Like many of us, I’ve watched a lot of streaming shows this year. One of the best was Chernobyl, the HBO/Sky Atlantic mini-series about the nuclear power plant disaster of 1986, which I cheekily binged during a free trial of Now TV.
In July, Chernobyl deservedly scooped multiple honours at the Virgin Media British Academy Television (Craft) Awards. In addition to it claiming the Bafta for best mini-series, lead actor Jared Harris, director Johan Renck, director of photography Jakob Ihre, production designers Luke Hull and Claire Levinson-Gendler, costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux, editors Simon Smith and Jinx Godfrey, composer Hildur Gudnadóttir, and the sound team all took home the awards in their respective fiction categories.
I use the phrase “took home” figuratively, since no-one had left home in the first place. The craft awards ceremony was a surreal, socially-distanced affair, full of self-filmed, green-screened celebrities. Comedian Rachel Parris impersonated writer/actor Jessica Knappett, and the two mock-argued to present the award for Photography & Lighting: Fiction. Chernobyl’s DP Jakob Ihre, FSF gave his acceptance speech in black tie, despite being filmed on a phone in his living room. In it he thanked his second unit DP Jani-Petteri Passi as well as creator/writer Craig Mazin, one of the few principal players not to receive an award.
Mazin crafted a tense and utterly engrossing story across five hour-long instalments, a story all the more horrifying for its reality. Beginning with the suicide of Harris’ Valery Legasov on the second anniversary of the disaster, the series shifts back to 1986 and straight into the explosion of the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Soviet Ukraine. Legasov, along with Brosi Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) and the fictional, composite character Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) struggle to contain the meltdown while simultaneously investigating its cause. Legions of men are sacrificed to the radiation, wading through coolant water in dark, labyrinthine tunnels to shut off valves, running across what remains of the plant’s rooftop to collect chunks of lethal graphite, and mining in sweltering temperatures beneath the core to install heat exchangers that will prevent another catastrophic explosion.
For Swedish-born NFTS (National Film and Television School) graduate Jakob Ihre, Chernobyl was a first foray into TV. His initial concept for the show’s cinematography was to reflect the machinery of the Soviet Union. He envisaged a heavy camera package representing the apparatus of the state, comprised of an Alexa Studio, with its mechanical shutter, plus anamorphic lenses. “After another two or three months of preproduction,” he told the Arri Channel, “we realised maybe that’s the wrong way to go, and we should actually focus on the characters, on the human beings, the real people who this series is about.”
Sensitivity and respect for the people and their terrible circumstances ultimately became the touchstone for both Ihre and his director. The pair conducted a blind test of ten different lens sets, and both independently selected Cooke Panchros. “We did a U-turn and of course we went for spherical lenses, which in some way are less obtrusive and more subtle,” said Ihre. For the same reason, he chose the Alexa Mini over its big brother. A smaller camera package like this is often selected when filmmakers wish to distract and overwhelm their cast as little as possible, and is believed by many to result in more authentic performances.
When it came to lighting, “We were inspired by the old Soviet murals, where you see the atom, which is often symbolised as a sun with its rays, and you see the workers standing next to that and working hand in hand with the so-called ‘friendly’ atom.” Accordingly, Ihre used light to represent gamma radiation, with characters growing brighter and over-exposed as they approach more dangerous areas.
Ihre thought of the disaster as damaging the fabric of the world, distorting reality. He strove to visualise this through dynamic lighting, with units on dimmers or fitted with remote-controlled shutters. He also allowed the level of atmos (smoke) in a scene to vary – normally a big no-no for continuity. The result is a series in which nothing feels safe or stable.
The DP shot through windows and glass partitions wherever possible, to further suggest a distorted world. Working with Hull and Levinson-Gendler, he tested numerous transparent plastics to find the right one for the curtains in the hospital scenes. In our current reality, filled with perspex partitions (and awards ceremonies shot on phones), such imagery of isolation is eerily prescient.
The subject of an invisible, society-changing killer may have become accidentally topical, but the series’ main theme was more deliberately so. “What is the cost of lies?” asks Legasov. “It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognise the truth at all.” In our post-truth world, the disinformation, denial and delayed responses surrounding the Chernobyl disaster are uncomfortably familiar.
This article first appeared on RedShark News.