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Watchmen Interview: Cinematographer Greg Middleton

While there was much to love about HBO’s Watchmen and how Damon Lindelof balanced heavy affection for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons seminal comic book with a forward-thinking narrative reflecting the trials of modern America, one of its most striking aspects was its visual style. From black-and-white episodes (with just a little red) to the presentation of glowing blue God Dr. Manhattan by way of hidden smiley faces, it was a sight to behold.

One of the people responsible for capturing all of this was cinematographer Greg Middleton, who lensed episodes 2, 4, 6 & 8. Screen Rant recently caught up with Middleton to discuss bringing the style of Watchmen to live-action and uncovering the hidden clues in the show.

Are you a long-standing Watchmen fan? Were you very familiar with the property before?

Yeah, it’s funny. I wasn’t familiar with the comic until the 2009 Zack Snyder came out, and then I went back to read the comic and I was really impressed with the literary structure. I thought it was fantastic and understood why it was so revered as a piece of literature, nevermind as a graphic novel. But that’s when I became first aware of it, more than 10 years ago.

At what point did you get involved with the HBO show? At what point in the development stage? Because this is such a visual TV series, that I imagine a lot of this stuff must have been going on relatively early on.

I think the first conversation I had was with Nicole Kassell, who directed the pilot, who I met on The Killing many years ago. And when she got the job, we actually met in LA just to discuss a couple things about it, because she was very excited about the prospect. She knew I was familiar with the graphic novel, and she knew I do stuff in that genre as well. We had a great conversation.

This was before they scheduled the pilot. Unfortunately, when that was going on, I was already working on Game of Thrones season eight, doing second unit, and I wasn’t available. But that was the first conversation in which we started talking about the possibility that some of the graphic novel’s artistic concept and composition and the way to tell a story visually – that we could maybe possibly put that into the show.

When you’re doing a TV series, a lot of development happens as you’re going. You sort of shoot stuff, decide what you like and don’t like, develop the concepts and keep building on them. The show was a constant journey of trying to develop more ideas. And then the scripts, of course, would be changing that. We got into Episode Six, and then suddenly, we’re doing a very dreamlike episode that’s not something in the comic, necessarily, in terms of style.

So, it was a constant developing of ideas, trying to bring various ideas from the comic into the show.

Could you elaborate a bit on Dave Gibbons‘ impact? Because his style in the comic is so distinct; the use of the three-by-three panels throughout and everything fitting into that, and then the mirroring aspect of those panels. What sort of impact did that have on how you approach these stories?

I think one concept that really worked well, as well as translated well, was the match cuts. He did match cuts from panel to panel, where he has a character in the same position, but in a later time period and dressed differently – either the mask on or not – back to back to sort of jump through time.

It keeps the story point of view of that character, even though suddenly he or she’s somewhere else in a different time period. And that’s a technique we used a bunch of times, and it really lent itself well to the cinematic storytelling and the scope of our frame. That’s the one that worked, I think, the most.

Certain other things are stylistic things that he put in there, both him and John Higgins, the colorist. A lot of stuff they were doing was also reactions to structural concepts in comics at the time. They worked in context to a critique or a commentary on the stuff at the time, in the 80s, of other comics.

If we did that in our show, the context would be lost. If we copied those ideas, then no one would understand that they were commenting on something at the time. So, we tried to keep to the ones that would work with a cinematic storytelling, and that would still be unique and resonate. As well as putting individual things from the comic, set dressing-wise, in certain points. And to embrace the idea of sometimes using split-focus, which we used a lot of for foreground and background. Because everything is in focus in Watchmen; the foreground and the background is always sharp. So, you can compose things with a lot of depth and get all that information, whereas in most cinema shooting you have to select the focus as a big part of where you guide someone’s eye. Not just graphic composition.

We used it sometimes to compose everything we want to see in focus. Like in Episode 2, you’ve got old man Will and his pills. The pills are huge in the foreground; tack sharp. And that just simply puts him and those things directly together in your mind. And you know they’re very closely linked. He’s not just pointing out to someone else, you know they’re part of him by doing it that way.

So it’s creating the effect of comic book storytelling without being comic book-y, so to speak.

Yeah, hopefully some ideas worked in there. You have to remember the context and when the era was made, and not get trapped in trying to copy something in which the context would be lost on somebody.

One aspect that was really cool as a reader was the hidden smiley faces and other Easter Eggs throughout. And you do get that in the show a little bit, the eggs in the first episode being one of the most striking ones. But I’ve not seen that many of those. Was that something that you tried to shy away from, or are they there and I’ve just not seen them?

