On HBO’s Watchmen, cinematographer Gregory Middleton shot episodes in black and white, and Doctor Manhattan blue, taking place in distinct worlds, while figuring out how to translate visual elements from the original graphic novel into the cinematic form.
Created by Damon Lindelof, the gritty drama takes place in an alternate version of the 20th century, in which vigilantes—once celebrated as heroes—have been outlawed, due to their violent methods of extracting justice. In this version of America, episodes of racial violence erupt in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as yellow-masked police officers face off with a white supremacist group known as the Seventh Kavalry.
A two-time Emmy nominee best known for his work on Game of Thrones, Middleton shot four episodes out of the series’ nine, finding in Watchmen the opportunity to elevate, through photography, a story that was already immensely timely and compelling. “As a cinematographer, it’s always a huge thrill to get to use lighting and camera techniques to bring a lot to the experience of the story, in a way which really can be profound,” the DP says. “For Damon to write in a way which was so intimate and so experiential for the audience, and to get a chance to try to create that experience, was both incredibly nerve-wracking and exciting.”
DEADLINE: What did you discuss with Damon Lindelof, when you first boarded Watchmen?
GREGORY MIDDLETON: I joined the show after [Andrij Parekh] had shot the pilot, and they were taking a break between, to reassess what the pilot was, and start to formulate a plan for shooting the rest of the series.
I started with Episode 2, and a lot of the discussions I had with him, and Nicole [Kassell] and Stephen Williams, the other two producing directors, were about how to bring some of the mechanisms and styles and specific tricks of some of the compositional elements in the graphic novel into the show.
A couple of specific things really stuck out that could work well in both mediums, even though the mediums are very different, and one was the match cuts we use, where we would put the same character’s face, from one cut to the next, [in] two different places. Like, time had passed, and they might be in a different costume. We used that technique a lot, and that’s one that’s used a lot in the comic. It also plays into the theme of experiencing time in different ways, similar to how Doctor Manhattan does later, sort of jumping around, and keeping certain things consistent.
DEADLINE: When viewing the pilot, what did you learn about the way this take on Watchmen should look and feel?
MIDDLETON: The new series was similar to the original [comic] series, in that it was also kind of a film noir. It was a bit of a murder mystery, and I wanted to use a lot of film noir film techniques, with a lot of contrast, more use of silhouette, lots of darkness.
Another tool we used from the comic was the use of a lot of foreground-and-background compositions, at times. So, we used split diopters, or swing-and-tilt lenses, to have two objects in focus. Obviously, in cinema, we’ve got selective focus, mostly. So, we used techniques like that a lot to bridge those two worlds a bit.
DEADLINE: Tell us a bit more about your use of the split diopter lens. What do you think it added to the storytelling?
MIDDLETON: In the comic, there’d be all kinds of shots through cabinets, or you’d have foreground and background elements that were all in focus, so you can decide where to look. There’s all this information in a comic frame, so you can scan the entire frame and look at it. So, whenever there was something interesting, either for the plot, or just for a moment of character that we wanted to include in the frame, you can have it in there [through the use of the split diopter].
For example, there’s a shot in the pilot, which is a reshoot we did when we rebuilt the police station as a set, after the pilot was done. The scene where Sister Night’s in Judd Crawford’s office, and there’s a book in the foreground on the desk, which is in focus while he’s at the doorway, talking to her, it indicates what he’s reading, or the kinds of things he’s thinking about. It hints at maybe his knowledge about certain things, and so you can include something like that. We would just look for opportunities like that constantly throughout the show.
DEADLINE: Production designer Kristian Milsted was a key collaborator for you, in refining the show’s color palette. What informed your approach to color here?
MIDDLETON: One of the challenges of Watchmen was, I didn’t have all the scripts at the beginning, but once we started, it was very clear that there were going to be very different worlds. There would be flashbacks of various types, and there was also going to be this heightened world within the show-within-the-show, American Hero Story. They all needed to be visually distinct, both in terms of color palette and saturation, things like that. So, we worked hard to create different visual looks for all of them.
The main world of Watchmen was going to be film noir. We tried to avoid a lot of primary colors, a lot of bright colors, except for the classic yellow, which was a nod to the comics—the color of the yellow happy face mask. We linked that, in ways, to the police masks, and then to other elements of the police, so that was present when they were there.
But a lot of other primaries, we tried to keep out of the art direction, and out of the costumes through the rest of the world. There are a lot of grays and blues and those secondary colors, [and] the original comic actually is all done in secondary colors, where most comics at the time were primary. Even the way the comic was drawn and inked was done as a commentary on the comics of the time. But we just wanted our Watchmen world to feel both real, and slightly grittier, and slightly more film noir, in a color palette that was pretty distinct, so it would be different than everything else.
