Web Series: Hulu's <I>The Handmaid's Tale</I>
Issue: September 1, 2017

Web Series: Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, now streaming on Hulu, is one of the year’s most acclaimed new shows with 13 Emmy nominations, including cinematography, directing, acting and more. Based on author 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. The story is both haunting and mesmerizing, as audiences watch Offred navigate her way through one terrifying situation after another.

In creating the look for the series, director Reed Morano (Episodes 1 through 3), a cinematographer herself, worked closely with DP Colin Watkinson (who received an Emmy nomination for "Outstanding Cinematography" for his work on the show’s pilot episode) and on-set grader Ben Whaley. Deluxe Toronto colorist Bill Ferwerda then worked closely with the team to maintain the subtle layers of color throughout the rest of the series and accentuate when possible.

Here, the color choices were especially significant, since reds and blues played heavily in Atwood’s novel as the women were reduced to color assignments, based on the importance of their roles in society. The color red, for instance, was assigned to the handmaids, while blue was the color given to the commanders’ wives. 

“Early on, we had a lot of discussions about colors — what colors we were going to use and what would be complimentary colors,” says Watkinson. “Red was a really good starting point, the handmaids’ dresses, and then we were looking at the blues that would go with that. The color red needed to stand out and be significant. Everything in the production design from the color of the houses to the specific peacock blue of the wives’ wardrobe was selected really carefully. As we were doing that, everyone else started getting involved — wardrobe, production design — so everyone was working from the same palette. We also knew what sort of lighting we wanted, and compositionally what we wanted to do. We knew gradewise, we were going to be aggressive. We just didn’t quite know how aggressive. The first day, I think we did our on-set grades, which had been with Ben, who had a huge task ahead of him. We found that by day two, we got ourselves in the ballpark of where we wanted to be on the grade and then carried that through. What we wanted was for the show runners, Hulu and MGM to see what we were thinking right from the get go, so there would no surprises laterdown in the pipeline. The show didn’t change its look much, if at all, from the onset to the color palette. There was just a lot more finesse — Bill added his touches as we went along.”

Watkinson explained that the show was shot on Arri Alexa cameras in 4K, knowing that Deluxe would take it to HDR in the grade. “We chose particular lenses for the show,” he says, “and it was important to preserve that look.”

It was key for Ferwerda to maintain the look that had already been established by the time he came on board to the production. “Bill didn’t come on until a few weeks in,” explains Watkinson, “so we already set ourselves up fairly strongly. That was a hard task for Bill — we had to find somebody who could come in when we already had our strong decisions already made. So we didn’t want somebody to reinvent it for us, just somebody to grab hold of it and run with it. That was Bill’s challenge, and he did a great job. He sat down with Ben, went through everything we had done already and luckily he liked what we did. So we had a great relationship…he just carried on to the end.”

According to Ferwerda, “Colin did a beautiful job with the lighting. It was really amazing to work with his material — out of the gate — it was amazing. They already did a lot of work on-set. They had a clear vision of where they wanted this to go. They took advantage of mixing different colors in on top of the image. It wasn’t just blacks are blacks and whites are whites in a nicely balanced image…it was layers upon layers of color and they used colors to their advantages and certainly had colors representing certain worlds and certain scenes and moods and feelings. The color is definitely a character in the whole series.”

He continues that in the HDR grade, which he completed on DaVinci Resolve, “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 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.”

Ferwerda remembers a scene of Offred in the kitchen and thinking it looked so much like an old Dutch painting. “It had this beautiful feel to it,” he says. “They weren’t always hard contrasts, but rather it was a softer contrast. It just looked so beautiful.”

After testing the pilot episode by grading in SDR first, Ferwerda then followed the full Dolby Vision 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 concludes, “Bill and Ben did their homework around this new format, and they ensured the look and intent were perfectly preserved. Everyone involved in making this show put their hearts and souls into it.”