Creating the beautifully haunting visual language in ‘Yellowjackets’

How does one of the best shows of the year manage to set its visual tone? Let’s break it down.

There are TV shows that you don’t realize you need in your life until they crash on your TV screen. yellow jackets is one of those shows, defying expectations and offering insights in new ways that could never be anticipated by just reading a synopsis.

yellow jackets is a beautiful and brutal series that focuses on the burden of domestic life, the freedom to be wild, the shame of survival, and the friends that are made and lost along the way. Spanning over 25 years with three different timelines, the series keeps coming back to reveal the cause and effect of the decisions made to survive.

To hide these different jumps in time, the job falls to yellow jackets‘ director of photography C. Kim Miles.

Miles sat down with the Go Creative Show podcast to explain how he created different visual styles for the 90s, isolated woods and the present day. Discover the full interview here.

Before the plane crashes

One of the show’s plot points is the build-up to the incident that left an entire football team stranded in the forest in 1996. Julie Kirkwood set the 90s tone in the pilot episode, using the Alexa LF. with ARRI DNA lenses specially designed for the show. These lenses can add more or less effects to the camera than most other lenses, allowing DPs to shoot pre-crash scenes in a nostalgic, grainy style.

Miles preferred DNA lenses because of their ability to create a nice, slightly grainy image that elicits an emotional response from viewers. Much like Kirkwood, Miles decided to add more camera movement instead of a fixed camera to bring the girls’ youth into the visual storytelling.

Pre-crash visual language of “yellow vests” Credit: Showtime Networks

In the woods

After the college football team’s plane crashes in the woods, Miles changes the lenses from DNA lenses to Atlas anamorphic lenses. Luckily, the pilot was shot with a 21:9 aspect ratio, which allowed the lens to show through.

Atlas anamorphic lenses have the imperfect look that flares out perfectly like old glass lenses without any of the flaws that old lenses tend to have and give that perfect distorted edge to the frame, which fades as girls become more comfortable in the woods over time.

Miles decided to make the camera a character in the woods by controlling the Alexa Mini LF by hand to immerse viewers in the chaos of the woods. The Mini LF mimics the depth of field and focal length of the Alexa LF with half the weight, allowing Miles to freely follow the actors around the set, reacting to their performance rather than observing.

The mystery of the woods in yellow jacket is also reflected in the camera. Miles disturbs viewers’ subconscious with subtle tricks such as altering the light of a character’s eyes to influence how they are perceived and how shadows fill the corners of the frame, making it seem that something might be just around the corner.

Since this timeline is mostly filmed outdoors, Miles wanted to preserve natural light filtered through the trees and used bouncy boards to control the direction of the sun, and a helium balloon was used as the main light. Since blocking the show was more complicated than traditional TV coverage, Miles felt it was important to keep it minimal and responsive to the cast’s performances.

‘Yellow Jackets’ Credit: Showtime Networks

Domestic life in the present

In the current timeline, Miles used the Alexa LF with ARRI signature prime lenses. These lenses are the pinnacle of evolution, according to Miles, because they’re sharp without being too sharp, are excellent at reproducing skin tones, and have a great way of knocking the focus out of the frame.

No diffusion is needed for ARRI’s signature prime lenses and creates a slight in-camera warmth that’s flattering while giving a false sense of normalcy. That was Miles’ goal with today’s lenses: to create a beautiful image that exists in an imperfect world.

The camera is no longer moving in the present. Instead, it’s forever, allowing audiences to observe the survivors as they navigate their domestic lives and try to forget what happened in the woods.

‘Yellow Jackets’Credit: Showtime Networks

The cinematography of yellow jackets is breathtaking and riddled with anxiety as we watch the corners of the screen for a new secret to be revealed. The beauty of each shot also shines a light on the relationships between the women and the understanding they have of each other through the traumas they have all endured.

Miles’ cinematography holds up to the show’s central theme of asking who we were, who we are, and who we will be. The changing landscape and visual language are there to guide us through this exciting journey, and we can’t wait to see more in the next season.

What do you think of the cinematography of yellow jackets? Let us know in the comments below!

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