The American Society of Cinematographers

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A Sci-Fi Showdown

Paul Cameron, ASC set the tone for the ambitious HBO series Westworld.

Unit photography by John P. Johnson, courtesy of HBO.

The ultimate in debauchery and adult entertainment: A completely immersive experience of living in the past and experiencing a world without consequences for actions. Dive into the Old West wearing a six-gun on your hip, and if you don’t like the look of the guy in the corner of the saloon, shoot him dead. He’s only a robot, after all. This is the ultimate playground and theme park for the supremely wealthy: Westworld. Based on the 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton, HBO’s new series delves deeper into this Disneyland-with-blood-and-sex world where the very rich can come to play.

Among the creative team bringing this series to HBO was executive producer and writer Jonathan Nolan, who also directed the pilot. Riding shotgun, behind the camera, was veteran cinematographer Paul Cameron, ASC, who brought to life the iconic imagery of Man on Fire, Collateral (AC, Aug. 2004), Deja Vu and the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

“Basically the structure of the series is very similar to the film,” Cameron asserts. “It’s a Western theme park and the robots, which are now called ‘hosts,’ populate the town and interact with the guests as they desire. We also get a lot more of the behind-the-scenes of the park in the diagnostic and manufacturing areas, and we get to see the inner workings, run by Anthony Hopkins’ and Jeffrey Wright’s characters.”

Although the Westworld series follows the same basic structure of the original film, it places the hosts and the people controlling them — the park administrators and programmers — in the starring roles instead of the guests, who constantly change. “One of the big things that we get a feel for is the cyclical nature of the park,” Cameron notes. “We see this in the pilot: The starting of the park every morning with the hosts in the same places going through the same paces — a repetitive Groundhog Day-like scenario with the same central characters. The same train pulls through every morning, the same Sheriff, the same saloon bartender and so forth — but we also get a feel for the slight changes, the darker side. We see Evan Rachael Wood’s character, who is a host, and she greets her father every morning. It’s repetitive, robotic. But one day she wakes up and the host who was the bartender is now her father. These are just robots, but we get to see that they’re more than that and not quite as expendable as they’re made out to be.”

Westworld is set in a remote portion of Utah, where the park encompasses many square miles with the town at the center. The town set is housed in Santa Clarita, California, at Melody Ranch, an Old West town with a rich Hollywood history that includes HBO’s Deadwood, among other projects. The set was completely redesigned and rebuilt for the Westworld production, including a practical train station with a full-size practical locomotive that pulls into town with three carriages.

With the support of HBO and director Nolan, the decision was made to shoot Westworld on 35mm film. “Fortunately, in my very first conversation with Jonathan, I asked him if he had any interest in shooting film and he said they had already decided to do that,” Cameron recalls. “For me, it was fabulous to shoot film again; it was just a dream.

“I used [Kodak Vision3 500T] 5219 for night exteriors and interiors, a little [Vision3 250D] 5207 for some dusk work.”

Lab service was provided by Fotokem in Burbank, Calif. For dailies, Cameron found an old film trailer that he outfitted with a 65-inch plasma display. Then, he, director Nolan and key crew would spend lunch every day watching dailies on location. “I still feel viewing dailies together is really the way to go,” he opines. “You take half your lunchtime, pop in there for half an hour and get instant feedback — it’s a very collaborative experience, just like the old days!”

A key location in any Western is the town’s saloon and Westworld is no exception. “Melody Ranch, where we shot the main street set, has been there since 1920 and it’s pretty obvious that the town was laid out by a cinematographer,” Cameron offers. “The sun comes up on one end of the street and sets on the other.”

The interior of the saloon was shot inside the actual facade on the Western street so that transitions could be made moving through the saloon doors and then looking out onto the street. This meant that the outside world was natural, direct sunlight and the cinematographer had to balance interior exposure with the hot, natural sun. “The saloon is a beautiful design and was a pleasure to shoot in, but we shot most of the day interiors when the sun was straight overhead — the California summer sun pounding down on the light-colored dirt outside, which created a very heavy exposure,” Cameron notes. “Even with 50 ISO film and an ND 0.9, the exterior was still at a 5.6/8. That meant I had to balance the interior for that intensity. We couldn’t do a 5-stop iris pull every time a character went through the saloon doors so it required a radical amount of light in the set, but I did some tests to see what it would take to get the volume of light into the set and still maintain a quality and direction to the light, and it worked out quite well.”

Cameron lined the ceiling of the saloon with a grid of Arri M40 4K HMIs with large bank Daylight Chimera softboxes. “I initially tested out just a big diffusion overhead, but it spread the light too much and it had no shape to it. We ended up putting four M40s on four sides of the truss boxing the set. Each was rigged to a bar that was on chain motors so that I could use them high or low. When high, I had the Chimeras on them and put each set of four through a bed sheet. When low, we would skin a 20x20 frame of muslin and drop that in just above the top frame line. It was soft, but still directional and it gave me the stop I needed. Then I could add a sider or a touch of fill from the floor to shape our close-ups.”

The cinematographer turned to Arriflex 435 and Arri Lite cameras along with a complement of lenses that included Cooke S4s, Canon K35s and Fujinon Premiere zooms — all provided by Keslow Camera.

“I used the Canon K35s for a number of flashbacks in the episode,” Cameron submits. “They’re actually a hybrid between dreams and flashbacks, and I really loved the K35s for those scenes because of the flare and halation. Most of the show was shot with the Cooke S4 primes and, occasionally, with some Fujinon Premiere zooms, which we used mostly on location in Moab, Utah, shooting exteriors. Cooke S4s are the most elegant lenses to photograph faces with. They render the subtleties of shape and color, in particular, really wonderfully. There is a slight softness and beauty to Cooke lenses that is unsurpassed. The Fujinon Premier zooms are a good fit with the Cookes.”

For other locations around town, the production shot on sets in Santa Clarita, but where exteriors were seen through windows or doors, the sets were moved and rebuilt in Moab, Utah, to get real vistas in the background. “We did a lot of interiors that way,” Cameron recalls. “We’d plan on shooting the reverse angles of interiors out in Moab, where the massive Red Rock sculptures were our backdrop, and they gave a kind of cinematic sensibility and feel.


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