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Into the Dark (But Not Completely): Cinematography on Season 3 of “Ozark”

“You know those joyful scenes in a thriller or horror movie, right before the hammer comes down, that trick the audience? Well, ‘Ozark’ is a completely different meditation.”

Anyone seeking a reminder that his or her situation could very much be worse might seek out Netflix’s crime drama Ozark. Continuing the Byrde family’s story upon their relocation to the Ozarks in the wake of a failed money laundering scheme, the series’ dark cinematography has viewers divided.

“People don’t complain about bright and warm,” cinematographer Ben Kutchins tells Oakley Anderson-Moore. “Bright and warm is comfortable, but we don’t want the audience to be comfortable.

“How dark is too dark?” Kutchins continues. “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.”

Incoming production designer David Bomba was also careful about the aesthetic, telling Valentina Valentini: “Ozark has a very blue-gray, overcast feel, and I asked if that was the direction I should pursue, and Jason [Bateman, who executive produces] was adamant I should not.” Company 3 colorist Tim Stipan notes the softer contrast this season: “It’s brighter, and there are softer blacks. However, the color tonality is much the same, with those strong signature cyans.”

Read more: How the Sony VENICE Evolved the Look of Ozark

The camera crew moved to the Sony VENICE with Leica glass, smoothing the contrast in the switch to full frame. “Shooting full-frame brings the characters forward in the image,” Kutchins tells Valentini.

Stipan adds, “People watching the third season may not perceive the change. It really has the same vibe we’ve had all along, but some scenes will appear subtly less dark than they would have previously.”

Read more: Visualizing the Show-me State: Tim Stipan on Ozark

Camera operator and director Ben Semanoff adds that the VENICE’s small footprint makes it perfect for the physical challenges of Ozark’s remote location shooting: “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,” he continues. “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.”

In terms of color, Stipan notes the importance of retaining the cold aesthetic, the journey into blackness reflecting the darkening tone of the show; where the brightness of early episodes evoked an optimistic environment, the titular location would come to engulf the Byrdes in darkness. “The color palette accentuates that concept,” he explains.

From the Netflix series “Ozark.” Image courtesy of Netflix

Kutchins reiterates this idea to Valentini; that the look of the show emphasizes its increasingly bleak scenario: “You know those joyful scenes in a thriller or horror movie, right before the hammer comes down, that trick the audience? Well, Ozark is a completely different meditation. It’s always bleak for our characters. We don’t allow them those joyful moments; it just goes from bad to worse.”

Watch: Cinematographer Armando Salas, ASC and Director Alik Sakharov, ASC on Ozark

Read more: The Devil’s in the Details

“I light the characters just enough to read their expressions, with enough light on the walls behind to create some separation,” he continues. “Ozark has been very much about controlling the amount of information we reveal in any given image.”

From the Netflix series “Ozark.” Image courtesy of Netflix

Semanoff concurs in his interview with Anderson-Moore: “Kutchins referred to light to shape the world and limit what we see, and we were doing that compositionally as well. If you show the audience everything, they don’t need to think or engage.”

Bateman sums up this balance to Valentini as “between preserving the show’s darkness while softening the blackness for translation into people’s living rooms: “You can’t assume or depend on pristine viewing conditions when you’re [filming a show] for a streaming service. People are watching at home, sometimes during the day, and there’s ambient light. We always try to play on the edge of just the right amount of exposure and contrast.”