‘Hannibal’ cinematographer James Hawkinson on the show’s disturbing, dark beauty

As we conclude our conversation, James Hawkinson correctly notes that HitFix doesn't do many interviews with cinematographers.

While my departing colleague Kris Tapley actually has done a spectacular job interviewing big screen DPs for the site, Hawkinson is almost certainly the first TV cinematographer I've spoken with.

If you're going to talk to one TV cinematographer, though, it's hard to think of a better candidate than Hawkinson, who has shot NBC's “Hannibal” since its pilot. 

No matter what Emmy voters may think, “Hannibal” is currently in its third season as one of the most breathtaking visual spectacles on TV. It's a world of richly saturated colors, subtle gradations of darkness, teasing tricks of focus and the ability to get equal beauty out of a flayed body, a tower of corpses or a dinner composed of succulent preparations of “human” flesh. There's really nothing close on TV, like a little weekly art film of nightmares and fantasies that happens to air on NBC once a week. [Note: The interview was conducted before NBC announced it wouldn't be moving forward with a fourth season of “Hannibal,” though completed episodes will continue to air.]

Hawkinson's previous TV credits included “Community” and “Arrested Development,” but it was his short-form work with David Slade that brought him to the world of “Hannibal.” During a brief respite his shooting on the Amazon speculative drama “The Man in the High Castle,” Hawkinson and I discussed all of the things he's getting away with on “Hannibal,” including the precise colors, the degrees of darkness and the disturbing imagery that keeps making it to TV.

Hawkinson shared fun details about the Norman Chapel heart-stag creature, the  extended fight scene that bookended Season 2 and the lines of communication between creator Bryan Fuller, the show's various directors and its regular cinematographer. 

It's a good conversation and probably an argument to interview more TV cinematographers. Now if only more TV shows looked like “Hannibal.” 

Check out the full Q&A…

HitFix: How frequently do fellow cinematographers check in with you after watching an episode and they”re just astounded and jealous about what you”re getting away with on that show?

James Hawkinson: [He laughs.] You know it”s kind of minimal to tell you the truth. Cinematographers we all live in our own different world. And but I do run into the occasional guy that”s like, “What the hell did you do there?” or something. But that”s a great question, but the reality is like we just we”re all like in our different worlds, on different sets and all that. And the only time we ever interface with each other is at the ASC awards like once a year. But I believe what I”m doing is influential, certainly that”s kind of the energy that I”m feeling from the work.

HitFix: Was there a shot or a scene in the first season where you first experienced for yourself that sort of “I can”t believe what I”m getting away with doing here kind” of giddiness?

James Hawkinson: Yeah, there was a lot of that. I think even just on the pilot itself where, that opening shot of Hannibal Lecter, the first time you see him and a very specific shot that David Slade designed, there was a very specific shot where he”s garnishing his fork and then we come up and I lit him like just a death head, chewing in the darkness. And that was like definitely like one of those moments where all the hairs go up on the back of your neck like, “Oh my god, that is a powerful introduction to this character and this is definitely not network television.” And then the same thing the first time that he fixes Will breakfast. It”s just very simple, two guys sitting at a table eating, but they”re lit just by a slit of light coming through these curtains. And again that was one of those moments where it was like, “Wow, this is really special. This is really down and definitely not network.”

HitFix: Well you didn”t come from this kind of background. You came largely from music videos and single-cam comedies. Were they looking for someone who wasn”t in the rut of what network television drama looks like to shoot this?

James Hawkinson: I'd been working with David for 15 years or something, off and on, on short form stuff and definitely if you look at my body of work there”s a lot of range to what I do in terms of a high-key comedy to a very low-key suspense kind of lighting. So certainly my television path has been comedies but the features I”ve done have been more suspense and darker kind of work. Honestly, I got the gig to do the pilot because of the director. We had just done some work together and so I think I was fresh in David”s mind and he gave me the call. The timing worked out perfectly, because I was up for some other things that would have been more comedy and I definitely was grateful for the change to get into our drama and for the challenges to embrace those.

HitFix: How much of the look of the show is achieved on-set, in-camera and how much really has to be tinkered with in post?

James Hawkinson: A great deal is in-camera. We do a great deal of bloodwork and really time consuming things on set. Obviously there is a fair amount of CG, but not as much as you”d think. So when someone gets their throat slit or whatever, that really is a prosthetic application with blood rigs and pumps and all that kind of stuff. So we do a great deal of practical and then it”s augmented with CG. Of course there are sequences where there”s going to be CG than others. I don”t want to spoil it, but like what”s coming up this season. You”ll see some very elaborate, operatic kind of shots.

