Behind the Camera: Television DPs

By Karen Moltenbrey

Directors of photography on television series have their work cut out for them. Most collaborate early on with the director on a signature “look.” Then they have to make sure that aesthetic is maintained with each episode and through each season, should they continue on the series past the pilot. Like film cinematographers, their job entails a wide range of responsibilities aside from the camera work. Once shooting is done, they are often found collaborating with the colorists to ensure that the chosen look is maintained throughout the post process.

Here we focus on two DPs working on two popular television series — one drama, one sitcom — both facing unique challenges inherent in their current projects as they detail their workflows and equipment choices.

Ben Kutchins: Ozark
Lighting is a vital aspect in the look of the Netflix family crime drama Ozark. Or perhaps more accurate, the lack of lighting.

Ben Kutchins (left) on set with actor/director Jason Bateman.

“I’m going for a really naturalistic feel,” says DP Ben Kutchins. “My hope is that it never feels like there’s a light or any kind of artificial lighting on the actors or lighting the space. Rather, it’s something that feels more organic, like sunlight or a lamp that’s on in the room, but still offers a level of being stylized and really leans into the darkness… mining the shadows for the terror that goes along with Ozark.”

Ozark, which just kicked off its second season, focuses on financial planner Marty Byrde, who relocates his family from the Chicago suburbs to a summer resort area in the Missouri Ozarks. After a money laundering scheme goes awry, he must pay off a debt to a Mexican drug lord by moving millions of the cartel’s money from this seemingly quiet place, or die. But, trouble is waiting for them in the Ozarks, as Marty is not the only criminal operating there, and he soon finds himself in much deeper than he ever imagined.

“It’s a story about a family up against impossible odds, who constantly fear for their safety. There is always this feeling of imminent threat. We’re trying to invoke a heightened sense of terror and fear in the audience, similar to what the characters might be feeling,” explains Kutchins. “That’s why a look that creates a vibe of fear and danger is so important. We want it to feel like there is danger lurking around every corner — in the shadows, in the trees behind the characters, in the dark corners of the room.”

In summary, the look of the show is dark — literally and figuratively.

“It is pretty extreme by typical television standards,” Kutchins concedes. “We’ve embraced an aesthetic and are having fun pushing its boundaries, and we’re thrilled that it stands out from a pretty crowded market.”

According to Kutchins, there are numerous examples where the actor disappears into the shadows and then reappears moments later in a pool of light, falling in and out of shadow. For instance, a character may turn off a light and plunge the room into complete darkness, and you do not see that character again until they reappear, until they’re lit by moonlight coming through a window or silhouetted against a window.

“We’re not spending a lot of time trying to fill in the shadows. In fact, we spend most of our time creating more shadows than exist naturally,” he points out.

Jason Bateman, who plays Marty, is also an executive producer and directed the first two and last two episodes of Season 1. Early on, he, along with Kutchins and Pepe Avila del Pino, who shot the pilot, hashed out the desired look for the show, leaning into a very cyan and dark color palette — and leaning in pretty strongly. “Most people think of [this area as] the South, where it’s warm and bright, sweaty and hot. We just wanted to lean into something more nuanced, like a storm was constantly brewing,” Kutchins explains. “Jason really pushed that aesthetic hard across every department.”

Alas, that was made even more difficult since the show was mainly shot outdoors in the Atlanta area, and a good deal of work went into reacting to Mother Nature and transforming the locations to reflect the show’s Ozark mountain setting. “I spent an immense amount of time and effort killing direct sunlight, using a lot of negative fill and huge overheads, and trying to get rid of that direct, harsh sun,” says Kutchins. “Also, there are so many windows inside the Byrde house that it’s essentially like shooting an exterior location; there’s not a lot of controlled light, so you again are reacting and adapting.”

Kutchins shoots the series on a Panasonic VariCam, which he typically underexposes by a stop or two, mining the darker part of the sensor, “the toe of the exposure curve.” And by doing so, he is able to bring out the dirtier, more naturalistic, grimy parts of the image, rather than something that looks clean and polished. “Something that has a little bit of texture to it, some grit and grain, something that’s evocative of a memory, rather than something that looks like an advertisement,” he says.

To further achieve the look, Kutchins uses an in-camera LUT that mimics old Fuji film stock. “Then we take that into post,” he says, giving kudos to his colorist, Company 3’s Tim Stipan, who he says has been invaluable in helping to develop the “vibe” of the show. “As we moved along through Season 1 and into Season 2, he’s been instrumental in enhancing the footage.”

A lot of Kutchins’ work occurs in post, as the raw images captured on set are so different from the finals. Insofar as the digital intermediate is concerned, significant time is spent darkening parts of the frame, brightening small sections of the frame and working to draw the viewer into the frame. “I want people to be leaning on the edge of their seat, kind of wanting to look inside of the screen and poke their head in for a look around,” Kutchins says. “So I do a lot of vignetting and darkening of the edges, and darkening specific things that I think are distracting.”

Nevertheless, there is a delicate balance he must maintain. “I talk about the darkness of Ozark, but I am trying to ride that fine line of how dark it can be but still be something that’s pleasant to watch. You know, where you’re not straining to see the actor’s face, where there’s just enough information there and the frame is just balanced enough so your eyes feel comfortable looking at it,” he explains. “I spend a lot of time creating a focal point in the frame for your eyes to settle on — highlighting certain areas and letting some areas go black, leaving room for mystery in every frame.”

