Fstoppers Interviews Gonzalo Amat: A Cinematographer From 'The Man in the High Castle' Amazon Series

Once again Fstoppers talks with cinematographer Gonzalo Amat about his work on the third season of "The Man in the High Castle." In this interview we will dive deeper into the technical execution of the project: preproduction and shooting. A significant part of the article will be on the way Amat worked on lighting the scenes.

The Show

"The Man In the High Castle" is a TV show produced by Amazon. Season three was released in October 2018. During the time of writing that article, the team is working on the next season. The series depicts an alternative reality where the Nazis and Japan have won World War II and have put America to its knees, subduing it and dividing the country into three parts: one under the Reich's occupation, another under the Japanese Emperor's hand, and the last one is the Neutral zone where it's like the wild west — no laws whatsoever. The show is full of twisted stories, unexpected plots, and all that dressed into a beautiful cinematography, very elaborate set and costume designs, and brilliant performances by the actors.

Pioneers Of the TV Shows With a High Production Value

We are living in days where the hard line between feature films and TV series becomes more blurred, because the latter uses beautiful cinematography, complex of visual effects, high-end filming gear, complex set and costume design, and convincing performance by a good cast of actors. Gonzalo Amat says that being part of that pioneers wave is a great privilege.

Controversial symbols boldly presented all over the film

Controversial symbols boldly presented all over the film

Controversy

The first seasons sparked a great amount of controversy, because of the decision of the production team to stick to the original novel from 1962 by Philip K. Dick. They had to be very deliberate when they closed streets or shoot on locations, notifying the neighbors that the Nazis who were casually walking around, eating sandwiches in between takes, were just actors, and the swastikas were just a part of the set design.

Gonzalo Amat on set of "The Man in the High Castle"

Gonzalo Amat on set of "The Man in the High Castle"

Management and Micromanagement

Gonzalo Amat shares that the production company, including Ridley Scott who is one of the executive producers, trusts the team and gives them freedom to do their job without interfering except for giving constructive feedback. Together with the fact that budget is not that of an issue, this sounds like a movie production heaven.

Usual Production Cycle of an Episode

The team works on the series one episode at a time in the order we watch them. About 70% of the series is filmed on real locations. The rest of it is executed on sound stages such as the office of the American Reich high official John Smith. The usual preproduction period is between one and two weeks. Filming is usually finished in 10-14 days and the raw footage goes into post production.

Juliana Crain with the Man in the High Castle himself

Juliana Crain with the Man in the High Castle himself

But They've Got the Budget, They Can Do Anything

Despite the fact budget is not an issue, Gonzalo Amat's decisions are based entirely supporting the storyline and utilizing the locations and natural light sources in the best possible way. There are scenes where he only uses practicals for lighting, natural light, and reflectors. The cinematography of the series is invisible and doesn't call for any attention. This is a great example of proper photography seamlessly binding with the work of everyone else on set.

Actors and Directing

The symbiosis of the team is based on informal collaboration where the actors have the freedom to express their vision of the scene or to offer better ideas. This way they don't just "do their job," but feel immersed the series as something of their own.

Mitchell diffusion filters

Using Mitchell diffusion filters

Cameras, Lenses, and Diffusion Filters

Gonzalo Amat says that the first season was shot on RED Epic Dragon, because they needed 4K footage, but then they have transitioned to the ARRI Alexa, despite its 3.2K resolution. The main reason for the shift was the better low-light sensitivity of the Alexa which lead to using less lighting on the scenes. Another reason was the grain the ARRI produced. Sometimes Amat films the scene intentionally underexposed, so that when bringing the exposure up in post would naturally introduce noise that looks like film grain.

Although the series has a vintage vibe, modern ARRI Master Primes are used sometimes in combination with Pancro Mitchell diffusion filters to give it a dreamy period look.

Visual Effects

VFX shots are crucial for the series, because of the parallel reality the actors are performing into. The preproduction of each episode includes consulting with the VFX team where they would need green or blue screens and where they are fine without them. The CG work is very seamlessly incorporated. Many times when you see long period-looking streets, many times that's a computer-generated environment extension.

CG street extension (before)CG street extension (after)

VFX beforeVFX after

Lighting

As photographers and filmmakers we are mostly interested in the way scenes were lit. Gonzalo Amat was very kind to share how they approached and lit the environments and the actors.

Natural light, golden hour

If Natural Light Is Good, It's Good

Utilizing the sensitive low-light camera sensors, the first thing Amat does is to see if they can "see" the available illumination on the set, whether it's sun light or practicals (lamps in the room, windows). If it looks good, they film it this way or they add a tiny bit of positive or negative fill with reflectors.

Shooting coverage efficiently

An example of a well-polished lighting on the master shot and in the close-up there's a little light (possibly) bounced onto the actor's face. The rest of the lighting remains the same.

Shooting Coverage Efficiently

A typical situation with every filmmaker is having an interaction between several actors on a scene where you must have a master shot, showing the whole environment and then subsequent closer shots called coverage. In order to be efficient, Gonzalo Amat says they are starting with the wide shots first. He says they spend more time perfecting the lighting on the wide shot and when they move to the close-ups, they may augment the key light with an additional light source. This way they don't have to change the lighting entirely and thus they film efficiently.

