‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ | Behind-the-scenes with Cinematographer Zoë White ACS

Looking bloodier and more harrowing than ever, The Handmaid’s Tale is back for a second season. Based on the best-selling novel by Margaret Atwood, the series is set in a totalitarian society ruled by a fundamentalist regime that treats women as property of the state. 

Faced with environmental disasters and a plummeting birth rate, the award-winning series returns with Australian cinematographer Zoë White ACS behind the camera.

Interview by Dash Wilson.

The Handmaid’s Tale debut season achieved near universal acclaim. Winner of the Emmy and Golden Globe for Best Television Drama, the series was praised for its social relevance, performances, directing, writing and sublime cinematography.

The series tells the story of Offred (Elizabeth Moss) one of the few remaining fertile women that are forced into sexual servitude in an attempt to repopulate a devastated world. Offred (Elizabeth Moss) is now pregnant as she fights to free her unborn child from the dystopian horrors of Gilead, and find the daughter that was taken from her.

We talked to Zoë White ACS, one of Variety’s ‘top 10 cinematographers to watch’, about her brilliant work on the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, and what we can expect from Hulu’s breakout hit.

Elizabeth Moss as Offred in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ – DOP Zoë White ACS, PHOTO George Kraychyk

AC – The Handmaid’s Tale has been a major critical and commercial success. How did you get involved with this project? Had you worked with any of the producers or creative team previously?

ZW – I hadn’t worked with anyone previously. For season two the producers decided to bring in a second cinematographer to join existing DP Colin Watkinson (The Fall) who had shot all of season one, without any breaks or preparation time with incoming directors. I shot six episodes of the show. The intent was that it would be a better way of working, however they were also interested in inviting a fresh perspective to shooting the show. Shake things up a bit. 

Watkinson and I are at the same agency, Worldwide Production Agency, and our agents showed him my work. He presented me to the producers and I was hired!

AC – There were many memorable scenes in season one of The Handmaid’s Tale. Do you have a favourite shot or sequence? Why?

ZW – I think the whole first episode of season on is a beautiful, self-contained work of art. I’ve watched it over and over. The way director Reed Morano, along with Watkinson, worked together to visually establish the world of Gilead and introduce us to Offred and her perspective, I just think it’s stunning. And bold. 

There’s a decisiveness to that episode, with the kind of spare, essential coverage that makes you really value the beauty and meaning of every shot. It feels confident, yet deeply expressive. I find it so satisfying to watch films that have been carefully crafted yet somehow seem simple when you break it down. To me that’s the sign it’s been done very well.

A funeral scene from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ – DOP Zoë White ACS, PHOTO George Kraychyk

AC – Considering the awards and recognition season one has achieved, did you feel much pressure whilst shooting season two?

ZW – I felt so much pressure it was crippling at times, to be honest! The weekend I arrived in Toronto was the same weekend Watkinson won his Emmy Award for Best Cinematography. I’d never worked in television and this was one of the hottest shows. Visually like no other show I’d ever seen. Coming into The Handmaid’s Tale as a fan, and with such admiration for the quality of the cinematography, I felt an enormous responsibility to be able to sustain at that level into the second season and alongside Watkinson’s shoot blocks. 

The support and encouragement I received from the producers, and especially Watkinson and Elisabeth Moss (also an executive producer), continuously floored me. I think I expected more hawk-eyed judgement and hand-holding but they wanted me to work with and find my own voice within the construct of the show.

AC – What factors were taken into consideration when selecting cameras and lenses for season two?

ZW – We shoot the show with the ARRI Alexa Mini and Canon K35 lenses. We also had Zeiss Standard Speeds, which we used rarely, except for the 28mm which was the focal length for our ‘signature Offred close-up shots’. We had three complete packages, supported by two camera teams. The third body would be on standby for any rigged camera positions, and for setting up with cranes and drones. 

