By Randi Altman
HBO’s Westworld ended its third season in early May, and it was quite a ride. There was anarchy, rioting, robots, humans, humans who are really robots, robots who had other robots’ brains. Let’s just say there was a lot going on. This season took many of our characters — including Dolores, Maeve, Bernard and the Man in Black — out of the Westworld park and into the real world, meaning the look of the show needed to feel different.
Cinematographer John Grillo has shot eight Westworld episodes spanning Seasons 2 and 3. In fact, he earned an Emmy nomination for his work on Season 2. His resume is full of episodic work and includes TNT’s new series Snowpiercer, The Leftovers and Preacher, among many others.
We reached out to Grillo to find out about his process on Westworld and how he found his way to cinematography.
The most current season of Westworld has completely different locations than in previous years — we are now in the outside world. How did this change the look?
We introduced more LED practical fixtures in both interior and exterior sets. The idea was to create more linear patterns of illumination. Production designer Howard Cummings created sets that incorporated this futuristic motif, whether built on stage or added them to existing locations.
We relied much more on the art department and post VFX to help us eliminate certain elements in the background that would bump against the story. Beyond that, we endeavored to find locations in Los Angeles, Spain and Singapore that either already had a futuristic vibe about them or that we could touch up with VFX. There were some that needed no extra work, like the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, which became Delos Headquarters, and another location in Barcelona called La Fabrica, which used to be a cement factory that architect Ricardo Bofill converted into his offices and living quarters. This would become the character Serac’s home. In the near future, not everything has changed so dramatically, so we focused on key elements like vehicles and buildings.
DP Paul Cameron, who shot the show’s pilot, directed Episode 4 this season, which you shot for him. Tell us about working together on that episode.
I’ve known Paul Cameron for many years and assisted him on a few occasions, most notably on Collateral. I’ve always admired his lighting, so needless to say there was a healthy mix of excitement and fear on my part when I heard I’d be shooting his directorial debut!
I have shot episodic TV for other DP-directors and I’ve been in that situation myself — recently directing episodes for Preacher — so I came in with a new appreciation of how difficult it is to direct.
Working with a fellow cinematographer makes the communication a lot smoother; if he asked me for a specific look or feel we were able to speak in shorthand. He was very respectful of my opinions and let me do my thing, and at the same time I was able to help him like I would any director. He came up with some great ideas that were not in the script, particularly for the opening sequence with Ed Harris. Anybody directing for the first time with actors of the caliber that we have in Westworld would be a nervous wreck, but Paul was very much in control, and we managed to have fun in the process.
What camera was Westworld shot on? What about lenses?
We shot on Kodak 35mm stock with ARRICAM ST and LT, 435 and 235 cameras using ARRI Master Primes serviced from Keslow Camera. They were very helpful in securing HD video taps for us, which were invaluable. We also shot anamorphic sequences with Cooke Anamorphic primes. We did shoot a little bit of digital here and there for wide-angle night exteriors of skylines just to make the buildings pop. For that we used the Sony Venice camera with ARRI Signature Primes. We also used the Rialto extension on the Venice to create a camera rig we mounted on a DJI Ronin-S that we called the Hobo Cam. This allowed us to shoot in the crowded streets of Singapore unnoticed — the idea being that it was a one-man operation with the body of the camera in a backpack and the sensor module mounted on the Ronin. We used Zeiss Super Speeds to keep the weight down.
Tell us about the color grade. How do you work with the colorist?
I worked remotely with Kostas Theodosiou, who was our final colorist at FotoKem. He is new to the show this season, so we had some conversations over the phone early on. I would send reference stills to dailies colorist Jon Rocke after each shoot day in an effort to lock down the look we were going for ahead of time.
We were tweaking as we went along, even retransferring some dailies when we didn’t feel they were right. For me skin tones are very important. We spent a lot of time correcting them. Film is amazing in that respect, but when you transfer it to the digital domain, it takes a lot of know-how from the colorist to dig for them.
You also shot TNT’s new Snowpiercer series. Both shows feature a lot of visual effects. How does that affect your work?
It’s like working with a ghost. You know it’s there, but you can’t see it. I’ve worked with some great VFX artists, so I depend on them to keep me on the right track. Sometimes I affect what they do by suggesting a certain look or vice versa, but it’s all worked out in prep, so usually we are on the same page when it comes time to shoot.
It used to be more complicated when I was coming up in terms of the execution, locking down cameras with 20 C-stands and such. Now they’ve come a long way, and there’s nothing they can’t do. I usually don’t even see their work until the show comes out, so it’s always a pleasant surprise.
How did you become interested in cinematography?
It was by happenstance. My dad is a jazz guitarist, and my mother is a painter. Growing up, I was surrounded by music and painting. There were plenty of art books in my mom’s house in Acapulco, where I was raised, so early on I had an interest in the visual arts.
When I was living in Mexico City, I got a job on an American film that was shooting in town. After working as a PA in various departments, I ended up with the VFX crew, and that was my first time being near a film camera. The assistants began teaching me how to load the old Mitchell and VistaVision cameras, and after principal photography was done, they offered me a job in LA as a loader.
After that I worked as an assistant for many years and was lucky to work for some of the best cinematographers around. What really turned me on to the art of cinematography was discovering the connection to my childhood interests and seeing how certain cinematographers were, in fact, painting with light. Vittorio Storaro, Sven Nykvist, Nestor Almendros and Conrad Hall were channeling Rembrandt, Vermeer and Caravaggio. I began paying more attention to the craft as I continued assisting DPs and then decided to make the leap.
What inspires you artistically?
I draw a lot of inspiration from the other arts. Paintings, photography, music and dance are great tools for learning about color, composition, rhythm and movement. For example, music is very helpful for camera choreography. How slow or how fast the dolly moves or how long a focus rack takes is always linked to the rhythm of a scene, so it becomes a beautiful dance with the actors. That’s why we always talk about beats in a scene like we do with music.
Looking back over the past few years, what new technology has changed the way you work?
Probably the advent of LED lights. It’s been a game-changer, particularly on tight schedules. Having a dimmer board able to control not just the intensity but also color and angle has freed up time to think about the other dozen things that go into creating an image.
What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
For me it’s about paying attention. Having your antennas up. Listening to the director. Working on a film is a group effort and I like being involved in the process and want my crew to feel the same way. We spend more time with each other than with our families, so it’s important that everyone is inspired to do their best work but also have fun doing it. The rule is always to serve the story and the director’s vision.
What’s your go-to gear — things you can’t live without?
It all depends on the project. Lately I’ve been impressed with the Sony Venice camera. I love the high ISO setting for low-light scenes. Also, I’ve grown quite dependent on the Astera Titan tubes for lighting. They are like Kino Flos but wireless, battery-powered and color-controlled. They can quickly get you out of a jam.
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.