HitFix: How about the colors? How much is color-timing, after-the-fact? How much do you have to get everything precisely right after or is it all, again, in camera when possible?

James Hawkinson: A lot of the color is in camera and then I do things with the camera on set to limit the palettes of what happens in the capture and then certainly everything is color-timed later. Our flashback sequences are sometimes in black-and-white and obviously that”s not something that you do in-camera on the set, but something you can later. But a lot of the color, I sit on set I have a full d.i.g. setup where I can color the dailies so everybody gets used to the look that we”re trying to achieve. 

HitFix: I know that some cinematographers after-the-fact like to be in the room with the computers watching every bit to make sure that everything after-the-fact looks right. Do you do that? Or do you send it off and it's gone?

James Hawkinson: Yeah. Basically what happens is we color at Technicolor and even if I”m in Los Angeles I can go to the Technicolor office here at Sunset and Gower and I get put in a darkroom with monitors and they put Toronto on speakerphone and I go through the show with the colorist. It”s great. It”s really great. I really love that system. But yeah I basically watch every episode and color-time every episode. 

HitFix: When it comes to the setups and the tableaux themselves, how much are the lighting and photography issues steered by what you can or can”t show from almost a content point-of-view at times?

James Hawkinson: There”s a lot of that. For instance, the first time that you see Hannibal Lecter kill somebody, it”s in Season 1 episode seven or eight. Somewhere around there. And I lit it very silhoutte-y so that you could switch out stuntmen with the real actors and it would play. So I was intentionally leaving things dark so that you could use the shots with the stuntmen. When it came to Season 2, the fight between Hannibal and Jack, it was in the kitchen and I remember telling the producers in the production meeting, “Look this is going to be hard for me if you”re gonna want to switch out stuntmen.” It ended up that the real actors did that fight themselves. Like every take there”s not one shot of a stuntman in that fight sequence. 

HitFix: That”s kind of ridiculous actually. 

James Hawkinson: It”s pretty special. When you”ve got Mads Mikkelsen and Laurence Fishburne going at it in a full choreographed fight and you physically can”t switch them out, it”s something else. It”s really amazing.

HitFix: I have to imagine that in general these setups take potentially a spectacularly long amount of time. What is this like for the actors, from what you can tell?

James Hawkinson: Well, we”re in television shows so we have to be very efficient and we always have a certain page count for the day. When it comes to a fight sequence, it might be a page-and-a-half, but it”s certainly going to take a day to do it. And even then you”re probably going to owe some things, another half day or something of that sequence. The actors, they have their challenges in front of them because there are some days where they”re going to have to do five pages of dialogue or something like that and some days where they”re going to have to get down and dirty and get into a fight or whatever. But I don”t know. It”s a hard question to answer actually.

HitFix: Well when you say, that some days you”re going to have to owe something and obviously on some shows there can be very simple shots that you could do on those days that you could run through quickly. It seems like most everything on this show is in some way heightened or stylized. What do you save for the days where you know that you need to make up time?

James Hawkinson: Think about that fight sequence with Jack and Hannibal. They really go at it in the kitchen and then it culminates with Jack getting a shard of glass in the neck. And then he goes into the pantry and locks the door. That”s probably where a logical, “Okay, we”ll pick up the Jack pantry part later,” because that in itself is going to require its own blood rigs. Do you know what I mean? Like now it”s like, “Okay now we”re inside the pantry with him and blood is spurting out of his neck.” That, in itself, whenever you read that kind of thing you know it”s going to be time consuming. So obviously like on a day like that it”s, “Okay, let”s get him into the pantry and then we”ll pick that up tomorrow or next week or whatever.”

HitFix: You talked about the amount that you guys shoot sometimes in very low light. And “Hannibal” makes more use of gradations of darkness than any show on network TV. Did it take a learning curve on your part to become confident that the things you were shooting were actually even going to show up on TV at all?

James Hawkinson: You always have an understanding of where the black actually sits and we have a thing called a wave form monitor that basically can show you where everything is sitting — skin tones at this percentage, that shadow at that percentage, et cetera. I just really go by instinct and intuition and what I feel is right for the tone and the scene and I just kind of have that confidence and experience to work in such dark worlds.

HitFix: But presumably you guys are working, really and truly, in a darker world than anyone else on network TV. Does someone get antsy about that?

James Hawkinson: Not when the accolades start coming in about how appropriate it is. Do you know what I mean? Certainly when top execs may be see like really dark imagery they”re knee-jerk reaction might be, “Oh I”m not seeing enough,” but when it”s cut and it”s put out and people are responding so positively, then they completely accept it.

