A two-time Emmy nominee, winning last year for his work on Fargo, cinematographer Dana Gonzales shouldn’t be lacking for work anytime soon, if his last few years are any indicator. A close collaborator of Noah Hawley’s, Gonzales jumped from Season 2 of the Emmy-winning Fargo to the set of Legion, and then back to Fargo, producing some of the most fascinating and ambitious visual work seen on television.
That visual command is on full display in Legion—complementing the show’s narrative complexity—in its gorgeous and unusual color palette, its sophisticated camera movement, its diverse lensing, and its incredible visual transitions, executed through extensive conversations between Hawley, Gonzales, and editor Regis Kimble. Speaking with Deadline, Gonzales discusses the process of pulling off these finely orchestrated transitions—which proved to be the most challenging of the DP’s career to date—and the way in which his work on Legion influenced the look of Fargo, Season 3.
You were working with Noah Hawley on Fargo prior to Legion’s existence, but what was it that sparked you to this material?
Noah sent me the script, then we had a meeting in his office, and we kind of outlined the concept of the show. There was a strong visual statement that he created, and it wasn’t your typical superhero-type show, or character.
As a cinematographer, the way he wanted to have these really strong visuals that were bold and alluring, and the fact that the story was kind of an open canvas, and was probably going to be ever changing. That challenge, and that kind of license to be bold, I think for any cinematographer, that’s an incredible thing.
The writing was great, the pilot was amazing; I loved that it was going to be told from this unreliable narrator point of view, and there were a lot of transitions that were exciting. The visual effects were going to be practical, as much as possible, so all those elements were amazing.
Legion has a very strong and striking color palette, exploring shades we don’t often see in television. What was your approach to color with the series?
Originally, Noah had a look book of sorts, that really was Kubrickian…A Clockwork Orange—that was a big one. The movie The Great Beauty was another film that we liked a lot; both those films, stylistically, dealt with color and compositions.
I think what happened is it actually developed, even more, when we were shooting, at least for me, but we started adding a lot of red, as the kind of Devil character became a little bit more there. We started playing with colors really as we were shooting, and fortunately, I had lights that lit every set, and I could pretty much do any color that I wanted to in the world.
Sometimes, I would show up and feel the scene a little bit, and there’s a concept already going into it, but I’d literally find a color that day, that moment. There’s a strong blue that’s in the white room, where Syd and David first make love.
There are a lot of different colors in there that you’ve probably never seen before, because of the access that I had to that color. Literally, finding a color in seconds and saying, “Let’s make this color.”
I kind of did it on the story, mood, where we were at— going into it, all the scripts weren’t written, and it was evolving, and when you’re working with Noah, that’s the fun thing. You don’t know exactly where everything is going, but we’re able to experiment and interpret. Noah is confident in pushing me to be bolder, so that allowed me to say, “Hey, I think this color feels right for this”, and Michael Wylie’s production design also gave me inspiration to do certain colors.
That was an evolving thing, just like the story, creating those colors. Going into it, there were certain colors palettes that we were looking for from sets and wardrobe, but I think the overall colors that you see were purely based on my emotional response to the material.
What was your thought process, in terms of lensing the series? You’re often working with very wide lenses—which capture the sets you’re working with, but also a certain off-kilter emotional space—while also incorporating tilt-shift lenses, which blur the edges of the frame, making the world feel miniature.
Yeah, definitely the Kubrick form—Clockwork Orange, specifically—a lot of that is shot on this 9.8 [mm] Kinoptic lens. It’s a very old lens—a ‘60s lens—so it has a certain distortion about it.
That was a strong POV lens, early on, that we used a lot for David’s POV. With those sets, we wanted to [use] these wide lenses to really feel that experience, so that was a big lens, the 9.8 we had. There was a wide angle 8 mil-to-9.8 zoom lens that we used a lot that was almost distortionless.
And then we had the swing-and-tilt; I used those a lot for kind of Amy’s world, the sister. She was in real life, and also she’s being kidnapped, and there’s a lot of, “Is this really happening?” I felt like that gave that whole storyline a little bit more mystery.
I shot both anamorphic and spherical; most of the time, if they were in a memory—doing the memory work—the wide angle, letterbox, D3 material that you see, that was anamorphic. Even though the memory work was 16-by-9, basically pushed in, that was anamorphic, just because those memories, I didn’t want them to jump, but I wanted them to feel differently, organically—something different, when they’re in David’s memory rather than the regular narrative.
