Colin Watkinson Interview: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ cinematographer
Colin Watkinson won a Best Cinematography Emmy last year for the distinct, unnervingly beautiful look he created for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and as the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” “We looked at changing color palettes [for Season 2] and once we tried it, it didn’t really work, and it looked like it was a different show, so we had to revert back,” Watkinson revealed at Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Cinematography panel, moderated by this author (watch above).
Instead, Watkinson’s goal was to maintain the washed-out palette he’d perfect and “transfer” it to the new locations of Season 2 — namely the Colonies. Only referenced in Margaret Atwood’s book, the Colonies is a toxic wasteland where “unwomen” — disobedient, lesbian and low-class infertile handmaids discarded by Gilead — are forced into slave labor. It’s where Emily/Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) was sent after she was expelled from Gilead, as the second episode of Season 2 revealed.
The “Handmaid’s” team had to envision and build the whole world of Colonies from scratch with very specific instructions from executive producer Bruce Miller. “He wanted it to be a warm environment. He didn’t want it to be gray, cold dystopia,” Watkinson said. “He wanted it to be warm, not inviting, but he just wanted the color palette to be.”
Watkinson looked to painter Andrew Wyeth for inspiration, settling on dusy burnt colors, which paired well with the diluted blue dresses costume designer Ane Crabtree created. To add more warmth, Watkinson purposefully shot the Colonies scenes at sundown, with the pink horizon beaming onto a bleak, irradiated countryside.
“We tried to create a whole process and add that to the color palette,” he said. “So they were digging radioactive waste, putting them into bags, a little bit like they did in Japan after the meltdown. And they put them in big piles — that actually happened, so that’s what we did. We put them in blue bags, put them in piles, and that gave us another color amongst the warm dirt.”
Watkinson also created a whole new visual language for the Colonies. Most of the show is shot in shallow focus, with close-ups and tight shots to produce an oppressive feel, but he opted to film the Colonies in wide shots, showing off a seemingly never-ending landscape of horror.
“We wanted it to feel epic. We didn’t want the Colonies to feel like the tiny little quarry it actually was,” Watkinson said. “We wanted it to feel like there’s the whole stretch of parts of Gilead that were totally destroyed, so we really tried to work that. Plus, Season 1 was Offred’s (Elisabeth Moss) point of view and the Colonies were just slightly different. She’s not there and it’s Ofglen — it’s Emily’s story. We just approached it in a slightly different way.”
And Season 3 might provide Watkinson with even more opportunities to build on his aesthetic. The Season 2 finale, which will hit Hulu on July 11, sets up things to go in a “interesting direction” next year. “I’m quite excited because I think it’s going to be pretty fresh,” he teased.