Interviews · TV

Exploring ‘The Man in the High Castle’ with Cinematographer Gonzalo Amat

We talk in depth about how your favorite scenes from the third season were shot and how the cinematography changed with the addition of more science fiction elements.
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By  · Published on February 4th, 2019

With its addition of more science fiction elements, The Man in the High Castle continues to surprise audiences. The series is set in an alternate past based on Phillip K. Dick’s novel of the same name, so the team behind the show has a lot of work cut out for them creating a world that feels real yet unique. We talked to one of the cinematographers, Gonzalo Amat, and he walked us through his technique for filming such a dark series and how he tries to challenge himself with each coming season.

Did you approach shooting this past season any different than the previous seasons you worked on?

Yes, every year when we finish and begin the next season — like we are shooting the fourth season now — we regroup with the producers and the people in charge of the visual style. Then we talk about whatever feedback we can get from Ridley Scott about the season. We also talk about what we liked and what we can do better. From there, we do a plan of action. Every year we challenge ourselves on what we can do better. I don’t think we just shoot what we think worked. We are always trying to make it better.

So, what did you do differently in the third season that you hadn’t done in the past two?

For me personally, I used less diffusion. I tried to make a softer look with lighting, so I used less diffusion in camera. I also tried to be a little bolder with framing. I tried to make colder framing a tool to tell the story. I also made an effort to have a more active collaboration with directors, just really trying to get in there and talk to directors about what we did in the past and how we can cover a scene. I just tried to inspire the directors with more ideas with better collaboration. Visually, I tried to light the spaces and approach the lighting that makes it more efficient but at the same time bolder. We have even tweaked our process with that for this upcoming fourth season.

Did the inclusion of more science fiction elements in the plot affect how you shot the third season?

Yeah, because there were more elements of special effects. We had to figure out how to portray those effects and so we had a lot of conversations beforehand to figure out what those would look like with specific lighting. There’s a lot of conversations when it comes to the concepts and from there how we should execute them, like should we use visual effects in camera or should we use lighting to make it look more real. It did have a huge impact on how we shoot, even though the general idea was to keep everything more analog and real. I would say the way we have shown visual effects hasn’t really changed that much. We tried to have the same approach so we weren’t too flashy, so that it made it look like special effects are a part of this world but in a matter of fact kind of way. We had to really discuss that the concept from a story point was to shoot everything the same and try to evolve from that.

How do you think the way you shoot the show and how it’s colored in post affects how the audience interprets the story?

That’s the thing that we really try to play with. Sometimes we try to underline what we are saying by making a scene dark, moody, and uncomfortable. Something we really try to underline is that for the people in the show, this world is normal. It’s all about the story, so that dictates the style. It’s all done on a scene by scene basis, so we say, “This scene is about something horrible, so let’s approach shooting it in the opposite way we normally would so it shines a light on how horrible it is.” Whatever we try to do it’s just to add to the story. We want people to respond to a scene based on how it looks. We don’t want it to just be a portrait, but something that adds another layer to what we want to say or what we want the audience to feel about something happening in the show.

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Were there any classic influences for your cinematography for the show since it is set in an alternate past?

Yeah, it’s a lot of film noir. We looked at The Third Man and The Conformist. We also looked at Blade Runner, which is our go-to bible in a way with the elements of having a classic feel with modern elements. It’s personally one of my favorites, so it’s always one of my inspirations. We were inspired by a lot of classic movies from the 1940s and 1950s. I wouldn’t say so much from the 1960s, because that’s when the story kind of goes apart from reality in a way because the 1960s of that world isn’t the same without that evolution in our society. Our set and costumes are more inspired from the 1950s more than the 1960s. We also looked at a lot of Japanese films from the 1940s and 1950s, like Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu. So, I think we have a good combination of really strong lighting with film noir and beautiful Japanese films with a lot of just holding the camera and letting people move. It’s a combination of those two worlds, which in the show is the German Nazi world and the Japanese world, too.

So, why don’t you walk me through a few scenes that you shot in the third season and talk about the process of creating those scenes for the audience?

Episode 4, Smith watching the film and the dream sequence that follows: We wanted to do something different than what we did in the past, like really get inside someone’s head. We used a few techniques that we had never used before, like slow motion. We had a lot of ash in that scene and lots of smoke in the location that we chose, really thinking of what it would look like after editing. We tried looking at this scene as something more like art that tried to break the reality of the show. It depended on how the actor reacted to everything as well. We didn’t really approach it like a normal scene because every shot said something.

