‘Devs’ Cinematographer Rob Hardy Cultivates Beautifully Alien Look For Bay Area Sci-Fi Thriller

On Alex Garland’s science-fiction thriller Devs, cinematographer Rob Hardy helped craft a singularly eerie portrait of the Bay Area, cultivating a world full of compelling visual motifs.

Starring Sonoya Mizuno, the FX series centers on Lily Chan, a software engineer who works for a mysterious quantum computing company known as Amaya. After her boyfriend abruptly disappears, on the first day of his new job at Devs, Lily is left to investigate this secretive division of the business and tease out its dark secrets.

Previously collaborating with Garland on the films Ex Machina and Annihilation, Hardy learned after shooting the latter title of the director’s desire to pursue a long-form project. “He [initially] sent me the first two episodes, and like every Alex Garland script, it’s always exciting and a pleasure to read, because the way he writes is so economical,” the DP says. “It always has a sense of getting straight to the point, and then going beyond the point, and taking you on a journey, where you go somewhere completely different or unexpected.”

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Sonoya Mizuno in 'Devs'

Raymond Liu/FX

For Hardy, part of what was so remarkable about Garland’s work on Devs was that he was submitting first drafts to the DP, and yet his work was essentially perfect from the get-go. “I would be reading [scripts] as he was completing them, and I can tell you now that it barely changed since I first read it, to the shooting script itself,” the cinematographer shares, “which is incredible, quite frankly.”

On Devs, as with Garland’s past projects, a distinctive aesthetic vision emerged seamlessly in pre-production, as the organic byproduct of extensive conversation. “We don’t reference other movies, or photographs, or anything like that. I think that’s something you tend to do when you’re establishing your working relationship with a director, although we didn’t do that on Ex Machina either,” Hardy says. “We just simply get on with it.”

As far as Hardy and Garland are concerned, the aesthetic of any given project is something that preexists. “The end result of what we know is going to be on screen, in terms of framing and lighting specifically, are things that will tend to develop organically, but they will end up being in our world, if that makes sense,” the DP remarks. “The world that Alex creates, and the one I photograph, are aesthetically aligned, and that world—once you’ve created the content, if you like—is designed to operate in a way that, when we’re on set, the shots, the lighting, everything presents itself to you in the moment.”

Alison Pill in 'Devs'

Miya Mizuno/FX

Of course, the ability to work freely on set, and find a scene or shot in the moment, only results from a lot of groundwork. “But once we’re at that point, we can literally shoot in any direction. We can allow the actors to really explore a scene through blocking, knowing that whilst that’s happening, all this stuff is presenting itself,” Hardy says. “So, that’s what’s exciting about our working method, in many respects. Because we’re nailing things down that are very specific design elements, but the photography itself happens in the moment—contrary to how it looks.”

In shooting San Francisco, the pair hoped to capture the feeling of a godlike perspective—something that had a slightly detached feel to it, and something that felt inexorable. “This goes from aerials, down to street level. There’s a sense of inevitability to what you’re seeing, and all of those things relate to the content of the show,” Hardy explains, “the idea of [a] multiverse, the idea of determinism, all of that kind of stuff.”

In a sense, the question for Hardy while photographing San Francisco was, how would a quantum computer view the city? “Everything needed to be composed and framed in a way that was creating order, out of the chaos that is the city. And that could be very, very simple compositional things, or not. But I remember we would drive around with a B-camera operator I was using, and also second unit came as well. We would go to the locations and literally stand and look at these things, and Alex and I would just be constantly talking about the inexorability of the way a lamppost sits in a specific frame,” Hardy says. “If it’s [framed] to the right or [framed] to the left, it [evokes] something completely different.”