Then, when we went into flashbacks, we had more of a slightly sepia tone, a little more monochromatic for the stuff in the war, with O.B. Williams, with the Hooded Justice father. Then later, of course, we had the entire episode that was black and white, which was all the Nostalgia [drug] nostrip, in Episode 6.
DEADLINE: What was your approach to shooting this black-and-white episode? Certain elements of color pop up in the frame, over the course of the episode, and reportedly, it was shot entirely in color.
MIDDLETON: The choice to go completely black and white was made a little bit later in the game. It wasn’t in the first draft of the script, and then we knew there were going to be some elements, where certain colors would come out. All of our digital cameras sort of shoot color anyways, and we always record in a log signal, so you have some flexibility later with what you’re doing, and to create contrast. Then, I just built a black-and-white viewing LUT, imitating some older black-and-white stocks, basically to try and give it that look. On set, we would see it that way, and I could light to that, and we would all see what the black-and-white version of the show would be.
The intent of the script, in terms of the camera, was to travel around with young Will Reeves—to not just observe him, but to go in and out of him, and become his point of view occasionally, to really be linked to his experience. So, we used a lot of different techniques for that.
Normally when you shoot a TV episode, you don’t have a huge amount of prep. As far as planning [this] episode, Stephen Williams and I had a little bit more prep than we had for most episodes, so we could plan every shot in advance. I would shoot all the rehearsals long before the shoot on my iPhone, with the Director’s Viewfinder app, and then we would actually edit them together. So, you could plan every transition between the seamless shots, and see if it would work, and then once we had a proof of concept, we could then figure how to execute them technically. So, when we were doing the shoot, we actually already knew what our shot was mostly for every scene before, because those shots were so complicated to pull off. They were really a ballet of choreography between the incredible cast. Some of the shots were two or three or four minutes long—camera, extras, everybody all together. So, it was quite intricate.
DEADLINE: What were the challenges in lighting this episode, once you’d created your black-and-white LUT?
MIDDLETON: We shot with a lot of wider lenses, which was part of the process of being more observational, with the floating camera through his entire journey. So, that means that your lights are farther away. When we do a close-up now, we often have the light quite close to someone’s face. It’s more flattering, but that became impossible when we’re wandering through an entire room with the 21 mil, and ending up in extreme close-up, because we’re going to see everything, everywhere.
So, a lot of lighting had to be really planned. That’s another reason why doing all the rehearsal in advance is so important, because sometimes the lighting was very elaborate. If you’re circling the room with the camera, you often have to turn the lights off behind the camera, as the camera moves around, to prevent shadows from what’s behind the camera on the people. So, that all has to be coordinated, with the electricians dimming the lights electronically, as the camera moves around the room, or to avoid the shadow of a crane, for example, or an operator. A lot of that was done in advance, but the main look was to try and create something with a lot of contrast and really deep blacks.
DEADLINE: Did you use texture tools like fog machines to amplify the episode’s aesthetic?
MIDDLETON: We did use atmosphere in a lot of scenes when it was appropriate to the location. I also used a really old double fog filter, which is something that used to be used to control contrast, when film had really high contrast. You see it a lot in films of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and I thought that’d be nice way, also, as an older technique, [to] hint at the older photography of the episode. Double fog is basically a fog filter with a low contrast filter combined, so the combination of very contrasty lighting and a very deep-looking black-and-white LUT would imitate black-and-white film—and that filter, hopefully, would look like a familiar combination.
DEADLINE: You also shot “A God Walks into Abar,” the episode that digs into the backstory of Doctor Manhattan. What kinds of creative challenges came in crafting that piece?
MIDDLETON: Episode 8 was fascinating because it’s core to one of the story points of the original Watchmen, which is Doctor Manhattan’s perception of time, and what the purpose of life is, if you know where the ending of your story is, and how you create meaning in life, which is a lot of what the meditations of existence are that he deals with as a character. It was sort of unexpected that you would find out that this episode would be integral to his romance with Angela, and also what he was trying to experience and why. Because if you’re familiar with the original comic, he leaves at the end, to try and create life, which turns out to be the life on Europa in our story.
His main purpose in our story is to come back and try and reconnect with his humanity, and to re-experience what it’s like to be alive, because he’s been divorced of that, and it just resulted in a lot of really clever scenes, where you’re bouncing around his thought process, as he bounces around through different memories and time periods, putting together the pieces of his experience.
So, we would have shots of Jeremy Irons in Antarctica, and he’s talking to him in one scene, and turns his head, and he’s back to Angela in the living room, and trying to plan all that out…From his perspective, he’s in one scene. He’s talking to one character, and then the other; he’s talking to old Will Reeves in his mansion, and he’s talking to Angela by the pool by her house. And it’s really one scene shot in two different locations, in two different time periods. So, that’s quite tricky to do, and really fun, and really beautifully performed by Yahya [Abdul-Mateen II].