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Truth – The Look of… HBO’s Chernobyl

  • October 11, 2019
  • Shane Hurlbut, ASC
Truth – The Look of… HBO’s Chernobyl

After the success of our blog post about the breathtaking soundtrack for HBO’s Chernobyl by Hildur Guðnadóttir, here is our comprehensive breakdown of the look and cinematography of the show. This is the first of a series entitled “The Look Of…” where we will look at every aspect of production design and cinematography of incredible TV shows and movies.

TRUTH AT ALL COSTS

Truth flows through HBO’s Chernobyl like alcohol – at the same time as cleansing as it is corrosive. From writer Craig Mazin and Director Johan Renck right through to the cinematography of Jakob Ihre and the art department through to the soundtrack, Chernobyl’s whole purpose was to capture authenticity at all costs. At one point the make-up team even resorted to a spreadsheet used by the department to ensure all characters’ exposure to radiation poisoning looked as genuine as possible! Why? Because the world has to learn to handle the truth behind the lies that have permeated from Chernobyl and the Soviet Union for decades.

If you are anything like me then you’ll likely have binge watched the majority of Chernobyl on HBO Now with a housemate who wanted to watch Six Feet Under and another who hasn’t seen the end of Dexter yet, but thankfully I won that debate otherwise this article would be called “How the symbiotic nature of life and death dance devilishly throughout Six Feet Under” or “Why Dexter has the worst ending to a TV show of all time”.

What captured my attention above all was how realistic everything in the series looked and here’s why… 

SPOILER ALERT: In case I haven’t just ruined your love of Dexter (apologies) this is a brief warning that this article will explore key events of the HBO series Chernobyl so if you are one of the very few not to have seen it yet and stumbled into this article because you’re intrigued by the soviet face-mask in the featured image then take this as a warning.

HBO Chernobyl Filming Cinematography Filmmaking
Above: HBO Chernobyl filming the reactor burning and firefighters rushing to treat it

When the soviet-era reactor exploded decimating the aged power plant, corroding the surrounding area and irreversibly impacting hundreds of lives for decades to come, I hadn’t yet graced the planet (that’s a euphemistic way of saying I, like many of you reading this, hadn’t been born yet). However, we are incredibly fortunate that this event happened in an era when video news cameras could capture everything. Not only did the world’s eyes become open to the sheer scale of what nuclear power, the “cleanest energy” around at that time, when unleashed, could do, but also because, as a result, HBO’s Chernobyl series had at its disposal a plethora of videos and photographs showing the town of Pripyat and the nuclear plant itself. For a television show that has dedicated itself to “the truth” and exposing the lies of the past, this is manna from heaven!

HBO Chernobyl Cinematography Cinematographer Filmmaking Filming Film Media Movies
Above: Stellan Skarsgard and Jared Harris stand on a building in Lithuania in clothes made from textiles actually from the period that Chernobyl exploded.

RECREATING CHERNOBYL

Let’s take the town of Pripyat, for example – Chernobyl’s closest public space that you can see pictures of  prior to the accident below. This beautiful town, often referred to as a “time-capsule” due to the fact that when people were evacuated everything was, quite literally, left in place. The town was sealed off (and still is) firmly under an exclusion zone and therefore arguably not the best place to be rocking up with a film crew for a couple of months, right? (Given the fact that a hydraulic door to the Millennium Falcon on Star Wars VII was greeted with a court appearance with the Health and Safety Executive, exposing 80-odd people to radiation wouldn’t be the best idea in the world! The producers amongst you just chuckled at that joke).

So, faced with building expensive sets to look exactly like the multitude of photographs and videos of the town of Pripyat (below) – the production designers had another trump card up their sleeve… You see, Pripyat is a town that was designed and built in the soviet era and therefore looks almost identical to many other smaller towns built around that time and in soviet countries such as Latvia, Lithuania, Armenia and Ukraine (to name a few). Not only that, but in the area of Visaginas (careful…) in Lithuania, in a town called Pravieniškės, sits Chernobyl’s sister plant, Ignalina, which was decommissioned in 2009 due to fears of a similar disaster (33 years after Chernobyl’s tragedy!) and this provided the perfect, and most true to life, setting for the series’ filming.

