HBO Max’s Titans and Peacock’s The Lost Symbol are decidedly different TV shows, yet they still have a surprising amount in common. Both fit within bigger multimedia franchises – Titans is part of Warner Bros./DC Entertainment’s slate of superhero adaptations, while The Lost Symbol is a prequel to the Robert Langdon films based on Dan Brown’s best-selling novels. Both tell mystery-driven action-adventure stories headlined by preternaturally talented sleuths. And both share the same cinematographers, Boris Mojsovski and Fraser Brown.
I recently caught up with Mojsovski and Brown for a wide-ranging discussion about their work on Titans and The Lost Symbol, now that the shows have aired their third and first seasons, respectively. Our conversation covered everything from the challenges of adapting pre-existing properties for the small screen, to developing visual manifestos to ensure a distinctive and consistent aesthetic, and – most importantly of all – never losing sight of the human element, even when telling stories about superhuman characters.
Reimagining franchises for the small screen
I went into the interview expecting Mojsovski and Brown to talk about the pressure they were under to emulate the cinematography of DC’s previous big screen efforts on Titans, or Salvatore Totino’s Robert Langdon series cinematography on The Lost Symbol. As it turns out, this wasn’t something they worried about.
For Mojsovski – who has considerable experience when it comes to reimagining franchises for the small screen, thanks to his work on the Taken and 12 Monkeys TV spin-offs – it all came down to finding a look and feel that suited each series’ scripts and leaving everything else behind. The way Mojsovski describes his initial meetings with Titans creators Akiva Goldsman, Geoff Johns and Greg Berlanti, and showrunner Greg Walker, epitomises the mindset he and Brown brought to both shows. “I wasn’t that familiar with the characters, but I read the scripts and said, based on that, the show should be as grounded as possible.” Previous cinematic interpretations didn’t matter; whether it was on Titans or The Lost Symbol, the scripts – and showrunners – were Mojsovski and Brown’s ultimate guide.
Another challenge I thought Mojsovski and Brown might bemoan during our interview was having to contend with how faithful to the Titans comics and Robert Langdon novels they should be – a very real concern when you’re translating properties that are as popular on the page as they are on the screen. Yet this wasn’t something that overly phased the pair when shooting Titans and The Lost Symbol, either. “There were scenes I could see clearly in my head when I was reading [The Lost Symbol],” recalls Mojsovksi. “But the Ron Howard movies exist, there’s the world that exists from reading the book, and there’s our show.” Brown echoes this, adding that “sometimes things translate differently on paper than they would on the screen.”
Logistical concerns helped keep Mojsovski and Brown from trying to directly emulate their source material, too. Reflecting on how The Lost Symbol balances reader expectations with a TV-sized budget, Brown says, “There’s nothing worse than when the budget doesn’t meet what’s on the page and you’re struggling to achieve that. I think [The Lost Symbol] does a great job of maintaining a world that’s achievable… but also entertaining and exciting.” The other key logistic Mojsovski and Brown couldn’t ignore on Titans and The Lost Symbol was the shorter runtime of an individual TV episode versus a feature film. Titans in particular bore the brunt of this, as Walker and his team of writers had to streamline long-running comic book storylines to fit the show’s 40–50-minute episodes. This meant that Mojsovski and Brown couldn’t recreate iconic scenes exactly as they appeared on the page – although, true to form, the duo never entertained the idea of taking such a slavish, panel-by-panel approach, anyway. “As I fan, I want to see something new,” Brown says.
Building a visual manifesto
One thing Mojsovski and Brown did obsess over was visual consistency. Both Titans and The Last Symbol have their own distinctive aesthetic – as Mojsovski puts it, “When you’re flicking channels and you see the image, you should be able to tell that you’re looking at Titans or The Lost Symbol” – which different directors needed to maintain across an entire season. This led them to create a “visual manifesto” for each show: documents they could hand to a director new to either series, which detailed how to achieve the look and feel Mojsovski and Brown were after.
This wasn’t always easy. While Mojsovski shot the Titans pilot – allowing him to establish the show’s initial manifesto up front, before Brown joined the show, even – this wasn’t the case for The Lost Symbol. “We didn’t shoot the pilot,” explains Mojsovski. “That was shot by someone else, and it was really good, but when we came to do the season, we realised [the show’s aesthetic] needed to change. So, we needed to find the look of the show while we were shooting.”
