Cinematography of “The Handmaid’s Tale” – interview with Colin Watkinson

April 28th, 2018

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my honour to welcome Colin Watkinson. In this interview he talks about the evolution of the field of cinematography in the last couple of decades and how the transition to digital changed the dynamics on set, the role of the cinematographer, and telling stories with moving light. Around these topics and more, Colin dives deep into his work on the first season of the critically acclaimed “The Handmaid’s Tale” on which he shot all ten episodes, building the back story and the visual universe of Gilead.

Colin Watkinson and Tarsem on the sets of “Emerald City”. Courtesy of Colin Watkinson.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path so far.

Colin: I’ve been working in the film industry since 1989. I started in visual effects and then worked my way through the camera department – clapper loader, focus puller to the director of photography.

I was drawn to the camera department because it is so immediate to telling the story. I loved how they were right there at the forefront, and everyday they created something. Everyday you have something that you have made. I really like that. It’s different every day and I love that about it. Every day is a different challenge, different place, different people.

Kirill: When you refer to something that you make, do you refer to the physical medium of film that was on the set when you started?

Colin: I’ve done commercials, music videos, feature films and TV. On TV you have around four scenes to do every day, and at the end of the day you have four completed scenes. They will still go through the process of being edited, but it’s done. The same happens on commercials and other types of productions. You have something to look at at the end of every day.

Kirill: If you compare this to other art forms, like painting or sculpture, this medium is a bit more ephemeral or temporal. You have the physical medium of the disc for those that still buy them, but otherwise you can’t reach out and touch it. You can’t go around and look at it from a different angle. There is no physicality to it, so to speak. And there’s so much new stuff happening, that people rarely go back and rewatch it.

Colin: My work on commercials would be seen again and again and again. And I enjoyed making something that would be seen that way. You hope to strike a chord and make something that people will come back to and watch again, and they see something they didn’t see the first time – if it’s layered enough and complex enough to entice people to rewatch.

Now that I’m in the narrative world, I don’t have those feelings. But that was certainly true in the commercial world – to make something that resonated, something that could be watched again and again.

I’ve enjoyed the visual medium of the film from the very early age. And I never thought as an 18-year old kid in Liverpool that it was an option. At the time, there wasn’t an awful lot going on in the city. It was when I came to London that the option of working in this industry presented itself. With a little bit of luck, I took that chance and did it.

Then I started thinking what I would need to do to succeed in that industry. What talent do I have to work in this industry? I started working hard, and at some point I met Tarsem. He really spoke to me. Watching his work was interesting, and made me realize that I wanted to do what he was doing. I’ve been working with him since 1993, and he’s been a huge influence on my career.

We started out doing commercials, and his vision was outstanding and striking. That was what I wanted to do. I wanted to make images that would make people sit up.

Kirill: Looking back at when you started, do you think it’s easier to get into the industry these days? The equipment is so much more affordable, from cameras to even smartphones where you can shoot, edit and post your work without having to even buy a computer.

Colin: If you want to be a filmmaker today, it’s only your own laziness that will stop you. When I was 11 or 12, I couldn’t afford an 8mm camera, and it is just a memory. But for a young filmmaker these days, there is no excuse. There are so many tools. If you want to tell a visual story, you can tell it on your phone.

And because of that, the challenge is that much greater. There are a lot of people who want to do it and who think they can do it now. It is harder to rise above and have somebody pay you to do that. You can do it, but can you monetize it? Can you live as a professional? That’s probably the hardest challenge for people who are trying to break in today. It must seem like a glut of people, all trying to do the same thing.

Kirill: Would you say that the tools themselves play a much smaller part, and the main thing is how well you can tell that story, and perhaps a little bit of luck to get noticed?

Colin: There’s always an element of luck, and how you use that luck when it presents itself. It’s watching, learning and then doing. You don’t talk about it. You do it. You keep doing it. You keep making mistakes. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. That’s part of the process – to learn what does and does not work.

