Lensing and Editing "Ozark"; Production Designing "The Handmaid’s Tale" and "Pose"
Armando Salas, ASC on the set of "Ozark" (photo courtesy of Netflix)
Insights from cinematographer Armando Salas, editor Cindy Mollo, production designers Elisabeth Williams, Jamie Walker McCall

In a 2019 installment of SHOOT’s The Road To Emmy series, Ozark showrunner Chris Mundy talked about the integral contributions of cinematographers Ben Kutchins and Armando Salas, ASC. Kutchins very much helped set the tone for the Netflix series from season one (after Pepe Avila del Pino shot the pilot and second episode). Kutchins was joined in season two by Salas who in turn became the primary DP in season 3. (Kutchins and Salas each shot half of the season 2 episodes, with Salas lensing six installments and Kutchins three in the third season.)

Salas recalled that his sharing an agent with Kutchins helped to open up the opportunity for him to lens Ozark. “Ben and Jason (director/actor/EP Bateman) were looking for someone new for season two,” related Salas. “Ben asked our agent about who on the roster could be the right fit.” This resulted in a FaceTime chat while Salas was in Vancouver, B.C. on a shoot. “Ben and I hit it off right away,” said Salas who recollected that Kutchins was drawn to a pilot he had shot for the series Mr. Mercedes. “It was dark subject matter. They apparently liked what they saw.” 

For his part, Salas was drawn to the aesthetic, look and quality of Ozark and felt simpatico with Kutchins and others on the show, noting that a big determining factor is always “if you feel you would enjoy being with the artists involved for 13 hours a day.” He felt “the right chemistry” and took the gig.

While Salas assessed that the approach to “how we think about and shoot the show” has remained the same, the look has evolved considerably--as dictated by story. “Season two was very much about things going from bad to worse, the characters seemed trapped. It was very dark and bleak. That kind of takes a turn in the finale, ending on this kind of sunny note.” So while season two went from dark to darker, season three let in some light. The Byrdes move up in society, opening a casino within the Navarro cartel. “The casino is a whole new palette for the show, warm and inviting.” But the dark roots are still there as you get into the back office world. 

Salas described season three as “very much a character study” with “rather intense story arcs for Wendy (Byrde, portrayed by Laura Linney), Marty (Byrde, played by Bateman) and Ruth (Landmore, played by Julia Garner).” Salas added that the world of the series was expanded a bit, not only with the casino but flashbacks to Marty as a child. “It was kind of a larger playing field while simultaneously being much more intimate with the characters.”

For season three, the choice of camera shifted from the Panasonic Varicam to the Sony VENICE, which offered a larger capture sensor but in a small, lightweight body. The VENICE was complemented by a lens package including a Leica Noctilux and a set of Leica Summicrons and R-series. The camera was deployed to put viewers very subjectively in with the characters and their emotional state while the larger sensor with a wider screen ratio afforded the extra dimension of “falling back and getting these cinematic vistas,” said Salas. Thus a show already very filmic and cinematic got notched up further.

Salas has found his collaborative relationship with Kutchins to be invaluable and personally gratifying. “Ben and I get along great,” shared Salas. “We are good friends. We can bounce ideas off of each other, divide and conquer a little bit. Once we’re up and running, one of us is shooting, the other is shooting tests or getting another location ready that will be a primary location for both of us. We have similar aesthetics. It’s an easy and rewarding relationship.”

Salas added that both he and Kutchins are driven “to push the envelope on image-making and storytelling,” trying to get “into the director’s head,” figuring out each scene’s point of view, always thinking about “how do we visually enhance dialogue and performances...Having already shot a season of Ozark, I wanted to make sure I was treating it as fresh and new the next season.” 

Salas observed that every frame is thoughtfully considered and curated to advance feel and tone, capture reality and do justice to the story and characters.

Last month, Salas earned the honor of becoming an ASC member. In addition to Ozark and Mr. Mercedes, his body of TV work includes From Dusk Till Dawn, Six, Raising Dion (for which he is also in this season’s Emmy conversation) and Strange Angel. Among Salas’ feature credits are the documentary Cocaine Cowboys as well as My Lucky Star, Bitch and The Most Hated Woman in America. In the shorter form arena he has lensed commercials for such brands as Coca-Cola, Motorola and Chase Bank as well as music videos for artists including Katy Perry, Josh Groban and The Weeknd.

Cindy Mollo, ACE
Editor Cindy Mollo, ACE is a four-time Emmy nominees, two of the nods coming last year for Deadwood: The Movie (shared with Martin Nicholson and Erick Fefferman) and the “One Way Out” episode of Ozark (shared with Heather Goodwin Floyd). Mollo’s first two Emmy noms came for the telefilm Dash and Lilly in 1999 and an episode of Mad Men in 2009.

Like Salas, Mollo continues to be a key contributor to Ozark. Unlike Salas, she has worked on all three seasons of the show. Preparing her well for the task was her work on such series as Mad Men and House of Cards, which “didn’t spoonfeed the audience,” instead trusting viewers to figure things out. That approach to editing, she observed, makes viewers “lean in and engage.” Audiences can discern often in the context of a scene what characters see without having to be shown what they’re seeing. Instead of constant cutting, staying on an actor can enable us to see what he or she is thinking. Viewers can soak in a performance and become more involved with what is going through a character’s mind and heart.

