WATCHMEN Exclusive Interview With Cinematographer Xavier Grobet About Dr. Manhattan, The Giant Squid, & More

We recently had the chance to speak to Watchmen cinematographer Xavier Grobet about his work on the HBO series, and got insights into everything from teasing Dr. Manhattan to that epic Giant Squid scene...

Watchmen took the world by storm when it premiered on HBO last year, and what was initially billed as an entirely separate story set in the world of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' accalimed graphic novel, soon became a must-see sequel. Beyond catching up with some familiar characters, it also delivered a powerful message about racism, and feels more poignant now than ever. 

Simply put, the series is a masterpiece, and much of that boils down to just how incredible it looked. 

One of the people responsible for those stunning visuals was Xavier Grobet, a cinematographer who has previously worked on Nacho Libre, Deadwood, Looking, Unbelievable, and a number of other acclaimed films and TV shows. With Watchmen, he served as DP on episodes three, five, and seven:  "An Almost Religious Awe," "Little Fear of Lightning," and "She Was Killed by Space Junk."

Recently, we had the chance to speak to Xavier about Watchmen, and learned more about the challenges that came with working on the HBO series, a number of key moments (like the Giant Squid), his interest in Marvel and DC movies, and much more. He also talks to us about his amazing self portraits, some of which you can see embedded from his Instagram, at the bottom of this page.

Many thanks to Xavier for taking the time to talk to us! 


How did you come to be involved with Watchmen?

I came to the project invited by Nicole Kassell, one of the main directors and executive producers. She and I had worked together on her first movie called The Woodsman starring Kevin Bacon that was released in 2004. We stayed friends and always wanted to work together again, but it never happened until she pitched it to the producers of this project. She invited me to be the other DP on Watchmen after Greg Middleton, who designed the show.

Were you familiar with Watchmen before you joined the series, and if not, did you decide to read the comic or watch the movie at all?

It was such an interesting process because I had seen the movie and was more or less familiar with the comic book, but had never read it in detail. I bought the comic book and read it, and once I got to Atlanta, where we shot the series, there was so much to catch up on with that and the characters. It was almost like a big class [Laughs]. It's a very, very complex novel, and you have to go into the details to really get it. I remember spending a lot of time once we started prepping the show getting very familiar with the graphic novel. 

Working on a series with as many twists and turns as this one, are you only told about the specific episodes you're working on, or the story from beginning to end?

Well, you have to know everything because one episode leads to the other. So, I read all the scripts all the time because the episodes which were between mine had information which would later come into them. I needed to follow the whole story and, as you know, it's not an actual copy of the comic book, it's an adaptation and shows what happens after. It's completely different to the comic book and is just based on the world which was created in the graphic novel. I remember reading all the other episodes, and almost prepping them and breaking them down so I could understand them and know what was going on. Then, I could actually take on all of the information I needed for my episodes.


Was it challenging ensuring the episodes you worked on were visually consistent with what we saw throughout the rest of the season?

Yeah, between Nicole and Greg, once I got there, they had created a look book and language for the show with the kind of lighting and framing, and language in the sense of how the camera moves or frames the graphic novel. We designed that, and that's what kept it consistent. Of course, Greg's lighting style and mine are different as we're two different people; he uses a lot more soft sources of light and I have a different approach, so I tried to embrace what I was learning from his craft, but also put an imprint on it with the way I do things. The part that was the glue to it was this language we had to respect or follow. 

How difficult is it shooting something like Jeremy Irons in Ozymandias' costume without it coming across ridiculous on screen?

Well, it's funny as I didn't shoot any of the Jeremy Irons parts. What happened was they shot most of those scenes in the UK before we even started production in Atlanta. Then, he came over to finish certain beats that were still to be shot, and so we had a third unit led by Alex Disenhof (he shot the last episode as well), which was in charge of a specific unit specifically for Jeremy. It's all in the design of the wardrobe, but did you think it looked silly? [Laughs]

Not at all! I was just curious because it's such an unexpected costume to see Jeremy Irons in, but the way it's shot means it looks great and as if it's just come out of the comic books. It was one of my favourite scenes.


Another favourite of mine was the scene in "An Almost Religious Awe" when Angela hits Cal with the hammer before we see that blue glow. It was beautifully shot, so I was wondering if you could talk us through putting that together?

In our tone meetings that we used to have with Damon [Lindelof] and producers and the directors talking about how they wanted to translate what was written into images, in my episode, the idea is that we realise Cal is Dr. Manhattan. So, the idea is that she's waking him up and pulling the ring out of his forehead. Without letting it completely out there that he's Dr. Manhattan, we wanted a glow of blue to help you understand who that was. We shot that same glow in episode three with Jean Smart's character, Laurie Blake, when she opens the case with Dr. Manhattan's dildo [Laughs]. We also had Dr. Manhattan's blue glow coming out of that to bring the presence of the character into the show.