Take as much as you can from everybody that you meet, and put that in your work.

Kirill: Do you miss the days of film as a medium? There was some magic to the cinematographer’s job to capture that moment through the lens while everybody else is waiting for the dailies to be processed.

Colin: I don’t. Technology drives us forward. You have to embrace it and accept it for what it is. You have to try to make your work better through it.

There were only very few people that could expose film in interesting ways, anyway. With digital, we can all be better cinematographers, because it is so immediate. We can make decisions and not worry about how it’s going to come out the next day. It’s right there for you to explore.

I really enjoy how immediate it is. You can be braver and bolder. There was a lot of safety in film. You go back to look at films that you thought were amazing, and it’s not quite amazing as what you remembered. There were, of course, masters that really knew what they were doing. But a lot of people just exposed it [laughs]. They told the story, but there was no bravery with the exposure, or the knowledge of what they were doing wasn’t as precise as the masters.

Gordon Willis was the master of under-exposure. Nobody did it like him. He totally knew what he was doing. Darius Khondji is the master of exposure. The way he manipulates film is incredible.

In mid-’90s there was a lot of photo-chemical experimentation. It was quite exciting at the time, but I feel that with digital these days it’s another way of doing that. You have different ways of manipulating the image. You try to stand out. You try to not make something that looks exactly the same as what everybody else is doing. You’re telling the story in a certain way, and you want people to sit up and watch it. You don’t want people to get bored when they watch it.

You can push this medium, and you should be pushing it as far as you can. You can experiment with different lenses and techniques. It was like that with film, and it is like that with digital.

Kirill: What about the dynamic on the set? Now that you’re no longer bound by how many minutes you can shoot without changing the magazine, how does that affect the setup for the cast and the crew?

Colin: Some aspects have definitely creeped in because you can go for longer without taking breaks. The set is a bunch of humans, and it has to be managed as such. You have to manage everything to maximize your output. Management is a big part of the cinematographer’s job. You’re trying to control a bunch of humans to make what you need to make.

Now that you can do a 30-minute take, if it’s needed then you should do it. But there are only so many times that you can do it in a day. It’s hard to keep up the concentration levels, and everyone will be exhausted at the end of the day. You have all these factors, and you can do all these different things, but at the end of the day, it’s humans that are doing it. And that has to be managed.

Kirill: Would you say that part of your job is to be a nanny, to get everybody ready for the moment when the camera starts rolling?

Colin: Yes, I think it is. The director looks after the actors. The first assistant director manages the entire crew. The cinematographer is there to rattle everything that needs to be to get what you need to get. You have the camera crew, the lighting crew, the on-set special effects and others. All of those need to be handled.

You need to get people to concentrate. It can be chaos on the set, and if you don’t manage it, nothing would get done. You keep it focused and concentrate on what you need to get.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as just enough time and just enough money?

Colin: You have to work within the limitations. You try to be positive with what you have. Moping around and complaining about what you don’t have is wasted energy. You have what you have, and you have the challenge that needs to be met. You use your resources to the max, hopefully.

Kirill: Transitioning to talk about “The Handmaid’s Tale”, how did it start for you? Did you know from the beginning that you’d end up doing all ten episodes of the first season?

Colin: I was just coming off of “Emerald City” that I did with Tarsem. We shot that as a long feature film – all ten episodes. We block-shot the entire season, and it was a lot of fun. It was intense, and I really enjoyed it.

I got a call from Reed Morano on “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and I was excited to speak with her. I’ve been tracking her career for the last ten years, and she’s a force to be reckoned with. She told me that I would be doing all ten episodes, and that she would be directing three of them. That challenge was laid out straight away.

