HBO American superhero drama limited television series Watchmen has racked up plenty of awards buzz with nominations for the Satellite Awards, Critics’ Choice Awards, Art Directors Guild, Costume Designers Guild, and Writers Guild Awards, to name a few.
Series cinematographer, Greg Middleton, who served as the director of photography for half of the season’s episodes, including the notable black and white, flashback-heavy episode, “This Extraordinary Being,” spoke exclusively to ProductionHUB about his contributions to storytelling of the series through his work.
PH: How did you get involved with Watchmen?
Greg Middleton: I was brought on by director Nicole Kassell, with whom I had worked with on several episodes of the AMC/Netflix series The Killing.
PH: What were some of your favourite shooting techniques and how did they tell the story in the way you envisioned?
Greg Middleton: We tried to translate some of the graphic novel’s image concepts to the show. My favourite included match cuts, which involve taking the same character of element in the frame and cutting to a different place in time with the same elements). This keeps the story moving quickly, as often the character is in the same state or mood or has a driven purpose, so the match cut keeps us with them, propelling the story forward more quickly. This technique also hints at the experience of time in the same nonlinear way Dr. Manhattan does. We used deep focus techniques to create foreground and background compositions using split diopters and swing shift lenses. In the comic everything is drawn sharply allowing a lot of information in the frame for context. It also allowed the audience to scan the frame like a comic.
PH: What were some of your favorite components of storytelling for the series?
Greg Middleton: I had a lot of fun with the use of the parallel story in the “TV show” American Hero Story, showing a fictionalized romanticized view of the past of Hooded Justice. We mimicked some of the compositions with careful use of deep focus as notes to include story points or easter eggs from the original comic, like names of fictional novels read by characters in the graphic novel.
PH: How did you accomplish these?
Greg Middleton: We developed a completely separate look and aesthetic for the “American Hero Story” scenes. These elements included high contrast, like the sets and costumes against white light, primary colours, and very stylized violence. We also split diopters for easter eggs in the foreground like the “Under the Hood” book on Chief Crawford’s desk.
PH: Were there any challenges? How did you overcome them?
Greg Middleton: There were many challenges! Maintaining visual interest in every shot was overcome with a dedicated, committed and talented crew from top to bottom.
PH: Can you talk a bit about the black and white episode? How did you shoot that?
Greg Middleton: Much of the episode is meant to be a subjective journey through Old Man Will’s memories of his past. We attempted to keep the camera floating and moving slowly throughout with very few edits, which was suggested in the script. We used all kinds of camera support devices including Steadicam, telescoping cranes of several sizes, small gimbals, and even some handheld. In prep we pre-staged all the scenes on location and in our sets with our stand-ins to pre-vis the blocking and staging. We did a temp edit of that material to check our proof of concept for each scene. This allowed us to effectively design all the shots and transitions beforehand, and time enough to then technically solve the problems before the shoot.
I did tests for the Black and White look so I could have the look on set, while we shot.
PH: When you have flashback heavy episodes, what goes into shooting them?
Greg Middleton: The biggest part is designing different photographic looks for each “era.” A lot of focus goes into planning the transitions into and out of the flashbacks to give them an effortless feeling, and make each separate timeline clear.
PH: What projects (that you can talk about) do you have upcoming?
Greg Middleton: I’ve been consulting with others to work out what adjustments we’ll need to make going forward with the presence of SAR-CoV2 virus in our society for the foreseeable future. This includes advocating for safer practices, such as a 10 hour shoot day rather than a 12 hour one.
Photo credit: Mark Hill/HBO.