Interview with Gonzalo Amat: “The Cinematographer in the High Castle”
“Person of Interest” (CBS), “The Man in the High Castle” (Amazon Prime Video) and the upcoming “Outer Banks” (Netflix) are just three representative examples of the long and profound career of Gonzalo Amat, a NY-based creator specialized in commercials, art projects, shoots and, above all, TV content. We have the opportunity to deepen his origins, evolution and the way he understands technology.
Quality of cinema that in former times could only be seen in cinema productions has now become established in a large number of TV fictions. Which was, in your opinion, the first TV series to take the first step towards these quality standards?
I think the first TV series that dared to depart from the usual TV series standards was The Sopranos. Visually it was not that innovative, but I think that building on from scripts and characters caused some time later that series such as The Wire started using a more cinema-like kind of language. I think that is where a realization was made that this kind of content was in demand. Many creative staff working in the cinema industry switched onto TV and that is why we are now in the current situation.
You have been one of these filmmakers having made a contribution in the TV/OTT content field, in this instance for Amazon Prime. But, before this, when did you actually decide that Photography Director would be your main work focus?
In the times I was studying communications I already knew that what would really appeal to me was a combination between literature and photography. I discovered that photography direction was a filed in which I could visually narrate stories. I have always been interested in cinema, but I think I did not really know about direction of photography until I first worked in a professional production already in university, where I already saw clearly what a photography director could contribute.
In your opinion, in what extent is technique of importance when it comes down to defining photography for a film or a series?
For me, technique is just a tool for displaying something on a screen, and this technique will be determined not only by content of the history or the specific scene being shot, but in many instance also by budgetary constraints, the director’s vision, the writer’s view and a series of countless factors.
I think it is very good to be able to master all techniques in order to adapt to these other variables that are beyond control for a photography director.
For me, technique must never be above what one wants to tell and this can be sometimes seen when directors or photography directors who started their careers in advertising try to adapt techniques to a story without a clear intent. I think it is then when one realizes that technique alone does not say anything. It is the story what must dictate how it should be visually narrated, in my opinion.
You have worked both in films and in series. Is there such a big technical difference in tackling either format?
From my experiences from the US and other counties, I think the biggest difference turns out to be budget rather than whether cinema format is series or TV. To illustrate this through a specific example, in the US series are nearly all the time shot by using two cameras and having a third camera devoted to Steadycam, which would not be necessarily required in a film.
TV times very configure a great deal of this budget as well as the fact that nearly all the time there is a rigging gaffer and an rigging key grip that leave lighting almost ready for the time in which the shooting crew arrive and then they pack up when done. This, in a film –unless a large budget is available- would be extremely rare as it is a luxury, Likewise, in an author’s film having to capture 6-8 pages a day is very infrequent, something which is however very usual in TV.
In the ends it depends on the type of TV being made and on the director’s style as well as the specific project, which greatly varies in independent films, ‘premium cable’ TV and ‘network’ TV.
You made it to the first line of TV fiction by delivering chapters in series such as ‘Person of Interest’ or ‘The Man in the High Castle’. What challenges are involved in adapting to a pre-defined visual style? Because, in these fictions several directors of photography work.
As for Person of Interest, I joined the project in season four, but on the condition that they would let me contribute something new. Basing the main idea in the established way, I tried to change a few things here and there.
With regards to The Main in the High Castle I joined the project as person in charge of making changes in the look that had been established in the pilot chapter so it was like starting from scratch. In this series, the look has been evolving a great deal. We were to photography directors for the same project from the beginning so we normally speak a lot about new sets, lighting, camera usage, how to maintain unity with various directors and yet, each has his own preferences about how to use light, the cameras, and in the end it is rather surprising that the style remains consistent, but with very subtle differences between Jim’s style and mine. For example, he really likes camera filtration and I prefer atmosphere and smoke in the sets. He prefers darkness and I go for a bit more of light base to then darken the picture during post-production. He likes over-exposed skies and I prefer exposing to the sky and not missing detail. And even though all this, the series has a very well achieved consistency. In many instances we had to shoot scenes for each other’s chapters and it was fun recreating the other’s style in order to remain consistent and constantly surprise each other. A great experience.
In this regard, could it be said that Gonzalo Amat has his very own signature in direction of photography?
As Photography Director I would like to think I am able to shoot in any style. I base my own in those I admire such as Lubezki, Prieto or Deakins, who are able to jump from genre to genre and still do a brilliant job. This would be my ultimate goal. I do not know if I have a well-defined style; this is more for critics or consumers to say. I personally like some styles better than others and things I tend to favour when it comes to tastes, but my goal would be providing each director with the vision they really want.
In the end it is a bit difficult, as one always ends up gravitating towards projects of certain content. In my case, I have never show a light comedy as in order to be able to understand it I need to shoot it as if it were a drama and see it through the eyes of the characters themselves.
So, I think that all things considered, style is dictated by one’s taste. That is why everything Deakins has ever shot has always that natural light seal. Styling but based on natural light.
As far as I am concerned, I keep learning in every new project. I love looking at projects of genres I have never done, as I like leaving my comfort area, grow and not repeat myself.
Delving a bit more in ‘The Man in the High Castle’. Could you tell us what equipment are you relying on or how have you decided to shoot this fiction? Are you using a single camera? What optics do you have available?
