Cinematography of “Watchmen” – interview with Gregory Middleton

January 4th, 2020  |  Film · Interviews

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Gregory Middleton. In this interview he talks about the collaborative nature of visual storytelling, building long-term relationships in the industry, incorporating visual effects into his productions and what he thinks about the variety of screens in our daily lives. Around these topics and more, Gregory talks about his earlier work on “Game of Thrones” and “The Killing”, and dives deep into what went into the first season of highly acclaimed “Watchmen”. Fair warning – we did the interview right after Episode 8 aired, and there are plenty of spoilers throughout the interview on the storylines in this first season.

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

Greg: My name is Gregory Middleton, but most people call me Greg. I’m a director of photography and I’ve been working for about 25 years in various types of media. I started in short films and art house feature films, and in the last few years I’ve been working a lot in cable television.

I started out with a keen interest in movies as a kid. I was making Super 8 films with my neighbor using the family camera. We solicited donations from our parents when we were kids to make our next little production. It was always a hobby and something I really enjoyed. I didn’t come to cinematography out of a love for or a skill at photography. It was just always a love of movies and television.

I was really passionate about how these things come about, how are these illusions created a cohesive piece of work created by all these people. So that was my mission when I was in school. I started a club in high school with another friend, and decided to try and study cinema in college. I grew up in Montreal, Quebec and ended up coming to University of British Columbia in Vancouver to study film and finish my bachelor’s degree.

That really settled me on the field. I was enjoying being with a bunch of students, making films and being all together to explore various ideas of how to make a film. During the summer between semesters the master students would get the permission to use the school’s equipment to make a feature film or a larger project, and they would use students as crew. I spent the summer after my last year at school working on a student feature project as the camera operator, and that totally sold me on the entire experience of being involved in that way.

I liked the collaborative nature of it. I like being on the camera. I like being at the center of those decisions, the witnessing of performance, and helping to craft the details of that. I was still very young, but I was totally sold that I was going to try and make this my point of focus and starting a career in some way. I gave myself five years after school to try and find my way into the profession, to find whoever would hire me to shoot a short film or anything I could do. There was an early chance to get in the Union as an assistant, but I was so set on trying to create more that I thought I should probably pursue that.

I had read a lot of books with interviews with cinematographers. In the older, studio, days there was only really one way into the camera department to become a cinematographer. You would work your way up through the ranks, starting as a camera trainee and a clapper loader, then the second and the first, then the camera operator – and work your way up for over 25 years. However with the advent of smaller cameras in the ’60s / ’70s other people started making films – smaller indies and documentaries. You could work your way up through smaller productions and develop your skills that way, and that seemed to make the most sense for me.

So I gave it five years after school to try and do that. When that time was up, I got some credits. I’ve worked with Peter Wunstorf on my first feature, and I had a couple smaller credits. I was friends with Lynne Stopkewich and we did a film called “Kissed” over the summer with the school’s equipment. That was a formative experience for me. It was a crazy, innovative, small movie about obsession and death. You have a character who was a female necrophile, which is definitely the kind of thing you’d only make as an independent film. No large company is going to give you money to make a film about that topic, because it can be so divisive.

We made an interesting film that was trying to be a sensitive dissection and exploration of the relationship people have with death. We made the film the way we could, and it did really well.

It got into the Cannes film fest, Sundance and The Toronto International Film Festival, and received some good notices. That was the first career marker – that I’d now shot a feature film, a film that people could see and judge my work on. That led to another film with another filmmaker.


Cinematography of “Final Girl” by Gregory Middleton.

Jeremy Podeswa saw the film at a film festival, and he met Lynne the director. He liked Lynne and he thought that if this person worked well with Lynne, maybe he would be a good fit for him as well. He was looking for someone to shoot his second feature film, “The Five Senses”. I did that film with him in Toronto, and that went very well. It was an incredibly interesting experience, and a really sensitive and funny script. It turned out well, going to the Cannes Film Festival and Sundance. That helped to get another credit to what was the beginning of a career, and I was able to begin to put myself out there for other work.

I’ve worked with both of these directors since. I did three more projects with Jeremy in the next 10 years, a TV movie and another feature. We also did “Game of Thrones” together later on, in 2014. So that was the beginning of my career, starting with art house cinema and getting to work on larger productions. I did a large war movie called “Passchendaele” with Paul Gross about the Battle of Passchendaele in 1916. I shot “Slither” with James Gunn.

