Artist Spotlight, Pro Tips

The Power of Cinematography in HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’


If there’s one word that’s been most widely used by audience when discussing Chernobyl, it’s “stressful.” The mini-series excels at turning the screw on the ever-worsening events behind the real-life disaster depicted on screen. Much of that is helped by the air of dutiful accuracy with which Chernobyl presents itself. We spoke with Swedish cinematographer Jakob Ihre about the productions’ pursuit of that accuracy, and how he helped make it happen.

Doing the Homework

Creating a representation of a real-life event the scale of Chernobyl meant doing a lot of homework in the four months of pre-production. Much of it was dedicated to historical research, resulting in a massive, shareable archive the creatives were given access to. Documents, images, and footage were all included. Most influential was Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich’s book “Voices of Chernobyl” which draws on interviews with many of the event’s eye witnesses and involved parties (many of whom appear in the TV series). “That book was really our bible, in terms of getting an insight into the people, into the characters that we were portraying,” Ihre says.

The cinematographer’s exposure to that research had an impact on Ihre’s vision of Chernobyl. “The first month you think about what you want to do, but you’ve done more research and gone into the location, you’re realizing your approach was wrong in some way,” he says. “With more facts, and with more information, you can make the decision on how to approach the project from a cinematography point of view.”

Image from HBO's 'Chernobyl'


On-the-Ground Authenticity

The authenticity of Chernobyldidn’t just come from research, but the shooting locations. The show was shot near the real-life events in Lithuania and Ukraine. Even the crew were tied to the area’s tragic history. “Many of the local Ukrainian and Lithuanian crew members had grandparents, even parents, that had been part of this,” Ihre says.

The area offered a stroke of luck, as well: on the border of Belarus was the Chernobyl power plant’s twin, which looks identical. They could not only shoot the exteriors there, but also the hallways inside, which were the same as Chernobyl’s. “I think it gave our film a more in-depth feeling for what we were doing,” he says. What couldn’t be shot on site was created on sets. The exterior façade of the damaged Chernobyl reactor was, in particular, created in a distinct way at a film studio. “They made the front of the film studio into the reactor. When you went inside the reactor, it was the actual film studio inside,” Ihre says. “When we approached the façade, you could actually enter the reactor, you could enter the core, and it became a maze of corridors and rooms.” The ability to take the camera from inside to out was a major boost to making shots of environments feel more believable.

Image from HBO's 'Chernobyl'


Lighting for Radioactivity

It wasn’t just visual details he aspired to, but also an authentic mood that could be conveyed by lighting. Take the hellish scenes outside the destroyed and burning nuclear reactor early in the mini-series. “We had the biggest crane in Europe holding up this enormous light, simulating a fire effect. But that light was not normal fire color. It had some green to it. That was to get away from a romanticized warm fire and instead have something more toxic looking,” Ihre says. It also had an intentional flickering quality to convey the feeling of radioactivity in the air, something carried forward through series. “We wanted to portray the feeling that the world that they were surrounded by was changing,” Ihre says. “We wanted to show that the world is more unstable.”

Chernobyl accomplished that by allowing the exposure in rooms to change as the sun moved in and out of clouds, or as fluorescents flicker and struggle with sputtering generators. It even applied to outdoor moments. “We often let our sun be quite overexposed,” Ihre says. “In a normal film I wouldn’t let our sun, or the lights that we have, be overexposed, but we want to get the feeling that people have almost been burned by the sun, or being burnt by the radioactivity … The sicker people got, the more sun was hitting them, and the more overexposed they got.”

Image from HBO's 'Chernobyl'


Bringing the Human to the Political

As much as production aspired to authenticity and a mood of believability, it wasn’t the end goal, so much as the means to another. “In the end, it was not really about the technical services and the logistic journey. It was all about ‘Are we portraying these people correctly? Will the audience see that we are remorseful? That we are also saddened by this, and that we are almost ashamed that we have to show this to the world.’”

The Chernobyl team wanted to make a humanist film. “We were doing a portrait of humankind in turmoil, in despair,” Ihre says, which is why the project’s shooting strategy changed at one point. Initially, they wanted to use anamorphic lenses to capture “weight of the machinery of the Soviet Union” but that would have meant sacrificing the ability to allow the camera to get close to the people involved. They changed their approach to be more character-focused. “They’re shot as intimately as possible with people without creating too much of a footprint,” Ihre says.

Beyond the humanist elements, Ihre also feels they were making a political film, a cautionary tale. “We had to show the world what happened, and that it should not happen again,” he says.

Top Image: Jared Harris and Emily Watson in ‘Chernobyl.’ All photos courtesy of HBO.