By Randi Altman
HBO’s Watchmen takes us to new dimensions in this recent interpretation of the popular graphic novel. In this iteration, we spend a lot of our time in Tulsa, Oklahoma, getting to know Regina King’s policewoman Angela Abar, her unconventional family and a shadowy organization steeped in racism called the Seventh Kavalry. We also get a look back — beautiful in black and white — at Abar’s tragic family back story. It was created and written for TV by Lost veteran Damon Lindelof.
Greg Middleton, ASC, CSC, who also worked on Game of Thrones and The Killing, was the series cinematographer. We reached out to him to find out about his process, workflow and where he gets inspiration.
When were you brought on to Watchmen, and what type of looks did the showrunner want from the show?
I joined Watchmen after the pilot for Episode 2. A lot of my early prep was devoted to discussions with the showrunner and producing directors on how to develop the look from the pilot going forward. This included some pilot reshoots due to changes in casting and the designing and building of new sets, like the police precinct.
Nicole Kassell (director of Episodes 1, 2 and 8) and series production designer Kristian Milstead and I spent a lot of time breaking down the possibilities of how we could define the various worlds through color and style.
How was the look described to you? What references were you given?
We based the evolution of the look of the show on the scripts, the needs of the structure within the various worlds and on the graphic novel, which we commonly referred to as “the Old Testament.”
As you mention, it’s based on a graphic novel. Did the look give a nod to that? If so, how? Was that part of the discussion?
We attempted to break down the elements of the graphic novel that might translate well and those that would not. It’s an interesting bit of detective work because a lot of the visual cues in the comic are actually a commentary on the style of comics at the time it was published in 1985.
Those cues, if taken literally, would not necessarily work for us, as their context would not be clear. Things like color were very referential to other comics of the time. For example, they used only secondary color instead of primaries as was the norm. The graphic novel is also a film noir in many ways, so we got some of our ideas based on that.
What did translate well were compositional elements — tricks of transition like match cuts and the details of story in props, costumes and sets within each frame. We used some split diopters and swing shift lenses to give us some deep focus effects for large foreground objects. In the graphic novel, of course, everything is in focus, so those type of compositions are common!
This must have been fun because of the variety of looks the series has — the black-and-white flashbacks, the stylized version of Tulsa, the look of the mansion in Wales (Europa), Vietnam in modern day. Can you talk about each of the different looks?
Yes, there were so many looks! When we began prep on the series with the second episode, we were also simultaneously beginning to film the scenes in Wales for the “blond man” scenes. We knew that that storyline would have its own particular feel because of the location and its very separateness from the rest of the world.
A more classic traditional proscenium-like framing and style seemed very appropriate. Part of that intent was designed to both confuse and to make very apparent to the audience that we were definitely in another world. Cinematographer Chris Seager, BSC, was filming those scenes as I was still doing tests for the other looks and the rest of our show in Atlanta.
We discussed lenses, camera format, etc. The three major looks we had to design that we knew would go together initially were our “Watchmen” world, the “American hero story” show within the show, and the various flashbacks to 1921 Tulsa and World War I. I was determined to make sure that the main world of the show did not feel overly processed and colorized photographically. We shot many tests and developed a LUT that was mostly film-like. The other important aspects to creating a look are, of course, art direction and production design, and I had a great partner in Kristian Milstead, the production designer who joined the show after the pilot.
This was a new series. Do you enjoy developing the look of a show versus coming on board after the look was established?
I enjoy helping to figure out how to tell the story. For series, helping develop the look photographically in the visual strategy is a big part of that. Even if some of those are established, you still do similar decision-making for shooting individual scenes. However, I much prefer being engaged from the beginning.
So even when you weren’t in Wales, you were providing direction?
As I mentioned earlier, Chris Seager and I spoke and emailed regarding lenses and those choices. It was still early for us in Atlanta, but there were preliminary decisions to be made on how the “blond man” (our code name for Jeremy Irons) world would be compared to our Watchmen world. What I did was consult with my director, Nicole Kassell, on her storyboards for her sequences in Wales.
Were there any scenes or looks that stood out as more challenging than others? Can you describe?
Episode 106 was a huge challenge. We have a lot of long takes involving complex camera moves and dimmer cues as a camera would circle or travel between rooms. Also, we developed the black-and-white look to feel like older black-and-white film.
One scene in June’s apartment involved using the camera on a small Scorpio 10-foot crane and a mini libre head to accomplish a slow move around the room. Then we had to push between her two actors toward the wall as an in-camera queue of a projected image of the black-and-white movie Trust in the Law reveals itself with a manual iris.
This kind of shot ends up being a dance with at least six people, not including the cast. The entire “nostalgia” part of the episode was done this way. And none of this would’ve been possible without incredible cast being able to hit these incredibly long takes and choreograph themselves with the camera. Jovan Adepo and Danielle Deadwyler were incredible throughout the episode.
I assume you did camera tests. Why did you choose the ARRI Alexa? Why was it right for this? What about lenses, etc.?
I have been working with the Alexa for many years now, so I was aware of what I could do with the camera. I tested a couple of others, but in the end the Alexa Mini was the right choice for us. I also needed a camera that was small so I could go on and off of a gimbal or fit into small places.
How did you work with the colorist? Who was that on this show? Were you in the suite with them?
Todd Bochner was our final colorist at Sim in LA. I shot several camera tests and worked with him in the suite to help develop viewing LUTs for the various worlds of the show. We did the same procedure for the black and white. In the end, we mimicked some techniques similar to black-and-white film (like red filters), except for us, it was adjusting the channels accordingly.
Do you know what they used on the color?
Yes, it was Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve 16.
How did you get interested in cinematography?
I was always making films as a kid, and then in school and then in university. In film school, at some point splitting apart the various jobs, I seemed to have some aptitude for the cinematography, so after school I decided to try making my focus. I came to it more out of a love of storytelling and filmmaking and less about photography.
What inspires you? Other films?
Films that move me emotionally.
What’s next for you?
A short break! I’ve been very fortunate to have been working a lot lately. A film I shot just before Watchmen called American Woman, directed by Semi Chellas, should be coming out this year.
And what haven’t I asked that’s important?
I think the question all filmmakers should ask themselves is, “Why am I telling this story, and what is unique about the way in which I’m telling it?”
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.