'Hannibal' Cinematographer James Hawkinson: Lecter’s Velvet Darkness
Cinematographer James Hawkinson

James Hawkinson Elevated ‘Hannibal’ from Procedural to Art

Series creator Bryan Fuller explains how the course of "Hannibal" changed after he saw the cinematographer's work on the pilot.

No cinematographer speaks to television’s visual storytelling aspirations quite like James Hawkinson, and the best example is his work on “Hannibal,” the 2013 NBC crime procedural that was resurrected this month when Netflix made all three seasons available for streaming. Hawkinson’s cinematography helped elevate the network show into one of the most visually exciting series ever produced for any platform.

Director David Slade, Hawkinson’s long-time collaborator, asked him to join the shoot. By then, creator Bryan Fuller and his staff had written five episodes that tried to toe the tricky line between Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels and the structured storytelling of a network investigative procedural.

“I remember leaving the edit session where we’d seen the first cut [of the pilot] and I was like, ‘We’re doing the wrong show,” said Fuller in an interview with IndieWire. “When I saw David Slade and Jim Hawkinson’s work, and really understood the artful piece that they were able to conjure for what we had, I threw out the scripts.”

Looking back at the pilot, you can feel the early conflict between the paint-by-number investigative story beats and the lurking sense of unsettling danger in the cinematography. The familiar sets and locations of a procedural were covered in shadows, but rather than crush the blacks, Hawkinson left them murky grey, as if there was a mystery the audience could just barely see on the edges of frame.

The cinematographer instantly fell in love with the unique bone structure of Mads Mikkelsen’s Lecter, whose eyes and cheeks he could plunge into black cavities, making his head look like a skull and alluding to the almost supernatural darkness that laid beneath the character’s debonaire brilliance. And the unusual bromance between Lector and the young FBI profiler (Hugh Dancy) — even when seated across from one another in conversation — was charged with an atmosphere, as alluringly beautiful and sumptuous, as it was narratively unsettling.

Mads Mikkelsen in “Hannibal”

“We’d been shown the light, or lack thereof, with Jim Hawkinson’s cinematography and it really changed the course of the show,” said Fuller. “It had this wonderful texture to it; it did feel like painting on velvet. It was a buoy, I was like, ‘Oh, that is what the show should feel like, so our stories need to feel like these images in a way they weren’t.”

Fuller credits Hawkinson and Slade’s imagery as the impetus to rewrite and rethink the series, as he embraced not only the strange storytelling potential (like killers who grew mushrooms off their victims) but also the canvas that would allow the entire filmmaking team to reach for a slightly surreal aesthetic. Each time NBC surprised Fuller with a renewal, he aggressively pushed Hawkinson and team even further into a psychological landscape and away from the procedural.

For Hawkinson, who shot 35 of the 38 “Hannibal” episodes, the canvas supplied by Slade, then Fuller, changed his career. Prior to “Hannibal,” he shot a handful of comedy pilots after stints on successful comedies like “Arrested Development” and “Community.” He longed to move toward dramatic television, but the cinematographer saw no reason to play it safe when he got the chance.

He and Slade discussed only two specific visual references for “Hannibal”:  the unique shafts of light of a Caravaggio painting, and the hypnotic music video Chris Cunningham shot for Gil Scott-Heron’s “New York Is Killing Me.” Meanwhile, in his head, the cinematographer admitted he found himself always reaching for the austere Scandinavian look of Carl Dreyer’s silent films. This was not the vivid, ramped-up saturation typically seen on NBC. And to Hawkinson’s way of thinking, why should it be?

“I always give people a hard time if they shrug and go, ‘It’s just a TV show.’ Na-na-nah, we have to really go for it here,” Hawkinson said in an interview with IndieWire.

Barkskins Cinematographer James Hawkinson
Cinematographer James Hawkinson on the set of “Barkskins”

It was the same gloriously brazen approach he took when he tackled Amazon Prime Video’s Phillip K. Dick adaptation, “Man In the High Castle,” for producer Ridley Scott. Conventional wisdom is the level of visual sculpting Hawkinson did in both “Hannibal” and “High Castle” — for which he won an Emmy — is incongruous with the relentless, weekly grind of network television production.

But on “Castle,” Hawkinson told everyone the show’s aesthetic would be defined by the “retro-futuristic noir expressionism” of “Blade Runner.” That a series would reach for the groundbreaking and impossible to imitate look created by Scott and cinematographer Jordan Cronenworth sounded crazy. “I knew Ridley Scott was going to be potentially seeing my dailies and I never pandered to the lowest common denominator, I’m always going to go for the highest bar that I can,” Hawkinson said.

One of the keys to Hawkinson’s TV success is meticulous planning, leaning heavily on the key standing sets the series will return to week in and week out. In close collaboration with the production designer, each familiar set already has been given a distinct look and feel for day or night, but also allows for incessant tweaking. Hawkinson’s crew enters each scene with a schematic of a predetermined lighting design, and when the cinematographer walks on set with the director and cast, he’s simply refining that design to adjust to the scene being blocked in rehearsal.

This results in rich, intricate cinematography that allowed creators like Fuller to reach for something unexpected — and yet accessible. “Jim is a very artful, pretentious cinematographer, and I love pretension,” Fuller said. “I think pretension has great value in storytelling. I think pretension done bad is just cheesy and cheap, and people don’t know how to do pretension often, but if you’re calibrated to something that is a little bit more esoteric and less commercial, you can build a bridge that is somewhere between the arthouse audience and the mainstream audience.” –Chris O’Falt

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