Ahead of the release of Benedict Cumberbatch’s latest film, The Imitation Game, the London-born actor posed for photographer Dan Winters, who produced this week’s TIME cover.
When Benedict Cumberbatch walked onto Dan Winters’ set for his TIME cover shoot, he came prepared. “Our stylist had found clothes for him to wear,” says Winters, “clothes that would match his character, Alan Turing, in The Imitation Game. But he showed up with a cool, modern, retro version of what he wore in the film — something, he told me, he thought Turing would have worn if alive today. He had done his homework, and we used that in the shoot.”
When TIME’s director of photography, Kira Pollack, assigned Winters to this shoot, she was looking to capitalize on the photographer’s particular style and process. “There are very few photographers who have as distinct a signature as Dan Winters,” she says. “Dan works like a film director, building sets with a precise attention to detail and an unmistakable color palette.”
And those are the very strengths Winters brought to bear on the portrait session with Cumberbatch. “I wanted to do a shout-out to The Imitation Game, and Kira and I talked about what form this would take,” says Winters. “I studied World War II extensively, especially the Enigma machine, and we thought it would be a great prop to have in the shoot.”
Winters found one such machine in a museum in Vermont, “but no one in their right mind would ship an Enigma machine,” he says. With the help of Walter Isaacson, TIME’s former managing editor, the magazine’s picture department was able to secure one of the last remaining machines in the U.S. from the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.
“They were willing to loan it to us, and the museum’s [Vice President of Program and Business Development] Carol Stiglic actually drove it down to us in Los Angeles,” says Winters.
The photographer wanted to build a set that would look like a workshop populated with electronic equipment and cables, referencing the movie’s plot. “I built some of these machines in my studio in Austin and we shipped it all to Los Angeles for the shoot,” he says. “I made sure to position all of the props so that there would be space for Benedict to fit in — and room at the top for the TIME logo.”
The photographer also got in touch with Cumberbatch ahead of the shoot to explain his vision. “When I’m working, I always make sure that the subject is well aware of what we’re doing,” he says. “There’s nothing worse than [a subject] showing up and thinking: ‘What the hell is this?’”
But Winters didn’t have to worry, he says. “Benedict came prepared. It’s nice when a subject collaborates to the point that they’re thinking about what they should wear.”
The shoot itself was pretty smooth, says Winters, once the set was built and properly lit. “With this kind of image, you have to build your frame — put up the background and the props one piece at a time. We had someone sitting in the position Benedict would occupy, and we started squeezing things into the frame, always making sure of not overpowering the portrait.”
Winters played with different compositions and Cumberbatch was “a very good collaborator,” he says. “Actors usually understand the process of being photographed. They are used to it.”
While Cumberbatch and Winters were surrounded by antique technological devices on set, the photographer, who usually shoots with a large format film camera, had to use a digital camera. “In the past, you could get film developed in under four hours. But today, in Los Angeles, there’s a two-day turnaround. It makes it harder to use film.”
Cumberbatch’s portrait, however, didn’t suffer from this technological shift. “This soulful portrait captures the spirit of Alan Turig’s brilliant, complicated life,” says Pollack. “Dan nailed it.”
Dan Winters is an award-winning photographer based in Austin, Los Angeles and Savannah. Winters recently photographed the cover for TIME’s military suicides story. Previously, TIME assigned Winters to shoot The Last Liftoff: A Farewell to the Shuttle Program. He released his photo book Last Launch in 2012.
Marie Tobias, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor for TIME Magazine.