Initially I was told that it would be five female directors, and we ended up with four women and one man for the season. It was an amazing challenge. I read the book in 1989 and I adored it. I’ve seen the film in the early ’90s and it was disappointing. I really wanted to try and make something special with Reed. We worked with Julie Berghoff the production designer who you’ve interviewed. She was amazing, and the more we went into it, the more exciting it got.

In the beginning I was wondering why I was there. Reed is a cinematographer herself, and we were talking about our thoughts on what we would bring to it. During the first week of the prep I asked her what I was doing there and she told me to stop worrying. She said that she had a plan and that it would present itself. And it did.

We were joining two styles. I learned so much and I’m so grateful for what she gave me. I’ve enjoyed that journey, and it was one of my favorite jobs that I’ve ever done.

Kirill: How beneficial was it to have a single cinematographer on the entire season, to maintain and evolve visual continuity throughout all the episodes?

Colin: In season two we are going to have 13 episodes, and we pulled in another cinematographer, Zoe White. The producers thought that they nearly killed me last year [laughs]. I was literally jumping from one episode to another with a different director. You meet the directors briefly over the weekend, trying to help them with their episodes.

This year we thought that money would be better spent by having more prep. I think they are right. This year the show acquires a certain attention to detail, and having extra prep was spending that money wisely. We are not a hugely expensive show.

Zoe White is an Australian that lives in New York. We were looking for someone that would take our world and move it forward. And she has certainly done that. Her style is different to mine, and the show needed that. The show is dark, and she certainly embraced that. It was certainly interesting. I suggested, and the powers-to-be made the final choice. We could have gone with the second DP just copying what we have already done, but we wanted it to move forward.

Kirill: How do you choose your projects? Do you try to be in perfect alignment with the sensibilities of your major collaborators – the director, the production designer, the producers or the show runners?

Colin: Production design is a taste thing. I have to be enamored with their work. As far as what happens on the set, I’m happy having a creative debate. How do you shoot something? How should it look? And I want to have people with passion that challenge each other to find the right method.

It does lead to people getting upset, and it can be difficult dealing with that, including myself. It may not be really how I saw it, but it is the right way. The older I get, the more I enjoy finding the right way – even if it wasn’t my idea. It’s all about finding the right way to tell the story.

Kirill: And then you have the audience participating, if you will, in that story in how they react to it. Nowadays we have hundreds of episodical shows being produced by different networks. Does it feel random sometimes what manages to capture the audiences, what strikes a chord and resonates with people?

Colin: I have the viewer in mind all the time. But at the same time, we have a certain way that we want to tell that story at that time. When you’re telling that story, you’re thinking about how the viewer sees that method of telling it.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is told from Offred’s point of view, and you have to feel like you’re with that woman. You have to feel what she is feeling living in that world. That was the intent – for the viewer to feel those thoughts. That’s what I’m thinking of. Are they going to enjoy it? You can only hope. You put your best into it and you hope.

There was a certain amount of luck that our show came out at the time that it did. People were feeling in a certain way when it came out, and it resonated. Hulu did really well to capture that in how they marketed the show. And as they went forward with writing, they listened and watched what was going on with the world. The way Margaret Atwood wrote the book was through exposing thought processes.

But there’s no guarantee that season two is going to come out and it works. We’ve tried our hardest in what we were trying to say. We hope people like it.

Kirill: Would you say that there’s a certain “vocabulary” in how stories are told on screen, as far as how different shots and framing convey specific emotions? If there is such a vocabulary, does that limit you in a way as a storyteller to have your own take on telling the stories that you work on?

Colin: It’s getting into the hard question about where should the camera be. Every change in the degree of where the camera is expresses something else. That’s what has been the most interesting about this show. We go from all the way in the front to all the way in the back, and you ask yourself where you should be on literally every shot.

I don’t think that I will ever think that there is a standard film vocabulary anymore. This show has taught me how intense it needs to be to tell that story. If you look at most of the old TV shows, it’s very formulaic. And they have to be, because it was a different time when they were pumping them out so quickly.

