‘Ozark’ Cinematographer Ben Kutchins Wades Into Highly Cinematic, Extremely Dark Realism With Netflix Crime Drama

By Matt Grobar / Deadline

As he set out on Season 1 of Netflix crime drama Ozark, cinematographer Ben Kutchins’ challenging objective was clear: to visually shape a world that was both highly cinematic and “grounded at all times,” a world where brutal psychological and physical violence go hand in hand. Following a series of conversations with Jason Bateman—who directs and executive produces, while leading the cast—this notion of toeing a specific line manifested itself artistically in a variety of ways, in the series’ tone and overall aesthetic.

Centered on a Chicago financial advisor (Bateman) and his family who are forced to relocate to the Missouri Ozarks when drug cartel dealings take a bad turn, the series’ captivating imagery is always grounded in the Earth. Animals, dirt, grime, blood—these are all in play. With its fascinating title card—an O containing four enigmatic symbols, indicating the danger that’s to come—and its general visual approach, Ozark takes that which is embedded in the Earth into a nightmarish and extremely specific visual space, with its money-pilfering vultures, caged bobcats, and dead wolves dragged through the woods.

Rendering extreme physical brutality mundane with spare camerawork, while juxtaposing the gritty and the aesthetically pleasing, the series’ Emmy-nominated DP found one of his most significant challenges out on the lake. Navigating one of the most challenging scenarios for any cinematographer—shooting out on the water—Kutchins would have to figure out how to use his camera, a crane and natural light to his advantage, walking that crucial line between the stylized and the real.

As you set out on Season 1 of Ozark, what was laid out, in terms of your visual approach?

Jason Bateman and I wanted to try to do things that had the least amount of edits possible, to capture scenes in one setup if possible. To have a long, dynamic take without edits was something that we were striving for from the beginning, and I think it took us a little while to find our footing in that. But [the goal was] something that really had a coolness, a cold color palette, and felt like it was shot on old Fuji film, like an old European movie.

A lot of the references that we used were more modern. This Australian movie, Animal Kingdom, is one that we referenced a lot. We also talked a lot about David Fincher’s movies and the way that he uses the camera. We weren’t going for big wet-downs and huge, lit night exteriors that looked super sexy—but what’s the version of that that doesn’t have a wet-down and has one streetlamp on, and that’s it?

Were there specific visual rules you set for the series?

I think the main rule is that there are no rules. [laughs] But in terms of how we shot, it was different from TV in that we didn’t use zoom lenses; we were very precise about the focal lengths that we used. In general, the show is shot on a 27 or a 32mm lens. That’s sort of our bread and butter; that’s what we live on. The idea of being a little wider and a little closer to the actors is something that we’ve strived for. So I would say if there is a rule, it’s to get the camera as close to the actor as possible and make it an intimate first-person experience. It should feel visceral, like we’re in the room with them, whenever possible. We feel that the stakes are as high for us, that we’re not an observational show. We’re not watching it from afar. We’re not doing this on a long lens from across the room, but we’re right there with the character, watching their wheels turn and trying to figure out what the next move is.

Are you aiming for tension or a psychological impact to your imagery, shooting on wide lenses at a short distance?

Yeah, absolutely. I think Orson Welles was one of the first people to really play with that idea that putting a wide lens right up next to an actor’s face really brings you into their world. As an audience member, if you’re right there with the character, the stakes just feel that much higher and the tension of what’s happening there is heightened.

I think that’s something we always strive for, to make sure that the camera is revealing information in a way that’s interesting and that the perspective is unique; that it’s not a generic, “Okay, here’s a single, here’s a two-shot, here’s a wide shot.” But is this angle helping to tell that story? I think we always take great pains with where we’re going to put the camera to try to heighten the experience for the audience and make them that much more unsettled and nervous about what’s coming next.

Could you explain your choice of camera for this series?

We shot the show on a Panasonic VariCam, and the reason we chose that is a combination of needing to shoot on 4K, but also the camera really performs well in low light, and that’s something that we knew we were going to be doing a lot of. Really, there’s an effort on the show to use the least amount of light possible. If I’m looking at something and I’m not quite sure if it’s right, I just turn it off. That’s sort of been my go-to on this show. The Panasonic performs in low light and there’s a grittiness to it, and a little bit of an earthy quality that I think fits the show. Using what we call ‘the toe,’ that bottom of the curve, there’s a grittiness that comes out in that sensor that I think is filmic, so that’s what we responded to.

