Legion can be really mental, what with so much of the story taking place inside an unreliable narrator's head, or on the Astral Plane, or in several different alternate realities (13 of them in one episode alone.) "Sometimes you don't know where the hell you are," said Dana Gonzales, the show's Emmy-nominated director of photography. "You don't know what is real and not real."
But it would be even more confusing without the show's inventive cinematography guiding us through the complex narrative with varying lenses and aspect ratios, and a shifting array of filters, colors, POV angles, all cluing us into where and when we are. All of this is gorgeous to look at, too.
"I like to believe I'm not just doing visual gymnastics," Gonzales said. "I'm trying to give the audience an organic texture to kind of grab onto."
Gonzales unpacked three of his favorite moments for us from his nominated episode, "Chapter 9."
The swimming pool trap
Sometimes the script can be extremely vague, and the only direction given for a scene may be that the characters are in the Astral Plane. When that happens, Gonzales and the director (for this episode, Tim Mielants) will confer about how they want to depict that. Here, Mielants was inspired by a reference image of a girl sitting on the edge of a pool, which Gonzales decided to flip 90 degrees so when we first see Aubrey Plaza's character, she appears standing up.
"If we changed the angle, it would look like she was defying gravity," Gonzales said. After we see Lenny and Oliver in the pool, Gonzales created a seamless transition pulling out from the water, into Farouk's eye, and then into Oliver's eye (indicating that Farouk is inside Oliver's head). This effect was achieved using a special long lens, the Optex snorkel.
"It's usually used for tabletop photography," Gonzales said. "It changes the space continuum, because it takes the nodal point and moves it way forward. The whole dimensionality changes. You could move a foot, and it would love like a massive crane shot."
The dance battle
Originally, the dance-off was designed to be shot in black-light, but at the last moment, that plan was scrapped and Gonzales had less than an hour to come up with a new concept. "Luckily, the day before, I had shot some of the nightclub interiors, so I had them bring over those lights," he said.
To connect the real world of Cary's lab (which is shot with spherical lenses) to David's mental space (shot with anamorphic lenses), Gonzales added identical blue flares to both. "The script might just say, 'David's in the tank, and there's a dance-off,'" Gonzales said. "It's not that linear." And it's impossible for him to know in advance how his shots will be edited together, but he can imagine what the editor will need.
"You might be shooting Cary's lab four days after the dance-off, but I know they'll need to go between the two worlds. And I know that when that sequence comes together, with the flares and the music, it's going to be powerful."
Messages from the future
Future Syd can't communicate to present David with words — sound won't travel. But light will, so she "writes" messages to David with a moving point of light, which lingers in the air before vanishing. The script only said "light writing," and it was up to Gonzales to figure out how to make that happen.
Inspired by the way Picasso once drew with light on glass, the cinematographer did "a bunch of testing" with still cameras first, playing with exposure and shutter speed, and then he set up a 3D rig with two cameras simultaneously shooting the same image – one at two frames per second, and the other at 24 frames per second. The two frames per second shot captured streaky abstractions, while the 24 frames per second shot captured the regular live action. The intermingling of these two shots was gratifyingly eerie.
"I think it works," Gonzales said, with admirable modesty.