From the beginning, that was like, “How does the audience know the different places we were at?” There were some different ways that we were going to do that, but we didn’t want to go too radical; every time you’re in a different environment, or a different place in David’s mind, we didn’t want it to jump too much, but definitely I think we found with lensing that there was enough difference that people felt it.
The transitions between shots and scenes in this series are frequently astonishing. In one notable moment, the cable David tries to hang himself with seamlessly transitions into the image of a sparkling birthday candle. What went into executing these creative transitions?
They’re all approached a little differently. That particular sequence was Noah Hawley’s episode that he directed, Noah being the guy who, at the end of the day, cuts together every episode. That particular transition was very much in his mind.
When Noah and I work together, when he’s directing, he feeds off me, I feed off him. I create an image, and he takes it even further. We’ll do something, and he’ll be like, “Oh, I see a possibility to do this kind of transition.” He does the same in editing if it’s someone else who’s directing the work—he’ll see something that he knows, transitionally, he can dissolve, and make it that kind of concept.
We talk a lot during the process—he’ll tell me, “Hey, this would be great, if this was happening in this situation,” and basically, that will support a dissolve or something he’ll do. That’s the beauty of our relationship, Noah and I. He sees the possibilities coming, and we’re able to adapt.
Some are strong transitions that we prep when we’re prepping the episodes, that we strive for, and then there’s many that don’t make it in the cut.
That show is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, with the transitions. It was all about talking about the transitions and how they work because the transitions were so story point-driven, that it was constantly like, “Okay what is the transition? How is this going to work?”
From the first episode, we’re seeing images that seem virtually impossible to execute in-camera—for example, the pool scene, when you pull out from a close-up to an extremely wide shot. How did you pull off that moment?
That’s a pretty wide lens, and basically, I built this 50-foot piece of truck that’s across the pool on two dollies. It’s kind of like they would make a Russian…like, I Am Cuba. That’s what I called it—the “I Am Cuba rig”—because it was very tactile. You couldn’t put a crane in there—there was no room. Normally, we might have done that on a telescoping crane, but we couldn’t do it. We wanted to be low, and we wanted to be steady, and not change—not go high or low. It was a huge piece of truck on two dollies that was pushed by humans [Laughs]—like building the pyramids—and just dollying back. Again, there are no visual effects going on there—it’s as practical as they come.
It was Noah Hawley saying this is the shot he wants he do, we found that incredible location that supported all those shots we needed to do with the pool, which was amazing. It was just like, how do you do that? It was building this rig, and it has a stabilized head on the end of it, and doing the work, and all of my experience that says, “Hey, if I design it like this, it should work.” And it did.
That’s the beauty of Legion—it’s coming from an organic sense most of the time, and you feel that. The audience knows that something’s happening, and that’s when it’s organic, versus visual effects or whatever. That’s a very tactile shot.
When we see slow-motion photography, is that the result of you working with a specialized camera like the Phantom?
Yeah. In the pilot, the two telekinesis shots of the explosions from David’s anger, those are 4K Phantoms, and those are also on a high-speed bolt, which is like a high-speed motion control rig. Basically, you’re doing 1000 frames a second, and you’re moving really fast because to get movement at 1000 frames a second, you have to move the camera super fast. Throughout the show, we use the 4K Phantom to do that; we alter the frame rate editorially, at times.
Working back-to-back on two series—from Fargo to Legion and back to Fargo again—are there any visual through lines to pick up on?
That’s a good question—and no one’s asked me that—because Fargo has these kinds of rules. The Coen brothers and the Coen world has these kinds of rules—they don’t have long lenses, the camera isn’t free to move as much as in Legion. Legion is like, no rules, but we felt like [with] Legion, we brought the aesthetics of Fargo with us. We know what we like—we know we like certain wider-angle close-ups; we like the camera to move to tell the story.
Now, when we came back to Fargo after doing Legion, after being so liberated with the camera and lenses and all that, I did notice that, especially in the pilot—301—we were moving the camera a lot more, we were using some of the techniques that we used on Legion, because we used a lot of cranes, and we put these big cranes in really impossible places all the time. We’ve been doing that this season.
I think we started using a little bit longer lenses, and I think we were using a little bit more of the storytelling techniques that we used on Legion that we liked.
Season 3 is a little bit more liberating than Seasons 1 and 2 that way—in a good way—and I think we earned it. I think we all felt like, “You know what? We’ve serviced Fargo and the Coen world in Seasons 1 and 2 very well, and this is Season 3—it’s a different story. We’re actually telling a little more modern story.” So we definitely brought over some Legion techniques, and you’ll see it—it’s there. It did follow us.