“I Think of the Digital Chip as a Film Stock”: DP Shawn Kim on Shooting Ozark‘s Final Season
After four seasons of financial and familial duplicity, the winding saga of Missouri drug launderers Wendy and Marty Byrde comes to an end tomorrow as Netflix releases the final half of its 14-episode swan song. I have no idea yet whether the karmic scales will finally tilt towards a comeuppance for the couple but am certain that whatever awaits the Byrdes will unfold in the murky depths of low-key interiors and the cool cyan of perpetually overcast exteriors. It’s a well-defined aesthetic that has earned three Emmy nominations for the show’s cinematographers.
For the climactic season, a new team of DPs led by Shawn Kim (Amazon’s Utopia and Showtime’s Kidding) is guiding the story toward its culmination. Kim spoke to Filmmaker about bringing the “sallowness” of season three and the “Ozark noir” of the first season together for the conclusion.
Filmmaker: The final season of Ozark rolled out on Netflix in a pair of seven-episode parts. Did you shoot them all together in one long stretch?
Kim: Yeah, we started prep in August of 2020 and wrapped up in October of this past year—thirteen-plus months out in Atlanta. We had a little mini-hiatus with one or two weeks down, but it was always meant to be 14 episodes straight through. It wasn’t planned to take that long, but there were so many COVID shutdowns along the way. It was pretty crazy.
Filmmaker: Did you cross-shoot between the two different sections? I’ll just call them Part A and Part B.
Kim: We had different directors throughout the season and there are DGA rules around that, so we didn’t do much of that. We did have to shoot all of the scenes for one actor basically in the first week, because he was going on to another show and wouldn’t be available. We were essentially shooting in blocks of a few episodes. For example, the first three episodes were shot in one giant block. We went through essentially five different seasons of weather during the shoot. There were times when it was supposed to be Chicago in winter and we’re shooting in Atlanta in the summertime. It was pretty challenging.
Filmmaker: Fourteen months is a long time to spend shooting one project. Did any new gear get added to the mix during the course of production that wasn’t available yet when you started?
Kim: The only thing really was that we considered using the new Volume stage at Trilith Studios, the [soundstage complex in Atlanta] where they do all the Marvel stuff. My friend [Mindhunter and Mank cinematographer] Erik Messerschmidt was using it for Devotion, a movie he was shooting for a director friend of mine [J.D. Dillard] that I’d worked with on Utopia. Originally, production wanted to travel to Chicago for a good chunk of time to film, because there’s so many sequences this season that take place there. COVID prevented that completely, especially in the beginning. So, we punted that idea and talked about using the Volume for some Chicago scenes, but it was a little bit too complicated, so we moved on to more standard visual trickery— greenscreen work and sky replacement, things like that.
Filmmaker: When you come in for the fourth season of a show with such a defined look, how much room is there to move outside of those boundaries?
Kim: There is such a set look to this show that there’s not a ton of opportunity for change, but there were places where I wanted to make tiny changes. There is a tonal difference [to the final season], because the characters are now in a different place. They’ve been running around for the past few years, and now they’re all getting sucked down into this focused funnel.
For the most part it was trying to keep consistency from the handoff of season three, because season four picks up literally [after the final shot of the previous season]. There was a lot of discussion about coming back full circle—not necessarily all the way to the original look of the pilot, because I think that did get a lot of flak for being too dark, which I never understood. I loved the grittiness and starkness of the pilot episode. But we did want to slowly build in a little bit of a visual narrative and a visual arc that sets up to the ending in Part B, which essentially comes back full circle to where all this started.
Filmmaker: I’ve only seen season three and half of four and those are pretty dark in terms of light levels. I can’t imagine how dark season one must’ve been if the later seasons are the “bright” ones.
