Q&A: Westworld cinematographer shares low-tech secret of hi-tech HBO show

Season 3 of Westworld is primed to be the most ambitious story arc so far for HBO’s hit series as the androids who once inhabited the show’s high-tech theme park now find themselves out in the real world with more than a few scores to settle.

Over the course of the show’s first two seasons, viewers were introduced to the fully immersive worlds of the Delos Inc. theme parks, in which human guests could indulge in all manner of whims — no matter how depraved — with all-too-real android “hosts.” Audiences witnessed the gradual awakening of several hosts as they became self-aware and eventually revolted against their human handlers, with much of the action transpiring in Westworld, the Western-themed park populated by gunslingers, bandits, and all manner of Wild West characters.

With the third season of Westworld recently premiering on HBO, Digital Trends spoke to series cinematographer Paul Cameron, who received a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for his work on the show’s first season. Cameron returns as the show’s cinematographer for season 3, and also directs the season’s fourth episode.

paul cameron cinematographer
Paul Cameron, Cinematographer of Westworld Season Three John P. Johnson/HBO

Digital Trends: Given the sci-fi themes of Westworld, it’s interesting that you use traditional film instead of digital cameras to make the show. What went into that decision?

Paul Cameron: Oh, that goes back close to five years ago when I met with [series co-creator] Jonathan Nolan originally to discuss the pilot. Five minutes into the meeting with him, I said, “Hey, would you consider film, this being a Western and such, since it’s so much more elegant?” And he said that was never even a question. We were definitely shooting on film. That was five minutes into my meeting with him, and at that point, I knew I was going to do the project.

So why was film the right choice for the series?

Jonathan, much like his brother [Dark Knight trilogy director Christopher Nolan], understands the legacy of shooting film. They appreciate the advent of digital cinematography, but they don’t see any need to gravitate toward it, because they love the medium of film. That’s not to say we didn’t use any digital cameras. This season, we had a lot of night photography in both Los Angeles and Singapore, and we employed some digital cameras on a few occasions, but very rarely.

paul cameron with camera rig
John P. Johnson/HBO

That was because digital cameras tend to handle low-light environments better?

Yeah. It was really just an available light situation. But it was interesting, because once you start testing that kind of thing, people like Jonathan want to know what the differences really are between digital and film. So we did extensive tests, and you could see subtle differences on the big screen, but when it comes to watching close-ups of the human face, it’s just distinctly different on film. It’s more elegant. It’s a different synergy. Digital is, well … Let’s just say it’s trying to be as good as film. As exciting as the race for 4K and 8K and even 100K is, digital will always be trying to be as good as film.

The first two seasons of Westworld had you shifting between these wide-open Western vistas and the interiors of Delos’ high-tech lab. Was it challenging to blend those environments?

It was. For me, one of the great things about the show is that I was able to come on for the pilot and early conceptualization. We knew the park was going to be situated in the facade of Dead Horse Point [State Park] in Utah. That’s where we were going to ground that part of it. So we knew we’d go from those Western streets to a small lab that was 14 floors beneath Dead Horse Point. So we had to tie all of that together.

season 2 episode 7 westworld in the lab
Season 2 Episode 7 interior scene showing cool color temperatures Jordin Althaus/HBO

The cues for each environment that Jonathan gave us were a classic Once Upon A Time in the West town and a stark interior for the labs. Jonathan was pretty specific in that he wanted a unity in color temperature and feel for all the interiors that were part of the sterile park operations, and he wanted a visual thread for the exteriors. So we tested out some options and developed a road map.

season2 episode 7 outside scene
Season 2 Episode 7 exterior scene showing warm color temperatures John P. Johnson/HBO

With the new season, the series is getting away from the parks a bit more, and out into the real world. How did that change your approach to the show?

It was nice, really. As Jonathan kept telling us, everybody keeps calling this a reboot of the series, but it’s not — this is just a continuation of the story, with the robots leaving the park and trying to claim their place in society. What will a city look like in 20 years? We traveled all over and eventually decided on Singapore. Jonathan explained that the show’s future is not Ray Bradbury’s sort of future world. What we came up with was this kind of vertical city, much like Singapore. It’s a very vertical, enclosed city, where the gardens and the parks are built on the tops of the buildings and they’re linked by walkways from one building to another. It’s all got this kind of lush, vertical scale to it. That became the look.

westworld cast in the outside universe
Aaron Paul (Left), Lena Waithe (Center), Marshawn Lynch (Right) John P. Johnson/HBO

Without any spoilers, is there a scene or element in season 3 that you were particularly proud of?

In the first episode, we do a single shot for a murder-action sequence. The camera probably doesn’t move for about two or three minutes, and it’s one of those conceptual shots that Jonathan came up with and asked me if we could pull off. We broke it down and said, “OK, this is how we’re going to do it.” And when we went to film it with the actors, everything went so well. I’m proud of that one, but I think it’s really just an overall sense of pride in being part of a show like Westworld. There are so many elements to it and the bar is set just so high — dramatically, visually, production-wise. It really functions like a big-budget feature.

rachel wood westworld season 3
John P. Johnson/HBO

You directed the fourth episode of the season. What can you tell us about that episode and your experience as director?

It was great. It’s fun and it’s really exciting. Being brought in as a director meant I was suddenly reading all the scripts for up-and-coming episodes. When I went into directing the episode, I knew the arc for the rest of the season at that point, which was really thrilling. It was a great challenge to be brought in on that level. And it’s a good dramatic episode, which I didn’t expect. I thought I was going to get the crazy action episode, but they gave me the big dramatic one.

New episodes of Westworld air Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and are also available via HBO Go and HBO Now.

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