DP John Grillo Captures Two Distinctly Different Sci-Fi Experiences In "Westworld" and "Snowpiercer"
Daveed Diggs (l) and Sheila Vand in the sci-fi series “Snowpiercer.” (photo by Justina Mintz/courtesy of TNT)
Director/showrunner Louis Leterrier delves into "Dark Crystal" prequel; production designer Rory Cheyne creates varied worlds for "Locke & Key"

DP John Grillo is a two-time Emmy Award nominee who’s now once again in the awards season conversation--this time for a pair of shows, his ongoing work on Westworld (HBO) and his role as lead cinematographer for the first season of Snowpiercer (TNT).

Grillo earned a primetime Emmy nom in 2018 for “The Riddle of the Sphinx” episode of Westworld; this came some 11 years after his first career Emmy nod for Tony Bennett: An American Classic. Grillo’s contributions to Westworld have been well chronicled as he spearheaded the visual look for that series’ second and third seasons, building upon and adding his own signature to work done on the pilot by Paul Cameron, ASC. In fact when Cameron took his first major turn in the director’s chair for season three’s fourth episode, “The Mother of Exiles,” it was Grillo who shot that installment.

In a recent SHOOT Chat Room, Cameron noted that he enjoys a collaborative history with Grillo. Cameron recalled, for instance, that Grillo was one of his operators on Michael Mann’s feature Collateral--for which Cameron and Dion Beebe, ASC, shared a Best Cinematography BAFTA Film Award in 2005, as well as an ASC Award nomination. Cameron noted that he’s come to admire Grillo’s cinematography, including what he’s brought to Westworld. “I’ve been following John’s work for some time,” related Cameron. “And this (Westworld episode) was a nice opportunity to work with him.”

Cameron added that Grillo contributed to a meaningful, gratifying experience for him as a helmer. “I enjoyed directing the show. I’ve been a DP for awhile. The challenges of breaking the show down in a dramatic way, working in a different way with the actors, directing through post, and presenting a director’s cut was a new, fresh experience for me. I enjoyed the challenge and would look to do more if I get the opportunity on shows of this caliber.”

Grillo has had a prime hand in creating the look and feel for series inspired by ambitious adaptations of on-the-edge science fiction feature films--Westworld conceived by author Michael Crichton, and Snowpiercer from Oscar-winning filmmaker (Parasite) Bong Joon Ho. The sci-fi worlds of the two shows are 180 degrees apart from each other. There’s the vast, sprawling plains of the Old West that have characterized Westworld with season three bringing a greater degree of contrast with futurist minimalism sans robot cowboys. Meanwhile Snowpiercer has at times an almost claustrophobic feel with social drama springing from a number of cramped train cars. Each car is a different world housing a different social strata--ranging from the affluent and privileged who enjoy creature comforts, grandeur and relative spaciousness as compared to the disadvantaged who are confined to the prison-like barracks of the train’s tail end. Still all aboard are captive in a real sense; they are the last people left on a frozen Earth, inhabiting a perpetually moving, 1,001-car train that serves as a microcosm of society and its divided stations in life.

SHOOT caught up with Grillo for a conversation focused on his Snowpiercer experience, one he actively sought out when he first heard that a TV series based on Bong’s film was in the works. Grillo was working at the time on the series Preacher (for which he earned an ASC Award nomination in 2017 for the “Finish the Song” episode). “I’m a fan of Bong’s work. I had seen the film (Snowpiercer) and loved it. It (the TV adaptation) was something I was interested in immediately. I basically told my agent, ‘put my name in the running for that.’ I wanted to be involved in that show. Sure enough, weeks later I got a call.”

That call resulted in Grillo meeting with showrunner Graeme Manson and producer Mackenzie Donaldson. “We hit it off,” recalled Grillo who read the script for the first episode and loved it. “I assumed they had already shot a pilot,” continued Grillo who instead was informed that they were going to “reshoot the pilot,” starting “a little bit from scratch” again. The opportunity to help set the look of the show “got me even more excited. I started working on season one from the beginning.”

Grillo found himself teaming from the outset with director/producer James Hawes who was open to ideas from his collaborators as to what the visual tone and feel of the show should be and how to best attain it. Grillo had found a home, shooting seven episodes of season one (the balance shot by Thomas Burstyn). Season two was greenlit before the very first episode had even aired. Grillo then lensed multiple episodes of the second season, alternating with Burstyn, before production was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic (with eight episodes of season two wrapped).