Kim: There was a murkiness and sallowness to season three, which I loved. It was almost like being under water in a sense, whereas the first few episodes [of season one] were almost noir. I spoke to [series star, director and executive producer] Jason Bateman about going back to that modern noir. It can still be bright sometimes, but it’s enveloped in a cushion of jet-black, inky shadows. We wanted the shadows to become more and more prevalent toward the middle of the arc of the final season, which is basically the end of episode seven and beginning of episode eight. We played with depth of field quite a bit, too. It’s a very shallow depth of field show to begin with, but we went crazy with it, even employing diopters on our T1 lenses shooting close to wide open. I’d say 80 percent of the show was shot on one lens, the 50mm [Leica] Noctilux. Most of the rest was shot on a 35mm Leica R and maybe an 80mm from time to time. We used Sony Venices, which is a continuation from season three. I think of the digital chip as a film stock and wanted to keep that, and the lenses, consistent.
Filmmaker: The Noctilux opens to a .95. You would shoot almost wide open?
Kim: I have a philosophy that you don’t really shoot any lens all the way wide open unless you’re going for a very deteriorated look. There’s a lot of halation and artificting that happens when you have all the blades all the way wide open on any lens, but especially on these vintage lenses. We shot pretty close to open, let’s say 1.1. We pitched it down a little bit to make me feel better that I was doing something technically acceptable.
Filmmaker: Did you shoot a lot of the show single camera or did you have more than one of those Noctilux 50mm lenses?
Kim: We’re very much a one camera at a time show. That said, there were opportunities where you could have a second camera that shoots a slightly different angle or goes off and does second unit. Knowing that we would rely heavily on these lenses and that possibly utilize more second unit work throughout the fourth season, I commissioned a second set of Leica Rs to be made and sourced a pristine Noctilux to be converted by TLS. Antoine Dixon-Bellot at Cinescope Optics in the UK helped facilitate finding pristine vintage glass and converting them to modern lens housings. I now personally own this second set. They turned them around in something like six weeks, which is insane, so a shoutout to them for doing that. A lot of times a set of the Lecia Rs would sit idle, but we had it just in case. I also found that there’s different characteristics between the two Notcilux lenses we had. Both had their own little quirks.
Filmmaker: Did you nickname the two different Noctilux lenses to tell them apart?
Kim: (laughs) Yeah, there was the SK50. That’s the one that I own. The other one was beat up over the years and had very cool characteristics to it. When we wanted a little bit more of a refraction and secondary flares, odd little chromatic shifts like that, we’d go with that one.
Filmmaker: The cool blue daylight exteriors, where the sunlight never seems to touch the characters, is one of the defining parts of the Ozark aesthetic. How do you achieve that look?
Kim: Starting in season three, they really got aggressive in controlling exterior light. This is very much a location-driven show. Very few scenes are shot on stage, even though we had large stages with multiple sets up the whole time. They were more for rain cover and things where you’re blowing stuff up or doing something dangerous. For the most part, a lot of it is shot outside, and the Georgia weather is incredibly tricky. In season three they employed a lot more aggressive use of negative fill, using manipulatable truss solids and 20’ x 20’ condors with what are essentially giant black flags all over. For this season, we ramped that up to 11. If we had an exterior scene that was supposed to look natural, we’d basically black out the sky and deny the sun, then reintroduce light from the ground. It allows you a greater amount of freedom, and as the weather changes you’re not having to constantly adjust. You’re basically overdoing it in the beginning and creating kind of a mini-studio outside with a lot of controllability, then selectively let in light. To me, that was analogous to what this season was about where—not to get too cheesy—everyone is shrouded in darkness and they’re searching for a minimal amount of illumination.
Filmmaker: I saw a picture of a slate from the show somewhere and there was a LUT tag on it with a picture from the movie Blue Crush. Tell me about that LUT.
Kim: (laughs) That’s the camera department having some fun. In the past, the show has deployed a number of different LUTs and I often like to do that as well. It’s kind of like switching out film stock. For this season, though, I essentially wanted to use only one LUT the entire run. So Blue Crush was a continuation [of the show’s previous LUTs] that I worked on with Tim Stipan, the colorist on the show. He’s colored every single episode since the pilot.