In "Little Fear of Lightning," fans were overjoyed to see the giant squid, and while I know that was obviously added with visual effects, what sort of role do you play in a VFX-heavy scene like that as cinematographer?

Well, that was a super interesting scene that we did because it was scripted pretty much how it is in the final product. The idea was, 'How do we come out of the real world into the CG world?' The way that the director, Steph Green, wanted, I originally pictured it the opposite direction, so instead of pulling away from Hoboken, we would have been pushing into Manhattan. That was my initial vision of that when I read it, but she said, 'No, I want to start on the kid's face, and then pull back and then as we come into Manhattan, then we reveal the giant squad.' That made more sense than my original idea as it means you don't see the squid until you get there. It was finding a way to fly the camera and connect it to the computer generated image. We worked together with Eric [Henry], our VFX supervisor, and so I got the guys who do the cable cam, and we hung that on location to rig this huge system where you fly the camera. We started the camera on a close up of the kid, and then as the camera pulls out, it kind of flew away from him and the fair and that's what connects to the other world. We had a lot of meetings with Eric to transition from one world to the other, and we decided to use the Ferris wheel as what we pull away from, so it was meetings and meetings to decide that. For example, I also needed to know what the angle of the camera would be if it started flying out or if it had to pull up. Then I said, 'It can't pull up as we'd be too high by the time we got to Manhattan.' So, we had to pretty much pull on a horizontal line, and as we're pulling away and flying out, that's when the camera slowly pulls up. It was all these things you have to think of, have meetings about, and think how you're going to cut them together. It was definitely team work. 

Having read the other scripts as you mentioned, were there moments in other episodes which you'd like to have put your spin on?

I think the best episode is episode six that Greg shot with the Angela Barr dream sequence after she takes the pill. I think that's absolutely a masterpiece. The way they shot it like it was one single shot as the memories connected, I thought that was really fantastic. It's one of my favourites, I think.

What were some of the biggest difficulties you faced as a cinematographer working on Watchmen

It was a very demanding show. It almost felt like every time we started an episode, it was like starting a different project. Every episode, even though they all connect in a dramatic arc, each one of them works as a single piece and has a very different world within its own world. I guess the challenge was getting the next script, and saying, 'It's a new world, a different director, let's see what happens!' [Laughs] For example, designing that fair and mirror house took us a lot of thinking, time, and designs to come up with what we did at the end. There was a lot of research and testing. I guess the show was very clearly designed, had a very clear language, and we had to come up with ideas to serve that language and keep the show consistent, while making every episode feel like the same world.

And on the other end of the spectrum, what were some of the most rewarding moments being part of this series?

I was very happy with episode three that I did with Stephen Williams. We did a lot of work on desk planning the shots and language, and it's so nice when you have that clear guidelines and see it all come together is very rewarding. 


Are you a fan of the comic book movie genre, and could you see yourself working on a big Marvel or DC movie one day?

I've done a lot of very different movies, and I'm open to everything. I embraced this project, and I loved the material and language and what we did. It was not specifically very comic book orientated, but it wasn't like the classic Marvel movie. I like all genres. I've done movies with a sense of adventure to them, and it's something I really enjoyed doing, so I'm open to it. 

Finally, no one is entirely sure whether there will be a Watchmen season two, but if it does happen, would you be interested in returning?

For sure. Who knows what 's going to happen. I would love to continue being part of it. So, we'll see. Let's see if they invite me back or not!

I'm sure they will. I was going back through your episodes, and those were among my favourites as there's so many great moments in them. 

Thank you very much for you comment. You know, I really enjoyed the episodes that I did. I think, for example, episode three was a favourite as it was good fun because it's where we introduce Laurie Blake and I think Jean Smart did an amazing job. I was in love with working with her because she nailed that character so well. That episode has a very fun rhythm  to it, and she's really fantastic. I'm very happy with the episodes I shot.

I'm sure our readers will love hearing your insights into the series, so thank you again for talking to me. Can you tell us what you'll be working on next and where you can be found on social media?

Well, I was doing a show that got stopped four days short of finishing for Amazon. Who knows when we're going to go back and shoot, and right now, everything is so unclear with what's happening. The only thing I can say is with this lockdown we're going through, I can share with you that I started a series of self portraits here in my house. I did around 40 which you can see on my Instagram account - @exmexdp - if you're interested. It's a fun project that everyone reacted to, and I think I might end up making a book out of that. 

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