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‘Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams’: How the Eerie Look of ‘The Commuter’ Transcends the Sci-Fi Author’s Vibe

Cinematographer Ollie Downey shot two looks for the gripping episode starring Timothy Spall, which is a highlight of Amazon's new anthology series.

PHILIP K. DICK'S ELECTRIC DREAMS - EPISODE 101 - "The Commuter"

“Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams: The Commuter”

Christopher Raphael/Sony Pictures Television


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“Black Mirror” has some heady competition from “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams,” Amazon’s new anthology series devoted to the trippy author. And no episode is as emotionally gripping and visually arresting as “The Commuter.” Timothy Spall stars as a London railway worker, who escapes his boring job and melodramatic home life in an idyllic town in an alternate reality.  Trouble is, that’s no solution and he’s induced into confronting painful reality.

Director Tom Harper (“War & Peace”) wanted to convey two very distinct worlds for contemporary London and the mythical Macon Heights, but not too pushed. “It’s about family with a thought-provoking script and quite a dark look, and the sci-fi element is pretty negligible,” said British cinematographer Ollie Downey (“Harlots”).

PHILIP K. DICK'S ELECTRIC DREAMS - SEASON 1 - EPISODE 101 - "The Commuter"

“Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams: The Commuter”

Christopher Raphael/Sony Pictures Television

“Tom wanted the fancy world to be just a slightly improved version of where we are today, a world devoid of suffering and unhappiness. It’s brighter, prettier, and more optimistic, It’s a heightened reality but it’s eerie.”

Downey shot with the Red in 4K, using old anamorphic lenses. But Amazon doesn’t do widescreen, so they punched into the center of the frame. “Tom loved the look of these lenses on ‘War & Peace,’ and thought it would perfectly convey Tim’s mindset in the real world with aberrations of weirdness in the soft areas of the frame and bending the edges emphasized it even more,” added Downey. “So we shot with these lenses and played a lot with short sighting and keeping Tom on the edge of the compositions and keeping the camera still.”

The Ugly Reality

The monotonous scenes at the train station contain gray, overcast skies, and subdued colors, while nighttime encounters at home are marked by the nicotine look of the orange sodium street lamps. “It was pretty ugly and pervaded everything, Downey said.

PHILIP K. DICK'S ELECTRIC DREAMS - SEASON 1 - EPISODE 101 - "The Commuter"

“Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams: The Commuter”

Christopher Raphael/ © 2017 Sony Pictures Television

At home, Spall must contend with a teenage son (Anthony Boyle) experiencing psychotic episodes and a loveless marriage in which his wife (Rebecca Manley) is more frightened of his fake smile than their son’s violent outbursts. It’s no wonder that Spall returns to the comfort of happier memories of his son, which were shot on 35mm film.

“It was also double exposed [shot, rewound, and shot over again] to give those impressionistic double images,” said Downey. “There’s a lack of clarity there that seemed to echo the nature of memories.”

The Idyllic Escape

Spall becomes curious when a woman takes the train to the non-existent Macon Heights, and ventures there himself. He discovers a carefree, nostalgia-driven community. They shot in the real idyllic village of Poundbury, constructed more than 20 years ago in Dorset, at the behest of Prince Charles. The production used the location as is, and shot a few interiors elsewhere on sets, including a lovely coffee shop, where they served ginger cake and hot chocolate.

PHILIP K. DICK'S ELECTRIC DREAMS - SEASON 1 - EPISODE 101 - "The Commuter"

“Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams: The Commuter”

Christopher Raphael/Sony Pictures Television

“There are no street markings or cars on the roads,” said Downey, “and it seemed wonderful. It was very purpose-built and not a lot of history, and the synthetic look fit perfectly.”

Macon Heights was shot bursting with color, movement, and slightly wider lenses, with Spall in the center of the frame. But, alas, the charm quickly wears off for him. “It was like a child’s idea of the world,” the cinematographer said. “But he’s going through a difficult time in his life and there’s no quick solution.”

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