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.”

Ozark_zoom_meeting_blue_castThe panelists during the NAB Zoom chat, here poking some fun at the blue cast of the Ozark show!

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.

Ozark-season-3-regIn a still from Season 3, we see Laura Linney and Jason Bateman bathed in that signature Ozark look.

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.”

Ozark_stillFor the creative team, Ozark is all about what is (and what isn't) shown to the audience through framing, focus, and lighting.

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.