Netflix has created its signature look for original content—and that could be bad news for filmmakers.
There is nothing more satisfying than starting a new, highly anticipated series on Netflix after a long day. It’s only when the show starts to play that you notice that this show looks familiar.
This familiar feeling has been happening more and more as new series pop up on Netflix.
We’ve talked about the sameness of Netflix-produced television series and movies, but it’s a problem that is starting to distract viewers. Although it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly makes all of Netflix look the same, a few things stand out as the major problem behind the “Netflix look.”
J. D. Connor, an associate professor in Cinema and Media Studies at USC, told Vice’s Motherboard that the “Netflix look” is a result of Netflix’s request for basic technical specifications from all its productions. Let’s break down those specifications that have created this extremely safe visual language.
“Netflix had an accepted camera list for its Netflix branded products. The initial list, while there were ostensibly open parameters for what cameras might qualify, there really were only like two,” said Connor. “And yes, you can do a ton within those parameters. But it meant that this was one way that the uniformity emerged, was through their real insistence on that.”
There has been a lot of discussion surrounding the approved cameras list that Netflix is slowly starting to expand. Netflix Production Technology Video Resources published a video that shed some interactive light on why it has a list of approved cameras.
In the video, Netflix camera systems specialist Kris Pyrogrocki explains, “One of the biggest priorities for us as a studio is helping our filmmakers do their very best work. We want our filmmakers to not just feel enabled, but also encouraged to use the latest and greatest capture technologies out there to tell their stories.”
Cameras like the ARRI Alexa and RED cameras, which are some of the few Netflix-approved cameras, shoot a very flat image that lacks contrast or saturation. This is done to capture the darkest and brightest parts of the image, so the image can then be dialed in and colored in post-production.
Connor said the reason for the gray, flat image could be the lack of budget. This issue is common on Netflix projects, even though there is plenty of money. Rather than spending on the creative side, Netflix uses a large chunk of the budget on hiring big-name actors or directors to attract viewers.
“That means that all of your above-the-line talent now costs, on day one that series drops, 130 percent of what it costs somewhere else,” Connor said. “So your overall budget looks much higher, but in fact, what’s happening is to try to save all that money, you pull it out of things like design and location.”
No show is more noticeable in its lack of color and visual design than The Sandman. The show, based on a beloved and experimental comic, comes across as a dull live-action film that doesn’t do the brightly colored world of the comic any justice. While The Sandman might be one of Netflix's boldest series to date, much of the design feels reminiscent of worlds that already exist in cinema.
We can contrast this with other current shows. Despite the barebones nature of its story, Hulu’s The Bear uses its visual language to build out its kitchen set with fine details to further shape the characters in the world. Even HBO Max’s spin-off series Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin plays on the visual tropes of horror films throughout cinema, leaning heavily on contrasting colors and the use of split diopter lenses (read our interview with the Liars DP here). Euphoria expanded a desire for creative visuals and experimentation in TV into the mainstream.
These streamers are pushing the boundaries of television cinematography with series that are crafted for a wide audience and by knowing how to properly disperse their budget. Netflix hasn’t found a way to properly adapt yet.
What do you think about the "Netflix look"? Let us know in the comments!