HBO's 'Westworld': Cinematographer Paul Cameron on Getting 'Fearless Coverage' on 35mm Film
Creating the look for HBO's next Game of Thrones.
When director Jonathan Nolan contacted cinematographer Paul Cameron about an upcoming project, a pilot for HBO called Westworld, it took him all of two minutes to get on board.
For those unfamiliar, Westworld is based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name, in which guests, or “newcomers,” pay a daily fee to live out their dreams in a futuristic Western theme park. The park is inhabited by artificial beings, or “hosts,” that follow a narrative loop which they can improvise based on guests’ needs.
"Be fearless with coverage, since different shots create varying emotional content."
Produced by J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk, the premiere and sequential three hours of the series we watched so far are enriched with compelling visual storytelling that deepens the narrative’s philosophical question: When does artificial intelligence become human?
“This project was a no-brainer,” Cameron told No Film School on a phone call while wrapping his day on set of The Commuter. “When the original film came out, for a non-visual effects movie, it was pretty damn good. It was compelling and had great dramatic tension within the cast. It was such a great set-up for the series and I was glad J.J. and Nolan put this idea together.”
During pre-production, Nolan and Cameron discussed how they wanted to start with a clean slate visually, but provide a cinematic scale and feel. The main town was built in Santa Clarita at Melody Ranch, formerly used for Deadwood. The location-driven show also set up shop in Utah, Big Sky Ranch, and the abandoned Hawthorne Mall to deliver scope.
Production designer Nathan Crowley (Interstellar, The Dark Knight) was tasked with bringing the older Deadwood sets to life. “When we got to Melody Ranch, it was a dingy, broken Western town and it needed to have a certain polish and shine as the guests paid a lot of money to be there,” Cameron said. “We were all extremely happy with what Nathan came up with. To have the opportunity to shoot his beautifully designed sets really added to the scale and the look of the show.”
"Hosts are much like Replicants in Blade Runner where there’s a fine line of what’s programmed, who’s programming them, and what behavioral tendencies they will have."
Imagine Disneyland opening each day; Westworld has a similar cadence. The same train pulls in every morning at 7:05 AM. Teddy (James Marsden) sits in the same seat. He gets out of the same door and walks down the same street. He says hello to the same sheriff. He walks into a saloon and drinks the same whiskey before catching the eye of Dolares (Evan Rachel Wood), a beautiful farmer’s girl. He then walks over to her and picks up a can she drops from a saddle bag before saying hello.
There’s a repetitive feeling to the story, and Cameron’s frame struck a parallel sensation. “We wanted to create a similar pattern of shots to take the characters up and down the streets, to make it feel cyclical,” said Cameron.
Cameron used three to four cameras to cover scenes and up to six during action sequences. "With this pilot, we really wanted to use additional cameras," he said. "It wasn’t conceived to be single-camera show and Jonathan really welcomed it. It was something I learned from Tony Scott years ago: to be fearless with coverage, since different shots create varying emotional content."
The backdrop of the park is set in Dead Horse Point State Park Utah. It’s here, through the help of visual effects, that the Westworld building overlooks the red rocks of Utah. To lend to its technological aesthetic, scenes were shot at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, California. “When you see characters on the balcony conversing and smoking, we would shoot the forward shots at Pacific Design Center, and the over-the-shoulder shots were done at Dead Horse,” said Cameron. “Nathan was a magician with his production design and between Jonathan and I, we were able to tie it all together.”
One of the ways the series differs from the film is the influx of guests at the park—they're always changing, which adds to the mood of the narrative. After arriving by locomotive, guests immerse themselves in the world controlled by those behind the scenes. Hosts interact with them, offering everything from a mission to capture the town’s most wanted to sin-filled hours with a mistress.
Since hosts take on artificial qualities, Cameron subtlety enhanced their movements with the frame. "Certain attributes to the hosts are much like Replicants in Blade Runner where there’s a fine line of what’s programmed, who’s programming them, and what behavioral tendencies they will have," he said. "Do they have emotions? Do they have memory? There are different facets to the hosts that are managed by the people of Westworld with Anthony Hopkins [Dr. Robert Ford] being at the head of the park," Cameron explained. "We tried to give the camera movements a slightly mechanical panning effect, even in the aerial and wide shots. It’s very subtle, to give the sense that it’s the people in the control room watching."
When one host, a prostitute whose pseudonym is Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), starts to remember events of her past, Cameron decided to give her flashbacks a different look. "We ended up giving a little more energy to the camera movements and used uncoated Canon K35 Primes (18, 24, 50mm) for a slightly nostalgic, romantic quality. We wanted to make those moments a little more innocent and beautiful."
Both Nolan and Cameron planned out very specifically what each shot needed to communicate. "It’s important to build a look that everyone was comfortable with and could be carried out by the other cinematographers on the series," said Cameron.
While the pilot does have its share of Technocrane shots, dramatic push-ins, and established masters, for the most part, Cameron lets the actors dictate the camera's movement. "It was about creating an image to not cut away from," said Cameron. "Let’s see the characters. Let’s see how uncomfortable they are."
"It was our tremendous crew from the top down that allowed it to work," Cameron continued. "Our A-camera operator Chris Haarhoff [Birdman] was an integral part. We had a big shootout in front of the saloon and Chris came up with the idea to execute it with these very fast Steadicam moves. It was the best kind of collaboration. We all had different ideas then we’d discuss them and get on board with what works best for the scene."