Gregory Middleton has become a go-to cinematographer for big-budget television. After shooting acclaimed shows “The Killing” and “Fringe,” he earned two Emmy nominations for his work on “Game of Thrones.” Middleton joined Damon Lindeloff‘s sequel/adaptation of “Watchmen,” which has emerged as the front-runner for Outstanding Limited Series at the 2020 Primetime Emmys.
Two of Middleton’s episodes, “This Extraordinary Being” and “A God Walks Into a Bar” stand out as some of the best TV episodes of the year. Middleton sat down with Awards Circuit to discuss the challenges of creating a one-shot effect in “This Extraordinary Being.” We also discussed working with Damon Lindeloff, collaborating with other department heads, and building unique visual trademarks with his fellow cinematographers on the series. He is eligible for Outstanding Cinematography For A Limited Series Or Movie for “This Extraordinary Being.”
Alan French/Awards Circuit: How did you get involved with “Watchmen?”
Gregory Middleton: I had worked with the director of the pilot, Nicole Cassell, on a series called “The Killing.” We did many episodes together and I really like working with her. We always stayed in touch about other projects, but nothing had lined up. When she got “Watchman,” she initially asked me if I was interested because of the genre and she knew I would be a good fit. Unfortunately, I was not free for the pilot, but we kept in touch if it were to go to series.
One of the advantages of shooting a pilot is that you can make adjustments. When you’re doing something as complicated as a science fiction/comic book series, there’s a lot of world-building. They are really complex, especially with “Watchmen.”
I was able to join the show after the pilot and I started out by helping with some of the re-shoots. They could not build any big sets for the pilot, so I worked with Kristian Milsted, the production designer, to collaborate a new design for the police station precinct. We reshot all those scenes in the new station. If I had to guess about 30% of the pilot was adjusted or heightened in reshoots. I then went on to shoot the even-numbered episodes on the series.
AF: You were not the only cinematographer on the show. How did your team collaborate to create the visual palette for the series?
GM: In the end, there were five of us altogether, which I had done before when I worked on “Game of Thrones.” On that series, we would each shoot two episodes and would share our experience on a set with the next DP to use it. I would show them a test I was doing and talk about the ideas. That way we could work together to solve problems. DPs don’t get to do that very often. We are often the only person on a show or film.
For “Watchmen,” I was the only DP on board in the states. All of the stuff with The Blonde Man, Jeremy Irons‘ character who turns out to be Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt, was shot in Wales before we started shooting the Regina King storyline. Damon wrote all the scenes for that plotline and kept them totally separate from the rest of the series until the final couple episodes. Chris Seager developed his own style because that whole world was supposed to be distinct. It replicated a Merchant/Ivory period film. Chris is a brilliant cinematographer and did a wonderful job making those scenes visually unique. I’d talk to Chris, and that was the first part of the collaboration.
Then Xavier Grobet joined the show and shot 3, 5, and 7. Xavier contributed a lot of ideas as it became four or five different worlds. Alex Disenhof shot some additional Blonde Man scenes in Atlanta, as well as the finale. It worked out well because he wasn’t trying to match what Chris had done for the Blonde Man’s manor. Finally, Andrij Parekh had shot the pilot and came back to direct Episode 4 as well, which rounded out the team.
AF: You mentioned there were different worlds that the show has to cater to. Could you elaborate on how you make the “worlds” different?
GM: We wanted visual concepts from the comic and used them to make the visuals of each world unique. There needed to be some separation between “The American Hero Story,” the story in Tulas, the Blonde Man World, and the various types of flashbacks. It was a photographic and art direction exploration to distinguish all those settings. Additionally, we wanted to recreate some visual concepts from the comic, which we could do with match cuts. We could have two characters in the exact same position in the frame as it cut back and forth. Sometimes, we would use the same character, but drop them into a different setting instantly, especially with Dr. Manhattan.
We would use deep focus occasionally, using swing lenses, or split diopters to stack things in the foreground and background. In a graphic novel, you have the compositional advantage to draw everything where you want it to be. Dealing with a set and people and real physical objects, we can’t cheat. We would also use selective focus as a tool to guide the eye.
Sometimes you want to have more than one thing in focus. There’s a good example with Old Man Will (Louis Gosset Jr.). He’s arrested and brought to the bakery by Angela, and she puts his Nostalgia Pills on a desk in the foreground. He gestures to them, so we kept both in focus in the shot. It helps signify their importance and the pills become pivotal later in the series. It also means we don’t have to rack focus to them, so you can see Louis’ entire performance.
AF: The Nostalgia pills factor into one of my favorite episodes, “This Extraordinary Being.” It was an incredible reimagining of a superhero origin, and extremely powerful. How did you approach that episode shooting in black and white?
GM: For that episode, we needed a way to explore Will’s life as both dreamlike and subjective. Damon wanted this to be Will’s point of view, and have the audience travel along with him. First, we had to figure out how to execute that feeling. We wanted to walk through every scene and not have too many edits. The show has a very strong composition, but we had not used a lot of wandering or floating cameras. This gave the episode a different feel from the rest of the show, which we wanted.