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Then, at the end of the dream when he’s witnessing the horrible brutality that’s happening, we tried to approach it more like a normal scene so that what’s going on we narrated with the camera and show his reaction to it. In terms of lighting, we really just tried to cover the sun as much as we could because it was a very sunny day and we wanted it to feel wintery, which was very tricky to do in this location. We used lots and lots of smoke and flying ash because we wanted to portray things coming out of the fog with slow motion. We tried to include a lot of elements that were really strong visually like a car burning and a baby stroller that would tell you things even if you weren’t really paying attention to what was happening in the background. We really only shot this in like half a day, but since we knew it was a very important scene we planned ahead. We knew how we wanted to transition into the dream, like how he’s looking at the film and then following that same movement into the dream.

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Then, with the film footage that he is watching before the dream, we shot that after the dream sequence and the scene when he’s supposed to be watching it. That was one of the last things we shot and so he [Rufus Sewel] is just looking at nothing, like just some random black and white film. He knew he was going to see something, but not exactly what was in the film. That’s all just amazing acting. Then we had the actor who plays Thomas [Quinn Lord] come and we shot him first in the bedroom, in the real world, and then Smith kind of wakes up and he’s alone, but then in the dream he sees Thomas and chases him, slowly going into that dream. We really wanted to get that close up when he’s watching the film because we know that we had to see his reaction somehow, and that was a cool way of getting into it. That was a very classic movie approach where you have an extreme close up on someone’s face and then cut quickly to what that person is thinking. Sewell is an actor who is so subtle that we thought the closer we are to his face that more we are going to see what’s going on there. We also shot a little wider lenses than we normally did just for that scene.

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Episode 6, Frank’s bar mitzvah ceremony intercut with Smith’s inauguration ceremony: That is one of my favorites. Those two we shot knowing that the concept was to try to finish the episode with those two scenes together. So we had to think beforehand, okay how are they going to intercut this in a way that’s cool and interesting. We really thought about Frank in his world, like he was probably very happy finally getting his community to help him come into the religion he’s not allowed to practice. We knew that this moment needed to feel really good for him and the audience. We did a lot of moving camera, filmed a lot of the ritual in a very close way, showed a lot of the faces in the room, and made it very warm.

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Then with the other scene that we intercut, we tried to do the exact opposite. We had no camera movement. Everything would be very fixed and solid. It had almost no color, nearly black and white. The wardrobe is very muted. We made it look very cold by making it look a little blue. So when we cut from one scene to the other it went from a lot of movement and warmth to static and no color.

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Then we also tried to think of the movements that would be similar in both scenes, like in the Frank scene the man performing the ceremony is reading a scroll and then we cut to the baton that Smith is handed. We tried to think of mini ways to mirror those two scenes together. Then the execution of it with the bar mitzvah scene, we knew there needed to be a lot of camera movement, so we played through the ceremony first and then we really shot it like a music video almost. Then on the Smith scene, it was kind of the opposite because we knew we could only shoot certain things since there was going to be a lot of visual effects. It was pretty challenging because we did have a lot of extras but at the same time it was shot in a parking lot. There was really no set, so every angle had to be precise and we had to really think about what the camera was doing. There were a lot of green screen elements and then we had to cover the sun as well. Of course, the visual effects team did an incredible job with the final product. Just a lot of collaboration with everything we do. We get concepts from directing, from the writers, from the art department, and then from my end as well. We all really work together to create what’s in the show.

Is there anything from a cinematography standpoint that you can tell us about the upcoming season?

On one end, we are trying to preserve the style and the idea of framing we liked, but at the same time, we are trying to make the lighting bolder. A lot of the times we shoot something and we don’t see too much of the actors, because we know who the actor is because we’ve seen them in the other seasons, so that is allowing us to go bolder. We have definitely polished the way we technically approach each shot and the lighting. We keep evolving and push for more visual storytelling. We are always thinking what’s most interesting and what’s uncomfortable even and every scene we try to add that layer of visuals. Knowing that people have responded to a certain style before and we try to push it a little farther.

You can stream the first three seasons of The Man in the High Castle in full on Amazon Prime video now and the fourth season is coming soon. You can see some of Gonzalo’s other work on his Instagram.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_