Back to IndieWire

How HBO’s ‘Westworld’ Shot on Film for a More Tactile, Organic Look

Creator-director Jonathan Nolan, like his brother, Christopher, prefers film to digital, which gave the "Westworld" pilot a more organic visual style.

Westworld Evan Rachel Wood

Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores Abernathy in “Westworld”

John P. Johnson/HBO

There was never any question that Jonathan Nolan was going to shoot the pilot for HBO’s “Westworld” on 35mm film. The funny thing is, Paul Cameron, the cinematographer (“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”), didn’t realize it until he first approached Nolan with the same idea.

“Jonathan told me that had already made up his mind about film,” Cameron told IndieWire. “It made perfect sense for what we were going for, which was a very sophisticated, minimalist approach. We wanted the western town to feel classy and elegant.

READ MORE: ‘Westworld’ Review: Western Philosophy Tops the Wild West in Deep-Thinking HBO Drama

“When they get off the train, it’s their decision to go deeper and darker as guests in the park. And then there’s this concept of the Westworld programming center: a 15-story building [patterned after L.A.’s Pacific Design Center] set on the side of Dead Horse Point [in Utah]. All of these pointed to grand scale.”

In the re-imagined “Westworld,” based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 movie about an adult theme park where guests can act out their wildest fantasies — a precursor to “Jurassic Park” — Nolan and co-creator Lisa Joy took a more graphic and philosophical approach to sex and violence.

Westworld Thandie Newton HBO


John P. Johnson/HBO

Indeed, the “Westworld” series explores “a dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the evolution of sin,” according to the synopsis. And in these wild west adventures, the introduction of chaos alters the narrative for both guests and hosts.

Head programmer Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) alerts park founder Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) about strange incidents of aberrant behavior in some recently re-coded hosts that have been made more believably human. Meanwhile, the scripted narrative between a rancher’s daughter, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), and gunslinger Teddy (James Marsden) gets upended by the ruthless Man in Black (Ed Harris) — a twist on the Yul Brynner villain in the original movie.

READ MORE: ‘Westworld’ Website Easter Eggs Warn Visitors About ‘Accidental Death,’ Reveal Employee Secrets

Visually, “Westworld” displays sharp contrasts between light and dark and warmth and coldness, which cinematographer Cameron said was best achieved on film. He used the ARRICAM Lite package and picked a set of Arri Zeiss master prime lenses and had the coatings removed for a softer, more filmic look.

“There’s something tactile and formidable that’s very real,” Cameron said. “And when you get dailies the next day, even though they come back to you digitally, you’re seeing the results  of a much stronger medium. There’s also a level of control shooting on film that you don’t get digitally.”


Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores Abernathy

John P. Johnson/HBO

The programming center was visualized as 30 floors, and Cameron said it was daunting to have endless floors that they could turn from behavioral and diagnostic centers to manufacturing floors all the way down to where robots are wheeled in shot and bloodied every night, and then farther down to the dark basement where they decommission the hosts.

READ MORE: ‘Westworld’: The Women Fight Back in New HBO Trailer — Watch

The opening’s very striking: Lowe questions Dolores, sitting naked in mostly darkness, surrounded by circular neon lights, about strange nightmares. The camera pulls in for a melancholy closeup with a fly on her bruised face. Then we switch to her daily narrative, waking up to the splendor of her bucolic town, her memories wiped clean.

“When you’re there at the right time of day, on the right set with with the right actors and the right wardrobe, and you put film through the gate, it all comes together in very elegant way,” Cameron said.

“Westworld” premieres October 2 at 9 p.m. on HBO, HBO NOW and HBO Go.

Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Television and tagged , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox