'The Handmaid's Tale': Developing a New Vision of Dystopia for the Hulu Series

With tons of broadcast, web and OTT outlets for dramatic television, there's a greater opportunity than ever for American audiences to be exposed to excellent projects produced outside of Hollywood.
Publish date:
Updated on

With tons of broadcast, web and OTT outlets for dramatic television, there's a greater opportunity than ever for American audiences to be exposed to excellent projects produced outside of Hollywood or New York. Some of the most interesting series come out of Canada from a handful of production vendors. One such company is Take 5 Productions, which has worked on such co-productions as Vikings, American Gothic and Penny Dreadful. One of their newest offerings is The Handmaid's Tale, whose first season, consisting of 10 hour-long episodes, is currently airing in the United States on Hulu and is being distributed internationally through MGM. The series is produced by MGM Television and filmed in Ontario, Canada.

The Handmaid's Tale is based on a dystopian novel written in 1985 by Margaret Atwood. It's set in New England in the near future, when an authoritarian theocracy has overthrown the United States government and replaced it with the Republic of Gilead. Gilead is ruled by a twisted fundamentalism that treats women as property of the state. Facing a plunging birth rate caused by pollution and disease, a caste of fertile women (known as Handmaids) are forced into servitude as reproductive surrogates for the ruling class (the Commanders).

Image placeholder title

Offred, one the few fertile women known as Handmaids in the oppressive Republic of Gilead, struggles to survive as a reproductive surrogate for those in power.

This disturbing series, with its nods to Nazi Germany and life behind the Iron Curtain, not to mention George Orwell and Stanley Kubrick, stars Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men, Top of the Lake) as Offred, one of the handmaids, as she struggles to survive in the new society.

The tone of the style and visuals for The Handmaid's Tale was set by cinematographer-turned-director Reed Morano (@reedmorano, Frozen River, Meadowland, The Skeleton Twins). She helmed three of the episodes, including the pilot. As with many television series, a couple of editors traded off the cutting duties. For this series, Julian Clarke (Deadpool, Chappie, Elysium) started the pilot, but it was wrapped up by Wendy Hallam Martin (@wendyleehallam, Queer as Folk, The Tudors, The Borgias). Hallam Martin and Christopher Donaldson (Penny Dreadful, Vikings, The Right Kind of Wrong) alternated episodes in the series, with one episode cut by Aaron Marshall (Vikings, Penny Dreadful, Warrior).

Image placeholder title

Behind the scenes with Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and Reed Morano
Photo by George Kraychyk/Hulu

Cutting a Dystopian Future
I recently spoke with Wendy Hallam Martin about this series and working in the Toronto television scene. She says, "As a Canadian editor, I've been lucky to work on some of the bigger shows. I've done a lot of Showtime projects, but Queer as Folk was really the first big show for me. With the interest of outlets like Netflix and Hulu, budgets have increased and Canadian TV has had a chance to produce better shows, especially the co-productions. I started on The Handmaid's Tale with the pilot, which was the first episode. Julian [Clarke] started out cutting the pilot but had to leave due to his schedule, so I took over. After the pilot was shot [with more scenes to come], the crew took a short break. Reed [Morano] was able to start her director's cut before she shot episodes 2 and 3 to set the tone. The pilot didn't lock until halfway through the season."

One might think a miniseries that doesn't run on a broadcast network would have a more relaxed production and post schedule akin to a feature film. Not so with The Handmaid's Tale, which was produced and delivered on a schedule much like other television dramatic series. Episodes were shot in blocks of two at a time, with eight days allotted per episode. The editor's assembly was due five days later, followed by two weeks working with the director to produce the director's cut. Subsequent changes from Hulu and MGM notes result in a locked cut three months after the first day of production for those two episodes. Finally, it's three days to color grade and about a month for sound edit and mix.

Image placeholder title

Editor Wendy Hallam Martin

Take 5 has its own in-house visual effects department, which handles simple effects like wire removals, changing closed eyes to open, and so on. A few of the more complex VFX shots are sent to outside vendors. The episodes average about 40 VFX shots each; however, the season finale had 70 effects shots in one scene alone.

