The Netflix drama series Ozark is certainly one of the most visually striking shows on television right now, but that doesn’t mean it comes easy. The show involves tons of exterior scenes captured on location in Atlanta, Georgia, but keeping the image consistent throughout unpredictable weather and cloud cover is a constant challenge – one that Emmy-nominated cinematographer Armando Salas, ASC is used to.
Ozark was nominated for two Emmy awards in the Outstanding Cinematography for a Single Camera Series (One-Hour) category, with Ben Kutchins scoring a nod for the episode “Civil Union” and Armando Salas scoring a nomination for “Boss Fight.” I recently had the opportunity to speak to Salas about his work on the show and his Emmy nomination, and he illuminated the various challenges and opportunities that Ozark Season 3 brought while also explaining why the most recent season of the show was its brightest – literally.
Indeed, a signature of Ozark is its dim aesthetic, but Season 3 let the light in so to speak. There’s both a technical and story reason for the shift, which Salas explains in the interview below.
What was your reaction when you found out you were nominated for an Emmy?
ARMANDO SALAS: I was actually doing early morning shopping at Whole Foods when my agent called me. It really threw my pandemic strategic shopping plan out the door (laughs). But, I mean, I didn’t really believe it at first, like the category is so competitive and the other nominees are all incredibly accomplished and the shows look terrific so it’s just an incredible honor just to be included in that list.
Well, it’s a very well deserved nomination. I know you weren’t involved in the first season of the show, so I was just curious if you could talk a little bit about how you first got involved in Ozark.
SALAS: I joined season two, and Jason [Bateman] and Ben Kutchins, the other cinematographer who was also nominated, were looking for another DP to shoot half the season. And we chatted and we all got along and thought we’d work well together. And that was the case. It was a great collaboration and that’s pretty much it.
Much has been said about how dark this show is both visually and from a story perspective. And Season 3 I found kind of lightened up a little bit, but you also have this casino, which is a brand new challenge and opportunity from a visual standpoint, both in terms of cinematography and production design. What were the early conversations about season three and what your guys’ approach to the third season would be?
SALAS: Well Season 2 was incredibly bleak from a story perspective and what the characters were going through. And then Season 3, the playing field gets bigger. The ambitions get larger, the operation becomes more sophisticated. So the look is very much in line with the story. You follow the story, you follow the script. And so the look involved with the arc of the characters and of the storytelling and it’s a bigger palette, more sophisticated world. And it also branches out, like you said, into the casino, into the Navarro compound. So you still have the signature hues that you’re used to, that the audience has been accustomed to, but it’s also kind of developing beyond that and expanding. And I think that the two words that Jason and I discussed early on were expanding and sophistication. And so it’s like, how do you implement that concept?
Were there any conversations about literally just making the show a little brighter? Because it did feel a little bit brighter this season.
SALAS: It gets really technical because basically Netflix is a HDR delivery with Dolby Vision so we implemented Dolby Vision, or an HDR onset workflow, which basically we reinvented the workflow of the show to match the distribution format, which obviously affects the image. It makes it so that we’re actually much more in tune with the final distribution. And so some of it is that, and some of it is just the discussion of the look becoming more sophisticated meant we had a softer shadows. We had a little more detail and a little more texture in the shadows than in Season 2, which even though the highlights and the brightness of the overall image is actually the same, just having that softer curve at the bottom is a lot easier on the eyes.
I think it’s beautiful. I think it’s a really gorgeous season. You shot the episode “Boss Fight,” which in this show there’s a lot of blues, there’s a lot of woods in the Ozarks, and here you get to reveal Navarro’s compound, which is a very different look, as well as essentially just putting Jason in a cave for the entire episode, which is not the most visually compelling thing. So what was it like for you stepping into that episode and visualizing the Navarro compound and the cave and the challenges you faced there?
SALAS: So, “Boss Fight” was an incredibly fun episode to shoot because not only wasn’t a little more lyrical and poetic in the sense that we were jumping, not only geographically, but also in time to Marty’s youth in flashbacks. So we had essentially the storyline of the family dealing with his disappearance in the Ozarks, we had Marty in a cell at the Navarro compound and we have the flashback to him and his, the loss of his father. So it was coming up with a strategy of how to differentiate all of them while weaving them together so it didn’t just feel like disparate storylines. And a lot of that was done with color and texture.
So we would have basically the signature cool hues of the Ozarks, so we’ll have Ben and Ruth sitting at the trailers at dusk in a very blue environment, but we’ll make sure that there’s this dingy yellow, practical that’s kind of edge lighting them because the next scene will be back in the cell with Marty, with the torture lights giving off that amber light that will kind of match that color that was just a hint of an accent in the Ozarks.
And then from there that same amber is used in the curtains and in the sunlight coming through the window of the hospital room as a child. So that you have these elements that are weaving through, even though the overall color palette and tonality is changing dramatically, so that you have this thread that pulls you from scene to scene and shot the shot.