The viewers are so sophisticated now. They expect so much more. There’s so much content available, and the “off” button is right there. I know it because I’m that person. You have to engage me, and it’s not about just car chase sequences. Everybody is working so hard to capture.

I never went to a film school, so I don’t know how that vocabulary is taught. I learned that on the set from different people that I’ve worked with. You have your different lenses, and you have different ways of lighting it. When you change the lighting, it’s different. When you shoot from a different angle, it’s different.

There are times when you look at it and you have to call it out because it’s a boring shot. You also have to think about the bigger picture. How does it sit within the scene that will have music, editing etc? There are so many things that you need to consider, and you start linking with your director to understand where they are going. I don’t always know everything they are thinking, and I don’t want to know everything. There are certain things in their head that have to remain there.

That’s the excitement of seeing it all come together. You have to believe that it will all come together in the end. You have to believe in that synergy.

If there is such a thing as normal or formulaic filmmaking, I don’t want to go back there. I don’t know if it really exists at the level of work that I want to do. The viewer has won in their demand of better filmmaking.

Kirill: The bigger canvas of the show has allowed you to expand the canvas of the story to go back not only to her past, but also to how Gilead came to be. What kinds of discussions happened around the visuals of Gilead – in the present and in the flashbacks? It certainly doesn’t feel like the usual dystopian or apocalyptic bleakness.

Colin: We had many discussions about the style. Reed’s style is pretty visceral. We wanted the flashbacks to feel as real as right now. Once it all came together, the scary part of the flashbacks is that it feels so real, which made Gilead even scarier. It made it feel like it could actually happen if you sit back and not watch what is going on in the world. It’s a wake-up call.

We shot Gilead in a different, more formal style. That gives contrast to those visceral flashbacks. We had these rules, and of course rules are made to be broken – as long as you understand why you’re doing it. Flashbacks were mostly handheld, with a right-now feel to them. There was a certain beauty that we wanted to bring to Gilead, even though it is not beautiful at all. We borrowed some techniques from Gilead and brought them to flashbacks to tie the two worlds together.

We had a lot of discussions around that as it was evolving as we went along. We thought we had a certain look, and then we shook it up a little bit on day one because it didn’t feel quite right. It was a fascinating process.

Reed would take cloth samples from the handmaid’s costumes to locations, and we would look at what the backgrounds were meant to be. She would take stills and constantly search for the right thing. She was amazing.

Another example was the supermarket. She was obsessed over that in prep. We must have looked at dozens of places, trying to get a supermarket that we could empty out and put our own stuff in. She had a certain feeling of what it should be. It had to feel like you knew this place, like you’ve been there before, but now it was different. It was meandering between different ideas in prep, but she was literally an arrow that never wavered. It couldn’t be like a farmer’s market. It had to be what we know, but bleak.

The first few frames of that scene tell you a lot about that world. There are no words on the containers. There is little food because of the war. There’s so much information being given out in those thirty seconds. That was all Reed. I was blown by that attention to detail.

Kirill: It brought me back to my childhood days in Soviet Moscow where you didn’t have any variety, and things were spaced out on the shelves and not as crowded as I see them today when I go to my local grocery store here in Atlanta.

Colin: That’s what would happen in a place that wasn’t well connected to the rest of the world, like the Soviet Union back then. Gilead would be ostracized if that happened, in a totally different scenario of course.

Kirill: You’ve mentioned that you’ve read the book almost thirty years ago, and then you have all these discussions in prep, and you go through shooting to editing. As you see so much evolution of that story and you see it come to life, does it feel that you come to be defined in a certain way by your work?

Colin: I hope not. This is just a stage in my life, and I’m trying to do it as best as I can, and then move on to a different story. I look at myself as a storyteller, and this is a particular story that I’m telling. It just happened to be a book that was particularly close to my heart when I read it. It was powerful, and it was a stroke of luck to have been able to turn that into a TV show in 2017.

