Cinematographer Paul Cameron Talks ‘Westworld’ And Shooting On Film
HBO’s Westworld premiered its fourth episode last night, and the show has continued to be a massive hit with critics and audiences alike. The series started strong; its pilot ep combined magnificent world-building and gorgeous visuals with a unique set of characters and stories, and the hype surrounding the show has only grown as new episodes expand on the plot and more mysteries to unravel.
Recently, I got to sit down with the cinematographer of Westworld‘s pilot episode, Paul Cameron of the American Society of Cinematographers, who was a huge influence on establishing the look of the show. Though he’s only left his mark on one episode thus far, without Cameron Westworld might not be the visually enthralling program viewers have been treated to.
Hawkins DuBois: How did you end up coming on board for Westworld?
Paul Cameron: I was approached by [showrunner] Jonathan Nolan fairly early on. I met with Jonathan, and probably within five minutes I knew this was going to be a project we were going to do. As a cinematographer, you’re first looking for good content, and reading Westworld, it read like a film, and obviously the content was good and it was challenging, and it was well-written by Jonathan Nolan and his wife Lisa Joy, the co-creators. So you know the writing was there, the potential for it was there, and as soon as I took a look at this project I knew it was going to be a good one, so it was easy to sign on.
HD: As the director of photography (DP) for the pilot episode, what were your biggest focuses for establishing the visual style of the show?
PC: I think in this case we really approached the visual look from the creative choices more than anything. The primary choice was to shoot on film. The second was figuring out how to give the show a big movie feel. The show is fairly classically shot, but with subtleties to it. In this case, it was a very simple approach to the whole thing. I knew that based on the involvement of production designer Nathan Crowley, the idea and content of the show, and the early conversations with Jonathan Nolan, that the show was looking for a big-scale cinematic feel. And that’s a nice term, but when you’ve got a lot of DPs and you’ve only got 20 days and a limited amount of resources, it’s hard to pull that off.
HD: In the past you’ve talked about how much you love shooting on film, so what was it about Westworld that made you feel that it was so important to film the show using that medium?
PC: The point of view of filmmakers like Jonathan Nolan and myself is that you really need to figure out what the right medium is for every project. With the shift to video and digital capture, the assumption is that film would suddenly go away, but I don’t think that was ever the design of the new paradigm. I don’t want to shoot film or digital for everything, just because I like one or the other — it really comes down to the medium and the craft.
There were very specific reasons why I shot Collateral digitally, and the intention of shooting Collateral digitally wasn’t to start a digital capture revolution — it was the right medium for that film. I was able to get a crazy, acidic, metallic, tactile movie for Collateral that I couldn’t get after all of my testings on film. To shoot something like Westworld on film, it’s the same choice. It’s a project that has a number of day exteriors, and film is just so much better at day exteriors and dealing with contrast in general. Regardless of how many Ks and color bits and whatever, when you’re sitting in color correction with a DI and you’re coloring somebody’s face against the landscape and you’ve got 3.4K and above image next to the film, you’re always going to like film better in the color correction — there’s just no question.
Right now is really an important time because a lot of people are talking about how film’s almost written off completely because of the lack of laboratories and support, but it’s still one of the foremost creative choices that people have to make. Fortunately, film is still very much alive and I know Kodak is making a very big push to come back, and I really hope for the sake of all filmmakers and all audiences that filmmakers can continue to have the choice and that somehow we’ll look back on this decade and see that there was a big push to keep it alive — that a lot of people went back and decided to shoot as much film as they could. Let’s hope that ends up being the history.
HD: Having decided that you wanted to shoot on film and that you wanted to achieve a cinematic look, what were some of the specific references that you used when you were preparing to film Westworld? Did you look at the original film at all?
PC: Talking about the visual references that we used, you can’t help but think about films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner and Aliens. You can’t help but think of the best ones. I didn’t actively use the original Westworld as a visual reference, though.
The beauty of that film is the simplicity of it. For us, it was more about what is this Westworld park now, and the script specifically provided this future kind of timelessness. If you look at it, you can’t really determine if it’s 2016 or 2026 or 2056, we don’t know. It’s timeless. The content really spoke, and we wanted the park to feel a bit upscale. It wanted to be a clean Western. It’s got not only a new coat of paint but also a new feeling, with light fixtures and with things aged down slightly, but the general thing was to keep that Western park kind of fresh, and an awareness of this reality that these people are spending a lot a lot of money to go there.
When these people check into their rooms they’re not sleeping on cots that are beds with 500-count bed sheets. So the exterior image needed to have that classic real thing, and with the interior, we didn’t want to make it look too dark and deep. We tried to keep it a little bit eerie and looking like standard operations with fluorescent and blue-green light juxtaposed in the red control room with the red plexi walls. We wanted to have a futuristic edge.
HD: When you’re looking at those scenes in the host examination rooms, those plexiglass walls must have been difficult to light. What did you do to bring light to those scenes?
PC: One of the main sets on Westworld is that room, and getting the idea of these timeless floors was key. So one day we’re shooting on that set and it’s the manufacturing floor where they’re dipping muscle tissue and sewing the tendons onto the bodies, and the next day it would be the behavioral floor and they would be programming the behavior, and then the next day that set would be the wash-down facility where they bring in the bodies after they’re all shot up and need to be put back together. So, there was this one main set that had to function on a daily basis with this kind of cohesive, yet different look, so with the big, endless glass walls that provided multiple challenges for ground lighting. To combat that, Nathan Crowley and I co-designed and installed a fairly sophisticated overhead rig with lights on travelers. We could move it up and down for this concrete feeling and it simultaneously allowed us to hide the lights from the glass walls.
HD: You’ve been very involved in the ASC Master Classes in the past, and in your teachings you’ve had one quote, in particular, that stood out that you got from the late, great filmmaker Tony Scott: “You’ve got to do two things in this world: Be interesting, and interested.” What was it about working on Westworld that made you interesting, and interested?
PC: I think what made me interested, foremost, was the meeting with Jonathan Nolan. That was the first level of interest, and certainly the precursor to that was reading the pilot before I went into the meeting. But those two things — content and meeting the creator — made me very interested.
And to be interesting, I tried to make every possible positive creative choice for the show and to be fearless about it. That included suggesting bringing the reverse angles, the set walls to [the filming location] Moab to get the reverses there — personally taking Jonathan and Nathan Crowley to Harley’s Ranch out there by Moab, to show them the terrain that has inspired me in the past, and that inspired them and it became one of the main shooting areas.
Nobody wanted to hear: “Let’s take the train on a flatbed to Moab.” Nobody wants to hear: “Well, we’re going to bring one set wall, why don’t we bring three set walls? I know you have to bring three more actors, but it’s going to make the scene so much better when we cut to the reverse.” And with a show like this, it’s the collective experience. It’s about adding things up, and every part of every frame adds up in Westworld and that’s the important thing.