'Watchmen' DP Greg Middleton on Shooting That Black and White Episode and Dr. Manhattan's Reveal
Greg Middleton has been a cinematographer on shows like Game of Thrones, The Killing, and Watchmen. Hear how he brings his expertise to solve complex camera setups.
The look and feel of HBO's Watchmen TV series is one of the most special things to come out of 2019. The show tackles complex debates on race, corrupt politics, and generational oppression in a visually interested and emotionally engaging way.
While we all know the writing on the show is stellar, the cinematography also stands out.
That's why we were so excited to sit down with Greg Middleton, the director of photography behind the Watchmen episodes, A God Walks into Abar, This Extraordinary Being, If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own, and Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship.
NFS: Starting off, could you talk a little bit about your involvement with the show? What led you there, and how you got hired to be the DP on some of these episodes?
Greg Middleton: Initially, my first point of contact was Nicole Kassell, who is one of the EP directors. I'd worked with her on a show called The Killing for AMC and Netflix a few years ago. And we really got along well. We did some really great episodes, including one where someone gets hung, actually. Peter Sarsgaard's character got hung, and we've always been trying to work together since, and it's never overlapped. When we were working on Thrones, I was always throwing her name into the HBO people to try and get her onto that when I was on that show. But that didn't work out, so that's how this came about initially when she first contacted about the pilot. I met her in LA, long before the show started. Just spitball some ideas and just talk about some of the concepts and graphic novels that we could translate over and ideas like that.
And then, by the time the pilot came around, I was still working on Game of Thrones, and unfortunately, I wasn't available and, HBO has already had me working so they weren't really keen on me jumping ship. So I couldn't do the pilot, and then when the series came around a few months later, I was free, and she asked me to come on board and start with episode two and help develop the look of the show as it went along.
NFS: When you're developing the look of the show, how much of it is things you figure out on set or, versus planning, pre-planning, and storyboarding? How do you divvy up your work?
Greg: I think every project is different, and the process can be different -- The cinematography is actually quite flexible in how you work with different filmmakers because everyone has their own methods. You start to develop methods together when you spend more time together. And Nicki and I have a very collaborative method of working, so we talk a lot about ideas and scenes and go through concepts together. We'll often storyboard, or do photo boards on location.
On this project, we are also dealing with a new art department -- I don't know if you know about that because Kristian Milsted started on the show at the same time I did, and we were building a lot of big sets, and we were not just talking about the full style and how to film scenes, but also, like, the general look of the world, and how we'd approach the palette of the entire world, and the various worlds within the world. We had the American Hero Story, a show within a show world, we had flashbacks; we had a bunch of things to consider. So that requires a lot of pre-production planning, so a lot of that work is all conceptual work where we come up with some ideas and some rules.
We try and help develop a photographic style proposal, "well, here's some rules or some suggestions for what we would try and avoid and do to help craft where we're gonna go with everything." I think, and the pilot was such an immense task to sort of, get into what would 2019 look like if the Watchmen comic was history?
Damon [Lindelof] had a lot of specific things in the script. So we had to ask ourselves questions like "The police officers have to come and go out of the police station, where do they put their masks on? Do they know each other outside of that?" And it's a lot of questions for Kristian and myself. And also how do we echo something from the graphic novels, visually, without being too on the nose.
A lot of that was palettes, and embracing what we discovered, which I think we'd sort of discovered after the pilot is, similar to the Watchmen comic being a film noir, our show is a film noir.
So we basically listed everything out, what we wanted to add maybe and not add, and we went to all the photographic references that Nicki had done for the pilot, and all the ones that I'd come up with -- and we sort of distilled them down and started with "okay, well, how do we continue from here with episode two, and build on the ideas we have?"
We also reshot a fair chunk of the pilot because there were big sets that hadn't been built for the pilot; we built the police station for a later episode. So we reshot all the scenes in the police station, and we reshot one of the opening scenes of the arrest -- which required recasting the part, too.
This happens in pilots; maybe we cast one character, and then it's all part of the process of fine-tuning, and trying to create a more refined focus on these ideas. So that was a lot of pre-production, that was a long answer, I'm sorry. But it's a long answer.
NFS: (laughs) No, it's a great answer! The pilot got a lot of people interested in watching the show, but really it was Episode Six, the black and white episode, that got everyone talking. Talk about the process of doing something like that episode, that is almost the antithesis of the other episodes. Did you shoot in native black and white -- how did you storyboard it?
Greg: That episode is very special to me for a number of reasons, and one of them was because it's in black and white. And two, it kind of distilled a lot of what I feel, as a cinematographer, into what is great about drama -- to really put yourself into someone else's shoes. A lot of dramas are about understanding other people. Seeing through the conflicts in people, and here we have a very extreme version of that. Here, you see what motivated Hooded Justice to become Hooded Justice. Never just the answer to the sort of riddle about his costume, but also, being able to process the journey he went through.
Going in black and white was actually Damon's idea, in the end. We were toying with the idea, and he was like, "we should just do it completely black and white."(laughs) Which is a pretty major thing -- just from a photographic standpoint, because it affects the colors you pick for everything because of course, a pale shade of green and a pale shade of gray, together can create color contrast. And black and white can be exactly the same. So you have to be very careful when you're deciding that.