Everybody knows him now after “Guardians of the Galaxy” of course. Back then he was just as hilariously funny. He wrote a witty and fantastic script about a horror movie in a small town. It was a great homage to the ’80s horror movie tropes, but also funny and at times grotesque. It starred Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks and Michael Rooker, and I was lucky to work on that. It was a great training ground to do a lot more work with the prosthetic effects and visual effects.

Eventually my career turned into some other things. The landscape changed around that time, and television became much more for adult stories. You started seeing more mature and complicated stories being told on television. It used to be that network shows were made mostly for youth, but things have sort of swapped around in the industry. Movies became only for kids and TV became more for adults – with the advent of HBO and “Sopranos”, as one example.

I ended up working on a TV series called “The Killing” for seasons 2, 3 and 4. I took it over after Season 1. My friend Peter Wunstorf shot the first season, and he didn’t want to return. He recommended me to the creator showrunner Veena Sud. I had been a bit wary of a TV series. The pace can be fast. You shoot episodes that are between 43 and 46 minutes, each in 7.5 days. The pace is similar to small movies or short films, but you’re also dealing with smaller resources. I was worried about getting trapped into something where you couldn’t really do the kind of artistic work you would want to do.


Cinematography of “The Killing” by Gregory Middleton.

But Veena was supportive in trying to make that show to be cinematic. She empowered me a lot. She hired independent-minded directors to work on the show, to not let it become something standard. It was much more like working on a film than I ever thought it could be. I worked with amazing independent directors on it, including Brad Anderson and Nicole Kassell. It was an amazing experience, and also an incredible learning experience of doing quality, sensitive ,interesting work on a dark subject in very little amount of time. You could learn a lot of things about how to manage your preparation time, how to manage your day, how to work with a larger crew, and how to still get good quality work.

The expression I was developing at the time was that it was a bit like playing in a band. In television, everyone’s playing an instrument at the same time. It’s not linear. A lot of things have to overlap. We’d be setting up a shot while I’d be lighting another shot, and I would bounce back and forth. You’re working with your operator, your key grip and your gaffers, and sort of doing multiple things all at the same time. It’s a bit like playing in a jazz band. And as you work with the same people, you can start to do more interesting work in a shorter amount of time together – as you start to understand each other more. Those 3 years were amazing, and I’m very grateful for it.

I got to work with great directors on that show. Jonathan Demme was one of my all-time filmmaker idols, and I got to do two episodes of the show with him directing. Unfortunately, he passed away a couple years later, but it was an incredible experience with him.

That led to more cable work. I mentioned Jeremy Podeswa earlier with whom I did a couple of episodes of “Game of Thrones”. They do like to pair cinematographers and directors together on that show. Unlike most TV series where you shoot the episodes in the sequence, that show was different because the nature of that production that being staged all over the world – Northern Ireland, Spain, Croatia and various distant locations. The strategy to keep the production running was to have all their scripts in advance, and block shoot the schedule for the entire season. That allowed them to not move the production unit very often.

So let’s say you’re shooting in Castle Black which is a big exterior set built in the quarry. It’s very complicated to dress with snow and to get ready. So they would try and do all the work in Castle Black for the season all in one chunk, over the period of a few weeks. I would go and shoot my 3-4 days there with my director and my first AD for our episode. Then we would leave, and the next director and DP and first AD come in and they shoot their few days for the next part of the story. Then I would go back to prepping. So you end up with a very long shoot for what’s only going to be two episodes. That could take four months to shoot, because you’d be sprinkling your days in locations.

For that reason, they did like to pair people together, people that they think will work well together. If the DP and the director have a history together, that was a good thing for them. We’ve done several movies together, and that worked well for managing our time in the same way we were making a film. All the work we had done before was a perfect training for working on that production.


Cinematography of “Final Girl” by Gregory Middleton.

Kirill: When you join a new production, is there anything that still manages to surprise you?

Greg: One of the things that’s so fascinating about our job is that there’s always a large number of people involved, and they all could be very different – in personality, artistic taste and methods. You end up with a really interesting collection of smart people that have different attributes, trying to collaborate to tell a story. It’s not as much about a surprise.

You’re learning to work with different people. You have to be quite flexible. My job might have a precise technical description of what I’m responsible for as the cinematographer running on the set, bit it varies a lot depending on the filmmakers.

Let’s take “Watchmen” which I just finished. My technical role as a director of photography would be to design the lighting, to execute that plan with the lighting and grip crew, to supervise a camera crew to do that, to work with the director to help decide how to film the scenes and how to interpret the script visually, to work with the art department and all the overlap with photography, etc. That’s a loose description of the basic job. But how you do that, when you have your meetings and the type of reasoning you use to decide what’s important can be very different.

