What if you could separate your work life from your personal life? Severance is a show that explores this idea through office workers that agree to a procedure in which work experiences and memories are “severed” from those outside work.
It’s a smart concept that is brought to life through the masterful direction of Ben Stiller and the issues and possibilities of what could happen to the broken mind that is working for a broken corporation. The unique tone that is satirical and psychologically terrifying is patient in its approach to the climactic moments that push the story forward.
Stiller, production designer Jeremy Hindle , and cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné break down how they created the two worlds of Severance and the emotional effects that their fascinating labyrinthine has on the audience throughout the series.
The Quiet Yet Oppressive Direction of Stiller
Executive producer and director Ben Stiller had a slow and methodical approach to creating the show's unique tone.
“Something we really had to think about stylistically was trying to create tension in the outside world, which I think was a little bit harder,” Stiller told IndieWire about his desire to create a palpable sense of being observed.
While the anonymity inside an office building seemed easy to construct, the fragmented world outside the four walls can feel alienating. By bringing a closer look at the characters’ experiences, especially Mark (Adam Scott), Stiller and fellow director Aoife McArdle create a deep sense of empathy for the characters’ desires to be “severed.”
“When you’re in the world of Lumon, you feel observed there,” Stiller said about the unnerving world of the Lumon office. In contrast, watching the characters’ lives outside of the office feels profound.
'Severance' Credit: Apple Inc.
“It’s almost more personal in a way, filming [Mark in his apartment], because it’s showing his isolation but it’s more subjective,” Stiller said. “Because I think of the rules of Lumon, inside there we’re trying to stay very objective a lot of the time, too.”
Severance feels familiar yet new to many viewers, and that’s the show's genius. Familiarity does not guarantee safety, and Stiller and McArdle remind us of this by creating an uncanny reality that feels almost real.
“I think really great filmmakers understand that there are rules, and then you’re totally allowed to break them,” Stiller said on an episode of the Armchair Expert podcast.
Stiller and McArdle craft unique languages that are purposeful in both worlds in the story. The office space looks objectively at its workers in neverending white halls that lead to large spaces that are painfully barren so each character can be observed. Outside of the building, the characters are looked at through an emotional perspective that shades the characters' shadows and limited lighting as we watch them emotionally distance themselves from the world around them.
The haunting sense of surveillance of Severance is smartly crafted by the filmmaker’s patience and ability to lure the audience into a false sense of security.
'Severance' Credit: Apple Inc.
The Inspiration for Lumon Industries
When it came to creating the look of Severance , production designer Jeremy Hindle said he couldn’t think of another show or movie to use as a reference point.
“The hardest thing for us was the tone,” Hindle told IndieWire. “It had to be its own world, and we didn’t know it was going to work until it was almost done.”
Ultimately, Hindle found inspiration in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jacques Tati’s Playtime. Other inspirations came from the industrial yet botanical offices of John Deere headquarters , which were designed in 1964 by Eero Saarinen and Kevin Roche.
John Deere Headquarters Credit: Docomomo US
The 1960s inspiration bleeds through the screen, creating a blend of stale modernism that mimics what a child would think of when told to describe an office space.
“I took it back to the 1960s, when you had the most beautiful desk, the most perfect pen, a Rolodex… it was really designed to be a workspace,” Hindle said about his desire to build a workspace from an era that existed before employees brought their personal life into the job.
Stiller didn’t want the show to look like any other show, giving Hindle another challenge when it came to designing the outside world. Locations that others have shot in were unusable for the series. Luckily, Hindle found another Saarinen structure—the Bell Labs facility in New Jersey.
“It’s kind of funny,” Hindle said. “When you put things out there, other things come to you. It was just a lucky accident that the building had been restored.”
The office space in 'Severance' Credit: Apple Inc.
The Camera and Lenses Used in Severance
Stiller's and McArdle's direction is further enhanced by the visual production team cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné was tasked with the job to help shape distinctive languages for the Lumon offices and the outside world.
“The first conversation Ben and I had was mainly about how you make an office look interesting,” Gagné told Premium Beat . “As the cinematographer, I was concerned about being trapped in a white box with overhead lighting.”
To add depth and dimension to the space, Gagné used images of striking offices from the 60s as a point of reference like Lars Tunbjork and Lee Friedlander , who were able to capture the awkwardness within the space in their photographs, and then worked with Hindle to create a unique visual tone for the office space.
Lars Tunbjörk's 'Aliens at the Office' Credit: Lars Tunbjörk
“The Innie world was meant to be a robotic or surveillance aesthetic drive,” Gagné said. “For the outside world, our approach was more classic and stark. The exteriors were also a great opportunity for us to play with scale, reminding the viewer how small Mark actually is in this world.”
The lack of warmth in the frame highlighted Mark’s state of mind throughout the series. Longer lenses were used to allow the filmmakers to shoot from further away, playing with the alienation of the actors.
Both worlds were shot with the same lens package to create a coherent visual language throughout the series. Shooting with Sony VENICE and using 20mm and 24mm spherical lenses allowed the filmmakers to do all of the camera trickery they wanted.
One of the great tricks of the series is the transition between the two worlds, which happens in an elevator, using a classic camera technique called the Zolly . The movement is achieved by tracking in or out to compensate for the frame height with a zoom in or out.
“Usually, this effect is meant to show a perspective shift in the background. For us, it was about showing how the actor’s face would morph optically during the transition, thus amplifying the actor’s performance,” Gagné said.
Severance is truly a masterpiece of patience and unnerving surveillance. The haunting beauty created by the filmmakers brings us to the edge of our seats as we watch every corner of the frame for something to happen. It’s an unnerving story that is special and deserves to be celebrated for its unique visuals and direction.
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