All of the discussion about camera package happened before season one, and continued seamlessly into season two. Watkinson had been using K35s – his own set – regularly, and they were the selected for The Handmaid’s Tale because of their particular contour, vintage softness and brilliant warm flares which feature so prominently on the show. I’m not sure if any camera was considered besides the Mini, but it served our varying physical applications and latitude and workflow requirements. Keslow Camera supplied the gear and were a great support throughout season two. 

Women's Work
Steadicam Mike Heathcote and Dolly Grip Ronnie Renzetti filming ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ on location – PHOTO George Kraychyk

AC – The show is highly stylised. How much digital effects work and colour-grading were you preparing for in post-production?

ZW – Every episode contained a degree of visual effects work, namely set extensions and location clean up. Gilead is a world without words, so we would plan for backgrounds to be scrubbed of signs and of lettering that we couldn’t remove practically. For one scene, it was decided to composite hanging corpses into a neighbourhood during post-production, as it was simply unsavoury to the residents at that location to hang dummies all down their street!

The visual for the Fenway Park sequence at the beginning of season two was pretty major. Production managed to get permission to actually shoot at Fenway Park, but after deliberating they decided that shooting on the pristine pitch of that field would require plenty of visual effects anyway, since it needed to appear abandoned and dishevelled. So they shot for two chilly nights at a local baseball field in Hamilton, just outside Toronto, and recreated all the iconic detail and scope of Fenway Park in post-production.

On a side note, I’m impressed at how little beauty post-production work is done on the show, especially since the makeup is kept light. I think this approach shows off the natural beauty of our ladies’ faces. It’s that untouched feeling that I think strengthens the sense of reality and relatability of the characters. It helps that we shoot on lenses that optically are a little softer and flattering for skin. Polarising and soft effect filters are sometimes implemented too.

AC – How does a cinematographer work to achieve and maintain a ‘directorial vision’ working under multiple directors, alongside another cinematographer, while still imparting your own unique perspective?

ZW – Great question. I worked with two directors; Kari Skogland and fellow Australian Daina Reid over my six episodes. They are both seasoned television directors with a wealth of experience on many amazing shows. They also have their own distinct ways of working. Skogland is incredibly inventive and loves to find the scene on set. Reid, in contrast, meticulously planned her episodes placing particular importance on a sense of realism. 

It was important to me to make sure the scenes feel like they’re a continuation of the style already established in season one. While working throughout the show I always had the original ‘directorial vision’ in mind. There are a few ‘rules’ to follow when shooting in Gilead; wider focal lengths up close in portrait with our characters, no over-the-shoulder shots, striking master wide shots whether from an extreme high or low angle, or squarely centred shots à la Stanley Kubrick, especially during ceremonial scenes. 

There is a purpose to camera movement too Sometimes dolly or Steadicam, sometimes handheld, always stemming from our connection to Offred and her perspective. We would bring in Technocranes and drones for ‘god’s eye’ overheads, which brings that amazing scope and perspective as well as a graphic quality. I probably gasped every time we put the camera in some crazy high position looking back down at the world… you can’t lose with shots like that.

We’d always try to keep the framing interesting. ‘Tilt up’ was commonly heard on set – for more head room – while ‘conventional’ was a dirty word. I really love the 2:1 aspect ratio for this, it lends itself to some edgy, unexpected framing at times. For flashbacks we employ a more naturalistic approach, almost exclusively handheld, medium to longer lenses with a loose, roaming style. 

Women's Work
Cinematographer Zoë White ACS, Costumer Rudy Rojas, Elisabeth Moss and Gaffer Jonathan Guadet behind-the-scenes on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ – PHOTO George Kraychyk

AC – In the first season, eight out of the ten episodes were directed or co-directed by women, with a predominantly female cast. Was this unique and ultimately ground-breaking production makeup something you were drawn to, and what was the ‘vibe’ like on set?

ZW – It’s been amazing working on a television show with so many wonderfully layered and complicated female characters, and such a strong representation of women in front and behind the camera. There’s a growing awareness and demand for our industry to strive toward more balance and diversity. It’s gratifying to be showing up to work every day, seeing it all around you and feeling like a participant in that positive shift.

