Stephan Pehrsson, BSC shoots on DXL2 and partners with Light Iron to realize the vibrant visuals of the series Utopia.
The comic book Dystopia tells the story of Jessica Hyde, a young girl on the run from the evil Mr. Rabbit, who holds Jessica’s scientist father captive and forces him to create unthinkable biological horrors. Written and illustrated by an anonymous artist, Dystopia has earned legions of fans, some of whom have found far deeper meaning in its pages and believe clues to real-world viruses and pandemics are layered into its artwork.
One such group of obsessives, who have only known each other through their online interactions, come together and finally meet in person for Fringe Con, where an unwitting couple has plans to auction the recently discovered original artwork for Utopia, Dystopia’s unpublished and never-before-seen sequel. Desperate to unlock Utopia’s secrets, these friends are instead thrust into the heart of a vast conspiracy and forced to run for their lives alongside none other than Jessica Hyde — who is in fact a real, living person, with a backstory that exactly matches the one told on the printed page.
So begins the eight-episode series Utopia, developed by showrunner Gillian Flynn and now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. As cinematographer Stephan Pehrsson, BSC says of the story’s happenings, “Everything is calculated, and there are dark forces controlling all of it.”
When Panavision spoke with Pehrsson in mid-September, he was in London, nine weeks into production on another series. Despite Utopia’s subject matter, the cinematographer says the series’ release comes at a time the filmmakers never could have imagined during production, as the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. “Hopefully people will see it as a piece of entertainment,” he offers, “and not a handbook for how to live life.”
Pehrsson was brought onto Utopia by director Toby Haynes, who would ultimately direct Episodes 1, 2, 3 and 8. Pehrsson shot each of Haynes’ episodes as well as Episode 6, and cinematographer Shawn Kim came aboard to shoot Episodes 4, 5 and 7. Kim joined the production after Pehrsson but still “very early on,” Pehrsson notes. “We sent references back and forth, and he brought a lot of visual ideas. It was great to have him as a collaborator and be able to pick his brain.
“Toby and I go way back,” Pehrsson adds, noting that he and the director attended the U.K.’s National Film and Television School together. “We have a shorthand. We know what the other person is thinking before he says it.” Their professional collaborations have included the Emmy winning Black Mirror episode “U.S.S. Callister,” and it was in part thanks to that project’s success, Pehrsson says, that “Toby was invited over to the U.S. to direct Utopia, and he brought me along. We’ve done it before where we set up a show in a different country with a new crew, so we were confident we could make it work.”
The series was shot in and around Flynn’s hometown of Chicago, Ill. Pehrsson began his prep in February 2019, with production starting in May and lasting into October.
Flynn’s story was inspired by and adapted from the British series of the same name, which aired for two seasons. “I was in awe of the original,” Pehrsson says of the show, which was created by Dennis Kelly and photographed by BSC members Ole Bratt Birkeland and Lol Crawley. “It was super-strong, incredible television, with a distinct style. It’s very controlled, with stark frames that are all about the graphic nature of the surroundings. But Gillian had her own take, so when we started, we took it our own way.”
Given the central conceit of its storyline, that a graphic novel contains world-shaking secrets, “we knew we wanted to merge comic books and conspiracy thrillers,” Pehrsson reflects. “We looked at classic conspiracy thrillers like The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor and The Icpress File, and we talked about pushing the colors and not being afraid of making it bold in that way.
“Gillian was very hands-on and very clear, but Toby was also given the freedom to be creative and put his own vision and ideas into it,” Pehrsson continues. “He loves handheld and the sense of immediacy of being with the characters. Jessica Hyde [portrayed by Sasha Lane] has been on the run since she was a small child, and she has this crazy energy; it felt appropriate to follow her energy and be a bit wild and handheld with the camera in her scenes.”