No, I think there’s a few. And other things, like, there’s a silhouette of the couple when Angela Abar leaves the garage in her fancy car. She drives to the alley, and there’s a silhouette on the wall where the paint is still wet, which is actually a direct lift from the comic. And it’s the shadow of a couple embracing.

We’ve put things like that in there occasionally, just not individual things in the graphic novel that you could pick out. The trick is that it has to be in context, so they appear that they would normally be in the scene anyway. It’s just what the object is. Because if you put something that’s so out of place, you don’t want to pull the audience out of what they’re watching. If they think so much about it, you pull them out of scenes and you’ll lose them telling your story.

Nicole Kassell, in particular, was very good at trying to fit all those little things in there, as was our on set decorator. Always trying to find a way to put something from a similar scene in the comic into the background.

I assume you knew the entire story before you started doing any actual work?

I think they kept the secrets of the bigger reveals down to a very small number of people on our show. I think that’s the way Damon likes to operate. Certain things, like Doctor Manhattan’s identity, I did not know right away when I started. But I became aware of the end as we were going along. I know that after they made the pilot, they were still breaking the series in terms of the story structure. But I think the main directors all knew those things, and they revealed that as we went along.

I didn’t have all the scripts when we first started. The scripts were still coming out every few weeks, so I would be ahead of the scripts in my knowledge, but not all the way at the very end.

What’s so interesting, post the big Doctor Manhattan reveal, is all the clues for it. The poster design has it, and there’s so many cool little things. The lighting of the Abar home is quite blue to begin with, which feels like a very subtle clue. Was that an intentional aspect?

Yeah, I think there were some. We had lots of discussions about that. And even before I was told explicitly that Calvin was going to be Manhattan, we kind of put it together ourselves. We were kind of working in concert to pull on that goal, it just wasn’t explicitly in the materials that were getting written down.

You also don’t want to have discussions outside, you know? If we’re talking about it privately in an office, that’s one thing. But if we’re in a construction site, building a set and discussing a reveal like that with 20 people walking around, things can get out very quickly. Guarding information was quite important for us in order to avoid spoilers.

But we did discuss those ideas, and also just the context of how people would appear later. And also what we want it to be. There’s a lot of interesting things in the set design to factor in both, like her history in Vietnam and bringing the stuff from the South. It’s quite an interesting combination of things.

You said you figured it out from the clues. What were the clues that helped you figure it out, and what clues did you put in to make this whole thing feel very seamless?

It’s interesting. One of the things we talked about a lot is the moment during the White Night scene, which is the flashbacks in Episode 2 where Angela kills the two Rorschach gunmen who come in the house. The first thing she does – and she’s a police officer, but she’s always taking the lead for family’s safety – is she throws him to the ground and you don’t see him again. And we don’t know what happened to him.

I’m like, „Well, that’s a pretty big clue.“ Either he’s too weak to be involved, because he’s been described having an accident and maybe a memory loss, or he’s not who we think he is. Or he doesn’t know who he is, which is what we’re surmising. Because we had been careful not to show what happens to him, because we don’t want to reveal that in the end he was Doctor Manhattan and he zapped the guy away. I knew that was a possibility, and we certainly had been leaving what we shot open to the concept, but certainly did not indicate that happened, because that’s going to be revealed much later on. You don’t even hear about that until Episode 5.

It’s tricky in that way, because you want to make sure you’re not trying to hide something from the audience, so it looks like you’re hiding something, but you’re also trying to make it seem real. The way Angela – and Regina being such a brilliant actor – can portray herself, she’s such a go-getter as a character and so forceful that it’s perfectly natural that she would chuck her husband to the ground and totally take the lead. I mean, she’s Sister Night and we’ve seen her be very physical and dominant in every other way, and she’s looking out for kids. And once you’re seeing it unfold, you sort of forget what’s happened to Cal because you’re more worried about her getting hurt.

Speaking more about Dr. Manhattan as an actual character, he’s right there in Episode 8. That presents a lot of challenges, with the glow and the blue, and making it look real in the world of the show. Could you talk about shooting that and any challenges that came from having that character onscreen?

The thing that’s hard about working in this format in cable television is that I sort of have two directors: the director of the episode and also the show runner’s kind of the ultimate director because they’re going to post the episodes and make all the final decisions.

And one thing I know that was very important for Damon is that he didn’t want to go the route of the CG person that happened in the 2009 movie. He was determined to not have it feel like a completely alien object in the world; he wanted to feel like a real person that was blue.

