Helping to establish an aesthetically singular world with Season 1 of Hulu’s dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale, cinematographer Colin Watkinson received his first Emmy for his efforts, and returned to expand the series’ visual boundaries in Season 2. Watkinson recently sat down at Hulu’s offices for Deadline’s Production Value video series to discuss his craft, and the thinking that went into defining the look of Bruce Miller’s drama based on Margaret Atwood’s novel.
Starting out as a focus puller and motion control artist before segueing to second unit work and launching his career as a DP, Watkinson describes his artistic journey as one of constant trial and error. “I feel like DP’ing, I got a film very early, and it was great. I was very happy with what we did, but then it’s like [you] course correct, go back and work out what I did, what it was, what I want to do,” Watkinson said. “You have to make mistakes to go forward.”
As a cinematographer, mastering the “subtleties of lighting” has been a decades-long passion. “Making something look the way you want it to look, and tell the story at the same time, I think those lessons will never stop,” the DP said. “I’ll never stop learning that.”
When it came to Season 1 of Handmaid’s, Watkinson received certain aesthetic mandates up front, working with director and executive producer Reed Morano to establish a specific palette. While the near-future dystopia of Gilead would be approached with formal composition, the series’ flashbacks would be visceral, often employing handheld photography.
“Color was very important because color was very important in the book. For me, that’s one of the wrong things [with] the 1990 film—the color was wrong, and it took away from the story,” Watkinson said. “So we had to get the color right; the robes had to be the right type of red.”
With a specific approach to movement, lighting, color and composition always in mind, Watkinson has found texture tools like haze to be integral in achieving the series’ contrasty look, adding depth and atmosphere to the image. “We use haze all the time. Even the location people know that we won’t really accept a location if we can’t use atmosphere,” the DP said. “There’s been a couple [where] we really can’t; if the location’s been deemed worthwhile, we can live without the smoke, but generally that’s what we have.”
On The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the bigger production challenges has been exposure to the elements, a result of exterior shoots up in the Great White North. While Watkinson stresses that Season 1 was more “brutal” in this regard, he said Season 2 did have its moments.
“The hanging scene at the start of Episode 1 was two nights on the top of a hilltop in Hamilton [Ontario]. It was cold, and the handmaids did a tremendous job,” he remembered. “We’re all there in our huge jackets and everything, and they’re in these tiny, little dresses.”
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