Cinematographer Todd Williams discusses the crossover challenges built into The CW’s DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.
Cinematographer Todd Williams rides a wave of strong buzz thanks to his latest television project. The CW’s DC’s Legends of Tomorrow premiered January 21, 2016, to solid critical notices thanks to a sharply focused, energetic pilot. Now in its second season, the DC comic-based series received a vote of confidence in the form of an extended second season – 17 episodes up from the original 10 episode order.
Filmed in Vancouver, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow hails from the Greg Berlanti factory and exists in the same DC universe as Berlanti’s other hot properties The Flash, Arrow, and Supergirl. Tomorrow‘s narrative offers a wild, time-traveling ride exploring outer space, Feudal Japan, and the wild, wild West. The opportunities for expansive, challenging cinematography drive Todd Williams and lensing partner David Geddes to create visually stunning pastiches of comic book lore. They’re loving every second of it.
What drew you to The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow?
Number one, the time travel aspect of the show was one of the main things that… opened the door creatively. All of the creative team get to go to different time periods every episode and have a lot of fun creating that specific look. You don’t get that very often with TV shows or movies. Dave [Geddes] assembled an awesome crew, and I’ve really enjoyed working on the show as a result. Plus, the Berlanti group has been super gracious and want us to strive for the best. They keep pushing the limits of storytelling.
You know, the first time you read a script with such fantastic sequences, you think, “This is huge! I don’t know how we’re going to do it.” Somehow, every episode, we do. For me, it wouldn’t be as fun if you read the script and, at one point, didn’t have a bit of a heart attack. This is not a feature film. We don’t have 60 to 100 days to shoot a show. We’re able to pull it off and do an awesome job. The end result looks fantastic. I don’t know that I would be involved in the show without those challenges.
Is there a scene in particular that gave you more of a heart attack over others?
I guess there’s a couple. When you read a script as a cinematographer, the one line you read in the stage notes that’s always a tricky one is “…and the power goes out.” They’ve created a situation in which there’s no light, and you’re not allowed to see all the relevant information that you need to see as a viewer. There’s a scene last season (“Marooned”) where the guys had to enter a ship that’s been floating in space, and the power was out. This season, there was some tricky stuff in “The Justice Society of America” where there were 12 actors in a scene. That multiplies the camera angles you need to shoot. Technically, that becomes very challenging. The Western episodes with Jonah Hex were cool because it’s a different time period with a lot of interior lighting that needs to be based on lamp light. You don’t have the luxury of putting practical, 2016 lighting into a scene. You have to use lighting coming through windows, so you try to move action closer to windows for more natural lighting.
One of the things that is unique about the way The CW runs the DC universe is the high degree of crossover potential. How do you maintain consistency across the various series?
The crossover episodes are slightly different. We try not to duplicate exactly what’s happening on other shows. Each show has its own universe, but, when characters cross over, we tend to apply the visuals of the show they’re entering. We tend to use a lot of closer, wider lenses. The mandate on our show is to keep the camera moving, and we try to keep the camera as fluid as we can as we introduce characters or move back and forth between characters through their dialogue. No matter what characters enter the show, we still to the style we created on episode one of our show. The tight lens choices allow you to see the size of the sets built by the production design team. Last season, the Waverider set provided a complete set. It offered a ceiling which allowed us to tilt the camera up. You could get onto the Waverider with a steadicam and do a 10-minute walking/talking scene without seeing off the set. It’s amazing that way, and it’s a mandate of the show… that designers build a full set as a complete design. You’re in that world when you’re in there shooting.
That’s fairly unusual for a series like this to build a set of such scale and completeness.
Yeah, it is. We’ve been able to go and do some crossovers with some of the sets from The Flash and Arrow. A lot of their sets are built the same way with some exceptions. You can still go there and do these wider shots where a lot of other shows – CSI comes to mind – rely heavily on super long lenses. The backgrounds are out of focus. You can cheat a lot when you’re using lenses like that. It still looks pretty and still tells the story, but it tells the story in a different way.
What cinematography have you drawn on to inspire the look and feel of Legends of Tomorrow?
Well, it depends. There are bits and pieces in every episode, depending on the time period that we’re in. I have a library of blu-ray and DVDs that I’ve collected over the years, and I’ll use those as references. The Terrence Malick films’ usage of natural light is an inspiration. Some music videos… I recently borrowed bits and pieces from Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” We’ve pulled some stuff from Scorsese… it’s really an endless list of references. Sometimes, it’s just a single shot where the style of lighting hits the actors across the face. Sometimes, it’s big, wide scope John Ford Western vista shots that have inspired us. There’s a lot of horror movie influence where we’re positioning actors on the extreme right of the frame, but, on the left side of the frame, there’s a lot of empty space. You see the back of the room or the back of the hallway, and there’s a lot of darkness there. It’s alluding to the fact that (the villains) are out there, in the shadows watching the guys.
Yeah, Halloween did that a lot.
Yea, they did. And they did an awesome job. I rewatched that last season for the first time in I don’t know how many years, and I couldn’t believe how awesome that was. I remembered liking it, but I’d forgotten technically how good that film is. It’s very simple, but it really tells the story well with the use of framing and simple techniques. It’s great storytelling.
Legends of Tomorrow airs Thursday nights at 8pm ET on The CW.