I did some black and white in the past, and I've done black and white with Alexa before, but I did my best to create a black and white look, with our final colors to Todd Bochner. To create something that had a lot of contrast, a lot of, like, an older feeling, like a style; deeper blacks, and some heavier contrast. And we'd have that on set so we'd always feel to have something on set that we looked at that was really very accurate to how we wanted to finish. And then I can shoot to that, which is the process I use for most things. And possibly, you can't put the lot for the entire show anyways, previously. But this is very specific.
And the second part was how to use the camera to really allow for this dreamlike journey through everything and to go in and out of what became the very first person.
The scene where he gets hung is a really harrowing scene and was harrowing because -- the thing about using longer takes is it makes the audience pay closer attention. Like you don't have the relief of an edit, telling you you're gonna go somewhere else, and so you really do pay attention and sink into the feeling of what's happening more. And it could be especially in an uncomfortable scene. So we really wanted to make that journey from getting mugged in the alley to being hung in as few shots as possible, and there were specific points we wanted to be able to switch to Regina, so we could imprint that experience on her, and remember that she is now having this experience for our story purposes.
So there are only three cuts in the whole section, and we wanted the whole hanging moment to be all one shot. And that was technically very challenging. But also incredibly harrowing to actually execute, because the better you do it, the scarier it is to witness.
But there was a lot of preparation. We basically hung the camera off a rope, with pulleys and two operators. Me at the bottom and an operator on a ladder at the top, so I could operate the camera at the bottom. We did tests with the various fabrics [for the shroud put over his head] so you could still barely see through it. I had them rig a small air hose up to the map box, with a bellows so someone could pretend to be breathing, which would make the bag look like it's breathing. So, someone -- you could see his breath going as he's choking, and, we would hoist the camera up to the rhythm of people pulling it up. And I would let go of the camera -- and then, Chris, the other operator -- [he] would take it, and take it up higher and operate the shot at the top. So, you'd still be able to see down and see the police officer and the car and, we'd pull the focus to the bag, breathing.
And then he would, we'd literally just drop it -- he would let go of the rope and almost let it free fall, and then I would catch it, and get it onto the ground, and get it where we wanted so then the actors could come and take the bag off and, and finish acting a scene and do it all in one shot. It was very technically challenging, but it was incredibly powerful to not break out of that experience. Which is the whole point of it.
NFS: So much of the show's cinematography is not only getting the audience to empathize with the character, but also cleverly planting and paying off later big reveals. The biggest one is the reveal of Dr. Manhattan. For the entire season, as we look back, we see shots that frame him in blue, or that has the atomic sign over the table...
Greg: (laughs) Yup.
NFS: Were there any shots that you had to take back that everyone decided, "oh, that's way too obvious?" Or were there any things that you thought people would get much earlier on that you found wound up being more subtle after seeing it on the screen?
Greg: We joked about putting him in a blue T-shirt once, but I felt that was too much. This morning, we were joking about it. Well, it's interesting because I think we tried not to do that too much, and to be fair, I didn't know that secret right away either. I think Nicki knew that from nearer the beginning. I got told a little bit later, so I didn't know when we were doing episode two, that that was the case. And we reshot the scenes from the pilot. I didn't know [who Manhattan] was when doing that then.
But the thing that was really evident to me, which was what I liked a lot about it was his basic demeanor and the way he describes it. In episode four, when he's talking to the kid about life and death and what's before life and death and did his uncle go to heaven, and that's a total Dr. Manhattan answer. And so if you're paying attention, if you know the material, you go "okay, this seems very evident that he's a very philosophically-enlightened character." But we tried not to do too many things like that; we tried to be careful to avoid having too many visual easter eggs that are too strong. And [the actor] has obviously the physique of what we anticipate Manhattan would be, and we could use that occasionally, in how we would frame him. Or where we'd position him, but not to the point where it's too overt because that would be too much, I think.
NFS: What's your advice for people who want to do the job you do?
Greg: Well, I think I would circle back to what I was saying earlier: The cinematography is more than just photography. It's really storytelling and using the camera to tell the story, and remembering that, where you position it, how you position people to the camera, has a large component to the point of view you're telling. You're giving the camera and the point of view of the story. And to remember that when you're making those decisions, that's an important thing. It's easy to rush and to forget those things. But it's important.
And the other part is -- be passionate about what you want to tell. If you have a connection to the story and you feel strongly about it, you're gonna come up with something, hopefully, unique in how you tell it. And that's one of the most important things. I mean, you want to have a reason to tell your story, and that's gonna, that's gonna inform how you tell it.
NFS: We're so excited for what Watchmen has in store, do you have anything you want to plug? For what's coming next or anything like that?
Greg: The only thing I really wanna plug is that I hope people watch Episode Nine! (laughs) I did another film, there's another film coming out shortly called American Woman, that was directed by Semi Chellas, who actually was one of the writers on Mad Men, and I'm very proud of that film. It’s an interesting film, sort of loosely based on the Patty Hearst kidnapping. It's a very intense character study and I'm very proud of that movie.
Summing it all up...
Again, special thanks to Greg for being so welcoming and giving the best answers to all our questions.
One thing we can all agree on is that the story services the cinematography. Watchmen has an incredible team that all works together to make sure the images, words, editing, and color all form to create the strongest show possible.
What are your favorite things about Watchmen? Let us know in the comments.