For Grillo, one of the prime rules shaping his approach to Snowpiercer--with a cast headed by Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly--was simply, “We have to make the train the principal character in the show. The audience has to be aware they are always on a train.” That feel is particularly essential to the narrative. For example, Grillo explained that the tail section of the train had to feel “claustrophobic, dingy and low light. Those last five cars of the train were the luggage compartments that had gotten overrun by people who got on there by force. They converted those luggage compartments into living spaces for themselves.” Grillo noted that the art department and production designers (Barry Robinson in season one, Stephen Geaghan in season two) contributed mightily.

Among the biggest challenges was to create the illusion of constant train movement on stage. Powered by a futuristic perpetual engine, the train in the story needs to keep moving in order to function. It cannot stop. If the train stops, it cannot restart again. Grillo explained that the show could not rely on the standard solution of deploying a VFX background plate. “That can happen once, twice or three times in a show or film--but for this show the challenge was constantly about creating the feeling of movement (for a train that wasn’t moving). Grillo and his compatriots opted for a variety of low- to high-tech solutions. For example, 70 to 80 percent of sets were built on platforms that had air bladders, facilitating the feeling of shaking or movement through human force, cranks that could be operated to guide movement up and down, lending a sense of shakiness to the train. Other sets were rigged with something “akin to puppeteering,” said Grillo, with monofiliment attached to curtains and other elements, enabling them to swing to and fro for the camera.

Furthermore, lights were rigged all around the train’s exterior, helping to create movement when seen through its windows. Lights could be programmed to run in the direction of the train, adjusted for different looks, appearing more subtle during an overcast day, more intense if the sun is supposed to be out. Light could also bounce off the ice surface briefly into the train which is going at a high rate of speed. The grip department could wave flags in front of the light once in a while to create a little shadow. Light could also hit mylar, an effect resembling shining illumination into a flexible mirror, creating other desired effects to convey a sense of movement.

For season one, Grillo and Hawes--who directed episodes 1, 9 and 10--opted for the RED Epic Dragon camera for several reasons, including meeting the 4K delivery needs of Netflix (the platform for the show outside the U.S.). Multiple cameras were on set to afford flexibility as there was a learning curve in terms of how effectively a camera could move from one complex set to another. “We needed more cameras than normal,” related Grillo. “We had to be ready to go in different configurations.”

Grillo noted that for season two the series switched to the Sony Venice digital camera which provided “certain attributes that helped us extend the look of the show.” And by the second season, Grillo said the crew had familiarized itself with the sets and their requirements, more naturally able to navigate from one to the next, thus confidently reducing the number of cameras needed. Grillo added that it was decided that “we would go all hand-held” for season two. Handheld, for example, could at times mask the fact that the train wasn’t actually moving. Plus a handheld approach could work well in claustrophobic conditions--even though you are moving within tight space parameters, being mobile enables you to get around and show quite a bit, doing justice to the characters and their actions in each car.

Snowpiercer reinforced for Grillo the importance of “a crew working together under the circumstances we were in and always trying to keep things fresh. It shows how essential collaboration between all the different departments is in a series like this. We all have to chip in a little bit to create the illusion of this particular story--the illusion of movement. It shows how important preparation is for a show like this, to be able to prepare and communicate with different people, to have a clear goal shared by all the departments.”

In terms of story, Snowpiercer, continued Grillo, “reinforces for me how critical it is that we take care of the environment. The show is about the carelessness with which we are treating the natural world...The show is about what happens when an immediate catastrophe happens.” At the same time, Grillo isn’t sure how much the audience will take from Snowpiercer in that respect as the show will perhaps be best known initially for a “class warfare” theme within the context of a murder mystery. He added that climate change concerns may take on a bigger role in season two.

Louis Leterrier
Jim Henson’s groundbreaking 1982 fantasy puppet feature The Dark Crystal made an indelible impression on then youngster Louis Leterrier. “It was unlike anything I had seen before,” Leterrier recalled. “It was not a cartoon. It felt like a dream--a little bit like a nightmare. It was scary. Being immersed in a universe and feeling something for creatures that weren’t human, feeling terrified for them and myself...It stayed with me throughout the years when I made my short films in school.”

Leterrier noted that The Dark Crystal influenced him to become a filmmaker. So when the opportunity arose for him to direct and serve as showrunner on what evolved into The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (Netflix), a 10-episode TV prequel to Henson’s revered feature, Leterrier was overwhelmingly enthused but with perhaps a dash of terror thrown in--akin to what he felt when he first saw the original film--with the realization that he would have to live up to a lofty creative gold standard set by co-directors Henson and Frank Oz, and accompanying high expectations from an ardent fan base, including himself. 