And so, we did a lot of extensive tests with Yahya in makeup. All of this I knew from midpoint in the season; we were already doing tests for this to see what he would look like. Tests to pick a color blue, different types of makeup tests, different types of digital enhancements that could be done in concert with that. And I think part of the thing you wanted to avoid him was him glowing so much that he would throw light on everything and be this glowing orb everywhere. Which is more what they did with the original movie, where you put LED lights on the person and even replace their physique with CG so you can put lights on the actual person, and then they can make light.

We didn’t want to do that, because we wanted to use as much of the real thing as possible. So we supplemented the light externally when he’s off-camera, or from nearby him we would use some glow. How much glow they would do in post would be up to Damon, as we were posting the episodes, to decide to finetune when he glows and how much he glows. It has to do with an understanding of his process of how confused he is, how powerful he is, when he has control of what’s going on or when he’s a bit flustered. He wanted to be able to tune that in post-production, so we did a lot of stuff on-camera for what we knew for sure was going to happen, and we left some open to interpretation for later.

One really cool decision is that we never see what Dr. Manhattan actually looks like before he takes on Cal’s appearance. What was the motivation behind that choice?

I think the big thing for Nikki, and I think for Damon as well, is that we didn’t want to get attached to another face. We don’t wanta situation where we’re switching from one character to another, and we don’t want to do that in a way which would be distracting. Because we don’t want to have some interest in what adult Jon Osterman looks like, and then not see him again ever, knowing we’re going to be with would be the Cal version of him later.

I think that was smart, because we want to keep the audience’s emotional journey with who Angela becomes involved with. We keep it specific to the person that she chooses to be involved with, and not be associated with the identity before. I think that was actually very smart.

You worked on another big reveal within the comic book context, which is the Hooded Justice/Will Reeves stuff. How early on did you know that? Did you know that Hooded Justice was going to be revealed as a black man who came from this incredibly charged backstory with the Tulsa riots?

I personally figured that out fairly early. If you just look at what he’s wearing, he’s basically wearing a hood and a red jacket. I put the pieces together pretty early.

What the content of that story is going to be had been hinted at earlier in the production, so I knew that was a possibility. But I didn’t realize how incredibly harrowing it was going to be, and how intense it was going to be, until we were preparing for the episode.

One of the things that’s the hardest to pull off in storytelling is to make something both seem like a complete surprise, and yet once you know it, it has to seem completely inevitable. The concept of the hangman’s noose be from being hanged, and for him to be an imposter pretending to be a white man under the hood, the whole thing was such a brilliant idea for his character as an origin. It made perfect sense. It was really, really genius. I was just so impressed with that concept, so I was super excited to get to do it.

I was amazed that this isn’t something that was alluded to in the comic, which goes for a much more standard origin.

And you realize that the conversation that Dr. Manhattan had with Ozymandias in 2009 and where Will Reeves is around the same time are the genesis for the entire story for the show. Which doesn’t seem connected at all when the when the series starts. You realize how incredibly and intricately interwoven it is, and how those two characters are exactly where they would be in the context of the story if you followed the graphic novel and went, „Okay, what if I added 15-20 years to that? Where would they be?“ They make perfect sense as characters up to that point.

How did you do the black and white color merging in the Hooded Justice episode?

Once we switched to digital cinematography, the basic process for shooting gets harder on set. The cameras record a very flat image, like a log that’s all very gray and high contrast. And that’s to preserve the amount of latitude later, kind of like what a film negative needs to be when you’re doing your final color processing to decide how the looks should be and manage the contrast and make the fine-tune adjustments.

And that’s the purpose of that, but you can’t watch that image on set. It’s too flat and gray, and it’s not pleasing to look at. You can’t make a director or showrunner watch something that looks nothing like what the show will look like for months on end, because they will fall in love with that and you need to be able to give them something looks closer to it.

So, the process involves building what’s called a „viewing lux,“ which is like a look-up table to apply to the image, which will then give me a look that’s much closer to what I would want it to look like later. Normally that’s a color thing, and I did that sort of process for the whole show at the beginning in prep for Episode 2.

For Episode 6, which was black and white, I created a special black-and-white lux with Todd Bochner, who colored the show. We went specifically in to try and make what would be like an old deep black film stock, if I was shooting a movie for Orson Welles. I would apply that on set, so on set we would be watching the monitor with everything in black and white.

The flashes of red was something that came up in the script, and an idea I pitch to Damon. It was a way to link certain story elements, all back and forth together, that are linked to Cyclops. The binder, the Cyclops folder, is red; I really wanted the red lights in the recording booth, where they’re recording the messages into the projectors, to be blinking red. Just from the audience standpoint, to really track the line of evil through all these devices and all these people in that way. That was the throughline; that was the concept.