A whole crew going to a nuclear power plant in the process of being decommissioned indicates the ‘stop-at-nothing’ passion for the truth that oozed through the crew.

“Pravieniškės stood in for Chernobyl town, as the Lithuanian town had grown up around a prison and had a great look and feel for what at that point was Chernobyl town, which had been empty for a while.”

Chernobyl Filming Filmmaking Cinematography Cinematographer Film HBO Chernobyl
Above: Filming Chernobyl in Lithuania with a technocrane.
Cinematography and realism in HBOs Chernobyl. Cinematography
Above: Pripyat – a few months prior to the disaster

 

Cinematography and realism in HBOs Chernobyl. Cinematography
Above: Filming Chernobyl in Lithuania
Cinematography and realism in HBOs Chernobyl. Cinematography
Above: Pripyat – a few months prior to the disaster – note the images of the “happy atom” on the sides of buildings. Writer Mazin and Director Renck were keen to encapsulate this feeling throughout the town when creating the show thereby building a sense of complete disillusionment when things went badly wrong.
Cinematography and realism in HBOs Chernobyl. Cinematography
Above: Filming Chernobyl in Lithuania
Cinematography and realism in HBOs Chernobyl. Cinematography
Above: Pripyat – a few months prior to the disaster (If you have seen the series, this photograph almost echoes exactly the opening of episode 5 that occurred a few hours before the explosion)

With most of the crew (90% according to Mazin) being Eastern European then the chances are they would have grown up in the soviet era or its immediate aftermath and witnessed the disaster and its fallout themselves! Perhaps that explains why the team behind this drama were so ruthlessly committed to authenticity. 

“One of the things that gratifies me the most is that when we made the show, we just made the decision among ourselves, among every production department, that the best way we could show our respect to this culture was to depict it accurately, down to details no one in the United States would ever care about and no one in the United Kingdom would ever care about. But somebody watching it in Ukraine would say, “They cared enough to get it right. To get to the truth.” – Craig Mazin

Truth Art and Cinematography of HBO’s Chernobyl - Truth At All Costs
HBO’s Chernobyl – Legasov discusses the plan with Khomyuk

“The design is driven by the story. Every scene and set needed a layer of the theme and story in it.” Production Designer Luke Hall (who also worked on Game Of Thrones) discussed how his visual research helped he and his team create the aesthetic for the show in an interview with The Spaces. “We looked at photographs, some YouTube videos and a lot of street and life photography books from the time.

The other side of things was to find a reference that built a sense of the tone, dread and mood in the five episodes. I looked at the work of Alexander Gronsky – notable for his Russian landscape photography known for their quiet and abandoned qualities – and Gerd Ludwig – a photographer who documented the aftermath of the disaster – in the early stages and it helped to encapsulate a look.

A lot of inspiration, though, came from trips scouting for filming locations in Lithuania and Ukraine. A lot of Kyiv has not moved on from that period, which really helped build a visual language for the show. The mundane maze-like structure of stairs and endless corridors in the power plant are not only accurate but also illustrate the confusion in the aftermath of the explosion as well as the sense of being trapped. You cannot help but be drawn into thinking of those mind-boggling MC Escher paintings with staircases leading people in circles just as the search for the truth has for those that have sought it for decades.

Truth Cinematography and Art in HBO's Chernobyl_ Design buildings Soviet
A staircase from Chernobyl

 

Truth escher-relativity Cinematography Truth Art HBO Chernobyl Reality Staircases Set Design

Take Bryukhanov’s office in episode 5 (immediately prior to the explosion), for example (below), the fragmented factory wall mural behind him is an impeccable piece of foreshadowing, not only of the disaster, but also of the subsequent actions of the leadership and its cover-up. The painting behind Bryukhanov depicts the plant, ironically split which can literally represent Chernobyl, but can also show us the fractured relationships that will inevitably lead to its demise. By placing this scene in the final episode, immediately before the explosion, we can appreciate the truth that is staring us in the face with the mural and the distorted floor reminds us of those old tile puzzles again depicting the maze-like world of lies that they and countless others are about to be plunged into.