I was also lucky that I got to bring in my digital imaging technician, Ryan Nguyen, in prep. Usually on an existing show like this you don’t get to do that. I got lucky because he was between two Ridley Scott films. So, we got him for like three or four weeks in prep and spent that messing around with a lot of different on-camera, on-set looks and ended up with one that was a much more silver metallic cyan blue, as well as a lot more crushed in the blacks. So, we called it Blue Crush. Then we also had a LUT for Mexico, which was obviously a much warmer, sepia brownish color palette, this wonderful, rich and warm Godfather look that had been established in the past couple seasons. Overall, Mexico has a burnt out, humid vibe, but if you look carefully the shadows have a little bit more of that Ozark coolness to them. At the beginning of the season, the looks for Mexico and Ozark are very different. Towards the end, there’s a lot more parallels in them and the lines become a little more blurred as Marty gets more involved with the cartel.
Filmmaker: You mentioned before that you’re friends with Erik Messerschmidt, and there’s definitely some similarities between the look of Ozark and Mindhunter in terms of lighting and framing.
Kim: There are a lot of Fincher-isms in our show. It’s very rectilinear, there’s nearly zero tilt on every shot. In the past seasons of Ozark they were very strict with that, but this season I broke it and allowed myself 15 or 30 degrees of tilt. The lighting is also kind of Fincher-esque as well, where you’re letting a light illuminate the scene from behind and far away and the camera is in the shadows.
Filmmaker: That’s interesting. I hadn’t really thought about that before, that the camera is placed in the darkest part of the room. I also like what you do with night exteriors this season. The motel location that Ruth buys, for example, has this great color contrast between green light and warmer light at night.
Kim: Yeah, thank you. I even put some magenta light in this season, which made the gaffer Edison [Jackson] nearly pass out. (laughs)
Filmmaker: In a lot of those hotel exteriors, the lights are motivated by on-screen practical sources. Is that important to you, to motivate from something based in reality?
Kim: Coming from where I come from with music videos and crazy art films and things like that, you give yourself a lot of freedom. However, on a show like this that’s so motivated by the truth or deception of character, I absolutely needed to motivate every single source for sure. It had to be rooted in reality, but maybe amplified. It was interesting because working in HDR—we finished this season in Dolby Vision HDR—the dynamic range is such that you have to be really careful. If you use a practical in the frame as, say, a backlight, 99 times out of 100 that practical in shot is burned out. It’s clipped. So, you have to dim that down to a point where you can shoot it and it’s not throwing any back edge on the actor. You end up having to put another light above it [out of shot] to actually do what [the on-screen light] is supposed to be doing.
Filmmaker: Let’s finish up by talking about car shots. The opening scene of season four features a car crash. It struck me that we’re in a strange place right now with car work where I could tell the interiors were shot on stage, but I wasn’t sure whether the car flipping over was practical or CGI.
Kim: When you’re marrying dynamic [practical] action with car stage work, there is always a little bit of a discrepancy [between the two]. It’s tough to navigate and infuse it with a sense of realism and speed and danger. The accident was actually one of the first things we shot. Jason really wanted that minivan rollover to look natural, not like it went off an air ramp and all of sudden just launched into the air. He wanted it naturalistic, which is very difficult to do, because we needed that minivan to land at an exact spot under this dogwood tree. The flip required them to install this sliding system of weights within the minivan that would shift over at the right moment to cause the roll to happen. For the interiors, getting realistic car shots on stage, even with LEDs screens, is tough. I’m a firm believer in trying to do it on location as much as possible, but more and more [car work] is moving to stage. At a certain point you have to realize that the scene is king and you’re there to serve the scene and the performances, not to make it exactly the way you would like to have it.