Certainly, the way the city was shot spoke to the aesthetic that resonates in general, for both Garland and his DP. “It’s always about personalizing something, but turning it into something utterly beautiful, and almost alien-like, and that’s the other reason the aerials look the way they do. The stunning work those guys did on that, again, came down to those conversations of, ‘We want to frame the city, and move across the city, in a way that reflects everything that we’re doing in every single shot of the show,’” Hardy says. “It needs to feel like it’s all from the same family.”

Nick Offerman in 'Devs'

Miya Mizuno/FX

On Devs, one of the most interesting interior sets Hardy had to work with was the Devs cube, a golden-hued, futuristic space representing the core of the development division. While all of the series’ exteriors were shot in San Francisco and Santa Cruz, the cube was built on a huge soundstage at Manchester’s Space Studios.

In lighting the cube, Hardy had the opportunity to create a singular effect. At the same time, his approach to lighting the space speaks to the methodology he prefers, in general. “I’ve always tried to use the same principle, in the sense that I like to light spaces, as opposed to specific people. Obviously, you can build on those things as you move through the story, but the idea is, you create a space that feels real,” the DP says. “So, the Devs cube itself was built for real, and the lighting was designed specifically to be integral to the set. Then, everything was controlled back to an iPad, which Lee Walters, my gaffer, would hold.”

In his early conversations with Garland about this set, Hardy understood that huge light sources would be fired into the cube’s golden walls, which would reflect light back into the set itself, serving as the principle light source for production. “In principle, that’s the core concept behind the way it’s lit, and everything else is built on that principle. So, it’s all about soft, reflective light that also has this organic feel to it, that moves in a very elegant, refined kind of environment,” he says. “What that did is, it enabled us to move the cameras freely, and allowed the actors to move freely throughout the space. For the entire six weeks that we were there, we didn’t bring a light onto the set once, because the set was lighting everything for us.”

For Hardy, one of the most interesting aspects to the Devs cube was the trippy movement effects he and his team could create, in manipulating the set’s tungsten lights. “We spent a day experimenting with trace movements when we were pre-lighting, so you could see how the wall itself would move. We could make it breathe,” the DP marvels. “It was quite trippy when you’d look at the wall, with these sort of weird tracings.”

Sonoya Mizuno in 'Devs'

Raymond Liu/FX

Outside of the cube, on the Devs campus, Hardy helped to conceptualize yet another fascinating design element—the halo light, which was wrapped around its enormous redwood trees.

Like the series as a whole, this visual element emerged from a never-ending exchange of ideas between Garland, Hardy and the crew. “We knew that there was going to be this walking tour, this journey from the main building itself to the Devs cube, and on this journey in this forest, there were going to be a number of things that were happening across all eight episodes, across the story itself,” Hardy says. “So, we needed something that would work at night, and almost disappear during the day.”

Initially Hardy says he considered bringing runway lights into the space, “[meaning] lights carving a path through the forest. But it just felt too much like one of those very off-the-grid, Condé Nast-style, expensive hotels somewhere.

“It was like, ‘No, no, no. We don’t want that. It has to completely at odds with all of that stuff,’” the DP adds. “Then, of course, we’re looking, and the answer’s right in front of us, because we’ve got these amazing redwood trees. And why not use those? Again, we’re coming back to this principle of, lighting is always integral to the scene.”

For Hardy, the idea for these halo lights stemmed from rings of light he’d seen, while walking around London’s financial district. “My idea, at first, was, ‘Just put the ring around the tree on the ground.’ But [Alex] was like, ‘Why don’t we put it in the middle? Let’s put it up in the air,’” the DP recalls. “I was like, ‘F**k yes!’ And so, you had this amazing effect. When the top part of the tree would disappear into the darkness, it gave it a very surreal feel.”

From the cinematographer’s perspective, the biggest challenges of Devs was to constantly be raising the creative bar. “When you’re working on a 100-day shoot, [you want] every single day to be better than the last. It was like we were running a marathon,” he says. “It was partly challenging not to overshoot things. It was challenging to keep it moving forward, in a way, to the creative level that we wanted to achieve.”

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