Gonzalo Amat brings us through how he started in photography, and grew into a cinematographer for Amazon. Are they the new HBO, free from rules and regulation, and does that make the job more fun?
With the new season out, and holiday binge watching in full swing, we’re finding out what it’s like on the set of "The Man in the High Castle". It’s worth wondering if the topic is something that a regular network wouldn’t dream of approaching, and that Amat has landed himself in a creative nirvana.
For those out of the loop, the series follows what could have happened if the Allies had not won WWII. The U.S has been taken over by Nazi’s in the east, and Imperial Japanese in the west. It’s a daring drama that pushes the envelope of what we’re allowed talk about in television drama, and a cinematic experience that brings Philip K. Dick’s novel to a huge audience. It’s not often that a TV series needs to plaster Nazi symbolism over buildings, but will pushing the boat out be the future of scripted media, and if so, can we all join in?
Amat began his journey as a photographer, studying Fine Art Photography in Mexico City at the Centro Cultural Arte Contemporáneo. It was only when a professor suggested he look into cinematography that he went down that path, becoming a creative director with HBO before studying at London Film School and the American Film Institute. “I was always very interested in the narrative, film and that. A teacher suggested to me, that you can actually study for cinematography. I knew about it but, nobody really knows about it until you see it. It’s a little bit of a hidden craft.”
Now he shares his role with Emmy award winning James Hawkinson, on "The Man in the High Castle". When asked about the transition between the two, he said that “When you do still photography you have to have the camera in the right place, so you know where the camera needs to be and what you want to say. Now the challenge is movement and that you can’t light it for one angle.”
For those who aren’t familiar, Amat and Hawkinson are responsible for the look and feel of the show. They’re using their acute photography skills to bring the story to life, and meet Frank Spotnitz and Ridley Scott’s vision.
It’s an exciting drama to work on, which makes Amat’s position even more envious. Not many networks would back such a controversial drama. In fact Amazon caused a stir with the first season, when New York subway walls were plastered with Nazi iconography.
This really reveals how the series is being treated. “The whole business model of the content that they’re doing, is based on getting a good group of people and letting them do it." He described. "They’ll look at the script and they’ll make some notes, but they will not micromanage. They really have a big trust in all of us.”
Amazon, like Netflix, isn’t beholden to the advertising brands that networks are usually shackled by. Much like public service broadcasting, the likes of Amazon may become a haven for creative experimentation. They’re willing to throw money at a project, and let the creatives work away without serious interference.
Amazon also has a great trust in the production. It’s unlikely to see the series get cancelled halfway through a season, as we would see with some networks. The main reason being that "The Man in the High Castle" doesn’t take up any air time; there is no air time. The show will never compete with "The Grand Tour", Amazon’s most recent series. It can only compliment it and draw bigger audiences in. For NBC, and even HBO, air time is precious. Stale or niche content is dangerous.
Dealing with Sensitive Subjects
You’d imagine it’s difficult to work with such a contentious subject matter, which is why the team have to rely on VFX so often. Amat needs to imagine the scene that will be created in post, because nobody wants to have their building as the headquarters for Imperial Japanese, or Nazi, operations. Sometimes they’ll find themselves filming in a Seattle car park, or the streets of Vancouver. You wouldn’t think that such a grand show would be shot in such unrelated and pedestrian locations. “There’s a lot of planning involved" explained Amat, "but in the end it’s nice because you know the final thing is going to be incredible. If you need more time to light it then so be it. Then in post they’ll make match it exactly.”
Luckily, systems like N-Cam allow Amat to film in a virtual set. Using augmented reality the camera operator can feel as though they’re actually filming in the alternate-reality. This is how Times Square in New York has a Nazi theme, or the camera can move around fake objects in the foreground. The director can get a rough idea of what’s working, and what isn’t.
When they have to build a physical set on location, signs are put up to warn the locals that it’s only a drama, and the Nazi symbols are covered between takes. Between these two solutions, Amat has his hands full.
Amat’s Creative Freedom
Amat works with the director to bring the feeling of each scene to life, which doesn't seem to be a hindering process. He mentioned that “when it comes to me and James, the other cinematographer that rotates, they let us do a lot. Sometimes we’ll do stuff that’s a little risky. We might want to keep it pretty dark. If you do that in network shows they’ll tell you it’s too dark. Here it’s like, ‘great!’ — I mean that’s what the show is.”
The Nazi occupied east coast, has a certain coldness to it. Something you might describe as belonging to a classic war film. On the flip side we have the Imperial Japanese occupied west coast, which harks back to something warmer, since it’s largely based in San Francisco. In the middle is the Neutral Zone, looking something like a David Fincher, Silent Hill crossover. Here, Amat and Hawkinson can go against the grain more so than they would for a regular network show.
There’s a lot to work with there, especially since Dick’s writings have been adapted time and time again. Needing to change between vastly different settings sounds like a difficult task to plan ahead for, never mind needing to show off the vast world it’s set in. He claimed that it’s “also great to be experimenting with all these new types of long form.”
Utilizing drones, green screens, and what seems like an amazing crew, Season One was filmed on the RED Dragon. However Season Two was the Arri Alexa. The reason for the switch was that Amazon wanted a 4K delivery, which required the Dragon. However Amat and Hawkinson wanted something that could handle lower light and was a little softer on faces, and when Arri’s efforts pointed to 4K they made the switch. The Alexa Mini then takes over the drone shots, replacing the Panasonic GH4.
It’s no wonder having every ounce of creative freedom is worth it’s weight in gold when you’re trying to get through all of this in a matter of weeks. The crew can get through five or six pages of script a day which is astonishing for the caliber of production. Scenes are shot without much prior rehearsal. Usually just a quick run through, and a discussion with the actors about their character. They can’t even set up the lighting too far in advance, in case the actors don’t do what they assume. This leads to a collaboration with the crew, which Amat says leads to a great atmosphere. “We’ll discuss the tone of the scene, and from there we’ll execute some ideas. Basically everyone throws ideas at you which is great. Everyone’s into the look of the show. It’s not just about only getting the lights and camera, which you can see on some network shows.”
I hope that this gives a glimpse of how photography plays a key role in a TV Drama’s creative process, and how that can change depending on the network it’s broadcasted on. It’s certainly a wonderful insight into Gonzalo Amat’s work on such an exciting project.
It’s worth noting that he flexes his creative muscles even when he’s not working as a Director of Photography. Picking up his Fuji X-T2, or Leica M3 (that was made in the 60s) he keeps close to his photography roots, since he feels that “you can’t be a good cinematographer without first being a good photographer.” If you’d like to keep up with his photography, you can find him on Instagram.