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Cinematographer Martin Ruhe. Courtesy of Starz Entertainment.


Dual Reality Cinematography in 'Counterpart'

Cinematographer Martin Ruhe had to methodically figure out exactly how to convey the show's dual reality world of dopplegangers and doubles

Story by Mun Kang | June 23, 2018

Justin Marks' ('The Jungle Book') dual reality science fiction series features Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons ('Whiplash') as two versions of Howard Silk (Howard Silk/Howard Prime) that exist in two separate parallel dimensions in the "Alpha world" (original world) and the "Prime world" (alternate/other world). These two universes are connected through a station acting as a crossover point. Howard Silk has lived a regular, average life employed by a United Nations agency based in Berlin, since he was young, yet he has no recollection of these two parallel dimensions. Howard Prime ("other self") has regularly been crossing over for quite some time, acting as a field agent in hopes to capture rogues from jumping ship that may have a quantum impact or endanger their doppelgangers in the Alpha world.

J.K. Simmons as Howard Silk. Image courtesy of Starz.

Howard Silk's only concern is to take care of his comatose wife, Emily Silk (Olivia Williams) in the hospital, but the naive part of Howard Silk is suddenly launched into chaos as he unexpectedly discovers the more confident, abrasive Howard Prime, along with two Earths. To create these two parallel dimensions with two J.K. Simmons, and doubles of other actors is something to behold. Cinematographer Martin Ruhe ('American Pastoral') had to methodically figure out exactly how to convey a dual reality world in 'Counterpart'.

The two parallel dimensions contain similarities and slight differences. Ruhe explained, "Our side (Alpha) is a little warmer than the Prime side of the world, whereas the other had a bit more blue in it. We relied a lot on the art department. People would have breathing protection or hand sanitizers on one side and not on the other. One side would be cleaner than the other -- no graffiti, no billboards, more modern clean architecture. We always wanted to be subtle about the difference between the worlds."

Nazanin Boniadi as Clare (left) and Sara Serraiocco as Baldwin (right). Image courtesy of Starz.

In shooting duplicates of actors in the same shot often presents difficulties. "In the pilot, we started off very ambitious as we tried to get moving shots with the two Howards. We used motion control systems, and everything got a bit technical. J.K. played one side of the scene as Howard Prime first, and then John Funk, a gifted actor who was taking J.K's place of the other Howard. They became acting partners. Funk would memorize how J.K. played the one side and then try to give the same timing and intensity to his own performance. Later, we did split screens, used a foreground element, and found smart ways to place our cameras. The most challenging scene was in episode 8 where the two Howards meet. A stand-off dialogue between them in two cells separated by a big glass window was a very emotional long scene. We found a way to use five or six cameras in this tiny place, and only do the whole scene in two set ups," said the cinematographer.

The lighting choices are determined for the look and mood of the scene and story. The Director of Photography concluded, "We wanted a gloomy, moody atmosphere. There was no need to have strong sunlight coming through windows. We used mainly soft light sources. When we were on location, we often used big bounces coming through the window to block the sunlight. We used minimal lighting for the interiors, as most of it came from the outside. For our exteriors, we had to move fast, so I had to look at what was out in the location and how to use it. When we shot the other side, we lit it a bit cooler than on our side."

This dual reality of two parallel dimensions intertwined, comprised of doppelgangers and doubles from the Alpha and Prime worlds is transformed on screen through the craft of exceptional cinematography from Martin Ruhe. Ruhe and his team captured the light of both universes, and showcased the talented J.K. Simmons playing the role of two Howards in this gripping Starz series, 'Counterpart'.

J.K. Simmons as Howard Prime. Image courtesy of Starz.

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