Cinematography and Art in HBO's Chernobyl_ Design buildings Soviet truth

Before moving on, it would be incredibly remiss of me to not mention how much of a masterpiece the composition of Bryukhanov’s office scene is. This image is one of a whole smorgasbord that serve as stunning examples of the different departments; art, costume, camera etc on set working in perfect harmony. Look at the composition in here (below).  The triangle’s symmetry and strong base gives the scene a sense of strength and stability and, given that this particular moment occurs in Episode 5 set during the day before the disaster, that stability is perfectly warranted. If you were to look at scenes concerning these three characters after the explosion then the triangles are much less symmetrical and misaligned to reflect the uncertainly and the precariousness that they now face. Moreover, the symmetry of this scene can give a sense of unease – we know what will destroy this symmetry, we know how it will happen and we know precisely when it will happen – this is like watching the proverbial plate falling from the counter towards the floor in the slowest of slow motion – perfect and somewhat beautiful, but inevitably about to be shattered!

Cinematography Composition Online Filmmaking Education Film Directing Chernobyl HBO

For more on composition, take a look at this fantastic video from Studiobinder that really explores how shapes, space and lines can be used to add so much more dimension to a scene.

 

“When I first saw the Ignalina power plant [a decommissioned RBMK power plant station in Lithuania], I was stunned at how basic it was, just pipes, corridors and stairwells, like a Victorian water pumping station with a fission core.” – Luke Hull (Production Designer)

Similarly, the pump room, with its labyrinthine pipework, is nothing short of nightmare-like. For the scene below, in the first episode, when the two engineers realized their fate when the truth finally presents itself to them, amongst this melee of dimly lit, green tubing, it is particularly disturbing and powerful. We see both of them come to the realization in this hellish green backdrop – it is too late.

Cinematography Composition Kubrick HBO’s Chernobyl truth

“We got excited early on about the idea of being able to create something visually striking that was also in a way ugly, using clashes of intense patterns, jarring colors, cheap materials, textured glass. Many of the photographs taken by Igor Kostin [who took some of the first pictures of the disaster] are now owned by Getty and available to view online and they helped to shape our set design.” – Luke Hull (Production Designer)

COSTUMES – CLOTHING FOUND ACROSS EASTERN EUROPE

Similar to the unchanging, time-capsule-like Visaginas, the slow progression away from the soviet era also helped series costume designer, Odile Dicks-Mireaux, as she was able to source clothing that was a perfect match for the era. Miners hats (below), for example, were the exact same as those used by the miners at Chernobyl in 1986 as Mazin explains, “Odile went and gathered up actual period clothing from all over Eastern Europe… We also had consultants whose expertise was just military costuming. What would they wear? How would they wear it? What would it look like? What would it not look like? Every bit of clothing, suits that we made for Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård, were made from bolts of cloth that were taken from the ’80s. They were vintage cloth from Soviet 1985.

Costume Cinematography HBO’s Chernobyl truth
HBO’s Chernobyl – Miners
Costume Cinematography HBO’s Chernobyl Truth
HBO’s Chernobyl – Court scene showing all the costumes that were meticulously researched and recreated

 

MAKEUP TO A SPREADSHEET – THE TRUTH OF PROSTHETICS

Daniel Parker – makeup and prosthetics designer – had to become almost a physician because it wasn’t enough to say ‘someone is experiencing the effects of radiation’ there are levels to it and he came up with these stages and then substages – the search for truth and honesty was so important. The spreadsheet to track it alone before his artistry was then put into place. The decline of firefighter Vasily Ignatenko has been praised for being an accurate (if gruesome) portrayal of the various stages of radiation sickness (see below picture). Using the spreadsheet mentioned above, the makeup team were able to keep track of what each character would realistically have been experiencing after the amount of radiation they had experienced and although gory and gruesome, it was not gratuitous and was essential for the pursuit of the truth. The BBC recently found an engineer that had worked in Reactor 4 (where the explosion occurred) on the night of the disaster, Oleksiy Breus, and his experience perfectly matched this depiction…

“When I finished my shift, my skin was brown, as if I had a proper suntan all over my body. My body parts not covered by clothes – such as hands, face and neck – were red.”