Some directors are specific about where they want to put the camera, and others are less. Some are very specific about the mood and tone, some are more interested in discovering a truth in a scene in terms of the actors’ performance or character’s point of view. So you approach the conversation to get to what I have to then create later quite differently. You need to be flexible in how you can work with different people. The starting point of your conversation can be different and I find that endlessly fascinating.

I’ve been fortunate to work with some really brilliant people, and they have such interesting different intuitions on how to begin the process and where they want to end up. I’m learning more or more all the time when I work with the people. It’s not so much surprising. It’s more about discovering where you’re going to start.

Kirill: As you were talking about “Game of Thrones” and “Watchmen”, it was mostly about the directors and not so much about the showrunners. But my understanding is that the showrunners play much bigger role compared to producers on a feature film.

Greg: Absolutely, it’s a different dynamic and that’s why I mentioned Veena Sud when I was referencing “The Killing”. She’s the one who hired me on it. She was the showrunner and the main writer of “The Killing”, and so my interview was with her. In the end, I’m supervising the telling of her story. They are the ultimate director on a TV series or miniseries. They also control the post-production, doing their last edits and the last changes of script in post.

In a way, I have two directors to please and to collaborate. “The Killing” was a murder mystery. Each scene had quite a lot of plot, and certain things were to be revealed as the season went on. I had a couple of visual ideas for something in season 3 with Peter Sarsgaard’s character who was on death row in this prison. I wasn’t sure about how we were going to resolve his story. I had a couple of ideas, but my instinct was to ask Veela about this, because then I might want to save something for later in the story if it was going to go where I expect him to. Normally you would have this conversation with your director, but in this case my ultimate director was Veena. She was designing the entire story, so I went to her to ask about the idea that I had. She told me that it was going to totally come up in the later episodes, and that was great.

On “Watchmen” I worked with three directors, Nicole Kassell, Stephen Williams and Andrij Parekh. But Damon Lindelof is our showrunner, so he was making the larger creative decisions, like using black and white on Episode 6, how we’re seeing Dr Manhattan on Episode 8, or how we will handle seeing him. He’s written the scripts very specifically, and in a lot of detail.

It does change who you’re having those conversations with on television, because you are having two directors. But you are still having the same conversation.


Cinematography of “Game of Thrones” by Gregory Middleton.

Kirill: When you talk about what you do for a living with somebody who is not in your industry, is it difficult to convey this complexity?

Greg: Most people have a workplace or some type, or if they don’t have a workplace, they have clients. I think most people can relate to what it’s like to communicate with other people or to have to share space or ideas or tasks with other people. The interpersonal dynamics you have on a film can be found anywhere. Sometimes it’s more heightened, depending on the pressure. You might be a surgeon, you might be working in a shipping warehouse, or you might have a supervisor. A lot of those things we have in common.

The other part is about the photography. When I describe it to people, I talk about picking up your still camera or even your phone, and you make some adjustments to take a picture, be it with the ring or with some sliders or buttons. Everything you do to take that picture, I do for every image you see on the show you’re watching. I would help decide where the camera goes. I would adjust the exposure. I would adjust any lighting, like open or close a window. I would do all that for everything you do. When you take a picture, that’s what I do for every image you see on the show.

You combine those two elements, and it demystifies a little bit. It can sound really complex but other people’s work in general is more complex than I think they give themselves credit for. There is art in a lot of people’s work and lives if you look closely.

Kirill: There’s such a wide variety of camera equipment available nowadays. You can shoot something on your iPhone, and probably most digital cameras today are more affordable than film cameras used to be a decade or so ago. Do you think it’s lowered the barrier of entry into your industry? Might this affordability and diversity be making people more lazy when they use that equipment?

Greg: Equipment doesn’t make films. People make films.

The determining aspect, let’s say 99% of it, is due to the human factor. What is the story being told? How they’re telling it? It’s all about the people.

This conversation is very interesting. When the first small video cameras were coming out, I remember watching the documentary about the making of “Apocalypse Now”. Francis Ford Coppola was speculating about these small little camcorders, and how he was imagining having so many young people who didn’t have the ability to make a film before being able to make a film. The cameras were accessible, you could get a small video camera and a small video editing suite, and do that in your home.

It did result in an explosion of certain things, but it didn’t necessarily explode into a radically different situation in the industry. What triumphs in making you and I interested is what the ideas are, and how well you use equipment to tell your story. That’s limited by the people involved and by the talent of the storyteller.

Being lazy about using fancy equipment to make it look good is not really the point. You can rent anything or spend a lot of money on equipment. But if you don’t have a good idea or a good concept for how to tell your story that’s unique, or the performances to go with it… Those are the things we remember, and those things are why we recommend those films to our friends. Those are the determining factor and they’re outside the equipment.

