We venture inside Lumon Industries with Cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagnè to learn more about her vision for the unique look and feel of Apple TV’s Severance.
It may take two to tango, but in Dan Erickson and Ben Stiller’s sterile, corporate psychological nightmare, Severance, you’re dancing with yourself. This breakout drama from Apple TV+ follows Adam Scott’s Mark, who has willingly undergone a procedure that separates his workday consciousness from his outside world. The office might be brightly lit, but it’s a dark emotional place full of secrets. When new arrival Helly (Britt Lower) joins the interior team, she questions the status quo and so begins a ripple effect that takes the characters on a dangerous journey of self-discovery.
As this mystery unfolds, the provocative writing is assisted by the aesthetics created by the visual production team. Offering us an insider perspective into the creative choices is cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné. We talked about locations, lenses, lighting, and lambs! Okay, really, they are goats, but we couldn’t pass up the alliteration opportunity.
PremiumBeat: When you first were in pre-production, what were the conversations around the look and feel of the world within Lumon Industries? The contrast of the darkness of their situation under the bright lights of their Innie’s world is creepily effective.
Jessica: The first conversation Ben and I had was mainly about how you make an office look interesting. As the cinematographer, I was concerned about being trapped in a white box with overhead lighting. We started collecting images of striking offices, mainly from the sixties, which was such a gorgeous era for these kinds of spaces.
When our production designer Jeremy Hindle came on, we noticed his visual pitch was in line with what we were into. Along with the great design, which was mined by Jeremy, we knew we wanted a unique visual tone that could enhance the show’s unique variety of dramatic tones. For the underground world, we were inspired by photographers like Lars Tunbjork and Lee Friedlander, who really embrace awkwardness within frames, whether it be a wide group shot where everyone is oddly cropped by cubicle desks or a strange wide angle that puts the camera in a place we don’t usually go. The Innie world was meant to be robotic or surveillance aesthetic driven. For the outside world, our approach was more classic and stark. The exteriors were also a great opportunity for us to play with scale, reminding the viewer how small Mark actually is in this world.
PremiumBeat: There is a deliberate choice to set the outside world in coldness. Snow, ice, and overcast skies literally make their burdens at home more visceral. What choices did you make in framing and color palettes, and what were you trying to say visually about this bleak outside world?
Jessica: From the beginning, it was very important for Ben to shoot the show during winter, and fortunately, we were able to do so. Overcast skies, rain, fog, and occasionally snow were perfect to set the mood for Mark’s state of mind. The palette was intentionally bleak to amplify this further. We rarely strayed from this except for Devon’s house, which wanted to be much warmer lighting with more natural raw materials. It was also one of the few spaces we embraced tungsten lighting to accentuate the warmth in the relationship between Mark and his sister.
When it comes to the outside world, we wanted to shoot things with longer lenses. Being outside gave us the opportunity for the camera to be further away, and we loved to play with that. The security aesthetic did make its way in some of the shots as well but in a more 70’s Alan J Pakula style.
PremiumBeat: Having two distinct environments for the actors, did you employ any strategies on shooting the talent, specifically with lens or focus? I noticed that although there are no changes in their personal appearance, there is a difference in feeling because of the camera work. For example, the technique you utilize as they enter or leave the work environment.
Jessica: We did shoot both worlds with the same lens package, but we would use the longer lenses more often on the outside and the wider ones on the inside. We had a 20mm and 24mm spherical to shoot 6K on the Venice in the underground. Those two lenses were only used on the inside to achieve super wides that ultimately wanted straighter lines than an anamorphic lens can provide.
The transitions in the elevator are where the two worlds (Innie and Outie) converge, so we came up with the idea of using the Zolly, which is when you track in or out to compensate for the frame height with a zoom in or out. It’s been used in classics like Jaws and Vertigo. Usually, this effect is meant to show a perspective shift in the background. For us, it was about showing how the actor’s face would morph optically during the transition, thus amplifying the actor’s performance.
Premium Beat: Can you tell us more about the camera and lens? What was the thought process in choosing them?
Jessica: We shot with the Sony Venice. It’s great for the 4K anamorphic and the 6K spherical. I had worked with it for a couple years before and feel like it holds up so well with strong contrast environments, which came in handy for the innie world. Sony is really killing it when it comes to developing a camera that captures HDR well. In a world like Severance, where contrast is a big part of the look, you need a camera that can handle the white walls and still give you bite and texture. The lenses were Panavision C series mainly with some 50-500 panazooms lenses that I have a soft spot for. Each lens was specifically chosen and the complete kit allowed us to do all the crazy camera trickery we wanted.
PremiumBeat: There are so many wide and long shots where it would be impossible to hide lighting equipment. How do you approach those scenes? I’m going to guess those awful fluorescent lights overhead contain some cinematic magic!
Jessica: We definitely had our fair share of wides and we shot a variety of scenes with 3 cameras. I personally love having three cameras — I adore the exercise of figuring out how to make it work. Using multiple cameras allows us so many more shots and it gives space for frames we would have never thought of at the moment. Obviously, there are times where we need to remember that one camera can be sufficient as well. It’s an active choice and when you know this ahead of time, you can work closely with the production designer. You build in options for yourself so that it can still be cinematic. For example, that is why the light well came about for Cobel’s office.
PremiumBeat: The work they do at Lumon is enigmatic and hard to grasp. Numbers floating on screen. Any challenging aspects to get those floating number shots on a computer screen?
Jessica: Filming the computers could be tricky, mainly because of the reflections. The dome of the screen made it impossible to kill the reflections without killing all of the light on it. We worked around that with flagging and the help of VFX. The rest of it was tweaking in the grade to get the right contrast and saturation. The zooms were also a blessing when it came to shooting insert work on the monitors.
PremiumBeat: Do you have a favorite scene in Severance from a cinematographer’s standpoint? Either something very difficult to pull off that made you go “hell yeah!” or something simply beautiful or well executed?
Jessica: Personally, I really like the day scenes inside Mark’s because we really got to take time and light it. It felt like such an opportunity each time because we didn’t get to do it as much in the innie world. I also love both party scenes in MDR. It felt like a treat to do those and we really took our time developing them.
PremiumBeat: Finally, was your favorite day at work when you had to shoot the baby goats? Were they diva’s or well behaved?
Jessica: The baby goat day was truly special. It was fun to see the crew enjoy that moment after being trapped in our hallways and and MDR set. Another magical day was shooting the greenhouse scene when Petey and Mark rendezvous. I wanted fog so bad for that scene and we got it. It really made that location and the feel of the scene so special.
PremiumBeat: I lied – one more! Anything I didn’t ask that you feel would be valuable to include? Especially any advice for someone wanting to shoot a series – hell, even the best bag to carry on set or water bottle. Often, it’s the life hacks that make the working day run much smoother!
Jessica: I think if a DP wants to shoot a whole show like this they have to be able to ask for help (which normally isn’t easy for me.) I was lucky that my friend, Matt Mitchell, was able to assist and shoot some work when we had 2 units going.
Also, getting to know the PAs on the job! It can be so valuable to ask a production for an assistant so that you really can be up-leveling your work. There are so many PAs who would love to shadow the DP.
Cover image courtesy of Apple TV+.
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