Costume Cinematography HBO’s Chernobyl truth make up
The change in Vasily from before the call to Chernobyl to his final days just a week later

NOTE: The firefighters’ clothing that was removed upon their arrival at the hospital is so radioactive that it is still there all of these years later! 

This ruthless attention to detail is a hallmark of the series, which still resides at the very top of IMDB’s highest rated list. Yet, for me and countless others, the most frightening scene in Chernobyl comes in episode four, when, after robots that have been flown in to clear the debris are rendered useless by the almost four hundred times more radioactive material than at the atomic bombing of Hiroshima people are conscripted to clear the debris themselves… 

Liquidators Chernobyl - HBO - Cinematography _Radiation_Realism Truth
Above: Liquidators clean the roof of reactor 3. In the beginning, workers tried clearing the radioactive debris using West German, Japanese and Russian robots but they could not cope with the extreme radiation levels and so the authorities decided to use humans. Employees could not stay any longer than 40 seconds any one time, before the radiation dose they received was the maximum authorized dose a human being should receive in his entire life. Many liquidators have since died or suffer from severe health problems. (Photo by Igor Kostin/Sygma via Getty Images)

Dressed in lead suits and led to the roof of the reactor – a place more dangerous than anywhere else on the entire planet – they are commanded to hurl lumps of radioactive graphite back into the plant’s open core. These “liquidators”, as they were known, are given 90 seconds to do the job – the longer they remain on the roof, the further their lives are likely to be cut short.

This whole scene, shot as a “oner” following a younger “liquidator” stumbling around on the roof of the reactor armed only with a shovel against a silent enemy, is accompanied by the heavy, muffled breathing and the overwhelming crackle of the radiation dosimeter – a masterpiece in sound design by composer Hildur Guðnadóttirwhich I will be covering in the next blog post and accompanying video. When he cuts his boot on a piece of graphite, we all know he has consigned his own fate – he will soon be dead.

Ready for it? All of it, the liquidators, the 90 second limit, the danger… absolutely, 100% real. When watching the video below, you would be forgiven for thinking that it was another scene from the show. It isn’t. The only thing that we could even equate to fiction would be that we focus on one individual for the whole terrifying 90 second ordeal (90 seconds that feels like several months such is the angst that it puts us through). This narrative technique is something that occurs throughout the show, beginning with young firefighter Vasily Ignatenko (a real life hero of Chernobyl) –

“All in all, over 600,000 people were sent in to clean up Chernobyl. All were exposed to extreme doses of radiation, shortening their lifespans. More than 4,000 died from radiation-caused cancers, and 70,000 were left disabled,” – according to a Refinery29 report.

The young firefighter is their representative, we empathize, we grieve and we mourn him as we would them all. 

Similarly, one character who was completely invented for the show, Ulana Khomyuk (played by Emily Watson), is portrayed as a whistleblower. “In reality, so many nuclear scientists knew there were problems with this reactor — the problems that led ultimately to an explosion and disaster,” Adam Higginbotham, researcher and author of the book “Midnight in Chernobyl,” The invention of this character certainly led to some backlash (despite the 96% Rotten Tomatoes rating). The New Yorker, for example, wrote an article slamming Khomyuk for being a kind of know-it-all character, arriving as a savior to Chernobyl, and hellbent to unravel the mystery of why the reactor exploded in the first place – “She is a truth-knower: the first time we see her, she is already figuring out that something has gone terribly wrong, and she is grasping it terribly fast, unlike the dense men at the actual scene of the disaster, who seem to need hours to take it in.”, writes Masha Gessen.

