BYDGOSZCZ, Poland — When DP Paul Cameron met with “Westworld” co-creator Jonathan Nolan to audition for the role of cinematographer on HBO’s new hit series, he asked whether it would be possible to shoot on 35mm film. “Jonathan said, ‘yes, absolutely we can,’” Cameron recalls.
For a seasoned DP who has shot on multiple formats, why was film so important on this particular project? “I was thinking about the sweeping Western landscapes,” Cameron says. “When I read the pilot, for me the references were to the films shot by John Ford in Monument Valley, Utah.”
“Westworld,” a contender in the First Look — TV Pilots Competition at the Camerimage film festival, is a sci-fi-like Western with head-spinning twists created by Nolan (brother of director Christopher Nolan) and his wife Lisa Joy, based on the 1973 film of the same name, written and directed by novelist Michael Crichton.
Nolan directed and Cameron lensed the “Westworld” pilot, which set the tone for the subsequent episodes. HBO just renewed the show for a 10-episode second season. Cameron won praise for his work, which he shot using Arricam Lite cameras.
“Westworld,” of course, is part of the new breed of TV show and series that carry significant budgets and have brought cinematic production values to the small screen. “The lines are definitely blurring between film and television,” says Cameron. “It’s an interesting time. They’re not making films in the $15 million range any more at the studios, but now we have TV shows that can have a budget of $15 million for an hour episode.” These shows, he adds, have filled in the gap created by the decline of dramatic films for the big screen.
When Cameron and Nolan first met, they talked about “Westworld’s” basic sensibility and how the creative choices they made on the pilot could add scale to the content and set the tone for the series. For Cameron, of lot of those choices have to do with what he calls “stock.” In all his work, he uses that term to refer not just to different film stocks but to all acquisition possibilities. “I include different cameras in the idea of stock,” he says.
Other DP’s — Brendan Galvin, Robert McLachlan, David Franco, and Jeff Jur — have shot subsequent episodes of “Westworld,” with each bringing his own sensibilities to the series, although “I’m the guy creating the look,” Cameron says.
“But the shoe was on the other foot,” notes Cameron, when he lensed the 2017 release “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” a project he actually completed before “Westworld.” On that film, he followed the basic look set by Dariusz Wolski, who was cinematographer on all three previous installments of the blockbuster franchise.
When asked his views of the technical onslaught enveloping his profession, Cameron is apprehensive. He sees a film industry that is increasingly driven by the needs of theater owners to maintain revenue by attracting new customers through such eye candy as high dynamic range, higher frame rates, and 3D — which started the trend a decade ago.
Cameron says the gear manufacturers have responded by introducing products to create sumptuous pictures for the enhanced screens, leading to an ecosystem in which image acquisition is being driven by image exhibition.
“There’s a new generation of kids who’ve been raised for a decade on digital technology and are accustomed to ultraclean images, sharp backgrounds, and high resolution,” says Cameron. “If you take them to see a film like ‘Carol’ that was shot on Super 16, they think there’s something wrong with the picture.”
Another concern: virtual reality, which, Cameron believes, has the potential to restrict creativity — even to the point that screenwriters will write specifically for that format. “My fear is that the content will be designed for the medium. People “will say, ‘what works in VR? Let’s design a story that works in VR!’ Then maybe you can’t move the camera, you have to have certain kind of frames, and create a story that works just for that. That’s a real problem.”
Cameron recognizes that the forward march of technology is a force unto itself, yet he remains a stalwart admirer of film. “It took 100 years to develop film into a very elegant medium,” he says. “Cameras are now small and quiet, we have amazing film stocks. We have pushed that craft to absolute perfection.”