As I already noted in a previous answer, US series nearly invariably adopt the idea of shooting with two cameras and use a third one –if required- for Steadycam in order to avoid the time it takes to set it up. Based on this, our equipment has changed very little since season one. We simply switched from RED to Alexa between seasons 1 and 2. In the Man in the High Castle the equipment comprises: 2 Alexa Mini Arri, each one with accessories and their own doll. A third Alexa Mini body for the Steadycam and an Alexa XT body for backup. Camera A with Fisher 10, Camera B with Pewee. And then a full set of Master Prime optics to be shared between both cameras: 14, 18, 21, 25, 27, 32, 35, 40, 50, 65, 75, 100, 135mm and a 40mm and yet an additional 65mm optic for shooting simultaneous dialogue with the same focal distance. Than a 12mm and a 180mm. Zoom Fujinon Premiere 18-85 and 75-400.
In days featuring a lot of action, a further camera or cameras are added depending on the needs. Mitchell and Glimmer Glass for each camera. Out of all this range of equipment available, 98% of takes have been shot by using: 27, 40, 65mm. 0.001 of takes shot with zooming. Although zoom is used for action as well as some speciality lenses such as 8R from Zeiss or anamorphic ones.
In spite of using two cameras and having staff in place for that purpose, many scenes have been shot with a single camera because many times the type of camera movement required does not allow room for another camera and the style is not suitable for setting the zoom and ‘fish’ as done with other styles. In many instances the other camera operates as a mini unit for inserts or for shooting alternative wide angles, but one camera at a time. The idea in this is that the main camera will tell the story while camera B helps with takes. However, the intention is not capturing images aimlessly, but takes with an intentional design within the style.
In ‘The Man in the High Castle’ there are a significant number of aerial takes. Are they cameras on-board helicopters, drones…?
Nearly all are drones. In the last chapter of season one, over the Werfen Castle where Hitler is supposed to be living in our story, we did a good deal of aerial takes, which in view of the valley’s size made more sense from a helicopter. From there on we relied on a couple of drone companies which we worked with at least one or two days per chapter.
One of the favourite parts of our interviews for our readers is when we ask about any specific challenges involved in the shooting of any complete scene. What was the main challenge in ‘The Man in the High Castle? (SPOILER ALERT!)
The scene I think was the most difficult in the whole series (up to season 3) is the final scene when they use the tunnel turned into a machine for travelling between dimensions. The main challenge was translating the words that in Guin said something like ‘the portal is opening’
We had a lot of meetings with all departments involved months before doing this scene, knowing that it would be the main scene of the season at a décor level. From the FX beginning we made tests of what was going to be built and what would be made on location, finishing this in 4 different places in different parts and outside the town. The outside of the mine was an actual mine site one hour away from town, an intermediate place where a battle with the Nazi takes place is a mine set that production found in the south side of Vancouver, and the two parts that stayed inside the tunnel built –which was a set 100% ours- and then the ventilation window where Juliana and the rebels witness what is being done with this machine-tunnel, which was another décor with Green Screen.
Once all this had been plan a decision had to be made as to what light effect we would use for telling this event. And about the concept issue, which was cold, pulsating light in a mechanical fashion that becomes gradually more liquid, we then developed a light scheme based on concert lightning, mirrors diffusions, programming of moments and different steps for this visual event. In the end, the scheme required more than 1 million watts, which would not allow us to shot more in any other location at the same time. These were several weeks of work that was elapsing at the same time while we were shooting the series, so he had to devote many weekends to developing this.
Already in the two and a half days we devoted to this sequence we had 3 cameras and several cranes of varying sizes. Thanks to planning, shooting was quite quick.
The fiction has an important number of environments ‘drawn’ by computer in order to picture this dystrophic society in which Germany had won the Second World War. How does this large amount of post-production items affect your work?
It depends on the budget for the relevant chapter. For each scene in which we knew there would be a set extension, the first thing to do was to ascertain if it would be 2d or 3d, and then find out what technique we would use for capturing that scene and how many takes would the budget consider. And coordinating what is real and what is post-production. There are many scenes in which we would use Green Screen and others in which the post-production company could expand a building or landscape without using Green. As for the Domus, which was 100% generated during post-production, we relied on real elements and the lighting, which was also real on actors. Then this lighting was applied on 3d sets. Cooperation with post-production people is very close, from which optics and filters are used up to the amount of smoke or how the camera moves, in order to blend it within the style of the series.
In 3 or 4 instances we relied on a system called N-cam that allowed us to see a 3d live model of the virtual set, although unfinished. But thanks to this we were able to see the extension of the whole set and plan the camera’s movements based on items seen on the screen when shooting the scene.
As for the near future, you are shooting ‘Outer Banks’ for Netflix. Could you disclose any technical detail on this fiction?
Outer Banks is a project that is quite different from The Man in the High Castle. I shot two episodes for this series that is about a group of surfing friends from North Carolina that find out about the existence of a treasure on the shore, after a hurricane. The series has a very interesting visual style, mostly with natural light, which was interesting helping create. It is shot with a Sony Venice camera and Panasonic Primo optics. Almost everything with a zoom, as the idea was to capture as quick as possible. Working sessions are carefully planned in order to be outdoors between 4-8 pm in the summer as light is magical in Charleston, South Carolina, where the series is being shot.
These days I am directing three chapters for the series Seal Team. I shot the pilot as Director of Photography and I was invited to shoot several ones as director. It has been very interesting to see how everything one learns as Photography Director helps become a good director, efficient and aware of how things are done. It has been a great experience.