“Blessed be the fruit,” a greeting of the handmaidens in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” might also apply to the abundance of below-the-line contributions to the second season of Hulu’s dystopian story, based on Margaret Atwood’s novel, of a patriarchal society in which women are forced into sexual servitude.
In Season 1, crew members built the world around the characters. Now, they’ve moved on to new locations with new challenges as they craft a sophomore session, debuting April 25, that leans even further on color, texture and depth.
The episode workload was split between DPs Colin Watkinson and Zoe White, the latter of whom infused her own style to complement the visual language established in Season 1, which earned Watkinson an Emmy for the pilot.
This year, the show expands its landscape to the Colonies, a barren, radioactive wasteland that the Gilead — the authoritarian and theocratic regime that has taken over the U.S. — uses to punish those who commit crimes. Those in the Colonies breathe toxic fumes that peel their skin.
Watkinson developed the look of the new season while the show was in hiatus, referencing the work of painter Andrew Wyeth. “He was a key influence, particularly his painting “Christina’s World.” I didn’t want to be swayed by any other dystopian films or use grays or create a desaturated feel,” he says. Instead, a color palette of yellows, browns and dusty neutrals harnesses the desolate surroundings. A muted pink skyline expresses the only warmth.
The intent in Season 2 is to deliver a deeper, more visceral connection to the characters’ journey. Storylines provided the emotional guideline for camera composition, with handheld work invoking feeling. “Each scene has a meaning, and we try to extract that visually,” Watkinson tells Variety. “If the audience isn’t connecting to the story, we’re not doing our job right.”
In Season 1, a photo of a red maple leaf on a grayish teal background influenced the color of the costumes, with the Handmaids’ flowing gowns deriving their deep red hue from the color of blood; garments of the Marthas — servants of the wealthy Gilead families — drew their color from a green moth. Costume designer Ane Crabtree says that in building the show’s world, she referenced the colors of Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters” as a foundation for those living in the Colonies. Soviet propaganda posters influenced the fashion of the Guardians — dressed in brown, with large hats and gas masks — who watch over the Unpeople, who wear lighter-colored clothing with softer silhouettes.
“The radiation has bled out all the color, and everything is fading because of it,” Crabtree says. “Dust, dirt and mud find themselves in the fiber of the clothes, creating these washy blue tones. It’s a light blue that feels like water — almost a non-color for the non-women.”
Crabtree continually fine-tunes the costumes’ fluidity. “The motion of the fabric is very much part of the character,” she notes. “The costumes can be very tribal. June, played by Elisabeth Moss, moves around a lot in Season 2. She’s a shape-shifter trying to survive, and we see her change clothing [based on] her environment.”
Elisabeth Williams continued the concepts of Julie Berghoff, with Toronto standing in for post-Revolution Boston. Sets have specific colors and textures, which are layered to express tone. The Gilead has its own aesthetic, and Williams strove to respect the initial incarnation.
Gold and light blues inspired by Vermeer’s “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” influenced the design of the Colonies. Grays and purples fabricate the so-called Econo compounds. Across the Canadian border, where many seek to escape, abandoned buildings sit not yet repurposed. “June breaks free into a world that was left behind,” says Williams. “We wanted to show a contrast between the Gilead and the spaces on the fringe of our dystopian society by making them dirty and messy.”
One of the show’s greatest challenges is to create a blend of modern and antiquated design elements in-camera to avoid excessive visual effects work. Williams discussed with the cinematographers the importance of sheen, color and reflection in set finishes while noting contrast and practical light.
Rites and rituals also play an important role in the Gilead, Williams notes. “In one of the episodes, we’re inspired by Celtic dances and funeral possessions,” she says. “In another, we reference mass weddings. And even though Gilead is an oligarchy, we’re inspired in some by military marches and dictatorial regimes.”