The equipment isn’t really interesting. It can easily become a topic of conversation, especially with people trying to sell new equipment or push us into new technical areas. But they are all just tools. Tools can be very useful. They can make for new styles of filmmaking, but they don’t make the films on their own.


Cinematography of “Watchmen” by Gregory Middleton.

Kirill: Getting back to “Watchmen”, it feels like for a long time it was considered a story that was almost impossible to tell on screen. And there are so many shows being made in episodic / streaming world. Does it feel sometimes random what gets people’s attention, what strikes the chord with the audience?

Greg: I had this conversation recently on what becomes a hit and what resonates with people. The good thing now is with the number of platforms is that work of some certain quality will eventually find an audience. The difficulty is finding it now because there’s so much material. It can be in existence and find the audience that would like to see it.

What you’re asking is a very interesting question, because “Watchmen” certainly looked like it was fraught with all kinds of difficulties in making it something that would both be complimentary and honor the original material, and also use the themes in a way that would surprise the audience. Damon is a brilliant writer at crafting a mystery, connecting things, and keeping the momentum of reveals within his mystery really well. And that is exactly what “Watchmen” excelled at as the original graphic novel. There’s a kind of a perfect marriage actually. It’s my favorite thing he’d ever done, but of course I’m biased!

It was a perfect marriage of his strengths combined with what the original material wanted to have happened.

When we’re shooting a scene, I’m in charge of the photography. I’m helping to put the camera in the right place. But also, if the performance isn’t great, or the moment doesn’t resonate, then it doesn’t really work anyway. When I spend my time with my eye on the eyepiece or at a monitor with the director, we’re hoping to get this great moment which I know will end up being in the show. My instincts are usually pretty good for when we captured something which resonates and works. Then you know that you can move on. We know we’ve got an amazing performance, and that an amazing bit of storytelling has happened.

You want to have good instincts for that. It helps you guide you during the day. It helps you know what’s important. It helps you know what to spend time on and what not to spend time on. You still get surprised very often. You can be doing a scene and thinking it’s not a big deal, and then suddenly the actor can make into something which is really resonant and really fantastic. That’s when you know that it going to be in the show. That’s when you see that that’s the best way to tell the story. It may be a surprise, but you still want to be able to recognize it. Having a taste for that is very important in any aspect of the filmmaking. That instinct informs everything else.

Some projects you hope are going to be very successful or will find a big audience, and others don’t. Sometimes it’s a timing of things. It’s how they’re perceived, how a piece of work is marketed vs how it really is. It can be different.


Cinematography of “Watchmen” episode 2 of Season 1 by Gregory Middleton.

Kirill: You’ve worked on half the episodes of the first season of “Watchmen”. How are these decisions made? Is there simply not enough time in one person’s day to work on the entire season?

Greg: “Watchmen” is a complex show. Let’s talk about Episode 2. We start out in the fields in 1918 with O. B. Williams catching that flyer that dropped from a biplane. We have all those flashbacks – the German war office at the beginning with the typists, all the women typing the flyers and then the German officers. There’s a lot of different worlds there.

“The Killing” is a police investigation. It’s an urban setting with two police officers looking into a murder case. They go to various places, but those places are limited. On that show I was the only cinematographer at every episode. I would do my prep on the weekends, read the script while my gaffer would ho on the scouts and send me pictures to look at. I would barely be able keep up that way.

On “Watchmen”, you have visual effects, large sets, complicated scenes. That takes a lot of discussion and much more preparation. It’s like preparing a movie, and usually when you’re prepping something like that, the amount of time to prep it at least equal if not more than the time of shoot. The difficulty with a show like this is you can’t really shoot every episode, because you would not build a prep for the following episode.

The black and white Episode 6 has these long flowing connecting shots. It took an immense number of days to plan all those shots, to find the locations, the build the sets, to do all that custom work. If I was the only cinematographer, that work would be happening while I was shooting Episode 5. But that’s not possible.

It’s preferable to have a smaller number, but in a situation like this where you need a long time to prep each episode, you do have at least to alternate – which is what we were doing. Xavier Grobet ASC was on the other rotation and did brilliant work and was a great person to collaborate with.

Kirill: When you read the script, was it clear how big the production was going to be, how much effort would go into every single episode?

