Cracking the surreal visual code of the Simon Stålenhag paintings that inspired “Tales from the Loop” was hard enough for veteran cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (“The Social Network,” “Fight Club”). Their strange aura of a picnic tableau with discarded robots in barren landscapes had to somehow connect with showrunner Nathaniel Halpern’s sci-fi series about restoring humanity in a community deprived of love and intimacy. But the Emmy-nominated Cronenweth made a breakthrough while on location in Winnipeg by shooting exterior night scenes… in subzero temperatures… during Magic Hour.
“It was a problem that we were dealt from the very beginning because of the way the script’s written and the way time passes and having so little time at night to shoot with minors,” Cronenweth said. “But I was amazed at the amount of time we had at dusk once the sun shadows had become soft enough or dropped below the horizon line.”
He proposed turning night to dusk since so many of the scenes took place in a forest, which gave more depth to the trees to be lit from behind.
“We tried it on the first night,” he said. “We blocked, rehearsed and found three or four two-camera setups that served the sequence and it was flawless. And we all embraced that and made it our story. We were able to share [the] journey more closely with this approach.”
For his first TV experience, Cronenweth was tapped by executive producer and director Mark Romanek to shoot the pilot. They have nearly a 25-year collaboration, most notably on “One Hour Photo,” and the cinematographer was intrigued by the script and dazzled by the paintings.
“We wanted to maintain the intent of the paintings but present them within our own live-action world,” he said. “I thought Nathaniel Halpern’s script was such a clever story and he conceived such a thought-out sci-fi world. Just figuring out the story and the language and how best to present it was mind boggling. The more time we spent together, everything became clear when he explained his rationale for why everything happens.”
The Amazon Prime Video series focuses on inhabitants of a fictional Ohio industrial town pulled into an alternate reality, thanks to an underground floating sphere, known as “The Eclipse,” which serves as the mysterious source of the loop. And, in the pilot, a young girl (Abby Ryder Fortson), abandoned by her mother (Elektra Kilbey), encounters herself as an adult (Rebecca Hall) in a parallel future.
“To me, it’s kind of ‘Twilight Zone’ conceptually but much more emotionally attached to a human experience in every episode,” said Cronenweth. “We can mislead the audience but never lose the [connection to] the little girl.”
Romanek and Cronenweth discussed camera angles, movement, and tempo in the films of Ingmar Bergman (“The Seventh Seal”), Krzysztof Kieślowski (“Dekalog”), and Andrei Tarkovsky (“Solaris”). “Mark’s idea from the outset, was the nondescript, Scandinavian landscape,” he said.
Initially, the cinematographer’s first exposure to TV was an odd experience, with two other cinematographers — Ole Bratt Birkeland and Craig Wrobleski — observing him on set because they were prepping their shows simultaneously.
Amazon Prime Video
“You don’t get invited that often as a cinematographer to sit with other people working because it makes people uncomfortable unless they’re very close friends of yours,” said Cronenweth. It was very crowded, but he quickly adjusted and shot the pilot undeterred. He established the visual DNA they needed to be a part of and, ultimately, it made perfect sense.
Cronenweth shot with the Panavision Millennium DXL2 and used Panavision Panaspeed and Primo 70mm lenses. “The [first part] has the warm look of a period piece and justifies the tungsten [light] sources that covered up the house, and the fall off and intimacy put the focus on the relationship between her and her mother and what [the girl] wanted most was that bond to be closer,” he said.
“And once she jumps out, it became all about isolating her in a world where we could help understand her fear and loneliness,” Cronenweth said. “And so one of the techniques we chose [featured] shallow depth of field. It was always about her and the background became more noise. And that was our choice for using a larger format sensor and using 70mm glass. And then the tonality changed and some of that warmth disappeared and it became cold and less inviting.”
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Shooting inside the loop, though, required a sense of scale and otherworldly power. “It had to justify the events in the rest of the show, so it had to look large and ominous, and the set extensions had to look natural,” Cronenweth said. “You wanted it to be very industrial and without personality and not intimidating, but something that elicits curiosity and apprehension before we know what happens. Of course, you understate that so you can have an a-ha moment when they enter the room.”
But, for Cronenweth, the greatest satisfaction came from bringing the story full circle when the future mom (Hall) begins bonding with her youngest son (Duncan Joiner). It starts with a misleading silhouette of Fortson turning into Hall.
“And then you get that magical, soft, inviting moment again,” he said. “I think it’s one of the prettier scenes because it’s all about their closeups, going from awkward to comfort.”
“Tales from the Loop” is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.