Finding the Visual Style for HBO’s The Regime

March 14, 2024 Mar. 14, 2024

As has been said many times through the years, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Case in point: HBO’s six-episode series The Regime, which stars Kate Winslet as Chancellor Elena Vernham of an unnamed country somewhere in “Central Europe,” whose democratic principles, and possibly her sanity, has become frayed, only to further unravel as the series progresses. Created by Will Tracy (writer of satiric feature The Menu and hugely popular series Succession) the show focusses on Vernham’s erratic behavior, both politically and personally, and the dangerous confluence of overconfidence and pervasive insecurity that seems to motivate many autocrats. Director Stephen Frears (A Very English Scandal, State of the Union) brings his droll sense of humor to three episodes, the other three are directed by Jessica Hobbs (The Crown).

Senior Colorist Jean-Clément Soret of Company 3 London had collaborated with series producer Tracey Seaward for years on a number of features and commercials and she felt Soret would be perfect to grade The Regime. Soret conferred with series cinematographer Alwin Küchler prior to commencement of principal photography about the type of look he and Frears were interested in and the location, Schönbrunn Palace, in Vienna, where the majority of the show would be shot.

“There was going to be a lot of gold, a lot of warmth there,” Soret recalls, “and he wasn’t too keen on that. It didn’t really reflect the tone the filmmakers were after.” Soret developed a show LUT (lookup table) for the entire production to use during the shoot, it was designed to interact with the camera original (shot on the Sony Venice) material and introduce a strong filmic look and push the palette more in the blue-green direction to counterbalance the amount of gold and red of the location.

The yellow, orange and red tones that would be an unchangeable feature of the location, and even the country’s red and blue flags designed for the production and prominently displayed, required some work and interpretation on the colorist’s part to match the desired feel. “Very often you embrace what’s there and you just build on top of it to improve it,” he says. “But here we moved away from what was there. This would be a question of pushing cooler colors into the scenes overall and subduing all these warm colors in a way that didn’t feel forced and unnatural. Then the challenge [in building the LUT] was to make sure it didn’t affect skin tones, which are obviously in the warm zone that we’re most affecting, too much so that they look unnatural.”

Once final grading of episodes began, Soret worked primarily underneath this LUT to finetune everything shot by shot. “The look subtly becomes bleaker and darker as the time goes on,” he says, reflecting the fact that the Vernham’s situation becomes more difficult, her behavior more bizarre, as the story progresses, “and that’s reflected in the color palette; things get a bit more desaturated, more blue, darker.”

HBO requested that Soret grade in Dolby Vision HDR in order to future-proof the show, “but we were very reasonable with the use of HDR, we did it in an SDR kind of way to keep the very filmic look,” he says, noting that the series doesn’t lend itself to extreme highlights and pronounced saturation that an HDR finish makes possible.

Küchler made significant use of the natural light inside Schönbrunn Palace, which meant that he was sparing when it came to placing fill lights. “His feeling was that as soon as you start adding lights, the viewer can see that you’ve added lights,” Soret explains. “If a scene is set at night, then that’s fine, you can add as many lights as you want. But when it’s daytime and he had the characters lit by the sun going through windows, he preferred not to use too much fill light to keep that natural backlit feel.”

This generally worked beautifully, Soret recalls, but even with the help of the Venice’s large contrast range, cameras can clip highlights in backlit situations, which becomes more apparent in HDR. So, the colorist explains, “we decided to smooth things out a bit using tools within the color corrector. If some of the brightest highlights outside the window could look blown out, we’d add a bit of grain in the highlights — some texture so it doesn’t seem like digital clipping and has a more natural look,” he notes.

Likewise, HDR can make shadows appear deeper so certain areas, especially characters’ faces, might fall off too much. For this, Soret tracked in little windows (selections) to slightly bring up the exposure in just those areas, “in a way it’s like adding in some ‘lights’ in the grade,” he elaborates. “But you never want to overdo it, or it won’t retain the wonderful natural look that the cinematographer brought to it.”

Soret has found working on the series to be quite a rewarding and enjoyable experience. “It’s very funny,” he observes, “and it’s a bit crazy at times. The acting is excellent from everybody. The group had great talent across all areas of film making, you can really see that [the filmmakers] cared very much about making it a good show while allowing creatives to put their own mark on it.”

New episodes of THE REGIME air each Sunday on HBO and is available to stream on MAX.