The filmmakers did follow the lead of the original Utopia with their choice of the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Where the original had been captured spherically, however, Pehrsson and his collaborators made the choice to shoot anamorphic. During prep, the cinematographer shares, “We were blown away by the qualities of Panavision’s anamorphic lenses, especially the T Series. There was nothing we could find elsewhere that could beat the look or the technical benefits. Normally with anamorphics, it’s a 4-foot minimum focus, a T-stop of 4 — all those things you have to compensate for when shooting. But with the T Series, it had all the right visual qualities, the anamorphic flare, but with a 2-foot close focus, and you can shoot them wide open [at T2.3 for every focal length up to and including 135mm]. That made a huge difference. This was the first chance I had to shoot with proper Panavision lenses, which was very exciting, and the T Series was great.”
In particular, the cinematographer notes, “The 28mm rarely left the camera. The whole show was pretty much shot on the 28mm and the 35mm. We wanted to shoot wide, close to the actors, and put them in the center of the frame. The actors were often looking at a tape mark on the matte box because we were so close!”
Sourcing their package through Panavision Chicago, the filmmakers paired the T Series optics with Panavision’s Millennium DXL2 camera, capturing 5K with a 2:1 anamorphic squeeze. “We looked at and tested a lot of different cameras, but the DXL2 felt like the right way to go,” Pehrsson notes. “It’s built in a way that feels like a proper camera, with menus you can easily understand and access and quickly change without too much technical know-how. It’s a great camera.”
Whenever possible, the crew would run two cameras simultaneously. “When you have a 28mm close to someone’s nose, it can be hard to fit another camera in there, but most of the time we managed to find something interesting for the other camera,” Pehrsson says. “Especially for television, two cameras are invaluable for long dialogue scenes with lots of characters, extra eyelines, and the added beats and cutaways you never have time for when you shoot single camera.”
The production also took advantage of the DXL2’s native 1600 ISO. “I was excited that the DXL2 had that extra light sensitivity,” the cinematographer notes. “Having that extra bit of stop really helped, especially on night exteriors. Sometimes we went to 3200, and it could totally handle that; I never noticed any noise. That was very useful for this project.”
Throughout the production, dailies were produced locally by Light Iron Chicago. “The first couple of days, on wrap, I would go in and sit with the dailies colorist for a bit to make sure we were thinking along the same lines,” Pehrsson recalls, “and then we set up certain tweaks along the way.”
The Utopia crew also worked with Light Iron for the show’s final color, which was performed by supervising colorist Ian Vertovec and additional colorist Ethan Schwartz in Los Angeles. Pehrsson says the decision to partner with Light Iron for Utopia was made after he and Haynes spoke with Vertovec. “We had a good chat with him before we started,” the cinematographer says. “The initial conversation with a colorist is basically to see if you’re going to be able to communicate, if you’re on the same wavelength. You just want to make sure you get on. Ian certainly had those qualities, plus he had a fantastic CV with amazing credits. We felt that he was the right person to do it and it had to be Light Iron — we couldn’t go anywhere else. And they were great. I really enjoyed the post process.”
On set, the crew monitored the DXL2 footage with the Light Iron Color 2 Film LUT applied. “That looked really nice,” Pehrsson notes. “A lot of the look was set up from the beginning with that LUT — and that was developed by Ian in the first place, so he’d already done half the work before we even started!”
After wrapping principal photography, Pehrsson says, “I had a few days’ hiatus before we shot some pickups, and I was able to fly out to L.A. for some grading days. So I got to sit in the room with Ian and go through a few episodes, which was great. He’d had a pass at it already when I turned up, and then I just tried to push it a bit further. Vivid blues, yellows, reds — whatever colors were in the scene, we tried to push them forward. Combined with the wide lenses, it gives the show a distinct style.”
Vertovec describes that style as “pushed, exaggerated, colorful and contrasty. It made for a fun challenge to push things as far as we could without going too far. When you find that balance, it’s very satisfying. Stephan really drew where the line was, and we would go all the way up to the line but not over it.”
