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How HBO’s ‘Westworld’ Got Its Big-Screen Look

In “Westworld,” the 1973 feature film written and directed by Michael Crichton, HBO saw a property ripe for updating. The tale is set in a hyper-realistic theme park where robots that are indistinguishable from humans begin to malfunction and kill visitors. HBO’s edition spreads the story over 10 episodes set to begin airing Oct. 2.

Cinematographer Paul Cameron, known for his work on such features as “Collateral” and “Total Recall,” came aboard to lens the pilot, which was directed by Jonathan Nolan, with production design by Nathan Crowley. The cast includes Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, and Evan Rachel Wood. It was Nolan’s vision, says Cameron, along with the project’s top-notch crew and cast, that drew him to “Westworld.”

“When I read something now, I try not to think of it as TV or a feature film,” he says. “It’s about the content and the people involved. There may have been a stigma with television in the past, but that has changed.”

The pilot was shot in about 22 days. The script required two completely different worlds. The first consists of classic Western exteriors and frontier-town interiors, shot partly at the Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita, Calif., and partly at Dead Horse Point near Moab, Utah. The second is the sleek, futuristic underground facility where the robots are manufactured and programmed.

“We wanted to give our Western town a bit of shine — [make it] a place you really want to go into, that feels authentic and not seedy,” says Cameron. “The deeper you get into it, the more frightening it gets. I wanted a pretty classic, filmic, backlit, and sunlit reality.”

Saloon interiors include views through windows to hot, midday exteriors, requiring Cameron to bring light levels way up inside for balance.

The robot facility was conceived as a massive, 35-floor operation deep beneath the desert. The Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood was one visual reference.

“Nathan built a huge set that is entirely glass walls and glass hallways,” says Cameron. “If you stand at one end of the set, you can look a hundred feet to the other corner, and you see all the way through. That set was redressed, sometimes nightly, for different parts of the facility.”

The reflective environment made lighting from the floor difficult.

“Nathan and I conceived a kind of coffered concrete ceiling, and I was able to put a large silk above, and hang lights on moving tracks so I could easily reposition them,” Cameron says.

Sets established for the pilot would be used later by other production teams for subsequent episodes, and Cameron and Crowley factored this into their decisions. (Cinematographers who later worked on the series include Brendan Galvin, Rob McLachlan, David Franco, and Jeff Jur.)

“I knew the project needed scale, and we did everything we could to develop a large, cinematic feel,” says Cameron. “The most important thing was setting a look that was right for the pilot and, potentially, the series, while also understanding that it had to be replicated. I knew we were going to shoot 35mm film, and I came up with a very simple palette.”

Another key to establishing the right tone was shooting train sequences on a trailer rig in Utah, using natural interactive light. Some walls and facades of the town interiors were also trucked to the desert so that reverses could be shot with the actual red-rock backgrounds.

“There’s no bluescreen, which is fabulous,” says Cameron. “That brought a lot of scale.”

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