Interviews · TV

DP Jeff Cronenweth on Selecting the Tools to Shoot ‘Tales from the Loop’

We chat with the cinematographer about how determining color and focus are essential to achieving narrative.
Tales From The Loop Screenshot
Amazon Studios
By  · Published on April 28th, 2020

Adaptation is not replication. The very act of pulling one artistic expression from its medium and jamming it into another radically alters the emotional and intellectual response to the concept. Just because you love one, does not mean you will appreciate the other. How dare they take the object of your desire and bastardize it!? Cue the kneejerk rebuttal: “The book was better.”

Writer/producer Nathaniel Halpern felt an electric charge when he came across the paintings of Simon Stålenhag. The mixture of the technological with idyllic, traditional landscapes committed by the Swedish artist erupted an intense curiosity that Halpern felt compelled to explore in Tales from the Loop, which is based on Stålenhag’s book of the same name. Clearly, there was a story to the images; he only needed to yank them out.

To aid in this matter, Halpern turned to director Mark Romanek and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth to kickstart the series with their first episode. They saw a new purpose in Stålenhag’s paintings, a gateway to the kind of social science fiction championed in The Twilight Zone, applying Rod Serling’s vocation viciously to the world we roam today. Cronenweth wanted to maintain the tantalizing static of the visuals while never succumbing to rote mimicry. “The book was better” need not apply; the two projects may be cousins, albeit the distant kind.

Finding an appropriate palate for the series was first and foremost in Cronenweth’s mind. A televised Tales from the Loop could not possibly sustain the contradictory color scheme of Stålenhag’s work. The frame required more bleed and blend.

“There’s a lot of imagery [in the book],” says Cronenweth, “that’s very pushed, image-wise, in the sense of color and contrast. We felt that if we had implored that approach to a live-action show, it would be overwhelming, and it would have undermined some of the subtle performances and nuances that we ended up incorporating into the story.”

The next challenge was discovering a pace for the images to flow at. The magic of a painting is that you can attach yourself to it for as long as you want, but it will have no effect if you’re simply skipping through the museum. Lingering is part of the process, and the art requires a commitment from its viewer. Cronenweth wanted to reproduce a similar level of cooperative absorption with his audience.

“From there,” he continues, ” we pow-wowed about the pace and tempo and arrived at a Scandanavian approach. By that, I mean, we picked out favorite [Ingmar] Bergman films as well as our favorite [Andrei] Tarkovsky and [Krzysztof] Kieślowski films and found what in those resonated the most. Our walkway was pace and tempo, very prescribed, but with intention, camera movement, and a quality of subtleness to the timing. Letting things play out.”

In every Stålenhag painting, the unnatural elements are there to highlight the natural. The people and the vistas shine amongst the metallic intrusions of the machines. Capturing humankind was crucial. Science fiction is a flavor used to accentuate the taste of a very biological world.

“When you address sci-fi,” says Cronenweth, “oftentimes you can be overwhelmed by the visuals and the new technology and whatnot. The humanity gets lost. For us, the images that Simon created and Nathaniel’s story were so subtle. The sci-fi itself was a background texture of this world they lived in. We didn’t want to have many reasons to be further separated from the performances. Keeping something more organic within this kind of superficial world would be a really nice counter to what you normally see.”

Grasping duller light halos the actors in the frame. They stand apart from everything else, drawing the eye to the most important aspect of any story: the people. Robots are rad, but Rebecca Hall is more rad.

“We mitigated color,” says Cronenweth. “We went with something that was more subtle, downtrodden, and organic. We embraced the cold and winter soft light, with the idea that we’re creating more of a dramatic environment for the performances and the actors to live in. Of course, camera choice, image-size, lens choice, and quality of light all helped enhance our look.”

Tales from the Loop ultimately becomes about focus. Tricking the eye into seeing what you want them to see in a crowded frame. The world is massive, but the story is singular and utterly personal.

“One of the things that we wanted to embrace the most was depth of field,” he says, “or lack of depth of field. It’s such a great storytelling tool. Our episode [“Loop”] is about a little girl who loses her mother and is lost in this foreign world. Keeping the depth of field shallower creates the anxiety that she’s feeling.”

The camera jolts emotion into the consumer. If you fail to find the right product to produce the desired effect, then you’ve already failed before you’ve even started to roll. Knowing what he needed out of the image, for Cronenweth, selecting the right tool was merely a matter of running down a checklist.

“We decided early on,” he continues, “that we wanted to use a large-format glass, and a large sensor to create the depth of field and also embrace the kind of landscape that we were in, which is, an Ohio-ish area in the middle of winter. You have these dry, open flat fields and tree lines. To get all that, we used a Panavision Panaspeed glass and the Panavision DXL2, which has the RED Monstro sensor on it.”

Cronenweth enjoys discussing his process, but he never wants to confuse his role in the endeavor for its objective. He’s a pawn in an army, moving forward on a mission to transfer the electric spark Halpern received from Stålenhag upon a crowd of Amazon Prime viewers. He serves the users through the narrative.

“My work is driven by story,” says Cronenweth. “All of us should start with the story and then find a visual language that supports that. I think that I did a good job of presenting the material in a world that people can embrace without getting in the way of the show itself. The visuals are super appreciated. People have a comfortable, relatable relationship with the beautiful images, but they’re not to the point where they distract from the story.”

Tales from the Loop is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)