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