Cinematography of “The Man in the High Castle” – interview with Gonzalo Amat

August 16th, 2019

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Gonzalo Amat. In this interview he talks about technology changes in the field of cinematography, set dynamics and collaboration through communication, finding the balance between technical and artistic aspects of storytelling, and the world of episodic productions . Around these topics and more, Gonzalo dives deep into his work on “The Man in the High Castle”, alternate history of post-World War II where the Axis powers have divided the United States and assimilated the citizens into different cultures.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Gonzalo: I watched a lot of films since I was little, but I didn’t really ever think about working on film as I didn’t know you could have that as a career. But I did have a still camera throughout my school years, and I would take photos everywhere. As I was getting closer to college age, I started getting interested in literature and storytelling in general.

When I was in college, I started out studying communications, and didn’t get to film until later. It slowly came together, as you take novels as narrative, and add visuals through photography to make a film. I started working in productions as a production assistant, and when I was sure that it was what I wanted, I went to the London film school. After that I moved back to Los Angeles where I studied in the American Film Institute, and I’ve been shooting since – everything from documentaries to art films, from short movies to TV and streaming.

Kirill: Looking back at your early days in the industry, was there anything particularly surprising or unexpected for you?

Gonzalo: A set is always such a weird place to be on. I’ve been there for half my life already, but I still think it’s a very strange place. Everyone is always running around, and then suddenly everyone stops and it’s complete silence, and then everyone runs again. It’s this kind of mix of energy that’s interesting and focused. There’s really nothing like it.

It’s so special to see all these people, each one doing their own job, and everyone comes together. Then, when you roll camera, everyone quiets down and you have all this energy concentrated into one small space that goes through the camera. The energy on the set still surprises me to this day.

Behind the scenes on the sets of “The Man in the High Castle”. Courtesy of Gonzalo Amat and Amazon Studios.

Kirill: Now that you’re working in the industry, how does that affect you as a viewer? Do you catch yourself analyzing how they made a particular shot, or do you get to enjoy the story itself?

Gonzalo: In a way, yes. When I’m in the middle of a project and I’m watching something, all I can see is how they did it – so I don’t really enjoy it. But if I’m able to disconnect, then I’m able to enjoy the story even more. If you don’t get pulled in, then you see the strings behind it and it’s not that enjoyable. But if it’s well done, if it’s powerful and it just sweeps you away, you admire it more than the average viewer. You know how much effort went into it.

I like watching movies, because I’m looking forward to see if it’s going to sweep me off my feet, or if I’ll end up thinking about how many days it took to shoot the scene.

Kirill: You mentioned “when you roll camera”, but that’s almost obsolete now that digital has taken over. If you look at these first 20 years of your career, how different is it today compared to when you started?

Gonzalo: It’s pretty different. When I started, there was just video assist. You could see what the camera was doing, but there was no way of telling how it would look until it got developed. There was a little bit of a magic element to what we did as cinematographers. Some people complain that it’s lost and that the magic is gone. But I don’t see it like that.

I see it as another way of communicating with someone. You communicate with the director, and you both see something that is quite close to what the final image is going to be. You can discuss if it should be darker or cooler or warmer. You’re still the cinematographer. You are telling the vision of the director and not only your own vision. The more tools you have to communicate, the better it is, especially on subjective things like color or brightness.

Technology has also changed the way we do color correction in post-production, and the way we work with lights on set. You can program lights and change light during a scene. It can be programmed to change color during the scene, and you have other nice storytelling tools like that. Nowadays we can be shooting an exterior scene, and program lights to simulate a cloud passing by. You make the backing light a bit darker for 30 seconds, and then bring the brightness back up. It’s subtle. It gives you a sense of realism, even if the viewer doesn’t notice it on its own.

Behind the scenes on the sets of “The Man in the High Castle”. Courtesy of Gonzalo Amat and Amazon Studios.

Kirill: Is it time-consuming to keep track of all these changes in technology?

Gonzalo: Quite so. When you’re shooting, you can’t dedicate the time to anything else. So every time I have a break, I have to brush up on what came out and stay up to date. You have new cameras, new lenses, new lights coming out all the time. It’s hard to keep up. But it’s also part of the job. I like to test new things every once in a while. It’s nice to use new technologies and not get too used to the old ones.

Kirill: Between the technical and the artistically parts of it, is one more important than the other?

Gonzalo: You have to have a good balance between the two, even if sometimes you end up paying more attention to one. When you read the script, you start with the artistic part to get ideas. Then you translate that to the technical side – what lights do we need, what cameras we are going to use, how do we shoot it. And then, when you’re on the set, you go back to the artistic part. It’s kind of a full circle, and you constantly have to go back and forth between the two.