There was a Schindler’s List reference in Episode 5, I think. Was that put in after you made this creative choice?

No, I think that in there originally. Because that was the whole idea of the altered world, where Spielberg had made this movie called Pale Horse about the massacre in New York, which is the end of the comic. The idea is that maybe he would have translated that idea, instead of Schindler’s List, onto this little girl he puts in the Pale Horse movie.

But our movie’s got this whole thing of images in cinema making people riot and murder each other. And it was a whole poke at the concept of deliberately using media to inflame people, which is what we’re dealing with now in the modern world.

Damon loves to both plant seeds of certain ideas and translate them through to the various concepts they have in the same show. And so the idea of making you look at this thing, I think, in his mind subjectively, you could hear that and go, „Yeah, remember to pay attention to the red thing. I remember Schindler’s List; that’s important. It draws my eye.“ And then, two episodes later, he’s doing that exact trick within our show. And now you’re watching for the red thing next, and you’re making the connection between the red thing and something important.

He’s very, very clever that way. And I think that’s deliberate, in the same way that the idea of programming projectors and using the concepts of manipulating people through media is also very deliberate.

Another thing I appreciate was how you didn’t show the other Minutemen, though there’s a photo released of the modern costumes. But you focused entirely on Captain Metropolis and Hooded Justice. Can you talk a bit about the decision to not show the Comedian and the rest?

Yeah, I think there were a couple of reasons for that, and they sort of go to the design process behind the entire episode. You’re really deciding what you’re going to see, and also what is okay to not see – to either be behind camera or off-camera. And in this case, the story point is Metropolis‘ reaction to Hooded Justice bringing out his conspiracy theory in public and joining this group.

But the story is not about the group, and we don’t want to be perceiving them as characters because they’re not going to be part of the story. They’re a context for where he’s decided to put himself; they’re not active participants.

So, the first thing we did was we shot that scene with a Steadycam and used what’s called a tilt-shift focus lens, which is basically a lens with a bellow. When you take a lens on a camera, which is focused on a film plane, the digital sensor is a flat image. If I take my line and I twist it or angle, what happens is that I’m no longer focusing on the entire plane. Suddenly, my focus is a tiny little line or a very narrow area of focus. By using the tilt-shift lens, I can make the focus very, very narrow. If I went to right or left, Hooded Justice is going to be wildly out of focus once I tilt the plane away from those characters.

The other side of the Minutemen is the American Hero Story, which is just a fantastic send-up of modern TV. The style of it reminded me a lot of Zack Snyder’s approach to Watchmen. Could you talk a bit about shooting the action in the Minutemen show-within-a-show?

It’s quite tricky, not just from my standpoint but also for the stunt coordinator, to make the physical action different than the real action. Because once we’re going to see that it’s scripted… Hooded Justice beats up several people in Episode 6, and it’s supposed to be depicted as very real and single-shot and feel like a real brawl; feel fast and chaotic and messy. Whereas American Hero Story is sort of modern media today; overdoing it and completely over-blowing it and making it completely over the top. Which is more wide lenses and over-the-top action, wire pulls and way too much gore.

We went with a lot of bright colors and primary colors that we don’t have in the rest of the show; the rest of the show has very few primaries, except for yellow, and much more muted photography and more film noir. I’s very bright and high contrast and super over-the-top, like the scene in the beginning of Episode 6 in the police interrogation room. He’s throwing chairs and dragging the people across the room. It’s all meant to be very heightened, and hopefully distinct enough that you can see this is the modern version of a hyped-up and altered past. Again, it’s a big theme of the unreliable narrator of media history.

What are your thoughts on the differences between the style of the HBO show, which is quite grounded and uses muted colors, and Snyder’s version, which is this twist on movie tropes to tell the story?

I think the intentions were quite different. I can’t speak to the intentions behind Zack’s film, but he tried to design visually close to the comic. I think the bigger thing for Damon was to take the thematic elements that were important and to wrap them up into the show as much as possible.

Like the idea of using the engine of this complicated racial history of the United States, and the way it would motivate a certain character. Because so much of what Watchmen is about, as a comic, is what are these strange motivations and where do they come from? And what would these characters, if they were real people, be like? It turns out in the comic, one of them’s a rapist, and they’re really just problematic people and very challenging in a lot of ways. But if they’re going to behave that way, how did they get that way?

And I think Damon was so interested in uncovering that and unpacking what that would be, and that was the bigger touchpoint. The bigger references were how to use the style of the comic to express that, and to make sure we’re always on point with pushing those concepts in the story and making sure they rang true. Which is a different way to go into it.

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