Greg: Yes, it was pretty clear to me. I’ve done a lot of stories of this size before. The scripts were very ambitious, right away. You would read four pages, and you would be in 1918 inside and outside in a War Office with a different photographic look, then in Vietnam, then in Tulsa. You read the number of location, types of sets, what happens within them and how complex the scenes are, and you can get a pretty good idea what’s involved. That’s the biggest part of what my job is – trying to anticipate that and help decide how to realize it.

I knew it before from speaking to Nicole Kassell the director of the pilot. When she first got hired, she pitched me a rough idea of what the show was going to be. I went back to the comic and was sketching out ideas and things that might come up. I knew it would be a very ambitious show. It was more ambitious than anyone involved really knew it was going to be [laughs]. When every script came out, it was like a giant movie.

Kirill: It’s very interesting to me as a viewer to see these stories migrating away from the feature film world into the episodic television. And then some are released as a whole season at once, and others are released over the span of 8-12 weeks where I can wait and then binge watch them as one long movie.

Greg: This is essentially a miniseries of one story for however many hours. And some stories are better told with more time like that. It’s to pack some stories into a two-hour film without it feeling rushed. I think we’re finding that sort of an ideal format in some ways for certain types of stories.

The flipside is some TV now also can stretch the stories out a long way and take forever to tell a story because they’re trying to keep the number of episodes out. It’s about finding what is the best format to tell a particular story, and now there’s at least more than one way to do that.


Cinematography of “Game of Thrones” by Gregory Middleton.

Kirill: Going back for a second to your work on “Game of Thrones”, you did six episodes over three seasons, and that was in the middle of the show being super popular. How was your experience on it?

Greg: I was very fortunate. I joined in Season 5 of the show, and I think that Season 4 ramped the popularity up quite a lot. It was both exciting and nerve-wracking, but that’s a good fear. It’s exciting to have to step up to something which is so great, and to be terrified to live up to it. You try and push the bar up as high as you can.

Kirill: Looking back at that show now that a few years have passed, what stays with you? Do you remember the stress, the scheduling, or perhaps some more rosy things?

Greg: You have different types of stress for me. There’s the stress of wanting to do a good job, wanting to get it right and to capture something great. That’s a good kind of stress. It’s the high creative stress of wanting to make something special. I’m there to make something special. For me it is an expression of things. I want to be involved with stories that I feel strongly about, and I really liked what the story of “Game of Thrones” was about.

It was about the complexities of people and family, duty and honor, governance and a lot of timely themes that resonated with people. Even though you look at it as a fantasy show and think it didn’t have an image of reality, but all the dynamics between the characters were grounded in stuff which was very familiar to people. You had interesting and complex characters, and I felt strongly about it.

There was some stress about capturing certain things, the difficult and challenging sequences, but also the excitement of getting to fill the work and that incredible canvas with that incredible cast. I had the honor of getting to shoot those scenes, and knowing that someone could be willing to trust me to shoot those scenes was super exciting. I had such admiration to even walk on some of the sets and to be involved with the design of new sets with Deborah Riley the production designer. I had the opportunity to help craft what ended up a fantastic look for Dragonstone in Season 7. It was an exciting and rare experience.

I met some amazing people and worked with an incredible crew from the UK and from all over Europe. You see different people working differently, you’re learning from them and they’re learning from me, and the whole experience was fantastic in that way. It was a lifetime experience.

Kirill: Perhaps connecting these two shows, “Game of Thrones” and “Watchmen”, you have a lot of visual effects. As a cinematographer, do you feel comfortable knowing that some things will be added later on and that you need to leave space for them in camera?

Greg: I’m more comfortable now than I was when I first started. The earliest films I did had no visual effects, but now I’ve been involved with them quite a bit.

What’s interesting now is that they are another tool to tell the story. If I know that something’s going to be a virtual component to a set. For example, in Episode 8 (SPOILERS) of “Watchmen”, Angela puts a little tachyon thing inside Dr Manhattan’s head to erase his memory. We wanted to do that during sunset, and we didn’t shoot that in Saigon. We built that on set, and that was repurposed from what used to be June’s apartment.

We rebuilt it, and because we were going to do a virtual background, I could pick what I wanted it to be. I could light the foreground any way I wanted, and I wanted a warm and high contrast. I wanted the contrast in color between the moment we looked down at his hand and see that bright orange light on it, so we knew suddenly we were somewhere else. A lot of this episode had to do with Manhattan’s perception of time. So when he looks down at his hand in Ozymandias’s office as he just caught the tachyon thing that’s dropped out of the air after he’s teleported Jeremy Irons, the shot is supposed to look exactly like it would be if he was still on the same set.


Cinematography of “Watchmen” episode 8 of Season 1 by Gregory Middleton.

