The Cinematography Podcast Episode 266: Jonathan van Tulleken and Christopher Ross

The FX miniseries Shōgun takes viewers on a journey filled with action and adventure through historically accurate 1600’s Edo-era Japan. Englishman John Blackthorne arrives on a Dutch trading ship after a rough voyage, interested in beginning trade with the Japanese. The country is governed by five regents locked in a power struggle, and the ruler Toranaga thinks the Englishman might be useful to him.

Director Jonathan van Tulleken and cinematographer Christopher Ross worked on episodes one and two together, establishing the look of the series. They have a deep understanding of each other’s creative vision, collaborating on several TV shows over the years. For Shōgun, Jonathan and Chris created a visual experience that honors both the grandeur of feudal Japan and the disorientation of a foreign visitor like the “anjin,” John Blackthorne. The two met and created a look book and sizzle reel to present to FX. Jonathan drew inspiration from movies such as The Revenant and Apocalypse Now. Chris was influenced by classic Japanese films Ran, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Akira Kirosawa’s jidaigeki (historical drama) films. Most importantly, they wanted the show to be bold and stand out with a cinematic look and genuine artistic intention behind it. Chris chose anamorphic lenses and wider aspect ratios for the first two episodes, playing with the point of view of the outsider’s subjectivity and disorientation. The choice of anamorphic lenses, which create a lot of background blur but keeps the character in crisp focus, may have seemed controversial, but has become more widely used on today’s television shows. (Read this article from The Ringer to learn more.)

Shōgun was shot in British Columbia during the winter, with the wild ocean shores of Canada and carefully designed soundstages standing in for Japan. Jonathan, Chris and the production team chose a lighting and color palette of browns and greens for the warring factions. Opulent costumes, warmer lights and colors represented palace life in Osaka, while in the village, the use of blues and grays reflected the harsh realities of the time period.

The dialog is almost entirely in Japanese, and Jonathan actually enjoyed directing in a language he didn’t speak. “It meant that you were not giving line readings, you couldn’t give line readings. You had to direct in a much more pure way, dealing with the bigger arcs of the scene, the character development, without getting into very macro stuff that isn’t helpful. I think you could just feel the emotion.” Chris agrees. “What you’re hoping to achieve is some sort of emotional resonance with a character that is in tune with what they’re saying and synchronous with what they’re saying.”

Find Jonathan Van Tulleken

Find Chris Ross: Instagram @edjibevel

Close Focus: A new streaming company, Fable, will let viewers create their own shows using AI generated animation.

Ben’s short end: RoboDoc: The Creation of RoboCop is a four-part documentary on Tubi.

Illya’s short end: Outer Range season 2 on Amazon.

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