DP Ben Kutchins Captures Netflix series, Ozark, With VariCam 35 Cameras
Ozark, created by Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams, is an American drama/crime series that tells the story of a financial planner, Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), who is forced to relocate his family from Chicago to the Missouri Ozarks after a money laundering scheme goes awry. To make amends with a powerful drug cartel, Byrde is forced to operate a much larger money laundering operation, which he runs with local criminals. The critically acclaimed Netflix series, now in its second season, is shot by cinematographer Ben Kutchins (The Dangerous Book for Boys, Crown Heights) with Panasonic VariCam 35 cameras.
Kutchins grew up in Northern California where he started out as a still photographer. As a teen, he landed an internship at Lucasfilm where he was able to see how movies were made. “That was an eye-opening experience,” explains Kutchins. “I saw a cinematographer lighting a set one day and I sat there for four hours just watching him work. I thought, ‘That’s exactly what I want to do.’”
For Ozark, Kutchins became involved because he had previously shot a film together with actor Jason Bateman, who has directed several episodes of the series. “He’s an incredibly intelligent filmmaker,” reveals Kutchins. “His ability to have a relationship with the camera was something that I haven’t seen from a whole lot of actors. When Ozark came up, we jumped at the opportunity to work together again.”
Ozark is shot in Atlanta, GA. In developing the look of the series, Kutchins worked with Bateman and cinematographer Pepe Avila del Pino, who shot the first two episodes of season one. “Traditionally, a DP will come in and shoot the pilot and then someone else will come in and replicate that look for the series,” says Kutchins. “This was a unique situation in that I was invited to be a part of the process of developing the look. It was me, Jason, and Pepe talking about the show’s look and testing out different cameras and lenses.”
The team used a lot of visual references for different elements for the look and feel of Ozark, including the 2010 Australian feature, Animal Kingdom, which they were influenced by the film’s camera movement, blocking, and use of minimal coverage. They also watched films by director David Fincher as reference for tonal qualities. “One of the things we were most interested in early on was how little coverage we could get away on a TV show without getting fired,” says Kutchins. “It was all about pushing the cinematic boundaries for television.”
With Netflix’s 4K mandate, the production tested out the latest RED and Sony cameras, but according to Kutchins, the VariCam 35 had the filmic qualities they were looking for, as well as the ability to capture in low light. “We almost went with the VariCam Pure for the second season, but we ended up just doing what we did before,” reveals Kutchins. “We were really happy with the look that we achieved in season one.”
Kutchins captured 4K DCI (4096×2160) 12-bit 4:4:4 AVC Intra files in V-Log at 23.98-fps. For exhibition, they went with a 2:1 extraction. For season one, Kutchins and Avila del Pino worked with a D.I.T. to develop a viewing LUT, which Kutchins developed further throughout the season. “The LUT lifted the blacks a bit, added contrast in the mids, brought down the highlights, created deep cyan in the shadows, and a little warmth in the highlights,” reveals Kutchins. “What I was trying to do was mimic an old Fuji film stock that I used to use back when I was shooting stills. Working at Lucasfilm, I inherited a huge box of expired film and it was one of the discontinued films in that box.”
For lensing, Kutchins shot mainly with a set of Cooke S4 prime lenses, as well as older Zeiss Super Speeds. “The Cookes perform really well close to wide open, which I preferred for the look. I like the idea of not knowing what’s happening in the background focus-wise, even on a wide lens because it adds to the danger and mystery of the show. I also like that the S4s are simultaneously sharp yet have enough flaws and character to bring another element. I’m mixing and matching the S4s with the Super Speeds for the extra grittiness that they bring and lack of depth of field. Sometimes I’m looking to get something a little dirtier than I can get with the S4s.”
Kutchins used the VariCam’s native ISO 5000 sparingly but was impressed with the results when he did use it. “I’m a bit of an old school cinematographer and I find things that I like, and I continue doing that,” he says. “I don’t really feel the need to shoot things at 5000 just because it’s there. A couple of times, I used it for a surveillance look. I was hoping it would be grainy but there was no grain at all, so I had to add a ton of grain in post. There were a few times that I had a crazy setup on a crane and didn’t have quite enough light, or enough time, to add a bunch of light. We basically switched the native ISO to 5000 and I was really impressed with the results. When I went into the DI to finish it, I would be hard pressed to figure out which shots were done at 800 or 5000.”
In lighting Ozark, Kutchins believes each scene has its own heartbeat. “As a lighting strategy, I tend to use a single soft source, whether it’s sun, or a practical base like a single lamp in a room,” explains Kutchins. “I’m using small LEDs to augment, generally soft light to wraparound and get a little glint in the eye, or to give that little suggestion of a silhouette. It’s the idea of using big, broad strokes and then small touches to accent where I want you to look in the frame. Jason and I don’t mind if the actors fall off in the shadows. We like to leave just enough information out there to let the audience wonder what’s happening.”
Kutchins takes that idea even further in post and according to Kutchins, this is one of the VariCam 35’s biggest strengths. “There’s been a few times where I wanted to bring up a shadow,” says Kutchins, “and I tend to underexpose ¾ of a stop to 2 stops as a baseline. With the VariCam, if I want to bring up a shadow in post, it’s been very rare that I’ve been limited on how much I could bring it up before the image got noisy.”
The color grade is performed at Company 3 by colorist Tim Stipan, who graded both season one and two. “It’s his first TV show and I think he brought a really cinematic look to it,” says Kutchins. “For the grade, I don’t think we’re changing the look, but I think we’re taking it 10 steps further in post than we’re able to on set. On a TV schedule, you don’t have time to do all the tweaks you want to do and I’m taking all those ideas into the DI. Fortunately, Tim is a great collaborator and a great artist. Things can be as dark as you want them to be as long as there is somewhere for you to look and the audience feels comfortable looking at the frame.”
For more information on the VariCam 35, click through here >>.