My approach is to keep it more on the artistic side until I get to talk to the director. I take it from Conrad Hall who would discuss the idea with his crew, before executing it. If you know the crew, the technical part of it is known to them. They know what to do. So I prefer to keep it on the artistic side, even though the technical side is important for completing the production.

Behind the scenes on the sets of “The Man in the High Castle”. Courtesy of Gonzalo Amat and Amazon Studios.

Kirill: When you talk about what you do for a living, how difficult is it to convey the complexity of what goes into telling these stories?

Gonzalo: People don’t really know, and they’re always surprised. I try to explain it in simple terms, but it’s surprising that people don’t have a clear vision of what I do. I can talk about lighting, filters, lenses and camera movement. But it’s hard to convey it to people who are not familiar with how it works.

Kirill: Do you want people to know this complexity, or would you prefer it to be a bit of a mystery?

Gonzalo: I like that it’s a little bit of a mystery, even though it’s not alchemy [laughs]. It’s also great when people know what you do, when they recognize what you add to make a project work in a certain way. So I do like when people know about it. Everyone is so visual nowadays. Everyone has a way of communicating through photography now that it’s on every phone. So my job is a bit closer to what people do day-to-day.

Kirill: How do you choose what productions you work on, and what drew you to “The Man in the High Castle” in particular?

Gonzalo: I like to do projects that are relevant. Of course, I don’t always get to choose the exact type of project I want. But when I read a script, I think about how people are going to react to it. Maybe it’s about making people aware of something that they didn’t know. Or maybe it’s showing them a world that they didn’t know existed. That’s the first thing on my mind.

Then you have the logistical part. Is it going to work for your life in terms of your family and where the project is shooting? If you’re shooting far away, what does that mean? Can I take this project and make it work for the family?

And sometimes you choose a project because of the team, or someone on the team that you really want to work with. In the case of “The Man in the High Castle” it was Ridley Scott. I was always a huge fan of his work, and to have a chance to collaborate with him was a dream come true. Of course, on most projects it’s a different combination.

Sometimes I get recommendations from the people I work with. My agent reached out to me with “The Man in the High Castle” with the details. He knew that my preference was to stay in New York, but even though that project would be shooting in Vancouver, after he explained the details, I was amazed. Sometimes people push you a bit, because they know what’s important for you and for your career.

Behind the scenes on the sets of “The Man in the High Castle”. Courtesy of Gonzalo Amat and Amazon Studios.

From Season 3, Episode 10 of “The Man in the High Castle”. Courtesy of Gonzalo Amat and Amazon Studios.

Kirill: It’s a period production which is set in an alternate history of World War II. What kinds of discussions go around projecting the totalitarian imagery of Nazi Germany into the alternate timeline of USA in the ’60s?

Gonzalo: It’s a lot of conversations. We had them at the beginning of the series. We have them at the beginning of every season. And we have them at the beginning of every episode. If this was real, what would be present? What kind of music would they have? What would they wear? What kind of technology would they have?

There are no American cars in the show after the ’40s. All the cars are either Japanese or German, because the American factories didn’t survive. And that extends to every aspect of the world. Do people who live in San Francisco go out? Probably not, because it’s quite restrictive. Maybe they meet in houses…

Every episode has its own needs, but in general you continue to add on to the general world.

Kirill: There’s not a lot of color and light left, so to speak, in this restrictive environment. Going back to what you were saying about the digital technology, do you find that the cameras today allow you to operate in those shadows?

Gonzalo: One of the main advantages of the digital technology is how much you can do with minimal lighting. We use just one light on a lot of scenes, or shoot with available light that comes through the window. Sometimes we shoot in the city at night, and we try to get as much as possible out of it without adding lighting.

It allows you to tell the story in a less invasive way for the actors. If we have a scene where they are supposed to be lit by candles, it’s nice to have it be actually lit by candles and not some huge lights everywhere. It works for the realism of what you give the actors.

Behind the scenes on the sets of “The Man in the High Castle”. Courtesy of Gonzalo Amat and Amazon Studios.

Kirill: On this show you have two cinematographers and multiple directors. What’s the balance between having space for these unique voices and keeping it consistent for me as a viewer over the show arc?

Gonzalo: It’s quite tricky working with a rotation, especially with guest directors. We have continuous discussions on how we shoot and light the scenes, and we share the same team – the gaffer, the key grip and the crew. So that helps to maintain the continuity between the two cinematographers.

It gets a bit more complicated when a new director comes in. Everybody has their own vision which might not necessarily agree with the style of the show. It might get political to find the right balance. But after the first season was out and everybody had a chance to see it, the directors who come in know the visual style. The show is produced by Ridley Scott, and people come in saying that they know that the crew knows what to do. As the seasons progress, directors are more open to follow what we did before.