Adding to the challenge was that this would mark Leterrier’s first foray into puppetry and a rare excursion into TV. His body of work is steeped in features with such directorial credits as Transporter 2, The Incredible Hulk, Clash of the Titans, Now You See Me, and The Brothers Grimsby.

For The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Leterrier committed to Henson’s penchant for hand-crafted art, deploying computers only primarily to enhance characters. Leterrier explained that CG was used to help things along, the way optical effects had been deployed in the 1980s. CG was utilized, he said, “to extend the world, not to create the world.” More than 100 creatures overall were built for the prequel. A core of a dozen puppeteers and their assistants were show mainstays. Leterrier described the 12 puppeteers as the “real heroes” of the production.

The series is set on Thra, the same planet as the feature film, populated by some familiar characters such as the sinister dinosaur-buzzard Skeksis, and the kind elf-like Gelflings. Varied other flora and fauna creatures make their mark as well, with Leterrier inspired in part by the original film. “Jim Henson and Frank Oz tried to put puppets in every frame. You could look in the grass and see little snails and frogs, always three or four in each frame.”

Leterrier credited the support of Netflix with bringing the series to pass, including the platform’s willingness to fund not only an ambitious test to help realize how the show should look but also a large scale puppet workshop engaged in months of building sets and characters 

Leterrier’s biggest takeaway from the TV prequel experience was that “practical effects will never die. As beautiful and mesmerizing as computer technology is, the human eye can also be moved by practical effects. The magic of cinema doesn’t require a battalion of people behind computers. If you have the right artists and physical magicians, you can create a story out of nothing. You can create a world and characters adored for generations to come.”

Leterrier also noted that his experience in commercialmaking has helped him on the TV front. Handled by production house Bullitt in the ad/branded content space, Leterrier said he’s learned from his short-form ad endeavors which have afforded him the opportunity to test techniques and technology, and then apply them to his longer-form pursuits.

Rory Cheyne
The set is a lead character, observed production designer Rory Cheyne in reference to Keyhouse, the prime venue in Locke & Key (Netflix), the TV adaptation of the comic book by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez. The series centers on the three Locke siblings (portrayed by Jackson Robert Scott, Emilia Jones and Connor Jessup) and their mom (Darby Stanchfield) after her husband/their dad is murdered and they move across the country into Keyhouse, his ancestral home which is full of magical keys with distinct powers. The keys may be connected to the patriarch’s gruesome death--and they are also the object of desire for a demon who wants to steal them back.

“It (Keyhouse) was a big world building project,” said Cheyne who created the facade, interiors of multiple floors from the ground up and out-buildings (such as the wellhouse and garden shed) on an estate property lined up for the production on the outskirts of Toronto. Keyhouse had to be an inviting place conducive to exploring--while also being in dramatic contrast to the “key spaces,” wondrous and scary worlds that the keys opened up. When the Lockes move in, the house is in need of repair, like an injured character that has to be mended. 

Cheyne was approached by exec producers Carlton Cuse and Meredith Averill to take on the series back when he was working on American Gods, for which he first served as an art director (earning an Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award nomination in 2018) and then production designer. Cheyne saw some similarities between American Gods and Locke & Key in terms of giving him the opportunity to delve into “other dimensions and other dream spaces.” 

Cheyne’s compatriots on Locke & Key included supervising art director William Cheng and set decorator Jaro Dick. Cheyne described Cheng as “a construction guru. After I did the main designs of the house, the main floor and the second floor, he ran with all the drawings, made sure everything was built on schedule, on budget and fit into the studio spaces. Our first project together was American Gods, season two. I’d known him for years but we hadn’t worked together before that.”

At press time, Cheyne and Cheng had gone on after Locke & Key to another series, Foundation, for Apple TV+, which had its production halted in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Foundation marked Cheyne’s first foray into sci-fi.

As for set decorator Dick, Cheyne teamed with him on the TV series Hannibal and then American Gods. Dick was also slated to contribute to Foundation, which was being shot overseas before its filming went on hiatus. On Locke & Key, Cheyne and Dick set out to make Keyhouse a place where it was evident that tradition and the estate itself had been passed down form generation to generation. Cheyne cited Dick’s meticulous attention to detail as reflected in nuanced pieces and other fine touches on set.

Dick garnered an Art Directors Guild nomination for American Gods, part of the same recognition earned by Cheyne in 2018. And as an assistant art director, Cheng won an Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award in 2018 for Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which nabbed four Oscars--for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score and Best Production Design. 

Editor’s note: This is the sixth installment in SHOOT’s 16-part weekly series of The Road To Emmy feature stories. The features explore the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners in September, and the Primetime Emmy Awards later that month (9/20).

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