Brown agrees, describing drafting The Lost Symbol’s visual manifesto as an arduous but necessary process. “It took us forever. We never knew what the show looked like or wanted to be… it was hard because the pilot was shot a year previous, and really had a look to it – and it was great, it was beautiful, but the show has evolved and changed since they originally did that pilot… and we had a producing director, Mathias Herndl… who has his own visual style, also. So, we had to put these 10 things together and mush it around and see. I think it took us a couple of days of actual shooting and getting into the language of the show and then developing that more naturally than we usually do – which is a little scary, but Jay [Beattie] and Dan [Dworkin] our showrunners loved what we were doing.”
Developing these manifestos may have been tough, however, they guaranteed a seamless viewing experience for viewers – and, somewhat paradoxically, gave Mojsovski and Brown freedom to experiment, too. By establishing the rules that underpinned each show’s unique visual language, they were free to then bend – or even break – those rules for dramatic effect. Mojsovski points to Titans episodes “Lazarus” and “Souls”, and The Lost Symbol episode “Noögenesis” (all three of which he directed), as perfect examples of this.
Here, certain aesthetic flourishes – for example, black and white sequences in “Souls”– ensure that, on a largely subliminal level, these episodes register differently with viewers, heightening their impact. This was especially the case with “Lazarus” and “Noögenesis”, which were both self-contained episodes recounting the origin stories of characters Jason Todd and Mal’akh, respectively. “It’s like you’re making a mini-movie… they’re more like portraits of the characters”, says Mojsovski, remarking that, with “Lazarus”, he “got to make [his] Joker.”
For his part, Brown believes these episodes work because the ways in which they diverge from their respective visual manifestos are well-reasoned and don’t contradict the spirit of either show. “You need to willingly say, ‘This is going to be changed or altered for a reason’, Brown says. “[“Souls”] is a great example – it takes place within the reality of our show, but it’s completely different. It still has the same placement for camera, same approach for lighting, only now the colours are black and white… but the philosophy is there, and I think that’s fun to play with… some shows don’t get to do that as much as we do, which is a credit to our showrunners. It’s fun to do that, and it’s also refreshing for the audiences, I think, to get surprised and excited by the visuals changing.”
All this talk of differences makes me wonder whether Titans and The Lost Symbol have anything in common, visually – and it turns out there is one visual element both shows share. “We both like to use a side light,” says Mojsovski. “It creates a nice, soft look that works for both shows.” Quips Brown: “‘Like’? Love! Need it in our lives.”
Finding the human element in superhuman stories
Yet more than a soft side light, what unites the cinematography on Titans and The Lost Symbol is that Mojsovski and Brown’s top priority on both shows is forging an emotional connection between the audience and the characters – and the actors who play them.
Mojsovski attributes some of this focus to lessons he learned from his cinematographer father, Levko, growing up in Sarajevo. “My dad and I differ as cinematographers, and I do shoot differently than he does,” Mojsovski observes. “But the philosophy of things like how at the moment of crisis, as a cinematographer, you should make a certain sacrifice to the image in order for the actors to get the right take, those things are important, and I learned them at a very young age.”
Equally, though, the preoccupation with the human rather than the superhuman elements in Titans and The Lost Symbol stems from Mojsovki’s own instincts as a storyteller – instincts which tell him that, while audiences are initially drawn in by blockbuster action and stunning locales, what keeps them coming back is their relationship with the characters. “You’ve got to keep it grounded, even though the characters are flying around and actors are in costumes, there needs to be something that people can relate to.”
Adds Brown: “The best part of [Titans] is watching Dick Grayson or whoever solve the mystery, not fight through the people. It’s the drama around the supervillain that’s the best part… and then when they fight, it’s fun, it’s cool – as a filmmaker, it’s not as fun as used to be maybe [laughs] – but I love seeing their relationships grow and change… in those movies where they blow up a bazillion buildings and do all that, that’s cool for like, five minutes – and then I want to see the story and feel what’s going on.”
This approach to the action-adventure genre clearly works; Mojsovski and Brown are currently gearing up for Season 4 for Titans and industry buzz suggests they’ll be back for a second season of The Lost Symbol, too. What’s more, the pair are banking on their story, character, and performance-oriented sensibilities translating just as well to the big screen. Production is set to begin in 2022 on a feature film directed by Mojsovski that mirrors his own experiences as a refugee, albeit with an added fantastical dimension. “I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it before,” muses Mojsovski. I believe him – and considering what he and Brown have accomplished to date, I’ll be first in line to see it on opening day.