It’s probably one of the most complicated things to do as a cinematographer on an episodic production – to try to keep that balance between the style of the show and what people want you to deliver.

Kirill: So in addition to the technical and the artistically parts of it, you also need to have some kind of a nanny / psychiatrist / psychologist skills to wrangle things into the shape on set.

Gonzalo: Completely. Sometimes a director comes and wants to do things with a faster pace like they’re used to on network TV. Our show is highly stylized, and the pace is a bit slower compared to most network shows. You need to manage that energy. And with this extra bit of time you know that you need to do everything properly to maintain the show’s style and vision. We have big expectations, and you need to be responsible for delivering on those.

It’s close to working on film. You try to get the best out of each scene.

Behind the scenes on the sets of “The Man in the High Castle”. Courtesy of Gonzalo Amat and Amazon Studios.

Kirill: How much is captured in camera, and how much is done in post-production?

Gonzalo: We do 75% or more on set. Both of us are trying to capture the most possible on set. Of course, I will make it safe. I’m not going to force shooting a dark scene where you can’t see anything and you can’t do anything with it in post. I will leave room to adjust in post, but at the same time I will make a commitment to what the colors in the scene are going to be.

That way when people see the dailies and start editing, they actually have a good idea of what it should look like. Then, when you do the final color, it’s just literally balancing and giving the final touches. My color sessions are quite short – a few hours per episode – because it’s so close to what I wanted on set.

Kirill: Not all the colors that our eyes see can be captured by camera and reproduced on the screen. Is that something that is frustrating to you as the person in charge of capturing that image?

Gonzalo: It is, but there are ways around it. One example is saturated reds on digital. If you have a red with a light behind it, it’s captured as purple – and that’s something that you know to avoid. There are different techniques and tricks to execute specific ideas. Maybe you need to make that red a little bit orange so that it looks like red on screen.

It’s a little annoying that sometimes technology has these limitations. At the same time, if you can use them to your advantage by creating a different language, then it’s also good. You end up doing an abstraction of what the world is. Our show is monochromatic. Digital cameras are so saturated with primary colors, so we avoid primaries. We avoid lighting with any color. Everything is subtle, and you end up with something that looks almost like an abstraction.

Behind the scenes on the sets of “The Man in the High Castle”. Courtesy of Gonzalo Amat and Amazon Studios.

Kirill: What goes into deciding which part of the set is physical, and what gets extended as a digital effect?

Gonzalo: It starts with the original concept. The dome in Season 2 is based on the real dome that Nazi Germany wanted to build. From that idea we talked about how to execute it, and we knew that it was going to be a lot of visual effects.

Usually we see how much time and money we have for the specific episode. You do close-ups practically with real marble behind the actors and once we go wide, we know the floor is real. But then the rest might be digital. The budget determines how many VFX shots you can have, and how many you can do practically with real elements of set dressing – marble, walls or windows. When we have a sequence like that, we’ll storyboard and literally count the shots. Then you know what needs to be built and what will be done in digital VFX.

Kirill: As you sit down to watch the final cut of one of your episodes, is it sometimes surprising to see how it all came together after editing, grading, VFX, sound etc?

Gonzalo: I like to be objective with the work I do. When I do color correction, I do it without sound. Also, when I do color I don’t have the final effects yet, because they do them at the same time. So I do my color and don’t pay attention to the cuts. I try to let it play and do my part of the work.

When I get a chance to see an early cut, sometimes it’s quite surprising. Sometimes you have scenes that they took out. Sometimes they change the order of things from the way you shot it. And VFX is always great on this show, because they do such an amazing job. For me it’s always better than I thought it was going to be. So it’s always a surprise, and it’s something I look forward to with every season.

Kirill: You mentioned that you work with the same crew on the show. It probably gets easier the more you work together, but on the other hand you might want to break the routine, so to speak, and have something fresh in each new season.

Gonzalo: We do. I’ve seen it in other projects where sometimes people get used to their own way of doing things. So you go to a set and people switch the lights on, and they go and read a newspaper. We really try to reinvent things. If we never shot a set with hard light, we’ll change the lighting. Or we’ll move sunlight to another side. We constantly try to push ourselves. Every time we do an effort to make it different. I think it keeps people inspired. I’m trying new things, and that’s nice when you’re able to work with the same people. You build up on those concepts.

Behind the scenes on the sets of “The Man in the High Castle”. Courtesy of Gonzalo Amat and Amazon Studios.

Kirill: You work on the show has been nominated for the Emmy award this year. Do you have a definition of what success means to you?

Gonzalo: This recognition is great, but I take it more recognition for the teamwork. I’m very happy personally, but I’m only at the head of this huge team of people I work with. That’s nice and it feels great.