Tackling the Workload
Hallam Martin explained how her team deals with the post schedule. She says, "We had two editors handling the shows, so there was always some overlap. You might be cutting one show while the next one was being assembled. This season we had a first and second assistant editor. The second would deal with the dailies and the first would be handling visual effects hand-offs, building up sound effects and so on. For the next season we'll have two firsts and one second assistant due to the load. [Hulu announced a second season of The Handmaid's Tale earlier this month.] Reed was very hands-on and wanted full, finished tracks of audio. There were always 24 tracks of sound on my timelines. I usually handle my own temp sound design, but because of the schedule, I handed that off to my first assistant. I would finish a scene and then turn it over to her while I moved on to the next scene."

Image placeholder title

Punishment is meted out in the form of public hangings in Gilead.

The Handmaid's Tale has a distinctive visual style. Much of the footage carries a strong orange-and-teal grade. The series is shot with an ARRI Alexa Mini in 4K UHD (3840 x 2160). The DIT on set applies a basic look to the dailies, which are then turned into Avid DNxHD 36 media files by Deluxe in Toronto and delivered to the editors at Take 5. Final color correction is handled from the UHD originals by Deluxe under the supervision of the series director of photography, Colin Watkinson (Wonder Woman, Entourage, The Fall). A UHD high dynamic range master is delivered to Hulu, although currently only standard dynamic range is streamed through the service. Hallam Martin adds, "Reed had created an extensive 'look book' for the show. It nailed what [series creator] Bruce Miller was looking for. That, combined with her interview, is why the executive producers hired her. It set the style for the series."

Another departure from network television is that episodes do not have a specific duration that they must meet. Hallam Martin explains, "Hulu doesn't dictate exact lengths, like 58:30, but they did want the episodes to be under an hour long. Our episodes range from about 50 to 59 minutes. Ninety-eight percent of the scenes make it into an episode, but sometimes you do have to cut for time. I had one episode that was 72 minutes, which we left that long for the director's cut. For the final version, the producers told me to 'go to town' in order to pace it up and get it under an hour. This show had a lot of traveling, so through the usual trimming, but also a lot of jump cuts for the passage of time, I was able to get it down. Ironically, the longest show ended up being the shortest."

Image placeholder title

Handmaids are both victims and agents of the state, using mutual surveillance and shame to keep each other in line.

Adam Taylor (Before I Fall, Meadowland) was the series composer. He delivered on the style set by Morano and Hallam Martin in the pilot edit. Hallam Martin says, "For the first three episodes, we pulled a lot of sources from other film scores to set the style—also a lot of Trent Reznor stuff. This gave Adam an idea of what direction to take. Of course, after he scored the initial episodes, we could use those tracks as temp for the next episodes. As more episodes were completed, that increased the available temp library we had to work with."

Post Feelings
Story points in The Handmaid's Tale are often exposed through flashbacks and voiceover narration from Offred. Naturally voiceover pieces affect the timing of both the acting and the edit. I asked Hallam Martin how this was addressed. She says, "The voiceover was recorded after the fact. Lizzie [Moss] would memorize the VO and act with that in mind. I would have my assistant do a guide track for cutting, and when we finally received Lizzie's, we would just drop it in. These usually took very little adjustment thanks to her preparation while shooting. She's a total pro."

Image placeholder title

Behind the scenes with Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and Ofglen (Alexis Bledel)

The story focuses on many ideas that are tough to accept and watch at times. Hallam Martin comments, "Some of the subject matter is hard and some of the scenes stick with you. It can be emotionally hard to watch and cut because it feels so real."

Wendy Hallam Martin uses Avid Media Composer for these shows. I asked her about editing style. She comments, "I watch all the dailies from top to bottom, but I don't use ScriptSync. I will arrange my bins in the frame view with a representative thumbnail for each take. This way I can quickly see what my coverage is. I like to go from the gut based on my reaction to the take. Usually I'll cut a scene first and then compare it against the script notes and paperwork to make sure I haven't overlooked anything that was noted on set."

In wrapping up, we talked about films versus TV projects. Hallam Martin says, "I have done some smaller features and movies-of-the-week, but I like the faster pace of TV shows. Of course, if I were asked to cut a film in L.A., I'd definitely consider it, but the lifestyle and work here in Toronto is great."

The first season of The Handmaid's Tale continues on Hulu and a second season has been announced.  

Download the June 2017 issue of Digital Video: www.mazdigital.com/webreader/50039