he following contains spoilers for The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon Season 1, Episode 2, “Alouette,” which premiered Sunday, Sept. 17 on AMC.
The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon has received rave reviews for its production design in an apocalyptic France, emotional performances, and gorgeous cinematography. The styling of the series is unlike anything The Walking Dead franchise has produced before, heavily influenced by European aesthetics, art, and film. Even in high-octane action sequences where the dead take control, the spinoff series is an eloquent masterclass in effective on-camera storytelling.
Director Dan Percival and director of photography/cinematographer Tomasso Fiorilli bring the emotionally gripping and fast-paced story to life through action sequences and dramatic moments. Percival and Fiorilli sat down with CBR to discuss what influenced their cinematic choices on Daryl Dixon, how they framed the show around natural lighting, and how they used actors as a guiding force. Percival also broke down how he shot Episode 2’s flashback sequences in Paris as the apocalypse quickly destroys society.
CBR: Many shots in the show feel inspired by artwork or classic paintings. Was that intentional at all?
Dan Percival: For me, yes. So much of our cinematography, especially in Europe, is inspired by art or an artist. I think our references are mostly from film, but those films are inspired by art. You think of [Johannes] Vermeer, the Dutch painters, and the single source of light coming from a side light from a window. Also, the bounce of that light makes a soft interior and a hard exterior, and using depth of a room and depth of space. That very much comes from classic 16th [and] 17th century paintings. Would you agree, [Tomasso]?
Tomasso Fiorilli: There’s a French actor, Jean Gabin, who said once that there are three things that are important in a movie: a good story, a good story, and a good story.
Fiorilli: I think it really plays because I was getting so inspired by what the actors were conveying. At some point, there was something sacred about what they were acting, what they were feeling, the position they had in time and space, and their feelings. It just gives you the will or the intention to do something sacred, like some kind of iconic picture. I was really led by the story and the performances of the actors. In our line of work, we look to be guided by the actors and the story rather than imposing on them our views. So, very often, I have a few images like that, which sometimes look like a Caravaggio. But it just happened. We just put the actor there and said, “This is it. Let’s do that. Let’s shoot that.” And that was it.
Percival: We’re not afraid of an absence of light, like the painter Caravaggio. We’ve been talking before about naturalism in the photography and [how] Tomasso lights the set. The actors move through the set. So we’re in motion, unlike a painting, film is in motion. So we move through the light, and when you turn, you’re either in the hard light or in the bounce of the light. But either way, we go with what we see. We respond to what nature gives us. Tomasso likes nature. He lights from outside the room, not inside the room. It’s a naturalism that’s very affected by the European aesthetic. And that goes back to post-Renaissance paintings and the use of naturalism — natural light coming into a space and reacting to it. So you’re right. It’s a very astute observation.
Fiorilli: I’m also looking for accidents. I always try to give space to not control something. I can make something out of it. Very often, it’s just a question of how the actor positions themselves. That’s how I like to operate. When I operate the camera, I just move a little bit so that we just have this little kick, this little position, and this little look. It’s very often that the little differences make the whole difference, actually.
There are these really neutral, calming scenes in the countryside. Then you have some scenes in these jazzy, eclectic clubs. How did you both work to create a unified look across the show despite having these two gravely different set pieces?
Percival: As the pilot director, you come up with an aesthetic that’s an approach to the material and what gives it continuity, whether it’s interior night or interior club. Sometimes, there are electric lights, and you have to justify the source of electric lights. You think, “Do they have generators? How are they powering it?” So you’re talking about the Demimonde, which is the club scene. It’s a baroque, Folies Bergère in a sewer in Paris. What we tried to keep consistent was that all the lighting is from a practical source. The practical source can be a window, or it can be a lamp. But what it isn’t is studio lighting. Again, people still move through light. It’s still an organic experience and environment. The other way you create consistency is the way you use your camera. The way you develop shots. The way you are moving all the time with your characters. So you’re discovering environments with your characters. Those two things together create consistency regardless of what environment you’re walking into.
Of course, this is a Walking Dead show, so fight scenes are a given, whether it be walkers vs. walkers or humans vs. humans. Were there any challenges for both of you in handling these fast-paced sequences?
Percival: Yeah, it’s always challenging. In a funny sort of way, the most challenging scenes for me are two people in a room trying not to say they love each other. Those are the things that become most alive in action. Very often it’s so plotted and planned for you that it’s like you’ve done all your thinking beforehand. It’s just like changing gears in a car. Here’s this shot. There’s that shot. There’s the answer to that shot. If you think at the beginning of Episode 2, there’s a beautifully cinematic ending where you meet Isabelle 12 years earlier at a club in Paris, and then her night gets progressively worse. The night of the apocalypse begins until she’s running out of a subway into this chaos of zombies attacking people. You go from very slow, quietly developed shots into increasing drama and horror. But every single one of the shots is a developing shot. It’s a shot that comes off her. There’s a motorcycle crash, and I had five cameras shooting that motorcycle crash, but you see one. So you’re on her, and the motorcycle whizzes behind her, and the camera goes with the motorcycle and whap! Then back to her.
You then have the low angle of the motorcycle crashing. You have the wide angle of it smashing chairs up in the air, which would be the typical way for American television to cover something. What we went for was a much more immediate developing shot, so you choose a POV, and you stay in it. That becomes your metier for all action sequences. We try and do action sequences with the character, moving through it with the character. You see that in the first big zombie fight in the marketplace [in Episode 1]. It’s really Daryl’s perspective of what’s happening, his experience, and he becomes the center of the wheel. You develop all the shots off him. So you’re not just doing shot, counter shot, shot, counter shot, shot, counter shot all the time.
New episodes of The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon air every Sunday at 9:00 PM ET on AMC, and early on AMC+.