Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the industry’s most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with Moon Knight’s dueling directors of photography Gregory Middleton and Andrew Droz Palermo, about the show’s cinematography.
Comic book adaptations have a distinct advantage, or disadvantage, over other projects in terms of cinematography. Gregory Middleton and Andrew Droz Palermo did not create the Moon Knight universe. It existed decades before they ever became involved, and while the character was never as popular as Spider-Man or the Hulk, there are Moon Knight fans, and their knives are sharp. Step out of line, fail to venerate the source material properly, and they will cut you.
Marvel Studios never layers a reflective surface on their projects. They know the comics are their own thing, but they also understand that the characters and the worlds found on the page must be felt on the screen. When discussing adaptation with cinematographers, they often reveal their process in two ways. Either they ignore what came before, or they plunge into it. On Moon Knight, Middleton and Palermo chose to embrace the comics.
The cinematographers fell into the books. Some of what they found within perplexed them, but the rest thrilled them. Moon Knight is a tricky endeavor, juggling multiple perspectives and the realities they create. The costumed vigilante precariously manages his dissociative identity disorder, meaning his body is piloted by various personas, each uniquely performed by Oscar Isaac.
Series directors Mohamed Diab, Justin Benson, and Aaron Moorhead propel the narrative by first hanging it on Steven Grant’s point of view. In episode two, we jump on over to Marc Spector. In episode three, their relationship is balanced until everything explodes in episode four. Each chapter required the cinematographers to flirt with a different mood, and the comics offered proof that the stylistic shuffling could work.
“We had a great resource in the comic books,” says Palermo. “But the comic books have done so many different things. I bought an omnibus right when I got hired, and it was a lot of the older imagery, and I liked a lot of it, but I couldn’t get too enthusiastic about it. None of it was a real visual foothold for me. Then, I saw some of the more recent runs, the Jeff Lemire [and Greg Smallwood] stories, and it was like, ‘Oh man, this stuff is amazing.’ There’s one great cover where Marc is pulling his face off; oh my god, I was like, ‘There’s no place that this show can’t go.'”
For the DPs, the comic books inspired their commitment to Moon Knight‘s narrative. Comic panels lack compromise, and the possibilities within them appear limitless. Middleton and Palermo strove to achieve the same effect on their canvas.
“The one thing I learned when I was doing Watchmen for HBO,” says Middleton, “is that with a comic book, everything is drawn by the artist. They can put everything where they want, and they can put all the elements in. We try to make the same consideration for this show. Don’t frame something, and don’t do something unless it fits with where we’re at with the story and what we’re trying to hit at or not. We try to be very careful with that.”
Middleton and Palermo worked through hundreds of comics and sorted through their favorite bits. The challenge quickly evolved into topping the best visual flourishes offered by illustrators like Greg Smallwood. The translation was beyond intimidating.
“The comics are what got me so excited,” says Palermo. “The asylum stuff where every character you’ve met before is a different character there. The orderlies are Billy and Bobby, and some characters are sphinxes, and you may open a door, and there are pyramids floating in space. There’s one image in that run where you see the pyramids in the middle of New York City with sand piling fifty stories high or something. What an image! I really hope that our show can be as bold as these comics were.”
Moon Knight‘s themes surrounding identity and perspective helped the cinematographers adopt and adapt these epic images. Each episode pulls the audience into a specific realm, not just in terms of mindset but categorization. The filmmakers saw Moon Knight as a series of video shelves, each episode representing a different shelf.
“This particular way of telling a story was quite unique,” says Middleton. “Each episode is almost a different genre. The way Jeremy [Slater] wrote the script, the first episode is like a horror movie from Steven’s point of view. And Mohamed, he has a love for continuous shots to make things feel as real as possible. We put the camera with Steven to let him experience his insanity and the audience experience it with him.”
The series frequently plants the frame on Oscar Isaac’s face. Middleton and Palermo believe our investment rests on that particular landscape. If they could tell the whole story locked on such a frame, they would. Both filmmakers are in awe of what the actor delivers in every episode.
“That’s the place that is most interesting as a viewer,” says Palermo. “I care about people. Viewers love bells and whistles. We love these big action sequences, but you have to remain rooted in character. [The show] has to be pushing something forward for them as individuals. It can’t just be action for action’s sake, or it goes in one ear, out the other.”
No other Moon Knight shot represents style rooted in character and performance better than the climactic summoning of the suit scene in episode one. Steven Grant locks himself in the museum bathroom. He’s quivering, petrified. In the mirror, Marc Spector asks Steven to relinquish the body so the costume can come out and the werewolf beatdown can commence.
Initially conceived as a series of edits, director Mohamed Diab wanted to maintain the anxiety and terror using a single take. However, achieving one shot could muddy the emotion by getting too technical. In Middleton’s mind, it would only work if they could free up Oscar Isaac to do his thing.
“We didn’t want to use motion control,” says Middleton, “because that would’ve resulted in Oscar having to act to pre-programmed timing, and it’s a big emotion. When Oscar’s playing Steven, he’s in a panic. He thinks he’s going to die. That performance is a very active thing, so you want to make sure that he can drive the pace of that. He also has to be Marc and try to figure all that out. Once he was comfortable, you want the performance to feel alive and feel like it’s really him and not feel like we’re doing a special effects shot.”
The sequence never blinks. Marc and Steven exist in the frame together, with the supernatural threat pounding on the door. The camera swoops around Steven until he renounces control. The camera lingers on the body; we witness Marc take over. The suit envelops the avenger, and the audience feels relief.
“I shot [the camera test] handheld,” continues Middleton. “We shot all the elements to make sure we weren’t moving the camera too much, that we could shoot Oscar’s reflections without motion control as a proof of concept. The test was a success, so on the shoot day, we used Steadicam, allowing him to play the whole scene, which is great because in his performance at the end, Steven is genuinely terrified, and it’s moving. That was the end of week one, on day five, and I’m watching this, and I got chills. I could tell we captured something special.’
The Moon Knight cinematography owes itself to the comics and Oscar Isaac. Middleton and Palermo wanted to do them both justice, to step out of their way and let them communicate emotions. They’re equally proud and amazed when discussing what they’ve accomplished in these six episodes. The Marvel series gifted them an incredible playground where a body’s inner life dictated its surroundings. They went where perspective demanded.
Moon Knight is now streaming on Disney+.