Emmy-winning cinematographer Gregory Middleton (Watchmen, Game of Thrones) recently spoke with us about his latest project, Marvel’s Moon Knight.
Of the six episodes, Gregory served as the DP for episodes 1, 3, and the upcoming 5 and 6.
PH: Hi Gregory! Can you share a bit of your background and how long you've been a cinematographer?
Gregory Middleton: If I count the beginning of my career as my first feature credit, I have been working as a cinematographer for 25 yrs now. I was born in Montreal and started playing with the family Super 8 camera as a teen.
PH: You've worked on some pretty incredible projects such as Watchmen and Game of Thrones. How do you choose what projects to take on? Is it just a gut feeling or do you have any specific criteria?
Gregory Middleton: Firstly, it's not always possible to have choices in projects, but I've been very fortunate lately to sometimes have this privilege. There would be three factors I consider equally. The story, the filmmaking challenge, and the combination of people/collaborators. I want to connect to the story, what it's about and what might be unique about it. A story that illuminates our understanding of our fellow human beings somehow. A story that is timely. The filmmaking challenge is how and why we might tell this particular story. Can we make that unique, more moving, and memorable? Am I the right cinematographer for this specific challenge? I tend to see us sometimes cast as actors. We're professional and can all perform the role, but are we right for it. This brings me to the people. I love filmmakers and all their unique talents. I find it incredibly rewarding to crack scenes and methods and interpretations with them. We also spend a huge amount of time together, so it's important to enjoy each other's company and have talents and skills that complement well.
PH: Now you're working on Marvel's Moon Knight. How did you get involved with this one?
Gregory Middleton: My work on HBO's Watchmen, particularly Episode 6, initially brought me to their attention. This put me into the small pool of cinematographers that they submitted to Mohamed Diab, the show's main director. After that, it was an interview process.
PH: Are there any challenges associated with serving as DP for only certain episodes in a series? Is there a lot of collaboration with other DPs from other episodes?
Gregory Middleton: I've had experience with this on Watchmen and Game of Thrones. There is also significant collaboration on a series as complex as Moon Knight, where we are essentially telling one long story. This extends to the directors as well. We often share sets and develop plans together for those. It's also helpful as we compare notes on our shoot days, dailies, and various challenges. Andrew Palermo and I had not met until he joined the show, and he was a wonderful collaborator and teammate and a very nice guy.
PH: What did your pre-production process look like? Was there a vision in your mind before you started shooting?
Gregory Middleton: Initially, discussions focused on style, point of view, and how it shifted through the story. We also shot extensive tests to experiment with the lighting, color palate, and costumes. In addition, certain sequences required test shoots to determine a proof of concept, like the bathroom mirror scene at the end of episode 1. Many of these complex scenes involve detailed storyboarding or photo boarding. Those with extensive VFX elements also used pre-vis to assist in developing the scene.
PH: Let's dive into episode 5. This episode can be described as the “trippiest” of the episodes. Why is that?
Gregory Middleton: Well, Episode 5 is technically a journey through the past, which is hidden from 'Steven' and avoided and suppressed by 'Marc.' Because they are in this netherworld of the DUAT, the transitions and stops of this voyage are emotionally motivated, not physically so its a slightly disorienting ride. Now couple that with Oscar Issac playing both Steven and Marc, and it gets pretty trippy as they explore together! There are even scenes where they witness together earlier experiences of Marc... That's 3 Oscars in one scene. Then, of course, we have a fantastical element of the DUAT mental hospital, Dr. Harrow (a villain now as a psychiatrist) and Taweret out 9ft Hippopotamus Egyptian Goddess and her giant barge through the sandy sea of the Duat. A few trippy elements!
PH: How did you achieve these shots and the overall feel?
Gregory Middleton: We used various techniques to film Oscar in scenes with himself. For example, we dressed his brother Mike in the correct costume for over-shoulder shots. For others, we used a combination of locked-off cameras, nodal point pan tilts, and/or motion control for repeatable camera moves. For the transitions which are trying to be more seamless or disorienting, we tried to plan carefully using matching lenses, elements in the frame, etc. For example, there are 2 match cuts from Steven or Marc in the corridor set into DR Harrow's office, which give the impression he's been in the office the entire time, reliving the experience we just showed. So in some ways, it was every trick in the book!
PH: You also shot the finale. How much of a ride was that?
Gregory Middleton: It was a ride! A big part was coordinating with the 2nd Unit team that shot much of the action on the Cairo Streets. Darin Moran ( 2nd Unit DP ) did a great job matching style and was fun to collaborate with.
PH: Can you share some of the challenges associated with shooting the series?
Gregory Middleton: One big challenge is the twinning scenes with Oscar acting against himself. Planning and figuring out the shots to keep the illusion as seamless as possible and to allow for his outstanding performances to shine and hopefully make the audience forget there was any trickery going on. Another was the integration of VFX characters and special VX environments. At the end of Episode 3, there is a scene where Khonshu, with Steven;’s help, turns back the sky thousands of years, creating a custom lighting rig to project the sky moving across our sandhill set, and the cast was complicated. It had to have enough motion to make the shadows travel and be programmed to the beats of the scene. My amazing Hungarian lighting crew built a fantastic Rig.
PH: Do you have a favorite episode you shot? If so, why?
Gregory Middleton: I would say it's between the Pilot and Episode 5. The Pilot, because we were so strict with Steven's point of view, it's very entertaining. Ep 5 is the emotional climax of the show. It can still bring tears to me, and I was there! I'm very proud of the story we told about trauma, healing, and self-acceptance.
PH: We obviously have to ask about gear! Do you have any go-to equipment? What did you shoot on to make Moon Knight come to life?
Gregory Middleton: Cameras were Arri Alexa Mini LF. Arri Signature Primes and some Fujinon Zooms. We used a variety of support from Hand-Held to Steadicam and occasionally gimbaled.
PH: Can you talk about some of the ways the industry is changing and how that's good (and bad) in ways for the work you do?
Gregory Middleton: Preparation is getting more advanced and begins earlier. What’s more challenging recently is the scripts are not locked when the prep begins, which can be creatively exciting being involved in these changes, but it does pose some severe prep time budget squeezes!