AC – The lighting on The Handmaid’s Tale is truly stunning. It has become one of the trademarks of the show. How is it achieved?

ZW – The lighting on this show is anything but subtle! It was a total joy to be allowed to create such dramatic, sweeping lighting setups. I have been shooting a lot more naturalism in recent years, due in part to ‘indie trends’ and budgets than by choice. My taste for elevated and expressionistic lighting has been reinvigorated shooting The Handmaid’s Tale. 

My first day at work on on the show I met Jonathan Gaudet, our Gaffer and trusted on-set comic relief. Gaudet took me on an orientation of the studio sets and gave me the lowdown of their general approach to the various recurring light scenarios for the show. It was a matter of learning, very quickly, what I was inheriting rather than building. A new experience which was at first daunting, but ultimately enriching.

The Waterford household is built over two stages at Cinespace in Toronto. In one stage there is the ground floor, which is all geographically linked so you can shoot long walks from one room to the other down interconnected hallways. On the other stage are the upper floors: Offred’s wing with her bedroom, bathroom and stairway, and then Serena’s (Yvonne Strahovski) grand bedroom, where the dreaded ceremonies take place. 

The sets were purposely built without wild walls. This really affects your instincts for where the camera should go, knowing it must be contained within the walls that are set in place. Ultimately some of the walls were removed here and there over this season but I thought it was an intriguing creative decision for the original design. It helps you to feel like you’re there in the room, within the scene, if you’re forced to shoot within its walls. Like shooting on location. It all ends up having an impact on the imagery and subliminally communicates as such.

Elizabeth Moss as Offred in a scene from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ – DOP Zoë White ACS

AC – How do you create an ‘atmosphere’ on a show like this?

ZW – Atmosphere plays a huge role in the look of the show. Watkinson advised me at one point that if a location wouldn’t allow for smoke then we should reject the location. Special Effects Supervisor Mike Kavanagh was always by the monitor, maintaining the level of atmosphere in tandem with the level of light. It was just so fun to be working with such an elevated aesthetic and allowing for a less-than-subtle approach. It took a little getting used to, but I had the first season’s imagery as my guide, and proof that it could totally work. That made it liberating!

I loved to watch the dailies during Watkinson’s shoot blocks and marvel at all the new ways he found to light and shoot the same rooms at our studio. Cinematographers rarely get to work with each other and I revelled in the experience of observing and absorbing the work happening over his shoot blocks as I was in the midst of prepping mine. It was inspiring, and often sparked new ideas for how I could approach my scenes. 

AC – Looking back on what you -and the directors, producers and Colin Watkinson – had originally set out to achieve, do you think you succeeded? What might you have done differently?

ZW – Hindsight can be dangerous. We, as cinematographers, always look back on our work and endlessly lament on what we could have done differently! It could always be better, right? Ultimately, we set out to make episodes that were stylistically cohesive to the spirit of the show, yet at the same time self-contained in that each explores a different aspect of Offred’s experience in Gilead. In the end, it’s the audience that gets to judge whether we achieved that. 

Now with the experience of shooting those episodes behind me, I just feel so immersed within the world of Gilead and have more depth of understanding for how I want to approach it. It has been an incredible experience seeing all the critique and discussion out in the world as the show has been released. I’ve never shot something that delivered to such a wide audience and with such a politically charged and socially pertinent resonance. I love the larger conversation that we’re contributing to, it’s a really invigorating feeling knowing that all the scripts and themes and performance and shooting added up to something that has a tangible impact.

Elizabeth Moss as Offred in a scene from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ – DOP Zoë White ACS

AC – And finally, what are you working on next?

ZW – I’m lining up a few feature films over the summer months, which will lead into season three of The Handmaid’s Tale at beginning in October! 

I’m excited that my career is leaning more and more into visually impactful, character-driven narrative work. I’ve learned so much shooting on The Handmaid’s Tale and can’t wait to deepen my understanding of shooting this show by doing another round, and then taking on entirely new worlds and aesthetics in future projects down the road. Praise be!

Dash Wilson is a lover of cinema based in Brisbane.

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