Crafting the Stunning Visual Worlds of ‘The Underground Railroad’

Craft Considerations: Watch production designer Mark Friedberg, DP James Laxton, and costume designer Caroline Eselin-Schaefer break down their "Underground" craft.

Making Amazon’s The Underground Railroad: Visual

Curated by the IndieWire Crafts team, Craft Considerations is a platform for filmmakers to talk about recent work that we believe is worthy of awards consideration. In partnership with Amazon Studios for this inaugural edition, we are taking another look at the creation of “The Underground Railroad” with key members of the production team: cinematographer James Laxton, costume designer Caroline Eselin-Schaefer, and production designer Mark Friedberg talk about helping director Barry Jenkins adapt Colson Whitehead’s novel of the same name into a 10-part limited series. Watch the first installment, devoted to post-production, here.

“When working with Barry, what you get is this license to lean heavily into your craft,” said cinematographer James Laxton, who has worked with Jenkins since their film school days at Florida State University. “We’re only able to do that because he tells stories that need that from us. It’s one of my favorite parts about working with him.”

This was certainly the case on “The Underground Railroad,” where each stage of Cora’s (Thuso Mbedu) journey, from Georgia to Indiana, is not only a change of location and season, but also an entirely different world or even dimension. Friedberg, Laxton, and Eselin-Schaefer closely collaborated so that each chapter had a distinct color, look, and feel.

The Production Design of “The Underground Railroad”

In his first conversation with his production designer, Jenkins made one thing clear. Said Mark Friedberg: “He said, ‘The only thing I can tell you about this movie, Mark, is real actors, on real trains, underground.”

In other words, the literal engine driving the magical realism of “The Underground Railroad” had to be real, with no digital trickery. Friedberg’s solution was to work with the non-profit Train Museum in Savannah to build a football field-length’s worth of tunnel above ground, and then nest various station sets around the single piece of track. It was a brilliant piece of problem-solving as well as an incredible piece of storytelling. From the look of the hand-chiseled rock, to the elegant murals of the stations further north, Friedberg created an evocative world that is the series’ beating heart.

“It’s its own world down there, it’s a quantum reality,” he said. “I think to try to understand it literally makes no sense, but to be able to feel it is the point of the [series]. It is also the place, unlike every other state they end up, where they are somewhat free. It’s a place they could go, they could have wine, and not worry about getting shot. It is theirs and it’s made by them.”

Creating the underground railroad was only one of many challenges Friedberg faced as he tirelessly scouted Georgia to find locations he could turn into distinct worlds: an insular North Carolina village, the strange anachronism of a South Carolina city, the autumnal Indiana of a Black Utopia, and, as you’ll see in the video above, the Georgia plantation on which Cora was born and raised. As Friedberg explains, each decision in building the slave quarters — including their spatial relationship to the “Big House,” the cotton field (which Friedberg’s team planted), and 250-year-old oak trees — captured “the beauty and horror” of Jenkins’ vision.

The Cinematography of “The Underground Railroad”

Jenkins’ journey to find the visual language of “The Underground Railroad” started, like all his projects, with early conversations with Laxton. They wanted to avoid edits, instead relying on longer takes and camera movement to reframe as they hit different story beats within the same shot. The result is scenes often play out in real time, but through a floating, dreamlike sense of movement.

“When you are dealing with these elevated and fantastical elements, there’s fear in me, and I assume a fear in Barry as well, that we were going to dip our filmmaker hand too far down into the depth of making images that didn’t feel believable,” said Laxton. “The camera pans and moves from one character to another character, or one character to a train, always in service of trying to make sure these images feel heightened in their sensibilities, but need to feel desperately true to our audiences.”

As Laxton describes in the video above, “heightened but true” was a guiding principle in creating the distinct look of each leg in Cora’s journey. Leaning into the different seasons of each chapter, and working with colorist Alex Bickel, Laxton turned the heat of Georgia, the perversion of South Carolina, and love of Indiana into tangible textures, emotions, and color palettes.

The Costume Design of “The Underground Railroad”

In “The Gaze” — the 52-minute reel Jenkins released of the countless portraits he shot on “The Underground Railroad” — the large-format, slow-motion camera glides over countless extras and background players. You begin to realize not only the size and scope of Caroline Eselin-Schaefer’s task on this 10-part limited series, but also the care and detail that went into each costuming choice.

Balancing deep historical research with a series that at times is anachronistic and magical, the costume designer found solutions that are elegant in their simplicity, rich in detail, and steeped in storytelling. In “Chapter 2: South Carolina,” Cora and Caesar (Aaron Pierre) find themselves living in a seemingly progressive world after escaping the plantation. On the surface, South Carolina is an optimistic and colorful place, but as Eselin-Schaefer explains in the video above, the costumes reveal that this strange society is actually another form of slavery.

Eselin-Schaefer’s costumes were designed to lean into the world Friedberg built as well as the distinct way Laxton manipulated its capture and representation on screen. Even in South Carolina — where Eselin-Schaefer intentionally limited the variety of silhouettes, fabrics, and colors — the costumes still popped in densely populated frames because she worked with Laxton to select costumes that would play into the unique way his color grading altered blues and greens.

While the individual work of Friedberg, Laxton, and Eselin-Schaefer is stunning, it was their close collaboration that keeps Jenkins’ visually bold vision of Cora’s long journey an organic, masterful whole.

Below watch our discussion with Friedberg, Laxton, and Eselin-Schaefer.

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