‘Homecoming’ Cinematographer Tod Campbell Finds His “Kubrick Shot” For ’70s Paranoid Thriller

On Sam Esmail’s Homecoming, cinematographer Tod Campbell looked long and hard for his “Kubrick shot,” standing on the shoulders of giants. A paranoid thriller in the vein of The Conversation, the Amazon series owed a debt to the cinema titan, drawing equal inspiration from the creeping zoom shots of Brian De Palma.

Starring Julia Roberts, Stephan James, Shea Whigham and Bobby Cannavale, Homecoming is based on a fictional podcast created by Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz, a chilling audio experience that became a pop culture sensation, upon its 2016 release. The half-hour drama follows Heidi, a social worker at the Homecoming facility, which purports to aid soldiers in their transition back to civilian life, but is really driven by an altogether more disturbing agenda.

A mystery coming into focus over the course of 10 episodes, Homecoming shifts back and forth between 2018 and 2022, with each timeline transpiring in its own aspect ratio. In the former, Heidi goes about her work at the facility, striking up a rapport with a brainwashed vet; in the latter, she’s a waitress, with seemingly no memory of the position she once held, until an investigator from the Department of Defense comes by asking questions.

For Campbell, the key with Homecoming was to appropriately differentiate the show’s two timelines, while supporting its quietly menacing tone and “’70s feel.” Currently at work on the “insane” final season of Mr. Robot—the show that linked him up with a “mad genius”—the DP breaks down his approach to composition, surveillance-style camerawork and more.

Which of the creative opportunities with Homecoming did you spark to the most?

The opportunity to use two different aspect ratios was probably my favorite part of the process. The other thing—the first thing out of Sam’s mouth once I listened to the podcast—was wanting to do this oner to experience the facility with Heidi, while she’s explaining it to Colin. Those two things were discussed before anything else.

The show’s tone and visual style are fairly specific. When did they sink in for you?

We had only been shooting two or three days, and we were doing a push-in into the big dining area for the first time, that goes to Shrier and right into the pineapple; Sam played some of the music cues, and that’s when it all hit me. He played it aloud, so the dolly grips, the camera operators and everybody would get the vibe of the speed of the shot that matches the music, and it just brought it all together for us.

How did you land on aspect ratios that would create a strong juxtaposition between the show’s timelines?

We knew 16:9 would be the right thing to do for [2018], and in 16:9, you’re full television. Then, it really came down to, what would this other timeline be, if we want to differentiate it with the aspect ratio? I was like, “A 4:3, or slightly less of a rectangle,” but we landed on a 1:1 aspect ratio, which fits perfectly inside that 16:9 frame. The psychology behind it would be that because [Heidi] doesn’t have her full memory, we don’t get to see the full picture either.

What was your general approach to lighting in each case?

I wanted to play a lot of subtleties in [the 1:1 aspect ratio] because that’s so in your face, so I tried to keep all the specular highlights, and really tried to make it feel very dull. You could be in the diner with her and have full sun outside, but I didn’t want to feel any hard sun in that particular time frame. Whereas in the 2018 world, we put a lot of hard sun in her office, and tried to make it really feel Florida outside. So, in the subtleties of lighting, that was the contrast between the two. It was dull and blunted for 2022, and a little more high-key in 2018 to set them apart, aside from the aspect ratio change.

Were you using more blown-out light during Heidi’s time at the Homecoming facility, to cultivate a sense of unease within that space?

What we wanted to feel in that facility was that on the surface, everything feels right, but there’s just a slight undertone that something is off. We wanted the façade to feel beautiful and amazing at first sight. You’re like “Oh my god, this is great!” But the longer you look at it, you’re like “Hang on a second, there’s something a little weird here.”

Were you using a different camera and set of lenses for each time frame?

I went to Panavision this go-round, largely because there’s a guy at Panavision, Dan Sasaki, who took a set of anamorphic lenses and manipulated them for us, to throw the bottom and top of the frame a little more out of focus, just to give it another little sense of something not quite perfect here. We chose anamorphic lenses and then cropped in on them, but I chose those lenses mainly for the ability to manipulate them more so than other sets of lenses. With all the testing we did, we felt like the G Series Anamorphics were best suited to keep a constant look throughout, and the ability to change focus and contrast. All these things with those lenses are a little bit more malleable.

What informed your approach to composition?