Embracing the Shadows

In general the scene lacks or has a little fill light on the scenes or on the actors. Gonzalo Amat prefers to have more shadows and very frequently you will see silhouettes framed with foreground or background elements. Many times on these scenes he uses diffusion filters and smoke to add to the drama.

Day exterior

This situation can be handled by adding negative fill (a black reflector) above and on the right of the actor and to bounce light from the left into their face.

Day Exteriors

About 90% of the exteriors are shot in overcast days. This helps them use less artificial lighting to battle the strong sun light. A typical way of using overcast light is to have a black negative fill above the actors (whenever possible) and probably a few more reflectors to bounce light back into them. A similar situation is when shooting in sunny days between tall buildings where the light mostly comes from above.

Night exterior

Here you see there are parts of the frame with no detail. The diffusion filter and the well-placed practicals, especially the back light, are making the scene look so cinematic.

Night Exteriors

On most films I have seen the night exteriors are heavily lit with blue-looking "moon light" mixed with warm window light or car lights. In "The Man In the High Castle" you won't see much of that "moon light." The night environments are dark, lit or motivated by practicals on the set. If it's a scene in the city, you have street lights and car lights. If it's a rural location maybe a car light, fire, a flash light, or few lonely street lights. It looks like a night indeed.

Gonzalo Amat on set of "The Man in the High Castle"

Gonzalo Amat on set of "The Man in the High Castle"

An interesting scene is where the characters are going through the woods with flash lights. Gonzalo Amat says that there are white reflectors in front of them (beside the camera) that reflect light back into their faces and thus provide a subtle fill.

Amat says that a particular challenge are the night exteriors when they have to be filmed in the summer at locations with five-hour nights.

Day interior - John Smith's office

John Smith's office: shot on a sound stage. Soft bounced light from the windows. Practicals in the interior. There's hardly any fill light in this scene.

Day Interiors

Some day interiors are shot on sound stages (like John Smith's office). Others are on real locations. For Amat, the colors of the walls are of a very important role in an interior. White walls is not something he likes, because the light bounces too much and is hard to control it. A shade of gray or other color is better in his opinion. A typical situation is the interior of John Smith's home or his office where it's usually lit by big soft light sources coming from the windows. The light is produced by bouncing (reflecting) hard sources from white boards and sometimes there is a bit of a fill (if needed) from a light source in the interior.

For the close-up they might bring an extra bounce closer to the actor to refine the light on their face, making it even softer.

Silhouettes

Using bright windows to frame silhouettes is a common technique in all episodes. Gonzalo Amat says that whenever he posts a silhouette image on his Instagram account, the response from the audience is surprisingly higher.

Using smoke to create depth

Smoke and backlight is a way to go when you have a wide night exterior shot. You can achieve a lot with less.

Adding a little bit of smoke to the scene is one of Amat's favorites to create depth and drama.

Night interior

A big soft light on the actress, practicals on the background, soft hair light on the actress.

Night Interiors

These are the situations where smoke, practicals, and probably a bit of soft key light comes into play. The night interiors in the show are definitely not overlit. Having modern sensitive camera sensors makes dark sets less light demanding. Sometimes these sets' lighting setups are dominated by practicals and whenever needed fill light is added, most often, from above.Night interior - mostly lit by practicals

Favorite Scene

Gonzalo Amat has many favorite scenes, but the one he mentioned specifically was episode 10 from Season 3, where they had that Nazi machine that was able to send people to parallel worlds. The vastness of the set may give you thoughts it was computer-generated, but it was actually a real set lit mostly from above (except for the light in the tunnel) with lots of silhouettes and symmetry in the composition.

Episode 10 Jahr Null

Episode 10 Jahr Null

Final Thoughts

The time we live in gives us the opportunity to connect with professionals that work on big projects we are impressed by. Having a cooperative and a down-to-earth cinematographer on the other side of the line is a humbling experience. The golden nuggets of information Gonzalo Amat shared is something that I can definitely apply to my work. I'm looking forward to seeing what the team will deliver to us as a story and cinematography in Season 4.

Feel free to follow Gonzalo Amat on Instagram where you can also see behind-the-scenes posts from the production of the show.

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6 Comments

Does the Arri have a flip-up screen or a flip-out screen? Asking for a friend who says it will be a dealbreaker if the Arri does not have a flip-out screen to film his vlog.

Don't bother with all that, you can use an iphone.

What about dual card slots? Does it bother him?

Only concern my friend is if the Arri has a flipout screen and if it has a flipup screen like a6400 does it block the on-camera mic on the hotshoe? He might be able to live with the flipup screen if it clears the Yunghou mic on his hotshoo. I imagine Arri does not have flip-out touch screens, because Arri just wants to be awkward.

Arri’s screen will flip out right into his hands! And he can touch it as well.

how does he shoot himself talking on his vlog since both hands are occupied. this is a deal breaker for friend.