HitFix: The other side of that of course is that “Hannibal” really benefits from being watched on a 50-inch TV screen. How conscious are you of people watching on computers or even, God forbid, on phones, especially when you”re dealing with light at those low levels?

James Hawkinson: I won”t pander to the lowest common denominator and that being said, whenever you hear somebody shrug and say “Hey most people are going to see this on their computer,” it”s like then you”re just giving to the lowest common denominator. And so I”m not really that concerned about it, to tell you the truth. I think it holds up on iPads or it holds up on phones or whatever. You know, you”ve got to go to the highest mark I think and not worry about the lowest mark. 

HitFix: Do you ever sit down and watch a few minutes of it on your phone just to get a feeling for it?

James Hawkinson: I watch dailies on my iPad quite a bit and I”m always scrolling through still frames on my iPhone. And like I say, it all holds up, you know. It”s not like something has to be brighter just because it”s gonna be on your phone or your iPad. 

[More on Page 2, including food porn and Hawkinson's most disturbing images, plus a little “Man in the High Castle” talk…]

HitFix: I want to talk about the food. Are you the kind of person who takes food porn shots on your phone when you eat a good meal? Is that an instinct you have?

James Hawkinson: Like if I”m at a really nice restaurant and I get served my food do I take a photo of it?

HitFix: Sure.

James Hawkinson: Rarely. But usually only if I”m trying to make a friend of mine jealous about what I”m eating. That's such a new cultural phenomena isn”t it? People taking photos.

HitFix: Still, you go to a good restaurant and a quarter of the people at the restaurant are doing it these days. 

James Hawkinson: Yeah it”s funny. 

HitFix: But okay, how about then on the show on those days when you have to be shooting the food?

James Hawkinson: I eat the food is what I do on those days. Janice Poon and I have a deal worked out where I”m an official food taster of the show. So I”m always guaranteed a plate of whatever she”s cooking. 

HitFix: But is there a different approach to shooting the food as opposed to an actor?

James Hawkinson: Well, I don”t know. That”s a hard question. I mean certainly there is. I mean you want it to be intoxicatingly beautiful, what you”re shooting, and certainly there”s a lot of slow motion and different camera tricks to make the food more interesting and appetizing. 

HitFix: The joke is always that on commercials the food is made out of soap or glycerin or something entirely inedible. But this is all edible?

James Hawkinson: Oh yeah. Yeah it”s all edible. It might not be the exact food that they”re pitching. It might be a vegetarian paté rather than a real duck paté or something like that. It might be a little different, the ingredients of what it is. But it”s all real food. It”s all edible.

HitFix: Well I didn”t figure you were actually using human paté for those particular scenes.

James Hawkinson: Well certainly yeah. Certainly there”s that. I was also thinking of ortolan. Certainly there”s food like that that”s illegal. Not to mention eating human flesh is illegal.

HitFix: This season you guys got to do some work in Europe. How much were you actually overseas shooting?

James Hawkinson: I personally didn”t go over. They did second unit work over in Italy. It was three days shoot in Florence and then there was another unit that did a couple of days in Paris, I believe. So Guillermo Navarro actually was the director on the foreign stuff and he”s a DP himself, so he just shot the stuff over there while I was shooting a whole episode back in Toronto. So it was just a couple of small second units just went out and got some shots of the real locations while we did all the interior work in Toronto.

HitFix: What is the balance of communication like between Bryan Fuller, the individual episodic director and you? Who talks to who? Who”s not supposed to talk to who? And does it change when you have an established director? 

James Hawkinson: Well certainly on “Hannibal,” I shoot every episode. Basically I”m working five days a week. I don”t prep. On “The Man in the High Castle,” I”m sharing the show with another DP, so I get to actually scout locations with the director and interface a lot. So a lot of the communication is coming through the director. On “Hannibal,” Bryan”s basically communicating with the director who”s then communicating with me.

HitFix: But does that change if it”s someone who isn”t a veteran of the “Hannibal” universe and doesn”t know maybe what the visual rules of the universe are?

James Hawkinson: That”s a really complicated question because there”s times where I”ve been asked to do shots that I didn”t feel were the show. And as the director of photography, keeping the aesthetics consistent from director to director, I have to protect and justify the aesthetics of the show. So that”s kind of a torch that I kind of just bear, whatever director comes in. And certainly when you have a directly like David Slade come in, there”s already such creative shorthand that I don”t have to even wage those arguments.