Yes, the fact that she comes from being a somewhat lowly scientist to confronting the highest authorities does seem rather unrealistic, but also, in researching this article it seems clear that there were a number of Soviet scientists who were female. As a writer, with a script and story that is dominated by male roles, it makes a lot of sense that Mazin, if creating a character to be an amalgamation of all of those scientists, would use it as an opportunity to develop a female lead and champion their importance in the soviet system.

Listening to Craig Mazin and Johan Renck in The Chernobyl Podcast, which takes place after every episode of the miniseries the pair reveal what was true, what was mostly true and then explored what was invented for dramatic effect (of which Khomyuk was referenced). Effectively, and true to the message of the show, they are pushing the viewers to explore the truth for themselves – the series being the spark that lights the blue touchpaper for all of the viewers and, given the fact that I am writing this now and creating a video essay on it and you are reading/watching it, clearly they were onto something! 

 Craig MAzin HBO Chernobyl Radiation Filmmaking truth

“The thing about truth is, in its best version, it’s not narrativized, and it’s not viral. What you can do, though, is attract people to a truth through something that is narrative or viral, and then say, “In all honesty, what you have seen is sort of, kind of the truth. But look at all this other stuff.” Craig Mazin.

CINEMATOGRAPHY

It goes without saying that Chernobyl Cinematographer, Jakob Ihre, captured the mood of the subject matter and the soviet era impeccably. The Swedish DP has a wealth of nominations and awards for his other works including “Thelma” (for which he won the best Cinematography award at Norway International Film Festival’s Amanda Awards), “Oslo August 31st” and even back to 2005 when he was working in Bollywood on the movie “…Yahaan”. For Chernobyl, he turned to artistic photography for inspiration, into finding the truth, in the exhibit The Family Of Man (some shots from the exhibition have been presented below).

Family Of Man Art and Cinematography of HBO’s Chernobyl Firefighters - Truth At All Costs

Family Of Man Art and Cinematography of HBO’s Chernobyl Firefighters - Truth At All Costs

Ihre has been recorded stating that his most proud shots were the lingering moments that he stayed with characters when their dialogue was over and the fact that he references The Family Of Man as his inspiration certainly illuminates how he shot certain moments, moments when we can truly empathize with the character and read their thoughts and they stand alone and silent…

For Chernobyl, Ihre chose to use rehoused vintage Cooke S2 Panchro lenses. Rehousing is done by a company in the U.K. called TLS (for True Lens Services), who take the vintage panchro lenses from the 1920s through to the 1960s and breath new life into them by putting them into housings whose mechanisms work cleaner and faster as Art Adams who reviewed them for ProVideoCoalition puts it…

“They have all the functionality of modern Cooke primes, but the funkiness of old and worn lenses from an era when lens technology was a lot less forgiving.”

With the Cooke S2 panchro, the lenses flare like mad, but flare can be used for dramatic purposes. Without the multi-coating that you get in modern lenses, they flare! Panavision deliberately removed the coating for Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” precisely because he and his DP Janusz Kaminski wanted to get that flare and create the hard-hitting imagery of the D-Day beach assault. 

What I found with the amount of flare in Chernobyl was that it was rather disconcerting and forced the viewer to look harder to see what’s going on. If this was Ihre’s intention then it would certainly go hand in hand with Mazin and Renck’s modus operandi to get the audience to question the lies and look deeper for the truth.  

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There’s a well-founded rumor out there that Ihre deliberately over-exposed all outdoor scenes in order to mimic the way that radiation during the disaster bleached out and destroyed the film taken at the time. Moreover, taking this analysis further (perhaps too far), it is no secret that older lenses often contained radioactive elements that had been added to the coatings of their glass. You can probably hear my brain ticking here, but what if this was Ihre’s subtle nod to the subject matter? In the GoCreative Podcast he referenced how he wanted to do something surreal with lighting during dialogue scenes where the lights would move and create a double shadow effect to make it feel like the world had changed irrevocably (which, of course, it had!) with the ambience of the room sometimes shifting 2 stops during the scene.