And so weaving that all together, coming up with the different lighting strategies and color palettes for each of these locations. And on top of that, layering textures, we use something called LiveGrain this season so we were able to emulate different film stocks so for the flashbacks we had something that emulated a 16mm Ektachrome to have that larger scale grain. And then at the Navarro compound, it was like an EXR stock that was pushed a stop to get a similar texture, but one that’s more nostalgic, and one that’s a little bit edgier. But that edgy texture plays against this lavish conference room with huge stained glass windows that bathe the reflective wood surfaces and the stone wall in what would normally be considered beautiful light, but you’re in the belly of the beast and you can feel the violent undertones. So it was really challenging given the time constraints of shooting anything episodic, but it was a lot of fun to figure out and to lay out and then to execute.
I’m also curious what your collaboration then is with the other DP and with Jason. I mean, it’s a season of television, it’s one cohesive whole, but how do you work to make sure that the image is consistent across all the episodes?
SALAS: So when everyone’s on the same page about what it is that you’re accomplishing, it actually was quite simple. Every cinematographer is going to bring their aesthetic touch to what they’re doing, because there’s really no other option. But, you have an approach and aesthetic to the show and once you live within that aesthetic for a little while, then it just becomes second nature. Then you’re just responding out of instinct and your aesthetic preferences. And it all works. I mean, similarly, we have five directors in a season and it all tends to fall in line as long as everyone understands the show they’re making. It is one of those strange things that shouldn’t really work, and you know what? It doesn’t always. I have been on shows where you run into issues where things are not feeling the same. But in this case, we have a very open dialogue, we support each other, we ask each other questions and we have similar aesthetics and a good relationship. We’re all friends. So it makes it easy.
In some ways I imagine it’s up to the DPs. I mean, they’re one of the most consistent visual voices across multiple episodes with different directors. But then I imagine it helps to have Jason there who’s also an incredible director himself, but you individually working with the different directors, you work on all of these episodes. So you’re a part of the visual constant there.
SALAS: Yes. I mean your job in episodic is to be the protector of the image. Basically you have to funnel all the changes from episode to episode and unify it into something that feels consistent throughout the season with multiple directors and two cinematographers.
I also wanted to talk specifically about the episode “Fire Pink,” Episode 9, which is just emotionally devastating and it opens with Tom Pelphrey’s monologue in the car. What was it like working with such emotionally raw performances, and capturing those in the confines of a car?
SALAS: Specifically for that scene, I believe it was even longer scripted than it was in the final cut, but it’s still like five or six minutes of Tom having a monologue where you see his breakdown happening in front of you. So we knew that we weren’t going to be able to shoot that intense of a scene in a real driving situation. So we did that all virtually with LED walls. So we had a background plate shot and did that all on stage. So we could give Tom and the director the ability to work without all the hindrances of being in live traffic and a camera car and all of the chaos and distraction that comes with that.
So that’s really from a production standpoint, the main thing we did to service that scene is shoot it on stage. There was no CG, it was all live with LED walls. And so then beyond that, it’s just the technical challenge for me, on a show that’s this gritty and this real to not let the artifice of that set up show so that people actually believe we’re in a real car and we’re on the road with him, because again, the performance is so real and so raw, you don’t want to break the illusion for the audience.
Another thing that I really find striking about the show is the exteriors, and I know the challenges that come with filming on location, but there is a constant aesthetic throughout, and I’m amazed by how it all feels consistent. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the exteriors on the show and trying to control the weather as much as you can.
SALAS: Yeah. I mean, the number one challenge and the number one frustration on Ozark is, we’re shooting in Georgia in the summer so it’s sunny, cloudy, rainy, thunderstormy, back to sunny in the same day. And so making that all feel seamless is a huge challenge. Because a big part of the prep is figuring out how to approach and tackle these daylight exterior scenes and how to plan them both in terms of time of day and how to keep it consistent and it keeps our key grip and grip crew very busy because we do very large overhead and negative fill. So it’s very typical for us to have multiple Condors and a Pettibone covering an area to allow us to keep it consistent for several hours. Certain locations, like the Langmore compound, because it’s a tiny peninsula, don’t really allow for that. So then we have to get really creative. But yeah, that is by far the most challenging aspect of shooting the series is keeping that aesthetic consistent in Georgia.
I know things are up in the air right now but I know the show has been renewed for a fourth and final season. Do you know if you’re coming back for that?
SALAS: I’d love to. Again, with pandemic time, I have no idea what and when and where and how, but yeah, I have a great relationship with everybody on the show and I love being a part of it, so we’ll see what happens.
Ozark is now streaming on Netflix.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Adam Chitwood is the Managing Editor for Collider. You can follow him on Twitter @adamchitwood.