Award-winning Cinematographer David Luther had to draw on all his experience to help create a convincing backdrop for this dystopian short-story adaption. Adrian Pennington reports.

The Silo from the AppleTV+ sci-fi series is an underground bunker built to protect (or keep prisoner) the survivors of some unexplained human-made catastrophe. With virtually every scene in the 10-hour series set within the Silo, the filmmakers’ chief task was to ‘sell’ the environment both with the scale of accommodating 10,000 citizens and the claustrophobia of a society trapped below ground.


Behind the Scenes: Silo

“In Silo there’s never any hard sunlight or high contrast light so to create ambience and to shape the mood we mainly used lighting often by switching off lights built into the set,” says Cinematographer David Luther. “LED lights were built into every set and connected to a DMX board which gave us temp, colour and dimming control over the stages. We added some harder floor lights, some sodium lights, and when we do view outside via the internal windows we had an excuse to put in a sunbeam.”

Setting the scene

When composing the short story ‘Wool’ on which Silo is based, author Hugh Howey envisioned a future where humans live in a 350-year-old subterranean city that is 140 storeys below a deadly toxic surface.

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The filmmakers, however, only had a set built over one floor with bluescreen extensions to work with. The staircase which is a central part of the Silo’s architecture was built over three floors and featured a bluescreen floor. This enabled the camera and directing teams to use previs created by VFX Supervisor Daniel Rauchwerger to look up or down the ‘Y’ axis and view a real-time CG image of the silo’s internal dimensions.

“We had an iPad on set to see what the virtual extension of the world would look like rather than just bluescreen,” Luther says. “That helped us create a feeling of vertigo and scale particularly when Juliette (the chief engineer turned sheriff played by Rebecca Ferguson) is hanging by her fingertips facing a vertiginous drop.”

They were shooting on ARRI Alexa Mini LF framed for 2:1 and a brand of anamorphic Caldwell lenses called Chameleon. Using anamorphic helped separate the characters from the background adding depth to each shot.

“The lenses offer a very soft look for wide angles but [Caldwell] don’t have a great range of longer focal lengths,” says Luther who shot the second block of episodes with Director David Semel picking up the work of DP Mark Patten and Director Morten Tyldum. “I found a small zoom that worked well with the Caldwells. It wasn’t great image quality but when you want to degrade the look of the show for TV and take off the sharp edges of digital it was ideal.”


Behind the Scenes: Silo

He required that lens for scenes set in the central spiral stairwell, notably a race to the top in episode 5 in which citizens run up the stairs while Juliette is running down.

“We wanted to be able to run freely down with Rebecca in a fluid narrative so we used smaller RED Komodos carried by a grip on a gimbal with the camera operated remotely.”

Other options for filming action on the stairwell included a wire-cam and a crane with a telescopic arm. “You’re constantly having to use camera trickery to get scale,” Luther adds.

The art department painted sets different colours depending on the zone of the Silo in which a scene was set. The cinematographers also gave each level a different colour palette for viewers to subliminally decode where they are in the bunker. Generally speaking, lighter for levels near the surface and darker in the engine room deep below ground

The show was filmed in a former Muller yoghurt storage building in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, retrofitted by show producer AMC Studios into a working film stage. It had enough space but contained some original pillars which necessitated occasional compromises.

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A communal cafeteria set featured a giant ‘window’ which pipes in a video feed of the outside world to soothe the populace. To make use of dynamic light from the window into the set, the window was composed of a 100ft video wall.

“My favourite scenes are set here when Juliette and Lukas (Avi Nash) talk about the stars, curious about the world outside the silo and the soft light creates a mood where we can feel the chemistry between the actors. It’s romantic and in contrast to the more sombre scenes.”

Trade secrets

Luther was born in Munich and learned the trade from his father, the Slovak Cinematographer Igor Luther. Igor had worked with Volker Schlondorff and Andrzej Wajda in the 1970s and 80s on classics like The Tin Drum and Danton.


Behind the Scenes: Silo

“It was a love-hate relationship,” Luther says of the four year period assisting his father. “He was a very precise person. When I was assisting him I had to be focussed on my work, not allowed to talk. Working with someone that close to you means there is not the protection you might have normally. So when you do something wrong the criticism was immediate.

“But he taught me many secrets - mostly when I was younger. At age 12 he gave me a camera and a light meter and Ansel Adams’ book about zone systems to learn about exposure. My dark room was in the cellar so I could develop my own photos. He gave these to me and said ‘here you go’. He chose the best tools and the best book and the rest I had to do myself. He encouraged independence, not hand holding.”

Having studied cinematography first at the prestigious FAMU school in Prague, then a further three years at the NFTS in London, Luther made a name in commercials working for Sony and Volkswagen before segueing into primetime TV drama. He operated all eight episodes of the Das Boot remake for Bavaria Films in 2018, lit and operated the pilot for BBC drama Motherfatherson starring Richard Gere, BBC’s Sherlock – The Final Problem, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, His Dark Materials, the Mazey Day episode in the latest series of Black Mirror, and won an ASC Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography for The White Queen.

He was speaking to IBC365 after returning from the set of Amazon fantasy The Wheel of Time in the South African desert.

“I love architecture and fine art. Mostly my inspiration is from painting but it can also be the shapes of interiors or a natural landscape. When you are younger you learn more by watching masters [of cinematography] about how they approach their art. Once you understand it a bit more the inspiration can come from anywhere. It is by combining different compositions and emotions and tones and colours into new combinations that you evolve.”

Silo season 1 left viewers with more questions than answers but a second series, halted last year during the strikes, is currently in production.

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