When filming, Kutchins and his crew use Steadicams, cranes, dollies and handheld. He also uses Cooke Optics’ S4 lenses, which he tends to shoot wide open, “to let the flaws and character of the lenses shine through.”

Before selecting the Panasonic VariCam, Kutchins and his group tested other cameras. Because of Netflix’s requirement for 4K, that immediately ruled out the ARRI Alexa, which is Kutchins’ preferred camera. “But the Panasonic ended up shining,” he adds.

In Ozark, the urban family is pitted against nature, and thus, the natural elements around them need to feel dangerous, Kutchins points out. “There’s a line in the first season about how people drown in the lake all the time. The audience should always feel that; when we are at the water’s edge, that someone could just slip in and disappear forever,” he says. “So, the natural elements play a huge role in the inspiration for the lighting and the feel of the show.”

Jason Blount:The Goldbergs
A polar opposite to Ozark in almost every way, The Goldbergs is a single-camera comedy sitcom set in the ’80s about a caring but grumpy dad, an overbearing mother and three teens — the oldest, a popular girl; the middle one, who fancies himself a gifted athlete and strives to be popular; and the youngest, a geek who is obsessed with filmmaking, as he chronicles his life and that of his family on film. The series is created and executive-produced by Adam F. Goldberg and is based on his own life and childhood, which he indeed captured on film while growing up.

The series is filmed mostly on stage, with the action taking place within the family home or at the kids’ schools. For the most part, The Goldbergs is an up-lit, broad comedy. The colors are rich, with a definite nod to the vibrant palette of the ’80s. “Our colorist, Scott Ostrowsky [from Level 3], has been grading the show from day one. He knows the look of the show so well that by the time I sit with him, there are very few changes that have to be made,” says Blount.

The Goldbergs began airing in 2013 and is now entering its sixth season. And the series’ current cinematographer, Jason Blount, has been involved since the start, first serving as the A camera/Steadicam operator before assuming the role of DP for the Season 1 finale — for a total of 92 episodes now and counting.

As this was a Sony show for ABC, the plan was to shoot with a Sony PMW-F55 CineAlta 4K digital camera, but at the time, it did not record at a fast enough frame rate for some of the high-speed work the production wanted. So, they ended up using the ARRI Alexa for Season 1. Blount took over as DP full time from Season 2 onward, and the decision was made to switch to the F55 for Season 2, as the frame rate issue had been resolved.

“The look of the show had already been established, and I wanted to make sure that the transition between cameras was seamless,” says Blount. “Our show is all about faces and seeing the comedy. From the onset, I was very happy with the Sony F55. The way the camera renders skin tone, the lack of noise in the deep shadows and the overall user-friendly nature of the camera impressed me from the beginning.”

Blount points to one particular episode where the F55 really shined. “The main character was filming a black-and-white noir-style home movie. The F55 handled the contrast beautifully. The blacks were rich and the highlights held onto detail very well,” he says. “We had a lot of smoke, hard light directly into the lens, and really pushed the limits of the sensor. I couldn’t have been happier with the results.”

In fact, the camera has proved its mettle winter, spring, summer and fall. “We’ve used it in the dead of winter, at night in the rain and during day exterior [shots] at the height of summer when it’s been over 100 degrees. It’s never skipped a beat.”

Blount also commends Keslow Camera in Los Angeles, which services The Goldbergs’ cameras. In addition, the rental house has accessorized the F55 camera body with extra bracketry and integrated power ports for more ease of use.

Due to the fast pace at which the show is filmed — often covering 10-plus pages of script a day — Blount uses Angenieux Optimo zoom lenses. “The A camera has a full set of lightweight zooms covering 15mm to 120mm, and the B camera always has the [Optimo] 24-290,” he says. “The Optimo lenses and F55 are a great combination, making it easy to move fast and capture beautiful images.”

Blount points out that he also does all the Steadicam work on the show, and with the F55 being so lightweight, compact and versatile, it makes for a “very comfortable camera in Steadicam mode. It’s perfect to use in all shooting modes.”

The Goldbergs’ DP always shoots with two cameras, sometimes three depending on the scene or action. And, there is never an issue of the cameras not matching, according to Blount. “I’m not a big fan of the GoPro image in the narrative world, and I own a Sony a7S. It’s become my go-to camera for mounts or tight space work on the show, and works perfectly with the F55.”

And, there is something to say for consistency, too. “Having used the same camera and lens package for the past five seasons has made it easy to keep the look consistent for The Goldbergs,” says Blount. “At the beginning of this season, I looked at shooting with the new Sony Venice. It’s a fantastic-looking camera, and I love the options, like the variable ND filters, more color temperature options and the dual ISO, but the limit of 60fps at this stage was a deal-breaker for me; we do a fair amount of 72fps and 120fps.”

“If only the F55 had image stabilization to take out the camera shake when the camera operators are laughing so hard at the actors’ performances during some scenes. Then it would be the perfect camera!” he says with a laugh himself.


Karen Moltenbrey is a longtime writer and editor in the CG and post industries.


One thought on “Behind the Camera: Television DPs

  1. PJ Marsiglia

    Great article, great dp’s and great shows. Interesting, Ben’s explanation on using the lower end of the sensor, mining the lower part of the sensor.
    The digital technology is so accommodating to a colorists’ needs and has come a long way since the film era.

    Reply

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