“People don’t complain about bright and warm.”
The look of Jason Bateman's show is so dark that viewers complained. But does it work? What does the cinematography department think? By Season, the dark, cyan-toned look and feel of Ozark is evolving, partly due to the switch to full-frame on the Sony VENICE.
Cinematographer Ben Kutchins, cinematographer Armando Salas, camera operator and director Ben Semanoff, and production designer David Bomba sat down in a Zoom conversation moderated by the executive editor of ICG Magazine, David Gaffer at NAB Show Express. What did they talk about? How dark is too dark, among other things!
No Film School tuned in, and here are the most important takeaways from the conversation.
Use negative fill and know that it’s never too dark
When first prepping the show with DP Ben Kutchins, Jason Bateman explained he wanted to create a cold and dark look of an uninhabitable world. The question for the DP team was, how dark and cold? As Kutchins explained it, the whole idea of successful TV is meditating on a theme and having fun with it. So his decision was to use negative fill.
“My use: immense amounts of negative fill,” described Ben Cutchins. “I started in film. Digital is the opposite. It’s subtracted photography. Jason [Bateman] gave his blessing and pushed it further and further. [With Ozark] and how much information we’re sharing with the audience, less is more”
Of course, the darkness of the look has been subject to many complaints from viewers over the seasons.
“People don’t complain about bright and warm,” explained Kutchins. “Bright and warm is comfortable, but we don’t want the audience to be comfortable. How dark is too dark? It kept me up at night in the beginning, but you get more comfortable as you practice more. In the HDR workspace, you just have to know exactly where your level is later to bring up or darken with power windows. No version of too dark.”
The right and wrong way to do a oner
Ozark is known for having a ton of scenes that consist of only one shot, but without being in-your-face about it. Similarly to the way that Kutchins described the decisions between lighting the show, camera operator and director Ben Semanoff was motivated to limit the viewer.
“Kutchins referred to light to shape the world and limit what we see, and we were doing that compositionally as well,” described Semanoff. “If you show the audience everything, they don’t need to think or engage.”
Sameness describes how the team would push the bounds with camera movement, framing, and focus. And because Semanoff actually had a chance to direct (S3E6) he has a unique perspective on oners.
“My approach from directing, probably operating too, is what one shot tells the entire story,” suggested Semanoff. “It’s a practical, pragmatic question, but also a question of what are the benefits of putting the viewer in the perspective. When directing, I have the option of going with that instinct. Ultimately, I have a fondness for editing, but it alerts the viewer that they are watching a construct. The fewer cuts, the more viewers get into a hypnotic state. There’s a trend in the film world of bold oners, where the audience goes, ‘My god, was that one shot?!’ Which is the exact opposite of what we should go for. [On Ozark] it's the oner that keeps you in it. You don’t even realize that it was a oner.
Why full-frame (and the Sony VENICE) help TV’s standard medium close-up look
For Kutchins and Salas, it was great to shift to full-frame, and pairing the Sony VENICE with Leica glass was a dream. “I started as a still photographer on 35mm film,” described Kutchins. “It creates a feeling. For example, I can describe it like shooting Super 8 versus full-frame, I feel like I’m watching it in a box, from far away. As a viewer, I feel distant, even in a close-up. It’s nostalgic, but I don’t feel connected. TV lives in the world of a medium close-up. We never go really tight. In full-frame, you still feel close."
As Kutchins described, they took older Leica R lenses and rehoused them, which gave them the ability to shoot wide open.
“It opens so super wide. I was intrigued by it as we went down the wormhole with the family, in isolation and distrust. I was intrigued to use the wider aperture to create more character separation. I love the result. Both Armando and I were excited by the possibilities. We play with depth of field and with lenses to create a separation from character in the background. Even with a wide lens, you can feel the character coming into my space and coming into the living room.
That’s what we’re trying to do as filmmakers, create a presence in 2D space."
Kutchins had been looking for a new camera system for the show. "It’s been tough with the 4K camera equipment requirement, you’re basically looking at RED or Panasonic Varicam. The last few years have been amazing for cinematographers to have new choices.”
Why the Sony VENICE benefits the operator
Operator Ben Semanoff had just come off of The Outsider, where they had also been using the Sony VENICE. For Semanoff, it was a logical move.