Steven Williams and I had to pre-plan all the shots in advance. We were able to walk the scenes with our stand-ins at each location. I shot it with my Artemis viewfinder and my phone. We picked a real lens and it allowed us to experiment with all the blocking. We designed and staged the shots, which allowed us to decide what lines would be off-camera and how the camera would move to transition between scenes.
This took a bit of time because the scenes had to feel seamless. I pitched the concept to Steven that we should just do it in one location. We took the pieces and had our editor put them together so we could check the transitions, and it gave me time to figure out how to execute the lighting. It’s a bit more complex to light when the camera is wandering around, especially since there were hand-offs with Regina King stepping in for Jovan [Adepo]. We did that in-camera.
The whole second part was, of course, how it should look and feel. There was a slightly higher contrast that resembled classic film noir. “American Hero Story” had higher contrast too, which made it more colorful. Damon came up with the idea of going full black and white, and I came up with the idea of selecting a single color and making it visible. Red became the key. It became the perfect look for something that was antiquated and dreamy, and would also have a timeless quality.
AF: I’m over the moon about this episode, and it is clear you put in a lot of work.
GM: Thanks very much. It was a huge amount of work and I’m very proud of the episode.
AF: I also loved “A God Walks Into a Bar,” episode 8. It was interesting to see the episode through Dr. Manhattan’s eyes, but for most of it, we do not see his face. Where did the idea to hide his face come from?
GM: From Damon’s perspective, we wanted to reveal Manhattan with Calvin’s face. We didn’t want to emotionally connect to someone else so that there would be a “Real” Manhattan and we’d think of Cal as a mask. We wanted Cal to be the face you would attach to emotionally as Manhattan. It also became interesting as a game because Manhattan is very recognizable. Having him walk around with a Manhattan mask on was a way for him to disguise himself, and not be recognized. He’s a bit of a celebrity. Dr. Manhattan is hiding from the world, and we didn’t want the audience to attach to someone else. There are two purposes to that.
AF: For Dr. Manhattan, did you add the blue light on set, or was that all done visually in post?
GM: We did it in a couple of different ways. If he’s off-camera, I would add a bit of glow. For example, after Regina smacks him in the head with a hammer to pull the device out of his forehead, there’s a glow from under her that I created.
For characters that glow with visual effects, it is smart to put light on them so the base effect is created in-camera. They were unsure how much they wanted to make him glow, so we didn’t put lights on the actor to create the sensation. I would use some lighting off-camera to augment some shots and create the flashes. When Manhattan teleports into shots, as he does in Vietnam, in the snow of Antarctica, those blue flashes are all off-camera. The base effect was real lighting that I created.
AF: How hands-on was Damon as a showrunner?
GM: He’s amazing, and he’s pretty hands-on. The great thing about his writing is he comes across as an excited storyteller. There’s an almost gleeful joy about what is gonna happen next, and you can tell what he wants to emphasize. It’s straightforward which ideas he’s excited about, and what is supposed to be mysterious.
For me, his scripts were easy to read and helped me contribute to what was going on in his mind. When you’re working in television, your showrunner is the ultimate director. They will be shepherding the series in post, so their vision is key. I work with the director of the episode, but with the bigger conceptual ideas, you’ll want to make sure you’re hitting the bullseye and check with Damon on the execution.
Early in episode 2, when we were deciding on what the police precinct would look like, we had a lot of work in front of us. We were rebuilding Judd Crawford’s office, needed a bullpen area for our detectives, and needed a large briefing area where the teams would be told about the Seventh Kavalry.
Kristian and I wanted to make use of brutalist architecture and make it a big camera space. Normal police officers wouldn’t seem dramatic enough. The Seventh Kavalry is a private army and terrorist group. We wanted to create symmetry with the police to appear that way as well. They’re wearing masks too, so we should be suspicious of their motives. Using the big brutal architecture was Kristian’s way of expressing that, and he drew from houses of Parliament in the UK and Canada to create the visual of the police facing each other.
We also wanted to pitch a lighting change that would come into the shot and create a nice contrast. We were pitching the idea to Damon but were warned he might not like it because he’s not too keen on big sets. None of this was in the script mind you, but we wanted to see if he’d go for it. When we pitched the idea of the lighting change, I used some examples from a couple of films and he totally loved it. He told us to go for it. That was just Kristian and I reading the script and coming up with our interpretation of what Damon wanted.
AF: “Watchmen” was one of the great series of the year. Did you have any plans for future projects?
GM: There’s a couple of irons in the fire but right now, I’m mostly having conversations with other cinematographers. We are looking at this as an opportunity to make things safer and better in the workplace. Sometimes the industry needs to change, and if we can make it safer than it ever was, we’ve made some real improvements. This terrible health crisis is an opportunity to increase safety, and reevaluate some work practices of how we shoot. We’ve done some things over time that has saved some money, but it has taken a negative toll on our work hours and health. Hopefully, we can fix some of those things now.