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June 02, 2017

A Classic Take, Too

Film history gets its cinematic due in Westworld.

Sarah Hirsch
  • Laura Stabilini
  • HBO
  • HBO
  • HBO
  • HBO
  • HBO

To create the look for the pilot of HBO’s Westworld, cinematographer Paul Cameron, ASC, turned to some master film directors for inspiration.

“We aimed pretty high,” says Cameron, discussing his intent to shoot the pilot of the sci-fi Western against “a kind of John Ford landscape.” Set in a futuristic amusement park that allows visitors to live out their fantasies — often violent, sometimes sexual — without consequence, Westworld became the network’s most-watched series during its season-one run, averaging nearly 13 million viewers per episode.

While he had never shot a Western feature or series, Cameron had lensed many a Marlboro commercial.

He says it was decided within the first five minutes of his initial meeting with executive producer Jonathan Nolan to shoot on 35mm film, to give the series its cinematic scale and to properly capture its vast exteriors. (In addition to Nolan, executive producers include co-creator Lisa Joy, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk and the late Jerry Weintraub.)

Cameron’s biggest challenge would be the initial conceptualizing of the park. He scouted locations in Moab and Monument Valley, Utah, and ended up shooting some scenes at Harley Bates Ranch — private land just outside Moab. Doing so freed up the restrictions on shooting with horses, helicopters and tracking vehicles. There was also the train to consider, a large locomotive that the show’s characters use to travel throughout the park.

“I recommended that we bring the train to Moab so that we could shoot actual scenes with the red rocks of Utah outside the windows, as opposed to doing blue screen,” Cameron says. “It’s a great period vehicle to have come through a frame, to find the characters in the windows, with the town in the background. It’s a beautiful visual element.”

The interiors of park operations — conceived by Nathan Crowley, production designer on the pilot — show the influence of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. “That was drawn from a Kubrickian idea of a timeless space,” Cameron says. “We wanted to give it a futuristic feel, but we also wanted to ground it in the corporate reality of running a park like that.”

Cameron, who also served as the director of photography on the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, says these choices and countless more gave the series a much different look than the original 1973 film starring Yul Brynner. “I revered the film growing up — it was very imaginative, and I still respect it for that. Hopefully the series takes it to another level.”


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2017

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