As guideposts to let them know if they’d ventured too far, Vertovec and Schwartz would keep a sharp eye out for any noise or other visual distraction. “When you add too much saturation, you start getting noise, because you’re enhancing the differential between the colors,” Vertovec explains. “Also, certain things become distracting in the background because they’re way more colorful than skin tone and people’s faces. Grass, or a blue house, or a comic book will just explode and draw your eye if you saturate too much, and then you’re not really looking at the person anymore.
“Instead of merely increasing the overall saturation, one of the challenges was to find a way to saturate the colors that were less saturated, but not the colors that were already saturated,” Vertovec continues. “It was totally dynamic. Depending on if it was an interior or an exterior, or day or night, different things would be brighter or darker or more colorful. So we had to devise a way to nonlinearly enhance the image. In Baselight, we isolated and enhanced the less colorful things a lot, and then did less enhancement to the colors that were already popping.”
Vertovec also sought “to add a film-like contrast only to low-frequency areas of broad, coarse detail without making the image feel too sharp,” he explains. “It almost has a bloomy black halation in some of the images. That gave it a bit more push without making it feel hyper-digital.”
When Utopia’s post schedule was extended into preexisting commitments for Vertovec, he passed the baton to Schwartz. “I gave Ethan reference stills from when I sat with Stephan,” Vertovec says, “and I told him to use his own judgment and then to check with Stephan as to what was too far. We were going as far with the look as we possibly could, and it was really up to Stephan to guide us.”
The handoff proved to be seamless. “I’ve assisted Ian on shows and features,” Schwartz notes. “A lot of what I’ve learned as a colorist has come from him. My eyes are used to what he’s coloring and able to see it in the same way. Everything that Ian and Stephan had done gave me a base to go off of, and that look applied throughout the whole series.
“The look really translates into what the story is about,” Schwartz adds. “It’s a dark, twisted world, but the show has a lot of funny parts, too. It plays like a comic book in a way, and the look has a graphic-novel feel to it.”
Utopia was mastered in HDR, and based on Vertovec’s recommendation, it was finished with a Dolby Vision workflow in which the HDR and SDR versions were produced simultaneously, alongside one another, rather than in separate passes. “One of the challenges with finishing television is that the schedules are so compressed,” Vertovec observes. “We knew we wanted to be able to deliver the HDR and the SDR very quickly, and we’d had a lot of success with Dolby Vision, so we decided to do it that way rather than doing two consecutive versions. We were working creatively in HDR the whole time, as the primary creative grade, rather than setting looks in SDR and then going back to the HDR.”
HDR’s expanded color space, Schwartz notes, afforded Utopia “that extra snap and extra pop of saturation that everyone wanted.” Furthermore, originating on the DXL2 — with its 16-bit REDWideGamut color and Log3G10 encoding — put the footage in the ideal position to make the most of the HDR grade. “The wider gamut and dynamic range of the DXL2 made it easy to rein in the highlights and pull out shadow detail, and having the DXL’s rich log footage to work with really helped us push colors to the extreme without breaking and get the intense look we were going for,” Schwartz explains.
The group of friends in Utopia have to stay together in the face of overwhelming odds, under constant siege from trained forces hellbent on their destruction. Thankfully, the conditions for Pehrsson and his collaborators were nowhere near so dire as they worked together to bring the series to the screen. “This was my first time working in the American system, and it was great,” he says. “It was a fantastic crew, and anything was possible. Gaffer Marty Hechinger and key grip Ed Titus were both very creative. Whatever we wanted to try, they were up for it, which made a huge difference. And A-camera operator Beau Chaput understood from the start what we wanted to do. He was such an asset and a fantastic collaborator.”
From prep through post, Pehrsson concludes, “It was an amazing team. Everyone was up for the challenge.”
Black-and-white photo by Robert Viglasky, courtesy of Stephan Pehrsson, BSC. Additional behind-the-scenes photo by Elizabeth A Morris, courtesy of Amazon Prime Video. Frame grabs courtesy of Amazon Prime Video.