I’m very happy with how it turned out to be, but I’m looking for the next corner and the next story that I’m going to tell. Career-defining is such a big term. In a certain sense, every job that you do defines your career. I’ve learned a lot on this one, and I’m looking forward to taking that with me as I’m moving on.

Kirill: When a production of this size takes quite a few months of your life, what happens you read critical reviews? Do you take it personally when people don’t like the end result? Is it hard to separate the critique of the work from the critique of you as the person who did that work?

Colin: You’re not really in the public eye as a cinematographer. But I do take it personally. For example, “Emerald City” wasn’t well received. I’m trying to understand what it was that I did wrong so that I don’t do that again. I do listen to that, and I am aware of that. Human life is about learning, and you have to make mistakes. I don’t feel bad about it.

If I work on a turkey, I don’t need to read a critique to know that I made something bad. It’s when you made something good that is not received well that you start thinking about it.

I don’t want to waste my life doing something that is garbage, but it happens [laughs]. “Emerald City” was nine months of my life. I still think that I made beautiful images, and Tarsem promised me that we would have fun time making the show. And we did. He made it really enjoyable. I worked with the first AD who is a good friend of mine. He taught me a lot about filmmaking. Even though the show wasn’t particularly successful, I came away from those nine months with a lot in my bag.

My whole career in film has allowed me to travel the world and experience so many people. I get angry at myself when I’m miserable. I never used to be very happy not working, although I’m getting better at that. I try to enjoy my time off, but I used to be so anxious to get on to my next project.

The experience of making is the most important thing for me. It is about enjoying what you’re doing. My wife always tells me that I’m really lucky to enjoy what I do for a living. Waking up at 4am sucks. Going to work in the rain sucks. But I still enjoy it. At the end of the day, I’d rather do that than anything else.

Kirill: Even though that takes you away from your family and friends for all those long months.

Colin: Working away from home is probably the hardest thing. I miss my family immensely when I’m away, and I always look forward to spending quality time together with them after a project is done. It is a shame that this has to be the case. I might try and find my next project to be in LA where I live. I’m trying to find a better balance.

That’s the part of the career that I can’t control. I guess you can, but that would affect the kinds of projects that I would be offered. My wife and I talk about every job. Why would I take it? What does it mean to me? Is it worth the sacrifice of not being with them? She’s my rock. She’s right behind me all the time. When I’m away, she’s with the kids on her own, and it’s hard for her.

I work with a grip in LA, and he says that we are all giving 100%. You can’t give more, but you’re also not allowed to give less. So I have this great life, but I don’t get to live close to home most of the time. You’re literally not allowed everything in life. Trying to strike that balance is difficult.

Kirill: Let me ask you something then. If you won the lottery tomorrow, would you still continue making films?

Colin: That’s a really good question. Yes, I would. But what films would I make? Probably I would be so careful about what I choose that I might not get hired to jobs that I really wanted to do. If you start cherrypicking, people stop calling.

If I won $100M tomorrow, I would probably take some serious time off and spend it with my family. Take a few years and travel to parts of the world that I haven’t seen yet. I would still do things, but I would follow this career as precisely as I have? Probably not.

I would probably survive if I stopped working. There are so many things in life that I could probably do. I talked with friends about how much money would you need to stop working. There are people with hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank, and they are stressed every day. I think I’d be having the best time ever. Taking courses, living all over the place, going skiing. I’d be having such an amazing time, honestly [laughs].

And here I’d like to thank Colin Watkinson for finding time in his busy schedule and agreeing to answer a few questions I had on the art and craft of cinematography and on what went into creating the worlds of “The Handmaid’s Tale”. You can also find Colin on Instagram. The first season of the show is out now on BluRay and other physical and digital formats. And the second season is streaming on Hulu on Wednesdays this spring.

Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series. Stay tuned for more interviews in the near future!