A quick glance at the content landscape would see the same properties being repurposed for different media, but look a little closer and you’ll find everything from songs and articles to memes and apps making their way onto one screen or another. New Amazon series Tales from the Loop has a different source altogether: a book of paintings, by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag.
The project arose when Cloverfield director Matt Reeves introduced the show’s creator Nathaniel Halpern to these sci-fi artworks. “He has this wonderful marriage between the ordinary and the extraordinary and it’s very hard and rare to find a unique aesthetic within science fiction these days,” Halpern tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Usually it reminds you of something else. Here it really just stands on its own.”
These images formed the basis for eight episodes set in a small Ohio town above “The Loop,” an underground facility housing a machine built to explore the mysteries of the universe. Halpern draws on the 1980s for inspiration but stops short of Stranger Things style pop culture references, as he explains to Engadget: “I didn’t want to fetishize the time period and say, ‘Look at these clothes from the early 1980s!’ Or, ‘Do you remember this?’ I didn’t want that element of nostalgia.”
“Those artworks, as crafted by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, present a vision of the future that also sports a retro feel — as befitting images of robots against rural landscapes, of decaying technology strewn across the outskirts of suburbia, and of sky-high, gleaming structures looming over sleepy locales,” writes Sarah Ward. “It’s steampunk but filtered through ‘80s sci-fi, and that look and vibe transitions to the series that shares the art tome’s name, evoking a glimpse of futuristic possibilities that seem firmly steeped in a recognizable reality.
“First, picture any stereotypical sleepy midwest US town, of the type that many a movie has splashed across the screen (and that, even if you’ve never stepped foot in America, everyone feels like they’ve visited),” Ward continues. “Then, add a trio of buildings that could’ve been ripped from Blade Runner, Metropolis or the like, where everyone nearby either works or wants to, and which house a metallic globe deep in their depths. Next, scatter abandoned old robots in the woods and rusting spheres throughout fields, while infusing the daily lives of the town’s inhabitants with small pieces of technology advanced far beyond today’s parameters.” To read the full article, click here.
Of greater significance to the showrunners are the retro European textures of Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky and Krzysztof Kieslowski. “We wanted period architecture from ’70s-era Soviet Union and late-’60s Sweden to create our own timeless world,” director Mark Romanek tells Architectural Digest. He adds that Winnipeg, Canada, stood in for the Midwest “to guarantee a good amount of snow,” though the subzero temperatures and short daylight hours created their own problems, with camera equipment schlepped across the snow in toboggans.
“There’s a lot of imagery [in the book] that’s very pushed, image-wise, in the sense of color and contrast,” cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth tells Brad Gullickson. “We felt that if we had implored that approach to a live-action show, it would be overwhelming, and it would have undermined some of the subtle performances and nuances that we ended up incorporating into the story.”
“The next challenge was discovering a pace for the images,” Gullickson explains. “The magic of a painting is that you can attach yourself to it for as long as you want, but it will have no effect if you’re simply skipping through the museum. Lingering is part of the process, and the art requires a commitment from its viewer. Cronenweth wanted to reproduce a similar level of cooperative absorption with his audience.
“From there,” Cronenweth continues, “we pow-wowed about the pace and tempo and arrived at a Scandanavian approach. By that, I mean, we picked out favorite [Ingmar] Bergman films as well as our favorite [Andrei] Tarkovsky and [Krzysztof] Kieślowski films and found what in those resonated the most. Our walkway was pace and tempo, very prescribed, but with intention, camera movement, and a quality of subtleness to the timing. Letting things play out.” To read the full interview, click here.
“We were very careful about where we were at what time of the day,” Cronenweth tells American Cinematographer. “We were trying to always get the long shadows, to create drama photographically as much as we could to add weight to the story.” Panavision’s Millennium DXL2 was employed to record in raw at 6K, with Primo 70 (T2.0) lenses alongside the very first Panaspeed lenses retrofitted for digital large-format cameras: Panaspeed 70s. “I’ve never received a lens from anyone with serial No. 00001 before,” adds A-camera 1st AC Jeffrey Hammerback.
Light Iron colorist Ian Vertovec spent three days grading the pilot in FilmLight’s Baselight. “I tried to incorporate a rich, soft quality,” he says in American Cinematographer. “[We wanted] these contradictory concepts of having contrast, but also an overall soft feel. Normally, contrast makes everything seem harsher and sharper. We were trying to ride that line where there’s a lot of contrast, but then there’s also this soft, painterly quality that we were trying to preserve.”
Read more: Tales From the Loop: Strange Machines
“One of the things I noticed in Simon’s paintings was the natural color palette,” Vertovec tells Reel Chicago. “It definitely was not a traditional science-fiction color palette; it was much more natural light, end of day, almost a perpetual magic hour. Nothing was too colorful, nothing was too poppy, nothing was too contrasty. It was all very beautiful, and it tied in with what Jeff and Mark were saying. They didn’t really want a ‘look’ applied so much as they wanted the natural vibes to come through, the natural palette.” To read the full interview, click here.
Effects work was completed by Rodeo FX, where approximately 40 people used Autodesk Maya, ZBrush, Nuke, Houdini, Katana and Arnold. The team created 700 shots, some of which were over two minutes long, producing more than two hours of VFX work across the season. “We’re more used to a VFX shot being something like four seconds,” VFX supervisor Julien Hery explains in an interview with Engadget. “[Two hours] is pretty insane data-wise. Even compared to a feature film, that’s a lot.”
Therein lies the advantage for a company with the resources and risk-taking scope of Amazon, which doesn’t face the same restrictions as traditional film or TV studios. “We didn’t know at the end of all of this whether or not there would be a place that would embrace the kind of intimate, humanist storytelling as opposed to the sort of loud, traditional sci-fi genre,” Reeves notes in a Nerdist interview. “And they bought it in the room and we have been incredibly lucky and excited ever since then.”
As for a second series, Halpern conveys his optimism to IndieWire: “So often, I feel like [people] try to make film premises into television, and they don’t have any legs. You realize, how do you keep this going? You’ve got our attention, but this doesn’t have the engine of a television show, and that’s where you really have to pay attention to what makes television work, instead of a film. Here, what was wonderful, is the Loop itself — it’s a wonderful storytelling generating device. It’s such a simple, elegant, premise that it can just churn out stories about this town and the people who live there, so it’s kind of endless.”