“VENICE has a smaller footprint. Ozark is a physically difficult show, shot in remote locations, and not on stage. So we needed a camera that could hang off the side of a boat and perform in random scenarios. It’s a great camera for the Steadicam, no question, but it has this great accessory, Rialto, which cables off the body. It provides a package smaller than anything else that’s available. For tight locations, like the Byrd house, there are narrow hallways, so machines, dollies, and multiple actors interacting is tough. With Rialto, you can suspend it off a modest rig, slam it against a wall, allowing actors to pass easily. The smaller presence you can have can only benefit the actors in their ability to forget about production and act.”
Keeping continuity in camera operation, even when adding a drone
In Season 3, there are important moments where a drone is employed. The team was not able to use the VENICE with the drone, and drone operators were brought in. How did they make sure the footage would be consistent?
“I try not to just walk off set,” explained Semanoff, about not being the operator. “I try to supervise, be delicate, while trying to keep something that is in keeping with the show. With drone footage, you see swooping, spinning, boom up and down. That’s the antithesis of our show. I would say [to the drone operators] ‘No, do that without panning, without tilting.’ It probably took 20 takes to get the guys to do less.
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I'm all for creative decisions, but the general trend toward extreme under exposure in recent years just feels like lazy film making. Sure, you're creating a mood, but if the scene and the actors aren't visible to the audience, what's the point? Being insensitive to the way that the majority of people view tv and movies these days, from their living room or bed on shitty TVs and laptops with bright windows or boob lights on the ceiling lighting everything up, is pretty short-sighted from a delivery standpoint. It used to be that filmmakers could create drama and intensity while actually exposing a shot. Now, they just turn off every single light and say "oh it's dramatic now." I think it's lazy and uncreative. I love the cinematography of Ozark. The camera language is incredible. But the conscious decision to duck the exposure so dramatically on set or in the grade hurts the show more than it helps it when they take it to the extreme, in my opinion.
May 15, 2020 at 11:15AM
I completely agree with you. I watched "The Haunting of Hill House" a couple of years ago on Netflix, and it was nearly unwatchable. It was way too dark and low contrast (my TV being on Cinema mode), that you couldn't make up much. And that was on a 75" HDR Sony high end TV.
Then, I had the idea of introducing the show to my neighbor at the time, who had a 42" Vizio cheap-o TV. The show was UNWATCHABLE on her TV. You couldn't make out ANYTHING on the screen. It was just a gray-color soup!
"Arrival" was also graded that way, many people complained at the time.
May 16, 2020 at 1:58PM
I agree with you, and I see this with the many DP's on instagram. It's almost like a contest to see who can post the most underexposed "frame" possible these days.
The Ozark DP's are obviously very skilled and talented, but this style does seem like a tired trend.
May 18, 2020 at 9:30AM
I agree, that is all. As a viewer I'm so sick of this crap. It's like a terrible trend you would find on Instagram.
May 21, 2020 at 8:40PM
Too many heavy blurry depth of field shots this season. Reminded me of the canon 5dm2 days of vimeo.
May 15, 2020 at 5:04PM
nền xanh quá
May 15, 2020 at 6:44PM
I love the show and love the look of it.
May 16, 2020 at 7:32PM
This show does look a bit unnecessarily dark to me. On the flip side many people complained about the last season of Game of Thrones but there I felt it made sense because the scenes were literally in a place with no light, so it’s motivated and real.
May 17, 2020 at 10:18AM
Game of Thrones is a fantasy, so why does it need to look "motivated" or "real." Lighting was horrible on that show. The whole trend of making things look 'real' probably because current generation grew up watching reality shows and not movies with proper lighting and compositions.
May 21, 2020 at 1:44PM
The LUT they put on this show is distracting. When I see Wendy’s hair on this show, it almost feels like they’re using an IR filter.
I start thinking, did the colorist just throw some of the color channels to their most extreme setting and call it a day?
May 17, 2020 at 10:07PM
I kind of liked the Super35 Varicam look more than the A7S Mrk10 look they got going on now...
May 21, 2020 at 1:46PM
I agree that the new trend towards under exposure has gone to absurd lengths. I mean what's the point? It is not that low light cinematography has not been done before. The best example I can think of right away is McCabe and Mrs Miller by Vlmos Zsigmond. Most amazing work.
May 22, 2020 at 12:51AM
The blue look drove me from the show.
June 26, 2021 at 4:41PM