How would you describe your approach to lighting?

I’m trying to use as many practical sources as possible—for example, the flashing lights on the dock, and practical lights that are around the environment. But I also don’t personally love the type of photography where you go into a room and an unrealistic number of practicals are on; like, every light is on in the house. I don’t think that that’s the way we live our lives, going around and turning on every lamp in the house. That’s become an aesthetic that I don’t really understand.

I tend to light with the use of practicals as much as possible, without turning on an ungodly amount of them. That combined with, as much as possible, single-source lighting, creating one source that’s the sun or is the strongest lamp in the room, and letting that fall off, and letting shadows come in where they can, really just relying on that one light to do most of the work.

Then I used some very small LED sources to mold and shape light. A lot of the reason for using LEDs is that you can turn them until they’re almost off, and other lights can’t really do that. With LEDs, I’ve found that basically at their very lowest setting, they’re wrapping enough light to just barely be able to see the actor’s eyes.

How exactly is the show’s cold color palette achieved?

That’s basically a LUT (look up table) inside the camera that has the sort of cyan tint that the show ends up with—a LUT that was created and has been refined throughout the first and second season of the show. Of course, we’re doing a lot of work in post-production. But that LUT inside the camera is sort of the initial color pass, as it were.

With this series, where the lake plays such a central role, how have you dealt with the rigors of shooting on the water?

There’s multiple levels to how hard it is. There’s the safety aspect, first and foremost. We make a lot of effort to make sure that everyone is 100 percent safe while we’re working on the water—because it’s very dangerous, and we’re using big machinery.

It’s tough. It takes a lot longer than you would ever imagine. If you have a shot that wants to push in on an actor when you have two boats that are floating independently in the water, you need to do 20 takes to get it right, and that’s a challenge on a TV schedule. When you’re going in and you have to shoot X number of pages a day, you have to really simplify the work.

When you’re out on the water, lighting-wise, I’m very much trying to work with what’s there naturally. There’s not a whole lot of opportunities to shape lighting, so what I’m doing there is the most simple, rudimentary lighting that I can get away with because it’s such a challenge trying to put up a big light out on the water. It’s not going to go well. On a TV schedule, it’s just not something that’s possible. Generally, we’re using a big crane on a speedboat, and we’re using handheld cameras often. Over the course of the two seasons, I’ve just found that sometimes simpler is better; just having a handheld camera with a guy sitting on the boat sometimes is the best approach.

You submitted Season 1 finale “The Toll”—almost feature-length, at an 80-minute run time—for Emmys consideration. What made that episode special to you?

First and foremost, that’s Jason and I working together after having worked together for most of the season, even if he wasn’t directing. That was Jason directing and me shooting, having had a little bit of time to get to know the crew and the characters—what the show was, and what it wanted to be. I think Episode 10 just sort of sings on its own. It’s everybody operating at their highest level because we were in the groove.

We all have this experience of pilots being a little bit off-kilter, and then the season kind of develops and changes into something. The first season of a show, you have all these ideas of what the style is and what the storytelling is, and it’s not until you’ve had some chance to explore it that you really let all of the ideas float away, and you’re just in there doing it. You’re constantly in the moment, crafting.

Having worked together for two seasons now, what has stood out about Jason Bateman as a collaborator?

Jason is an incredible filmmaker. He’s been doing this since he was a little kid, and I think more than anyone else I’ve ever worked with, he’s been paying attention. His feet are on the ground and he’s a very gracious guy, and really understands every piece of the process in a way that most people don’t. I would say it’s an incredible experience, too, to watch him direct himself and direct other people while working in a scene.

Often we would not cut and he would give notes, and he would just go again and do another take right away—and he’s not watching playback. That’s the other thing I should say about Jason: I would say maybe five percent of the time or less, he’s watching playback to give notes or figure out what he’s doing. He will sort of on the fly be giving other actors and himself notes, and it’s an incredible thing to witness.

Apart from shooting on the water, what have the series’ primary challenges been?

In general, the show is of the earth, and we shoot the show that way. For the majority of our schedule, we’re out on location. We do have some sets, but we’re rarely in them. We’re mostly out in the woods. That house is a practical house that sits on the lake, and sometimes it’s cloudy, and sometimes it’s sunny, and sometimes it’s raining—and all of the natural elements are not always our friend. We get a lot of backlash from nature. Sometimes nature gives us great gifts, but sometimes it’s really difficult.