Colin Watkinson Discusses The Emotional Cinematography of "The Handmaid's Tale"
This behind-the-scenes shot of production on "The Handmaid's Tale" shows DP Colin Watkinson (r) with actress Elizabeth Moss (photo by George Kraychyk/courtesy of Hulu)
Last year’s Emmy-winning DP is again nominated for his lensing of the Hulu series
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Colin Watkinson’s work on The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) won him the Emmy in the Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series Emmy (One Hour) category in 2017 and has gotten him nominated again this year.

“I feel like we’ve continued to grow with the show while maintaining the style we set out with in season one,” observed Watkinson who this time around is a nominee on the strength of the “June” episode. “It all comes down to the emotional sense we create. The piece I put in for this year’s nomination is not the best looking cinematography but it is incredibly emotional. The cinematography is not picture-perfect beautiful but it works in terms of the emotion of the story.”

Among the biggest challenges that the “June” episode posed to him as a cinematographer was figuring out how to create Fenway Park in Boston. “We toyed with shooting at Fenway but ultimately we shot in Hamilton near Toronto, using visual effects and CGI to get the Fenway look, which went into every fine detail, including the iconic look of the advertising signs at the park. As a team, we were happy with how it came out, how we were able to work everything out.”

The deserted, dilapidated yet still recognizable Fenway Park was the site of an emotional scene. The handmaids are taken to the abandoned field where there are scaffolds from which hang nooses. A noose is put on the neck of individual handmaids and the nearby lever is pulled. But the drop is only minor, and the handmaids survive. It was a scare tactic engineered by Aunt Lydia in order to teach them a lesson they would never forget.

Hand-held approach
Watkinson has held true to the original camera selection he and director Reed Morano made in advance of season one. Morano, who’s also an experienced DP, opted for the ARRI Alexa Mini. “Reed and I had a similar vision. She wanted the backstory, the sets of Gilead, to have very composed lighting while maintaining an emotional camera on Offred, getting inside her head. We went hand-held camera for that reason. This emotional, visceral hand-held style remains the choice. I learned from Reed and have carried it on for the show.”

Watkinson has also carried on with the deployment of Canon K35 lenses in tandem with the Alexa Minis. “They are proper cinema lenses, not quite as hard as modern lenses--not soft in focus but soft in texture,” he assessed.

There’s a sense of purpose to working on The Handmaid’s Tale, said Watkinson who was a fan of Margaret Atwood’s novel long before the show on which is it based even started. “It’s a powerful story,” affirmed Watkinson. And to do justice to that story, Watkinson said “an amazing team effort has taken hold from the top to the bottom of the show,” starting with series creator/writer Bruce Miller. “We have tremendous scripts, directors who get the most out of them with top level production design, costumes, makeup--all the departments coming together with a synergy I’ve never really experienced before. It’s a real joy which I hope will happen again in my working career. The whole team is always trying to raise the bar, push the limits.”

As evidence of that striving for excellence, Watkinson’s Emmy nomination is one of 20 earned by the series this year.

As for what’s next, Watkinson recently wrapped a pilot for Apple starring Octavia Spencer. And he’s looking forward to season three of The Handmaid’s Tale.

This is the 12th installment in a 15-part series that explores the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, production design and visual effects. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmys ceremonies on September 8 and 9, and the primetime Emmy Awards live telecast on September 17.

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