He’s opening his hand to reveal it, except right away we see it a different color because we know it’s now at sunset – even though the shot looks like he could be there, because in his mind he is in both places. He opens his hand, and it’s like he opens his hand in the office and he opens the hand again in Saigon to give it to Angela – and it’s the same thing for him. Part of my reasoning was that I wanted to make sure I could distinctly make the two scenes different in color so that would help reinforce that concept. And also I wanted it to be a romantic part of their relationship, and a sunset is a nice way to do that. It’s not only going to signal the end of a part of their lives, but rather the beginning of something new.

It was a way to make that set visually interesting. So you know that it’s going to be a fake, visual effects version of the outside. Knowing that it’s going to be that way, I can plan for that light accordingly and give them references for what to put outside the window. You can do temp composite in visual effects, and it’s another great tool I have to help set the mood for a scene. It’s not just something which is going to be done later without my knowledge. I always want to be involved in it, to know how it affects the lighting and how it can be integrated so I can make it seamless for the audience – and also use it as a great tool to tell a story.


Cinematography of “Watchmen” episode 8 of Season 1 by Gregory Middleton.

Kirill: Do you want me as a viewer to know how much effort and attention goes into such a shot, or would you prefer it to feel almost effortless?

Greg: There’s two parts to that. The techniques we use to tell a story and to heighten certain things should be invisible to the audience, at least the concept of them. You don’t want things to become too apparent. You don’t want the audience to be thinking about the fancy filmmaking. The moment a viewer becomes aware that you are doing something really elaborate can pull them out of the experience of being told a story.

That’s the distinction. It’s interesting to demystify behind the scenes of how you make something. But in terms of how you want the audience to perceive it when they’re watching it, you don’t want them to be aware that you’re doing a lot of magic tricks.

Kirill: Going back to Episode 6, would you say that it was the most challenging for you on the show?

Greg: It was definitely the most challenging complete episode because everything had to be planned out so intricately with all the transitions and the execution of every shot. The performance has to be perfect, the camera has to be perfect, there’s so many elements in every shot that need to be exactly right because there’s no edit in it. That makes it very challenging, but also incredibly rewarding for the crew and everyone. You have the actors, myself, the grips with the crane – everyone had to be in sync to tell the story well. It was exciting.

Kirill: Can you share a bit of technical details on what went into it?

Greg: Most of the techniques we used in the episode have been used in other films before. A lot of it has involved moving the camera, and how to move it in a way which feels organic to being within a dream. We shied away from using a handheld camera for almost the whole episode. We’d always tried to use something that would hold a camera in a stable manner, which would be a combination of cranes and remote heads, or stabilized telescope and cranes for sweeping shots.

The very first time we go into the dream is when Angela falls back in her cell. When she sits down, she plunks down into a seat and she’s on stage with all the other police officers. We slowly pull away from her, reveal all the other officers that are all white, and then we pan over to the police commander who’s giving a speech about how a uniform a man wears changes him. As he says that, the camera swooped back over to where Angela was sitting and now we see Jovan Adepo (young Will Reeves) sitting around being young. We push on him, right under the uniform into the buttons, and then we pull out from the buttons and to the next shot.

The buttons were a digital transition. We tried to line them up precisely with the camera and then sort of blend them together in post. That’s a slow sweeping move, and so we used a telescope and a crane for that. That way we could pull back, reveal him, come back to Jovan, pan back to see June and the front row revealed, back up to him, and do all that together in two very complicated crane moves.

That was the right tool for that. It was stabilized enough for a sweeping, flowing, floating feel and floating is a big part of dreamlike environment.


Cinematography of “Watchmen” episode 6 of Season 1 by Gregory Middleton.

In the following scene where we go around the table in the jazz club, that was a Steadicam with a very wide, lens walking around the table completely choreographed. There’s a couple of cuts in the final version, flashing back to images from the pilot and the riot in Tulsa. So you have the cuts, but the take was continuous. It’s almost 4 minutes from walking up to the table, going around the table, revealing the Ku Klux Klan member and the woman being shot in the background, and while the camera’s back where you’re facing, the piano was rolled in with the piano player to reveal for the end of the transition. That’s an incredibly complicated choreography.

Apart from Steadicam and cranes we used a small remote head which is sometimes called a gimbal, a DJI Ronin 2 which is a small stabilization system that you can either hand hold or put in a small crane. We did use handheld in the hanging scene.