In terms of success, I see it how much it touches and moves people. If you can do something that starts a conversation, that for me is more successful than anything else. It might be just a seed. Someone might watch the show and then they want to read more about World War II. If you can create that seed, for me that’s success of storytelling. You moved someone to do something.

Kirill: Do you find yourself worrying how your work will be seen in 20, 30 or 40 years?

Gonzalo: In a way, you do your best for it to be timeless even though I don’t know how you make it timeless. I see things from the ’80s that are timeless, and others that are not. I don’t necessarily worry too much, but it’s more a curiosity. I would love to see how it ages. I think that this production will age well. Our visual style is classic, so I think it’s always going to look vintage and interesting.

If I look at other projects that I’ve done, I’m curious to see how they will evolve. They have more elements that are connected to techniques that were fashionable in that moment.

From Season 3, Episode 10 of “The Man in the High Castle”. Courtesy of Gonzalo Amat and Amazon Studios.

Kirill: It feels that there used to be a more defined boundary between the world of feature and episodic productions. Earlier you mentioned that you are working in the streaming world. Do you feel that these non-cable shows need a different label, so to speak?

Gonzalo: It feels that HBO, Amazon and Netflix shows are different from the “normal” TV shows. In people’s minds, you still watch it over the air or on cable, and they have commercial breaks in the middle. It’s still evolving, especially since you can watch some shows on all kinds of screens – from phones to TVs. It would be nice if it had its own name.

People tend to cover it as streaming, perhaps because you don’t want it to be classified the same as TV. It’s not only about the budget. You have a different way of working when you have more time and freedom, apart from the technology that brings it to the viewers.

Kirill: It’s also interesting to see how much storytelling has moved from the mid-budget feature world into these longer-format productions. Sometimes I find myself having to choose what not to watch, because there are so many episodic productions on so many different channels.

Gonzalo: I do think there’s a lot. It’s great for me and for my peers, because you have options. We’re living through this awesome boom. You can choose what to work on. You can work on different styles. You can really build up your career.

I don’t know if it’s too much, because I just feel like there’s a demand for everything. Maybe it needs to be better classified. Sometimes I feel that it’s hard to find stuff. It’s a little bit better in Europe where it’s easier to find a single place to watch all these great shows like “Game of Thrones” or “Breaking Bad”. And in US it looks like every service is starting to take their content away from the aggregators. It’s almost like going back to the cable days.

Probably the future will tell if there’s enough demand for all the shows. It does feel like there’s a nice and natural selection to it. And that’s cool because the best content stays longer.

Behind the scenes on the sets of “The Man in the High Castle”. Courtesy of Gonzalo Amat and Amazon Studios.

Kirill: As a creator / viewer, do you have a preference for how you watch shows – as weekly installments vs releasing the whole season on the same day?

Gonzalo: As a viewer, I personally prefer when it is released all at the same time. I always like to see more than one episode at a time if I have time.

As a creator, I’d also prefer that. That way the storyline is more continuous. You know that you have to be more responsible and consistent with it because you know that people will binge-watch it. It’s not like the network TV where people forget which car model you used on the last episode. And you also don’t have to explain that much. People watch it back-to-back, and you can be a little more subtle with your filmic language. You don’t need to tell that much, because people have it fresh in their minds.

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

Gonzalo: I don’t think, and I’ve seen that on projects of different sizes. There’s never enough time or enough money. If only we had one more day to do the scene. If we only had more money to do it. It’s the nature of this business.

There’s also a limit to it sometimes. Having just a little more time it might make a big difference, but then it starts getting less focused with even more time.

Kirill: What keeps you going in this field, despite long stretches of time away from your family and friends?

Gonzalo: It’s the challenge of it. Every project and every day is different. Even after you spend 4 years on the same project, every day is new. You might prepare for it, but it veers into something that isn’t like what you had in your mind.

You can develop like a team relationship. You can develop relationships throughout your career. You build up something. I found myself at the end of this season barely talking to the crew, because everyone knew what was going on. You kind of read each other’s minds. We mad a bit of fun of it this last season, as we were completing each other’s sentences with my camera crew. It was funny because it was so deep in our system.

You end up researching and seeing things that you normally wouldn’t do. That also keeps you fresh, compared to a more regular job.

From Season 3, Episode 10 of “The Man in the High Castle”. Courtesy of Gonzalo Amat and Amazon Studios.

And here I’d like to thank Gonzalo Amat for taking the time to talk with me about the cinematography of “The Man in the High Castle”, and for sharing the supporting materials. You can find him on Instagram and Twitter. The last season of the show is available on Amazon. I’d also like to thank Andrea Resnick for making this interview happen. 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.