When a cinematographer visually depicts the personality of a character, it has the power to immerse the audience in the story, even through the briefest of encounters. The opening sequence to Netflix's new series Travelers illustrates this, bridging color, movement, and tone to each characters’ disposition as they’re introduced into the story through vignettes.
Travelers comes from Stargate SG-1 scribe Brad Wright and is set in the present day, where five “travelers” from hundreds of years in the future are sent back through time to assume the lives (and bodies) of people just before they die. Using their knowledge of what’s to come, they attempt to alter a horrific outcome of human existence through tasks handed down from a higher authority.
Director Nick Hurran and Scottish cinematographer Neville Kidd stepped away from the traditional “bluish” sci-fi look to create the pilot, with Kidd lensing the first three episodes before a variety of directors finished the series with DP Stephen Jackson.
"We wanted to ground the show in a reality and make it quite different from normal sci-fi," said Kidd. "I think that was one of the reasons Brad brought Nick and me over—to give a sort of non-North American flavor. To go a little grittier and build a look that went into a different palette."
Kidd found inspiration for this visual style of poetry from a Wim Wenders film.
The pilot opens in a library, where Marcy Warton (MacKenzie Porter) is cleaning a bookshelf. A slight handheld tilt upward follows her as she reaches for a book. The picture cuts to a bokeh orgy of out-of-focus lights before racking in to focus on MacKenzie's eyes—a recurring visual theme in the series that connects the characters to each other and their thoughts. She begins to read the page with a stutter. The frame subtly shakes as she struggles through each word. Soft yellows and whites around her suggest innocence; her blonde hair and white flower dress emphasize it further. A shallow depth of field centers our thoughts on her struggle. Every aesthetic decision made in this scene undeniably aims to support the narrative while mimicking the character’s personality.
Credit: NetflixThen, as Tory (Angela Palmer), a co-worker, says goodbye, she’s attacked in the parking lot by a group of men. Bluish and green tones pierce through the windows, crashing into the warm colors of the room, creating a dichotomy between the glass that separates Marcy from the anarchy. She screams for them to stop; when they turn their attention to her inside the building, she slips running up a set of stairs. The words “Record Time of Death 10:42” appear on the screen. Her consciousness is about to be taken over by someone from the future.
We’re introduced to three more characters in a similar way: a high school tough-guy Trevor Holden (Jared Abrahamson) is in a fight during which hues of red, deep blacks, and green fluorescents accompany a fast-moving camera before he falls to the mat, bloody and breathless. We watch Philip Pearson (Reilly Dolman), a heroin addict, in a wide angle, almost fish-eye daze as he overdoses with his friend inside an apartment. And a mother, Carly Shannon (Nesta Cooper) is introduced with a stable frame to show her strength and independence before the hand of an ex-lover abruptly ends her life.
"I try to use lenses knowing what kind of look and feel I want to get across for that character."
Kidd found inspiration for this visual style of poetry from a Wim Wenders film. "We were all coming in on this project from our '70s and '80s sci-fi knowledge," he said. "We are big Blade Runner fans. For the opening, I really drew upon Wings of Desire. There are these angels in the opening sequence who come down and they feel quite alien to the world because no one else can see them. I wanted to dress the characters of Travelers in a similar fashion: a little bit alien, a bit discombobulated to the world they suddenly arrived in. We wanted to produce five minutes where you just saw the characters and they hooked you in to watch the rest of the season."
Each character was given a specific LUT during their introduction, but Kidd blended the colors—the white hues of Marcy's scene and reds of Trevor's—as the narrative progressed. Eventually, all five of them become a working team.
"The reason I’m a fan of the Cook 5/i range is for its shallow depth of field," said Kidd. "Travelers is mostly set in a contemporary world and needs to feel natural to the viewer, so we wanted to capture a more naturalistic image." While Kidd had the entire 5/i range (18mm, 25mm, 32mm, 40mm, 50mm, 65mm, 75mm, 100mm and 135mm) at his disposal, he substituted certain shots with Cooke’s S4/i lenses. "When we wanted to go fully open or bring the characters closer together, we would jump over to an S4," he continued. "The S5 doesn’t have a full range, so if we needed to go to a 27mm, we made the switch. I try to use lenses knowing what kind of look and feel I want to get across for that character."
"You have to be careful about your highlights when doing an HDR pass of a scene."
Besides 4K, Kidd also had to adjust for Netflix’s HDR viewing experience. "We knew going in we had to do an HDR grade at the end," he said, "so before we started, a post facility in Vancouver showed us footage of what it would look like in HDR and not in HDR. You’re in a different world of latitude, so you have to be careful about your highlights when doing an HDR pass of a scene. When we shot HDR on the RED Dragon you get even more contrast. When I was filming against windows it would bring in more latitude of the outside world."
To soften the sharp 4K image, the cinematographer looked to filters. "I always vary between Black Glimmerglass and pearlescent filters. Each project has a different feel of softness to the story, so I choose a filter based on the project."
As the story progresses and we learn more about the plot, the camera frame shifts to a documentarian approach. "I always like when you watch a scene and you don’t know if the camera is handheld or Steadicam," said Kidd. "For me, the biggest thing is if you can visually feel the character’s personality. I try to put myself in the place of the character and imagine what they’re feeling. I choose lenses and movement to get that sense across while shooting."
'Travelers' is streaming now on Netflix. You can also catch Neville Kidd’s work on Season 4, episode two of 'Sherlock,' premiering January 1, 2017. The cinematographer says "it’s the darkest Sherlock yet."