We actually hung the camera from cables to give the audience a harrowing, first-person experience of being hung. We rigged the camera to cable so it could be pulled up in the air. Operators could hold the camera to point the camera where wanted. We had a bag to put over the lens with a little air hose to it. Special effects could blow air so we could feel the feeling of the panting, of the breathing, pushing in the bag to and from the camera. I was inspired by watching other hanging scenes and then another project many years ago on “The Killing” where I noticed the breath sucking this bag in and out. I thought just how awful and how real that would feel, so we added that little touch to that.

We basically used every type of camera support you could possibly use [laughs] to create all the various floating things – custom dolly rigs, gimbals, cranes, Steadicam, all of it!


Cinematography of “Watchmen” episode 6 of Season 1 by Gregory Middleton.

Kirill: What was the setup for the sequence where he throws himself through the window of the deli?

Greg: That’s a complicated sequence where you’re blending two shots together. When he’s rushing out, being shot at by Fred with a shotgun, that’s a Steadicam. We’re chasing behind him, and as he dives through the window, we shot at very high speed so that we could ramp down and freeze-frame him in the pose they wanted. Then, as the camera transitions, it goes through the doorway watching him frozen out there. As we passed through the edge of the doorframe, we blend in between the Steadicam shot and a crane shot.

This shot from the outside needed to slow down and come right into his and her eyes, and that’s not a very good use of Steadicam. So we started with Steadicam in the first part, we repeated the move with the crane through the door, and blended the two shots together through the edge of the door frame. Then the second shot was a crane shot that came around.

We had two markers present at the time of the shooting, marking where the Hooded Justice eyes would be which turn out to be Angela’s eyes. We looked at freeze-frame and reference footage we had of the take we liked where our stunt person went through the window. There was no glass in there. That was all digital glass. So once I figured out where the stunt person would be, that would then mark where the eyes are. We put a stand there, and that was our position to push the camera into for the second shot. It was a complicated thing to pull off.


Cinematography of “Watchmen” episode 6 of Season 1 by Gregory Middleton.

Kirill: There are so many screens in our lives, from badly calibrated televisions to relatively tiny phones. Do you worry about how what you capture is viewed in all these different environments?

Greg: Constantly [laughs]. Some years ago I would occasionally put out a little video on social media, Twitter or Instagram, about how to tune your television or how to turn off some of the automatic image processing.

As technology has improved, the ability to do image processing work has improved as well. It used to be expensive and time-consuming, and can now be done on consumer-grade, cheaper televisions. In order to make television seem more attractive and catch your eye more in a store or from across the mall, television manufactures are turning all these setting to the max. That way they can draw your eye from a 100 feet away, which is not how ideally it should be set to watch the work that we do.

The difficulty is that people don’t even realize they’re set that way. They don’t even know to go in and undo all this extra image processing which has to do with smoothing motion, interpolating frames, making the contrast artificially high, making a contrast very dynamic so the TV will constantly changing its brightness levels and contrast levels to its own algorithm – as opposed to the ones that I set when I’m color correcting my episode.

Making people aware of that is a constant uphill battle. Making the television manufacturers aware of that is a constant fight. But you do your best. People are becoming visually more literate. Over time, taste will change and hopefully we’ll get to the point where you can have a more simply set “movie button” on your TV, and it’ll make it look much closer to how it was when we were shooting the show.

Kirill: Do you have a definition of what success is for you?

Greg: Peer reviews are interesting. I follow other cinematographers and I’m a big fan of other cinematographers as well. A lot of us would watch each other’s work, and are always keen to see what we’ve been doing.

I had the very good fortune of working with some really brilliant cinematographers on shows like “Game of Thrones” and on “Watchmen”. We’re all big fans of each other’s work. We’ll watch them and see how we tackle certain problems, and how successful we are expressing ideas.

The bigger thing for me is I just want to be happy with the work I’m doing. I feel that if I know that I’m happy with the choice I’ve made or hopefully we do a job I can feel good about what I’ve accomplished or what I’ve contributed to the project, that’s the ultimate guide to success. That’s all you can really worry about.

You can’t really control how people respond to something. It’s interesting to read reviews, interesting to see other people’s response to things, but the ultimate arbiter has to be how you feel about the work you’ve just done. That’s what can guide you. You can be mindful of the way people respond to it, but you can’t look at external validation as the key to success. That’s a trap.

Kirill: What keeps you going? What keeps you staying in the industry? Probably some of your productions take you away from your family and friends for long stretches of time, and things might be getting intense every once in a while.

Greg: It’s interesting that you mentioned being away, because that is something that happens more and more now. Productions are happening all over the world, and it’s in different jurisdictions. It’s exciting to be able to go to new cities and work with new people. I spent almost a year in Atlanta, Georgia working on “Watchmen”. That was my first time there, and I met some incredible people. It’s a fascinating culture and an amazing place.

