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Art and Making of Hannibal: The Television Series, The

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Jesse McLean
Publication Date: 
Bottom Line: 

This large-format, 176-page softback publication from Titan Books is a stylishly rendered, coffee table-ready tribute to Bryan Fuller’s excellent series “Hannibal”, the TV spin-off developed by the writer-turned-producer for NBC as part of the Dino De Laurentiis Company’s next-phase plan to capitalise on its ownership of a significant chunk of the Thomas Harris quartet of novels that feature the author’s brilliant but deadly creation, forensic psychiatrist turned cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lector, here played by the Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, who first rose to recognition in the early films of Nicolas Winding Refn. Lector became an unlikely subject for iconic pop culture status in the early-nineties, thanks to the Oscar-winning performance given by Anthony Hopkins in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 adaptation of the second novel from the series, “The Silence of the Lambs”. The sleeper success of that film also brought Horror into the mainstream, by smuggling its genre trappings into the wider culture under the mantle of the ‘psychological thriller’ whilst being fully aesthetically invested in the source novel’s expressionistic Gothic undercurrents. Directors as individualistic in style as Michael Mann and Ridley Scott have cemented the character’s place in the pantheon of great horror movie villains, but Harris’s reluctance to continue the Lector series beyond his 2006 ‘young Hannibal’ prequel backstory “Hannibal Rising” meant that few other opportunities existed for further excursions on the big screen after the De Laurentiis-produced Brett Ratner reboot of the first book, “Red Dragon”, which starred Hopkins as Lector for the final time (the novel was originally adapted by Mann in 1986 as “Manhunter” with Brian Cox in the role, before Hopkins’ broader interpretation effectively became the de jure one in the minds of the public), and Harris’s own adaptation of “Hannibal Rising”, directed by Peter Webber.

This last, poorly received effort would have surely hammered the final nail in the coffin for any prospect of continuing to mine the Hannibal franchise had it not been for one significant development that has since transformed the entertainment industry: namely, what executive producer and head of the Dino De Laurentiis Company Martha De Laurentiis identifies in her introduction to this book as the renaissance in television production which has been taking place across the last decade, and has allowed premium cable channel shows such as HBO’s “The Wire” to rewrite the rules of serialised drama in a way that opens up new possibilities for in-depth storytelling with a much greater subtlety and span, and which refuses to talk down to its audience. Relaxed censorship rules over sex and violence have concurrently helped to create a new market for much harder-hitting horror drama on the small screen, tinged with a sophistication which had never previously been possible. It’s significant that the TV series version of “Hannibal”is probably not only the most refined and uncompromisingly hyper stylish offering in writing and production currently being broadcast, but also one of the goriest and most grotesquely macabre … yet it is being shown by NBC -- one of the biggest networks in the US, despite aping the traditional 13 episode season structure of most cable channel series. This fact alone demonstrates just how radical has been the shift in the ground rules governing acceptable standards in the last ten years.

Jesse McLean has written this overview’s concise, easily digestible text, briefly telling the story of the series’ initial development and then detailing the consummate care and craft which goes into its production against the backdrop of a typically hurried TV turnaround. His account is accompanied by a plethora of full-colour behind-the-scenes photos, production stills, cast portrait shots, and reproductions of storyboard and development art, all presented in an opulent, visually attractive style that belies the often gruesome content of the imagery. The volume’s sleek minimalist cover art depicting a white dinner plate on a stark white background, but with the image of a crimson red human heart (sprouting the Wendigo antlers that are the series’ signature metaphor for troubling inner transformation) bloodily embossed into the book’s centre, ably mimics the show’s own coldly ironic and detached (yet aesthetically precise) presentation of outré material. If nothing else this volume constitutes a gorgeously presented tribute to the stylish vision of Bryan Fuller,whose refined taste and encyclopaedic knowledge of the novels underscores every aspect of the series’ design – a fact made clear in McLean’s interviews with the talented crew behind the day-to-day making of the show whose insights have been incorporated into his account of the production.

For those who know both the novels and films as well as the series, McLean’s description of Fuller’s initial pitch for the show, with a possible six or seven season arc planned out, is intriguing: it starts by picking up on a brief reference, mentioned in passing in the novel Red Dragon, to the fact that criminal profiler Will Graham, played here by Hugh Dancy, once worked alongside Lector on a profiling a case before realising his partner was also a monster, and uses that  idea as the basis to explore the relationship between the two in detail. The initial plan was to present a prequel that explored in much more depth across several seasons some of the material in the novels that was not fully explored in the films, then to adapt each novel in turn before rounding off with a final season of original material to end the story. However, MGM own the rights to “The Silence of the Lambs” and many of the characters who appear exclusively in that novel cannot, at the moment, be used in the series. It’s become apparent across the first two seasons of the show that Fuller has instead employed what he here calls a ‘DJ Mash-up style’ -- ‘we take tracks from the novel “Hannibal” and run them with lyrics from the novel “Red Dragon”, is how McLean quotes the series developer in describing the series’ approach  -- so that what results across the season run is an alternative take on the world Harris originally created that ends up departing significantly from its original trajectory, but which continues to reward broad fan knowledge of the franchise (in both its book and film forms) in order to reinvent and enrich the Harrision theme of ‘becoming’ and ‘transformation’ , making  its own storytelling actively reference or play off events that are temporally far in advance of where we ostensibly are in the timeline of the novels, but which will already be familiar to the fans.   

