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Fargo and Legion: Very different shows, same fascinating visual techniques

Fargo and Legion cinematographer Dana Gonzales reveals the techniques behind the gorgeous visuals of these very different TV shows.

Chris Large/FX

Different color and lenses create radical effects in FX's Legion.

FX

One's an icy slow-burning drama grounded in the Minnesota snow, and the other is a kaleidoscopic trip through fractured impossible realities. Yup, aside from being some of the most inventive and compelling television of recent years, the TV shows Fargo and Legion don't seem to have much in common.

But these startlingly different FX series do share one or two crucial elements: First, there's showrunner Noah Hawley, who oversees both. Alongside him there's Emmy-winning cinematographer Dana Gonzales, and the tools he uses to create the distinct moods and tones of these unique programs.

We had an email conversation with Gonzales to find out how a cinematographer uses tools like cameras and lighting to conjure an emotional reaction in the viewer.

Q: Can you briefly explain what a cinematographer/director of photography does -- both in the creative sense of contributing to the show's look, and in the practical sense of actual tasks, responsibilities and equipment?
Gonzales: The cinematographer first and foremost conceptualizes the screenplay in a visual form, collaborating with the director to tell the story in tone and structure while working closely with the production designer and wardrobe department to establish the color palette. We choose the camera, lenses, and lighting to help convey the texture of the story in a form that works for the logistical challenges of any given scenario. 

The cinematographer also does all the hiring and oversees the main technical crew including the camera, lighting and grip departments, also working closely with the art, construction, props, special effects and visual effects departments. And we're involved in postproduction, supervising color correction and final VFX approvals. 

Lighting and color plays an important part in evoking the mood for viewers of Legion.

Suzanne Tenner/FX

Based on a mind-bending Marvel comic, Legion takes you into lead character David's mind in an extremely stylised way, while Fargo is more grounded and "realistic." Do you approach these shows differently, or is there in fact a common process uniting them?
Gonzales: In Legion, Noah Hawley and I developed a visual language in lensing and tone to tell the story through the perspective of an unreliable narrator. We play with aspect ratios to help the audience know they are in different places of perspective: objective or subjective, reality or in David's mind, narrative or flashback. We use superwide angle lenses mixed with longer lenses, while using spherical and anamorphic formats to go in and out of perspectives. It's a constantly movable feast.

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Color helps guide viewers through the characters' mental states in Legion.

Michelle Faye/FX

With Fargo we had a bit of the storytelling language created by the original movie. We used cinematic concepts to make the show look and feel like a 10-hour movie: going superwide, letting scenes play out sometimes in one angle and cutting while moving the camera only to advance the story. The camera always focuses the audience on the main story points. We like to use wider angle lenses for close-ups and rarely go over a 40mm lens on the whole show.

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Each season of Fargo is set in a different time period -- 2006, 1979 and 2010 -- with disparate lenses and colors subtly evoking each era. 

Chris Large/FX

How do different camera lenses evoke emotional effects in the viewer?
Gonzales: Because it's an anthology show, all three seasons of Fargo use different lenses. In Season 1 we used the same lenses that were used on the feature film, until the story shifts to a year later, where I changed to Cooke S4 lenses to change the perception of the audience organically.

For Season 2 I used Vintage Cooke Speed Pancro lenses to help reproduce the period of 1979, again bringing the audience into the story with the color and tone naturally.

For Season 3 [set in 2010], in a world where technology was starting to take over our lives, a sharper more precise Leica Summilux lens set was used to transport viewers to that generation. Anything I can do to make the story an experience.

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Fargo's tones are muted, but color is still significant.

Chris Large/FX

And how do you use color to affect the viewer?
Gonzales: In Season 2 of Fargo, I used hints of the color cyan where and when one of the characters would be murdered -- which is almost everyone! 

In Season 1 of Legion when David and Syd make love and touch for the first time, the scene is bathed in a stunning blue tone, making the moment indelible to the viewer. Then when I bring the same color back in the first episode of Season 2, when David and Syd reconnect, the audience is emotionally transported to that first event. 

How do you approach creating a mood or aesthetic for each character?
Gonzales: At the beginning of any project we do makeup, hair and wardrobe testing with the actors. This is the time when I try different types of lighting scenarios and qualities, finding the perfect aesthetic for each character. With a show like Legion, each character goes through different objective and subjective perspectives, sometimes lighting and or lensing can set each apart. It can be subtle or a significant departure depending on the arc of the story.

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Unusual camera angles and lenses help create the off-kilter world inhabited by Legion's lead character David (Dan Stevens). 

Suzanne Tenner/FX

Legion has such a varied style, from dream sequences to musical numbers and bizarre inner worlds -- how do you tie these disparate elements together to keep a unified aesthetic for the overall show?
Gonzales: Every episode brings new challenges. Even though there are many bombastic moments, I feel there is still a common thread in the storytelling and it just always feels right. The more I exercise this muscle on Legion it becomes that much more accessible and natural. I like to think I throw the paint on a canvas and then let it speak for itself and if we fail it's part of the process of discovery. 

What's the most important cinematography tip you'd give to someone shooting their own film, short or web series?
Gonzales: Try to service the script first and choose the correct tools to tell the story well. Trust your first intuition and let it guide you. Don't be afraid to fail and try new ways of creating visual storytelling. Every project is a stepping stone to the next one; while one project will not define you, it will shape you. 

Legion is on FX in the US and Fox in the UK. Fargo is on FX in the US and Channel 4 in the UK.

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