HitFix: Talk to me a bit about what might be something that someone might say to you, “Okay, I want this shot” that would cause you to go “Okay, this is not a 'Hannibal' shot.”

James Hawkinson: Say someone has a vision of a dead person and I”ll be asked by a guest director to put smoke and backlight. And I”ll argue that the twins in “The Shining” – “Did you see them standing there with smoke and backlight?” Dude, as soon as you do it becomes hokey and it becomes a B-movie and it”s cliché. So the horror in “Hannibal” is more based in some sort of reality. Yes it”s heightened but it”s still like “The Shining” in that there”s nothing fantastical about it. 

HitFix: Sometimes it varies between the things that are extremely graphic and the things that are graphic if you actually give them a second thought. 

James Hawkinson: Right, right. 

HitFix: Do you ever peek through your camera and say “There”s no way we”re actually going to be able to get this on air”?

James Hawkinson: Well I did when we first started this project and then I mean like the first episode we had an open cadaver on an autopsy table and I remember a lot of muttering about saying, “Oh we”ll never get this on air.” Well, by the second episode we had like 15 people growing mushrooms out of their bodies. And they just kept going and then we had people filleted and hung up like angels. It just seems like a few episodes in and we really didn”t even think about it anymore.

HitFix: Personally, I thought that the expanding heart-stag-body thing in Episode 2 this season was the most disturbing thing I”ve seen on the show. What would you point to as your most disturbing image?

James Hawkinson: That”s definitely one of them. Yeah, that”s an amazing one. One of my favorites still is the angel maker. I love those people praying in that motel room with their backs cut into wings. That was pretty disturbing. The totem pole is pretty disturbing as well. That big mound of people. But that heart, that”s a beautiful sequence isn”t it? That whole journey into that stag. That was really interesting how we did that. That was actually live puppeteers moving that stag. That”s not a CG creature. 

HitFix: That is unreal. I was astounded both that it started going there and that it went as far as it did. 

James Hawkinson: Yeah and that”s a beautiful set as well. That”s our Norman Chapel set. And again we started the season we were thinking about going to Europe more than we ended up going to, because we contacted the real Normal Chapel and it was like, “Hey, can we put this heart-cadaver thing in…” “Uh no.”

HitFix: Talking a bit about “The Man in the High Castle,” in the pilot at least it seemed as if there were a lot of digital environments. How comfortable are you in that world and how actually how accurate is that assessment. It sounded like there was a lot of green screen-type backdrops in that. Is that right?

James Hawkinson: There was actually no green screen at all in the pilot. But that”s not to say that there wasn”t a great deal of visual effects. It just means that they had to roto and use other techniques to find keys, et cetera. A lot of that is augmentation of real environments. So in other words you know that like okay, from that intersection in the background from that intersection up, they”re going to build a San Francisco street going up. And it was more that kind of thing. It was more like set extensions, et cetera, than like people on green screens in green screen environments.

HitFix: Was there a calculated effort then to avoid that kind of thing? Because certainly there are Vancouver facilities that are all gigantic green screens that presumably you could have worked on if someone wanted to do that.

James Hawkinson: Yeah I think like the shot of Joe walking through Times Square, that massive shot, that would have been impossible to do with green screens because I mean we”re talking about a 50-foot crane on a 100 feet of track that swings… I don”t know… It swings like a great degree. I mean it would have taken hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of feet of green screen to achieve that shot. So we just ended up just planning it really carefully. That opening of Joe in Times Square was just one huge parking lot at night that we just created the whole world out of. And all the cars are real, the marquee, the sidewalk, all that is real. Everything beyond is fake. I just had scaffolding with lights on it to represent the center of Times Square and things like that. 

HitFix: And was that a gig that you got because you”d worked with David Semel when he directed his “Hannibal” episode?

James Hawkinson: That”s exactly right, yeah. It was the second pilot that he”s offered me. He had offered me “Madam Secretary,” but I was unavailable. 

HitFix: And so when do you might know about a “Hannibal” season four and what are your thoughts sort of regarding that on the horizon. [Again: The interview was conducted before NBC announced it wouldn't be moving forward with a fourth season of “Hannibal.”]

James Hawkinson: I don”t know. It”s like I know that we don”t own Clarice Starling and that”s what season four should be. So not to say that Bryan and Steve wouldn”t be able to fabricate an alternate-type character but I haven”t a clue about that type of thing. And I don”t even know what the ratings have been these past few episodes… And I”ve had my head so deep in this other project that I haven”t reached out to anyone from the “Hannibal” cast. Yeah, we”ll see.

“Hannibal” airs Thursday nights at 10 p.m. on NBC.