Visualizing the world of CASTLE ROCK
ARRI Rental helps cinematographer Richard Rutkowski explore a range of formats and vintage optics for Hulu’s horror series, based on the literary works of Stephen King.
Rutkowski shared cinematographic duties with Jeff Greely, both of them having previously worked with show creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason on MANHATTAN. For CASTLE ROCK, an anthology series named after and set in Stephen King’s sinister, fictional Maine town, they pursued a distinctive look with a team of directors led by Michael Uppendahl, also a MANHATTAN colleague.
What appealed to you about the series?
I enjoy working with Sam and Dustin, and I liked the script. They were using Stephen King to talk about his genre, not just specific stories, and I found that idea interesting. It also had a central conceit that I thought was unique, visually. In most shows, you take whatever the environment is, and try to show it in a picturesque light. Here, the premise was that you’re in the worst possible town in Maine, the most unfortunate, unlucky and possibly evil place, so you don’t want it to look too beautiful. Gorgeous sunset shots would be going against the material.
What kinds of visual references and styles did you and Michael consider?
We looked mostly at still photography rather than other films, although we built an image board that mixed paintings, photographs and movie frames. We talked about texture, about beauty in bleakness, and how you can use an off-kilter frame to add tension. In the process of making television you’re always contemplating how it’s going to cut, but we really tried wherever possible to find an abstract or obtuse angle that said more than a normal composition.
People often want to know what the secret was to a look you had in a show, whether a technique, or a filter, or a lens, but in this show it was the writing. I tried very hard to expand rather than diminish the script, creating visuals that matched the underlying feeling. I don’t particularly care about a detail, for example if the script says to pull out from a key in a lock, maybe we will and maybe we won’t, the important thing is that the writing states that this scene has to communicate the lock and the key, however you go about it. The undercurrent of the scene is asking for something, and I try to respect that.
What dictated your primary camera and lens choices?
We had an ALEXA SXT as the principal A-camera, as well as two Minis, and further cameras were added to that. I enjoy working with the ALEXA system because they feel like film cameras to me, more than any other digital system.
When it came to lenses, I didn’t want the super sharpness of a Master Prime, but it also couldn’t look like another show, so I went for rehoused Cooke Speed Panchro lenses as our standard prime set. Then we used an 18-100 Cooke zoom, which I own and love; I think it’s one of the best lenses for faces ever made. We also mixed in some macro lenses and a few more modern Cookes, when we had to. I think it was successful. When I look at the show, the images have a character, an antique quality: things fall off on the sides, sometimes there’s slight vignetting or aberration. If you’re trying to sell a place that is far from perfect, and perhaps very darkly bad, this is a good way to do it.
How did you bring in other camera formats, and were there different approaches to camerawork?
For certain flashback scenes we shot 3-perf 35 mm film, with ARRICAM LTs, and we didn’t use antique primes, we used modern lenses because we felt like film doesn’t need that. It has a texture and a resonance that helps take the audience back, even if it’s subconscious. There was even one short flashback that we filmed with a hand-cranked Super 16 Bolex. The footage was so successful, with such beautiful authenticity, that it wound up straying outside of that episode and being used almost throughout the entire series.
In terms of camera movement, we embraced static shots, handheld, Steadicam, although often we weren’t trying to make it look like Steadicam. Basically, I don’t care how the camera is moved or supported, so long as it feels like it belongs to the scene. We had some very talented operators: Chris Jones and Laela Kilbourn, and they were encouraged to move with the characters, to be patient and let frames develop. Chris is very accomplished and experienced with episodic work, while Laela is a documentarian, but her background brought something new to the table; she would go off and find staggeringly nice images.
I also have to mention my gaffer Scott Davis and key grip Bill Weberg, who both work locally out of Boston, where we were based. They have tremendous experience, but also very creative approaches and like-minded crew. Some had known me for something like 25 years, since my assisting days. You function as a team and this was an extraordinary one.
Is it important to feel supported by your rental house when you’re trying new things, pushing for a fresh look?
Definitely. This is my sixth or seventh collaboration with ARRI Rental, and I’m not a down-the-middle client; I’m always looking to do something different, and they are always receptive. If I ask for two days to come in and set up monitors, tweaking looks and LUTs, no-one ever says they can’t help unless they’re making money out of it. Instead they are fascinated by what I’m doing, encouraging me to push further, to find something new. The people at ARRI Rental are dedicated as filmmakers. You walk in there and you know that they think about things in the creative sense, not just the financial sense.