Primarily this book features snapshots of the work of some of the main key contributors to the distinctive visual and sonic texture of the series. The show makes aesthetic appreciation of surface detail one of the main routes into the psychology of its main antagonist, who uses his omniscient intelligence and powers of manipulation to influence everyone around him, primarily his gifted partner Will Graham, whose own talent for getting into the heads of the killers he hunts makes him a fascinating, deeply cerebral ‘work in progress' for the cunningly feral psychiatrist. Fuller himself has in the past cited David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick and Dario Argento as stylistic influences on the way he sought to present the world of Lector, Will Graham and their colleagues to the viewing public, and the attention to detail in every aspect of the series’ construction ultimately shows Fuller’s influence at its root. But “30 Days of Night” director David Slade and production designer Patti Podesta also successfully set the series visual and tonal style in the pilot, which has been subsequently continued by director of photography James Hawkinson and built upon by other regular series episode directors such as Guillermo Navarro and Tim Hunter. Such is the show’s unusually pronounced aesthetic obsession it must be the only psychological horror series in history that employs a culinary consultant and a food ‘stylist’ on its crew -- in the guise of cuisine expert and restaurant owner Jose Andres and sculptor and artist Janice Poon (who also runs her own blog called Feeding Hannibal ) respectively. Not only are Hannibal Lector’s crimes often presented like tableaux designed to evoke an artistic frisson in the viewer, but the dishes he makes out of his victims’ body parts are designed to look both as arresting and appetising as possible. Naturally, then, the book concentrates mainly on those crew whose contributions have the most direct impact on the visual stylisation and mise-en-scene of the series: costume designer Christopher Hargadon discusses how Mads Mikkelsen’s wardrobe was selected and designed to imply the meticulous and fastidious sense of taste in the actor’s character; and which fabrics were selected to create the distinctive bespoke plaid suits the always impeccably attired Lector most favours (Scottish wool), to make Mikkelsen one of the few male actors on a continuing series whose wardrobe eats up most of the costumes budget!

Production designer Patti Podesta discusses the strange mixture of Art Nouveau and functional modernism informing the design and layout of Hannibal’s office, again, a mix of influences, chosen in order for the space to function almost as an external encyclopaedic representation of Lector’s European heritage; while Podesta’s replacement on the rest of the series, Matthew Davies, talks matching colour schemes with actors’ wardrobes and the design influences on the FBI offices at the Behavioural Sciences unit overseen by Jack Crawford (played by Laurence Fishburne),which is inspired by the marble and glass finish of work by the Italian architect Carlo Scapa and by the Brutalist school in general. For his design of the set for the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane, which is described here as ‘a hybrid of Gothic and Brutalist inclinations, Davies made the panopticon-set in such a way that it might function as a narrative catalyst but also imply the oppressive power of the state.  Reproductions of architectural floor plans and 3D rendered layouts and ‘virtual’ walkthroughs of the main recurring locations of the series, such as Lector’s home or the FBI laboratory, demonstrate such developmental thinking processes at work. But by far the lion’s share of the page count is devoted to the combination of prosthetics work on the show that’s overseen by the company Mindwarp FX, and the CG effects of Rocket Science VFX. Either separately or in combination they create the murderous aftermaths of the handiwork left by Lector and the other killers on the show; and given the complex psychological motivations at work, these are often considerably more challenging to pull off than they would be on most other crime series.

Many of the crime scenes are designed as tableau and served up as artistic presentations, much like Hannibal’s cuisine. The sectioned Beverly Katz Body Worlds-inspired glass case observatory display, which also reminds one of a macabre Damien Hirst installation, is a case in point; the book features reproductions of all the prosthetics used in the creation of other such striking images as the ‘Eye of God’ silo murder scene from series Two, the Stag Head copycat tableau, The Tree of Life and Death, and the Human Totem Pole -- and Francois Dagenais and Robert Crowther discuss many of the challenges they’ve had to face when presented with demanding works that required imaginative solutions, such as the Randall Tier Wolf Suit. Anthony Patterson also fills us in on how CGI contributes to the tonal character of the series, particularly through the Wendigo imagery that represents Will Graham’s emerging dark side as he allows himself to become more and more as Lector intends him to be in order to position himself better to eventually trap the good doctor.  

Open the book anywhere at random and you will most likely come across any number of full colour reproductions of deliciously gory sights, such as Mason Verger’s psychotropic drug-induced self-mutilation, or the hideous ‘Glasgow Smile’ visited upon Dr Sutcliffe in episode ten of season one. Other important contributions such as the editing style of the series aren’t so easily represented visually, but the work of regular series editors Ben Wilkinson, Michael Doherty and Stephen Philipson is addressed in the final pages of the book for its  vital role in the construction of the ‘slow-burn’ approach to storytelling that’s been employed throughout both seasons so far; while other, more experimental editing techniques have also been important in developing what occurs between those trademark ‘light pendulum’ motifs that represents Graham’s imaginative reconstruction of serial killer crime scenes, and which were originally inspired by a single descriptive line of text in Red Dragon. Composer Brian Reitzell (best known for his work on Sofia Coppola’s films), meanwhile, talks about how the minimalism of Toru Takemitsu, the Musique Concrete of Pierre Schaeffer, and Krzysztof Penderecki’s bold compositions and their use by Stanley Kubrick in “The Shinning”, have inspired his approach to scoring the show. 

“Hannibal” is one of the most adventurous shows on TV: uncompromisingly clinical in presentation and cerebral in the writing, yet at the same time baroquely flamboyant in its reimagining of Thomas Harris’s literary cannon. The author reportedly loves what Fuller & co have done with the world he imagined on the page, and this very nicely presented accompaniment to the first two seasons (as the show imminently prepares to unleash season three in a matter of weeks), couldn’t be a better timed tribute to its most sophisticated screen incarnation yet: a vivid artistic record of an essential piece of modern television history.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night! 

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