Although some have criticized this alternate reality lighting, what cannot be disputed is that these rehoused Cooke S2s really give a look that is much more analog in a digital world – we feel like we are watching something from the 1980s, something documentary like, something immersed in truth. The Color grade gives the perfect look for the time – granted, it isn’t always pretty with the muted, darker hues, but it helps to convey the time and the political climate in the country incredibly well. Moreover, the lighting choices that Ihre has made – more stylized natural lighting with the heads lit indirectly and occasionally with ambient shadow.

The contrast is lower to give a flatter image with occasionally lifted blacks. This lower contrast is an interesting one – used predominantly in post-apocalyptic movies or TV shows such as Netflix’s “Maniac” (below) that deal with darker themes such as drugs and their side-effects — adds to the bleak world the filmmakers are creating. The subject matter is already dramatic and gripping, therefore the contrast being low and the image being flatter just makes it seem, if anything, less Hollywood and more real. 

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Emma Stone in Netflix’s Maniac showing the Low Contrast shots of the mental health hospital
Truth Art and Cinematography of HBO’s Chernobyl Firefighters - Truth At All Costs - Liquidators Exteriors Low Contrast Cooke S2 Panchro
HBO’s Chernobyl

Lighting-wise, Ihre and his gaffer noticed that the interiors of the locations from that period felt very gloomy as if the Soviet Union did not have enough electricity to go around. As a result, for lighting the scenes they chose to use fluorescent lamps where possible, and avoid bulbs and shades, which could make it look cosy or nostalgic, to get a harsher, sickly look. The power plant itself is colored with a mix of green and orange lighting to contrast with the raging fire that occurred after the plant’s reactor exploded.

Truth HBO Chernobyl Johan Ihre Cooke s2 Panchro Lenses Low Contrast
HBO’s Chernobyl – Lyudmilla Ignatenko in a desaturated look as her husband dies in the hospital

COLOR GRADING

Color Grading for the HBO miniseries was completed by BAFTA-winning colorist Jean-Clément Soret at Technicolor London. With the show shot in UHD on an Arri Alexa camera, Soret was given a brief to be respectful to the aesthetic of the era of the Soviet Union in the eighties and as such used the archives as inspiration. “We wanted to improve on the color palette from the archives whilst making it look high-end, so we were treading a fine line between the temptation of desaturation,” says Soret. “This was particularly true of sunny exterior scenes, where we were careful not to make them too warm, instead keeping them quite cold to enhance the effect.”

He adds: “Obviously with the subject matter, it had to be a bit scary, so you avoided warm tones. There are lots of scenes lit with sodium lighting and neon, which we didn’t want to make too flattering. It would have been very easy to put a wash of green or yellow on all the scenes, but we resisted that to keep it inside a certain realism.”

Soviet Color Art Color Grading Cinematography Look Chernobyl HBO Cinematographer Lenses Jakob Ihre Chernobyl Pripyat Filmmaking BTS

We hope never to see the like of Chernobyl disaster again. Such was its impact that in the aftermath, Gorbachev declared that it could have been the disaster that started the downfall of the Soviet Union. HBO’s Chernobyl has had a similar, irrevocable impact on the television industry. Not only did writer Craig Mazin define how many episodes he wanted to encapsulate this story – apparently being asked for 6 episodes initially and then, rather than stretching his story to include a distilled final two episodes where the drama was dragged for an hour longer. Mazin chose 5 episodes for the mini-series and, without meaning to overplay this (but doing exactly that), this is a watershed moment for television writing. Such was his confidence in the story, he was discussing this project on podcasts up to 3 years ago and (if that rumor is true) to stand up to the demands of networks and to allow the integrity of the script to dictate the length of the mini-series and folks, it has clearly paid off!

This mini-series that finally answered the question “why did Chernobyl happen?” through an immense script, thrilling direction, artistry from every department and cinematography that has you salivating! As a writer, working for a renowned cinematographer and alongside truly gifted, passionate filmmakers every day, I am immensely proud that this series came along. It captivated me and countless others from the moment I saw that trailer right through to the very ending credits and inspired us by showing how incredible things can look when you put authenticity and truth above all else.


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