The dystopian world of Gilead in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a hard one to forget. In addition to its many terrifying aspects, that’s due in large part to the meticulous visual look of the show — from the quickly iconic red handmaiden outfits to the starkly lit and monochromatic environments and Emmy-nominated cinematography.
With the third season of the critically acclaimed series arriving on our screens, we spoke with cinematographer Zoë White, who worked on both season 2 and 3, about how she found her way to joining The Handmaid’s Tale team, what rules dictate the look of the show, and the ways in which working on the project has changed her.
Once shooting on the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale wrapped, cinematographer Colin Watkinson knew he needed help. He had shot every episode, which had left him with few breaks, and not enough time to prep as much as he would have liked. Moving forward, he wanted another cinematographer to alternate episodes with, and so a search began. Lists of DOPs were compiled, but Watkinson noticed something early on. “Where are the women?” he asked.
“I’m just grateful he said that, because it meant that my reel was put on the list,” White says. Watkinson was impressed with her eye, and an interview was quickly arranged. “We ended up just having a conversation about ourselves, what kind of people we were, and different things we liked,” White recalls. “He was perhaps checking what kind of personality match we would be, in order to be able to team up and collaborate together on the season.” She got the job to take on six of the second season’s 13 episodes.
Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale, Photo courtesy of Hulu
Learning the Rules of the Series
Joining the second season of a firmly established show wasn’t without its jitters for White. “You feel like the new kid at school. You’ve arrived and everybody’s already established. Everyone knows each other, and everybody’s excited for what’s new about the season, and you have to figure out what your place is within that world,” she explains.
She also had to figure out how to adapt to a visual style she hadn’t originated, which she had never done before. “On a technical level, I didn’t feel completely like I understood how they did it,” she reveals. “I wanted to shoot the show the way Colin did, because I just thought it was beautiful. I felt like it was my responsibility to maintain that continuity, so I took it as my duty to really try and deconstruct how he did it and find my own way of being able to emulate that and take it under my belt.”
Thankfully, there were also established stylistic rules around lensing, lighting, color palettes, and camera positioning to work with. For example: “We have a feeling of closeness to characters, so we’d put a lens up close to the character and be on a slightly wider focal length, rather than, say, over the shoulder on the long lens,” White says. “It was a real dream to be able to be invited to uncover all those layers and find out for myself how to achieve such a strong look.”
Yvonne Strahovski in The Handmaid’s Tale, Photo courtesy of Hulu
An Unconventional Approach
Among the series rules White learned, one ranks especially high: “There’s a real mandate for the show to be shot with polish, to really perfect our vision for the shots,” she explains. “And there’s a demand for it to be shot unconventionally, to try and push the boundaries of the conventional.”
That starts early with any scene, beginning with dialogue exchanges. “Every day, on any given scene, you’d read the script and you’d try to think of what shots were not normal. What’s a different way to cover two people talking? How do you put two people in a room and move them around the room in a way that feels unusual or evocative in innovative ways?” White says.
The “shoot unconventionally” rule was used to distinguish scenes that take place in the numerous oppressive indoor environments throughout Gilead. “One rule of thumb that Colin always had was that if you’re shooting in a house, there’s no limit to the times of day that you can try to evoke according to the direction of the light and the quality of it,” White says. “You could try a harder shaft of light or a softer quality of light and that would completely change the look of the room. We had many different looks which we would develop on set and adjust for every single scene. We might try a warmer look one day and a completely cool look another day,” she continues. “There’s no one given angle. You want to create a variety of directions that give you enough to create interest for an entire season of shooting in one house.”
Joseph Fiennes in The Handmaid’s Tale, Photo courtesy of Hulu
The call for boldness also meant a welcome coupling of rule-following and creative freedom for White. “It was a balance of trying to stick to the rules and the ingredients that I figured out that were successful, and also trying to evolve and develop these into the episodes that we had still to shoot,” she says. “It was always really exciting to be able to have that confidence to create something that was truly based on my own instincts, and then coupling that with the level of design and the color palette of our production design team and that iconic red handmaid dress.”
The Handmaid’s Tale is a show rooted not just in characters, but in very different points of view. White puts a lot of thought into how to evoke the POV of different characters with her cameras. “I think about where the character is, or who the character is, and what they’re looking at. How do you put yourself in the character’s shoes, and how do you experience the scene from their point of view?” the cinematographer asks herself.
Composition becomes a way to explore those questions. “If you have a character who’s being threatened, how do you evoke the sensation of being under pressure and there being tension and danger in the room? That might translate to a certain contrast and darkness and mysteriousness for the room, or it might translate to the camera being placed higher or lower to diminish or empower your character,” she says.
“Sometimes you might find ways to subvert that, and do what could be the opposite. You could put your subject in the middle of a really exposed large space and diminish them in the sense of having a really, really large architectural frame with just a small singular figure, which might evoke a sense of being exposed or alone or isolated or insignificant. There’s many ways to translate the way you want something to feel, and there’s a lot of gut instinct that comes with deciding what it is that you think is most effective for a particular moment.”
Creating powerful points of view on the show is also aided by working with accomplished actors like Elizabeth Moss. “It never stops surprising me,” White says of Moss’ expressive face. “It’s amazing to have the chance to put the same person, the same face into many different settings, and to try and find new ways to light her and to create equality and collaborate. I might find that a shot somehow looks like another shot we’ve done of her in the past, which just provokes me to give it another layer of thought and come up with something that might make it feel a little different, or a little more impactful.”
Moss is also a savvy collaborator in making that happen. “She understands the camera like nobody I’ve ever worked with before,” White says. “She knows the difference between a 24mm up near her face and a 135mm shot from the doorway. She understands what you’re doing with the lens and what you’re doing with the placement of the camera — how close it is to her, or how high it is. She can move around the room and find the light.”
Cinematographer Zoë White, © Zoë White, All Rights Reserved
Developing a Voice
With 12 episodes from seasons 2 and 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale under her belt, White is feeling the impact on her own development as an artist. “I’m coming out of the show with a lot more depth of understanding of my own voice,” she says. “I feel more deeply in tune with my own instincts because of working on this show. I understand the tools more now in a way that lets me use them in relation to my own instincts. Working on The Handmaid’s Tale has helped me develop a really strong sense of what I like and what I don’t like, and when I feel really excited about shooting something in particular or trying a certain way of lighting — it’s about just getting the chance to try so many things and being encouraged to shoot boldly.”
Top image: Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale, Photos courtesy of Hulu