None of my close friends live there, and the only person I knew was Nicole Kassell the director. She has a young family, and she’s traveling a lot. That’s a challenging situation to always be away from everybody. But the benefit is that you get to experience new things and new people. It’s really amazing, but like anything, there’s a price of admission for everything at some point.

What keeps me going is that I’ve been very fortunate to work with some really brilliant people. I had the chance to do something like Episode 6 that Damon wrote and Stephen Williams directed. You are given an opportunity to do justice to it, and that’s great. It’s exciting to have the support and work with all the brilliant people that were involved in it. I count myself extremely fortunate and very grateful.

Filmmaking is a team game. You’re working with other people, and to work with brilliant people is incredibly exciting. If it means that I need to travel a lot, that’s just part of what happens.


Cinematography of “Watchmen” episode 6 of Season 1 by Gregory Middleton.

Kirill: It’s pretty amazing to think about how many people work on these shows, and how a well-made show always feels that it’s told with a single voice.

Greg: That’s also part of my job as a cinematographer. It’s not just to be consistent with other cinematographers that are working on it. You want to really understand what the people who are making or writing the show are really after. Then you can become more aligned with what they want. And if we all have a good interpretational radar onto what they are intending, then it’s going to come together.

For example, I can look at Episode 4 of “Watchmen”. It’s a fairly large budget show, but there was a lot of pressure to make the show for less money, because the scripts were coming in massively bigger than anyone expected in terms of costs. In that episode we had a vivarium for Lady Trieu which is a massive set, and a lot of visual effects had to be shot later on. We could not build it in time to be shot within the schedule of the episode.

There was a lot of pressure to get the budget down. As we get to the sequence with what’s commonly known in the script now as Lube Man [laughs] – the guy in the silver suit that Angela chases, we saw that it was a one-off scene. I suspected that that character maybe was not going to return, and we were looking for opportunities to cut things out of an episode to save money.

It was an exterior shoot, and we were shooting in the winter. We had only 9.5 hours of daylight, and it was written to span a whole day of shooting, with multiple cameras, different places starting on the bridge, cranes, Steadicams, cameras on golf carts with remote heads – a lot to get done in the short amount of time. It was a tricky day.

So if you’re looking for an opportunity to cut things out of a script to save money, that was the highest on the list. It’s a simple story point – somebody’s going to see Sister Night dispose of evidence. That’s it. That could have been done very simply if it needed to be. But Damon was determined. He said “This is what we want”.

We had conversations with Meghan Kasperlik who is our brilliant costume designer. Even she was questioning whether he really wanted him to be completely silver. She’s a brilliant designer, and she wanted that costume to be more interesting, maybe with texture or something. And my instinct, knowing Damon’s writing, was that he wanted it to be not interesting in a way – totally silver, and kind of ridiculous. Because I was pretty sure what he wanted, I knew that it was very important to him for a number of reasons, but maybe we don’t know it yet.


Cinematography of “Watchmen” episode 4 of Season 1 by Gregory Middleton.

If nothing else, it was important for the flow of the episode. There was entertainment value in it, this totally ridiculous moment to come up out of nowhere, totally surprise you and keep the audience off-balance for what’s happening later in the episode. Its purpose was less about the plot that didn’t need this elaborate scene, but it served a much bigger purpose for the flow of the episode and what the audience’s experience with the episode was going to be. Damon excels at that. My radar was telling me that it wasn’t going to be cut out no matter what.

I said that we should embrace what they want it to be, and do our best to do it. So we shot it, and sure enough it’s the scene that is absolutely hilarious. We did everything we could to make it as funny and as crazy as possible. And it’s a very funny sequence.

But in the end, it’s about understanding that it had a purpose in our story other than just the plot. That made doing the effort worth it, and it’s one of the more memorable moments of that episode. It’s making people talk about it. People think it’s Agent Petey, or maybe that character will come back. It’s served a really interesting purpose.

You might have multiple DPs working on the show. But if you can all be on the same page when you read the script and understand what the intent is, even though we work separately, our ideas should all align. And that should also help the whole thing to feel like it was made with one voice. As collaborators, we should all be getting similar things when we read the script. We should all approach it in the same way and have a good understanding of it. Then it will feel right. The script is the ultimate guide.


Cinematography of “Watchmen” by Gregory Middleton.

And here I’d like to thank Gregory Middleton for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography. You can also find him on Twitter and Instagram. I’d also like to thank Andrea Resnick for making this interview happen. The first season of “Watchmen” is available for streaming on HBO. 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.