape before fulfilling their duties with the colder, bluer, and darker London, where destiny called.

The Man in the High Castle”

Philip K. Dick’s alt history in which the Nazis and Japanese won World War II continued with escalating tension between the two superpowers. The initial Kodachrome look was expanded by Emmy-winning cinematographer James Hawkinson. He went for bolder lighting, per producer Ridley Scott’s request, playing with contrasts more. He significantly switched from the RED Dragon to the Arri Alexa for lower light and because it was a little softer on faces.

Rufus Sewell in "The Man in the High Castle."

“The Man in the High Castle”

Amazon Studios

With the Japanese losing control in the West Coast, there’s still washed out color in San Francisco. But there are moments, in Season 2, when present day 1962 is colorful and more vivid.  It’s a subtle shift in the power play between Germany and Japan and the resistance movement.

“Mr. Robot”

For the sophomore season of the cyber terrorism thriller, Sam Esmail directed all of the episodes, which changed the visual style for cinematographer Tod Campbell.  He could plan the entire season and expand his look. For instance, rather than being limited to only the 32mm lens on Elliot (Rami Malek), he went wider. This opened up the background while still keeping Elliot the same size in the frame.

MR. ROBOT -- "eps2.7_init_5.fve" Episode 209 -- Pictured: Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson -- (Photo by: Michael Parmelee/USA Network)

“Mr. Robot”

Michael Parmelee/USA Network

Campbell also has a fondness for compositions with straight lines. This was made easier in Season 2 by switching to the Leica Summilux-C prime lenses. In terms of lighting, he additionally cut down on fill light with Elliot, enhancing the cloudiness that surrounds him and his diminished view of the world around him.

“Sense8”

In Season Two of the mind-bender from showrunners J. Michael Straczynski and Lana and Lilly Wachowski, the eight characters connected through through telepathy and astral projection become more at ease in their daily lives. For cinematographer John Toll, flexibility remained key on this journey because of the logistical complication of shooting in so many locations.

Sense8 Season 2

“Sense8”

Netflix

But quality control was also important in showing off the diverse richness of the environments. Once again, he used multiple 4K Sony PMW-F55 CineAltas and collaborated with Panavision in keeping with Neflix’s 4K requirement. It was a matter of coming up with new rules for a new kind of small screen storytelling, always thwarting convention and expectation in search of art and humanity.

Will Win: “Westworld”

Could Win: “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Should Win: “Westworld”

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