For a lot of scenes in Heidi’s office, especially in the beginning, we wanted them to be more conventional, and give a sense of, “Everything is okay here.” But as the walls begin to come down, we did start to go over to a little more of an unsettling frame, compositionally speaking. There’s even a point where we went handheld, which is something we never really do. But we felt like in that moment, going with Walter through this facility and into Heidi’s office, after his friend Shrier had been removed, that would be a perfect time for us to become a little bit unhinged. So, it’s choices like that; everything we shoot is very deliberate, and for an exacting purpose.

In Heidi’s office, when she’s interfacing with Walter, we wanted to be quite static, so that you’re focused on them and what they’re saying. Whereas when we were in other parts of the facility with the guys, we felt like the camera would be a little more mobile, and want to move through the space with them.

In Homecoming, Heidi’s fish tank is an important visual motif, evoking the claustrophobia and sense of surveillance within the facility. Was Email explicit about having this motif recur throughout the show, in surprising ways?

Extremely. We shotlisted the entire series prior to shooting, and we stick to the decisions that we make in his office pretty wholeheartedly. Something that we talked about a lot on this was a box-in-a-box type of idea, where we’re constantly revealing different layers. That fish tank, and then coming out to that window, was something he spoke about a lot. One of the other things that he talked about, once we’re in the facility, is these top-down shots, where we’re looking straight down. In my mind, [the veterans at the facility] are under a microscope; we’re looking down on them, almost like lab rats. Sam loved that, and I think it’s pretty effective in giving that laboratory-type feeling to this place that’s not supposed to feel like a laboratory.

Were the sets for the Homecoming facility and the Geist Group built specifically to allow for unnerving, surveillance-style cinematography?

Yeah. The main facility was a complete build, and our conversations about that set started when we were still on Mr. Robot Season 3. With Sam wanting to be able to fly the camera over the entirety of this building, it was an amazing process, because we had some time to really work it through. We built these models where the roof would fly off, and we had little sticks, which would be on a 50-foot technocrane that we could push through the space, to see if everything would work. Then, as we started building it, we made a few adjustments. We had 762 practical lights in there that we could control, which was just insane.

But the Geist building, that’s a building that we found. Due to the size of the interior, finding Carrasco walking up the stairs and doing big crane moves in there, we wanted to find a place that had that type of volume that we could take advantage of, and really feel the size of the Geist Group.

Heidi’s split-screen road trip montage in Episode 10 is just one example of the amazing visual concepts brought to life in Homecoming. How did you pull that one off, ensuring that footage would line up properly in the edit?

 We had a second prep period in the middle. We went down for a few weeks of hiatus, to get ready for the second block, and we sat down and he was like, “Here’s what I want to do.” We’d talk about it, look at references and discuss. Then, we’d just get into what the sequence of events would be. We knew that she was going to go grocery shopping, so we just started putting these things into it—top-down on the grocery cart, which travels camera right to camera left, which then turns into the car, which is driving camera right.

On the day, when it’s time to shoot all that stuff, it’s hard when you’re under the pressure of daylight, and time, and money, and the rest of the schedule, so that entire sequence was storyboarded. At that point, it’s just executing those exact frames—which we have in front of us, pasted on a board—so that we can pull it off without any big hiccups, or being [in the] wrong screen direction.

We also brought an editor out on set during that sequence, so we could shoot, drop it into a timeline, put it together, and see if it was making [practical] sense. Because there wasn’t a proof of concept. It was just like, “We think this is going to work. So, let’s bring the editor here, and we’ll try it.” Once [Esmail] was editing, he went further with it than what we originally storyboarded; he put some more split-screens in, and I think it helped give it even more energy and impact.

What kinds of tools did you use for aerial and overhead photography? Your shot in Episode 3, zooming in on Shea Whigham as he descends a seemingly unending spiral staircase, was particularly impressive.

 That’s my favorite shot in the whole show. It’s so Kubrick; I love that shot so much.

Obviously, we used a camera crane for the supermarker shot; we used a drone for the car, traveling. Sometimes, we’ll use a condor, which is like a big man lift. It goes 80 feet up in the air, and you just put a camera up there to look down. On a smaller scale, like in that stairwell, we use what’s called a descender rig, a thing on ropes that drops the camera perfectly straight down on a line. But when I found that stairwell, I was just like, “Oh my god.” I was always looking for that Kubrick shot, and I was like, “Jesus, this is it.”

I also enjoyed, when he goes down that stairwell, that whole sequence of him in the basement of the archives. I was like “When the lights go on and off, they [should be] motion-sensor lights, this little light following him around in this big, cavernous place,” which was this total stage build. Oh, god. That’s probably my favorite sequence.

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