One of the year’s most acclaimed new shows, The Handmaid’s Tale, from MGM Television, is beautiful and haunting. Based on Margaret Atwood’s award-winning, best-selling novel, The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of life in the dystopian Gilead, a totalitarian society in what was formerly part of the United States. Facing environmental disasters and a plunging birth rate, Gilead is ruled by a twisted fundamentalist regime that treats women as property of the state. As one of the few remaining fertile women, Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is a Handmaid in the Commander’s (Joseph Fiennes) household, one of the caste of women forced into sexual servitude as a last desperate attempt to repopulate a devastated world. In this terrifying society where one wrong word could end her life, Offred navigates between Commanders, their cruel Wives, domestic Marthas and her fellow Handmaids - where anyone could be a spy for Gilead - with one goal: to survive and find the daughter that was taken from her.
In conceiving the look for the series, Director Reed Morano (episodes 1-3), a cinematographer herself, worked with Director of Photography Colin Watkinson to create a subtle, painterly palette with a visceral deployment of primary colors focused on red and blue. As the show would deliver in High Dynamic Range (HDR) – an ultra-high-contrast format with brighter pixels and greater perceived resolution – it was critical that the creative intent of the subdued look carry through to all audiences, whether they view the show in standard definition or HDR.
Watkinson noted, “We shot on Arri Alexa in 4K knowing Deluxe would take it to HDR in the grade. We chose particular lenses for the show and it was important to preserve that look.”
To ensure a consistent experience, the filmmakers worked with Deluxe, the global post-production company that has mastered more theatrical releases and episodics in HDR than any other company. Deluxe Toronto, Colorist Bill Ferwerda worked closely with Morano, Watkinson and on-set grader Ben Whaley to maintain the subtle layers of color in the show and accentuate when possible.
“The color red needed to stand out and be significant,” said Watkinson. “Everything in the production design from the color of the houses to the specific peacock blue of the wives’ wardrobe was selected really carefully.”
Ferwerda said, “In the HDR grade we took the muted look and keyed back the red and cyan to accentuate key colors. We would also emphasize an object art-directed in the shot – a vase, or a flower for a punch of color.” He said that they also paid careful attention to Offred’s eyes. “Elizabeth Moss does a lot of acting with her eyes. We have paid special attention to that, making sure her eyes are always visible and bright.”
About the overall look, Ferwerda said, “It’s very painterly and velvety. Colin’s lighting and mood were just gorgeous. Out of the gate it looked fantastic – you can stop on just about any still and it feels like a painting. It’s really an unusual look. So in HDR, if anything started to feel too real; too normal, we worked to inject different colors into the blacks or highlights. Blacks floated a bit higher on this show than they normally do.”
After testing the pilot episode by grading in SDR first, Ferwerda then followed the full DolbyVision CMU workflow for the show, starting the grade in HDR and deriving SDR from that. “Dolby Vision allows you to control both environments. When you map SDR from HDR you have trim functions to match. We just respected all SDR boundaries when we worked in HDR. There’s plenty of flexibility to take a look as far as you’d like or to keep it dialed back.”
Watkinson said, “Bill and Ben did their homework around this new format, and they made sure the look and intent were perfectly preserved. Everyone involved in making this show put their hearts and souls into it. It’s been an extraordinary experience.”
The Handmaid’s Tale is now airing on Hulu in the United States, on Bravo in Canada, and on Channel 4 in the UK.