Mollo not only is drawn to that orientation but also the experience of working with different directors on Ozark and what they bring to the table. She said that Bateman, for instance, “knows every beat of every episode.” She cited his “very thoughtful filmmaking” and his open-mindedness. “Sometimes with actors directing themselves, you have to be sensitive as you go through their performances,” she related. “Jason is not precious about his work. If there’s a moment in which he doesn’t feel he’s nailed it (as an actor) which is rare, you just cut it out. If something doesn’t make sense character-wise, it’s gone. He’s for whatever is best for telling the story.”

Also part of the directorial mix in season three were Alik Sakharov and Amanda Marsalis. Mollo said of Sakharov, “He was a DP for many years but he’s not all about the camera. He’s looking for truth in the performances, giving audiences time to feel the emotional shifts in moments as something is revealed or someone has to go through something.”

Mollo assessed that “Amanda is the same way. When we go through scripts, she’s talking about the beats. She’s really thinking about the emotional intent. She was new in the second season. We did the finale of season two together.” Mollo said that Marsalis has continued to grow ever since, bringing much to season three, mining “the depth and emotion in any given scene. You don’t have to build it with a bunch of cuts. You can sit with the actors and understand what they’re feeling in the moment. Laura Linney listening to Omar Navarro (portrayed by Felix Solis) and hearing something threatening. You can read it on her face.”

Mollo said it’s been fulfilling to get feedback from audiences on the third season of Ozark, with many saying it’s the best season thus far. For her, it underscores that “the writers did an amazing job with the plotting of the third season. With every script, I felt like a kid in a candy shop. It hits home again that writing is everything.”

Elisabeth Williams
Like Mollo, production designer Elisabeth Williams is a four-time Emmy nominee--the last three coming in 2018 (two nods) and 2019 for episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu). She won in both 2018 and 2019 for The Handmaid’s Tale episodes “June” and “Holly,” respectively. Williams first career nomination came in 2016 for Fargo.

Akin to Mollo’s appreciation for collaborating with different directors, Williams too has found inspiration in meshing with varied filmmakers on The Handmaid’s Tale. “This is the longest I’ve ever worked on a TV series,” related Williams, noting that the experience has afforded her the opportunity to work with and be in close proximity to directors from completely different backgrounds. There have been new directors who have but one or two shows under their belt, as well as more vastly experienced directors. “Some are from Australia, Turkey, Ireland. The ability to be in close contact with such diverse creative energy has been really precious for me. And it pushes me creatively--even though I have to stay within certain guidelines to respect the essence of the show. At the same time, I’m brought in to think of the world in different ways, and to research in different ways as well. For example, a director from Turkey and a director from Ireland are just completely different. They have different experiences culturally and they bring me into their worlds for a period of time--which has been enriching for me.”

Williams has been working on The Handmaid’s Tale since season two, invited by executive producer Warren Littlefield whom she had worked with on Fargo the prior two seasons (as an art director during that show’s second season, then a production designer on season three). Williams views Littlefield giving her the gig on The Handmaid’s Tale as a testament to the work she did for him on Fargo, which included the aforementioned Emmy nod (for which as art director she teamed with production designer Warren Alan Young).

All three of Williams’ Emmy nominations on The Handmaid’s Tale had her working in concert with art director Martha Sparrow, two with set decorator Rob Hepburn. Sparrow and Hepburn have a track record of working together previously. Asked to assess each artist’s contributions to The Handmaid’s Tale, Williams observed, “Martha has a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in architecture. She has a sense of attention to detail that is unparalleled, an ability to see and pick out every little detail that might not have been done properly. We call her ‘eagle eye.’ We both see different things. As we do our rounds, between the two of us we are able to discover all the mistakes made by different departments and even by ourselves, and are able to correct them on time. She delivers sets that are top quality.”

Williams said of Hepburn, “Rob is the best set decorator out there. He’s an artist and has a sense of how to layer sets to give them a history that goes beyond the script. With Rob, we talk a lot about characters, what they’ve done, who their families could have been. He adds a different layer to the sets that we create.”

Williams also has four Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award nominations to her credit--two for Fargo and two for The Handmaid’s Tale. She won in 2019 for The Handmaid’s Tale episodes “June” and “Unwomen.”

Jamie Walker McCall
Like Williams, production designer Jamie Walker McCall has earned a mix of Emmy and Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award nominations--all in the capacity of art director, the Emmy nod coming in 2017 for Feud: Bette and Joan. The Art Directors Guild nods were for Feud: Bette and Joan in 2018 and American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace in 2019.

The latter nomination came for two episodes--”The Man Who Would Be Vogue” and “House by the Lake”--for which Judy Becker served as production designer and McCall as art director. When Becker moved on from that limited series, McCall succeeded her as production designer. The same succession took place later for Pose (FX network), after Becker production designed the first two episodes. McCall is now in the Emmy season prognostication mix for her work on season two of Pose.

McCall regards Becker as having been “a great role model,” noting that series creator (Pose, American Crime Story, Feud, among others) Ryan Murphy and Becker in tandem “don’t do the typical television standard, they think outside the box. She is definitely an inspiring person to take away some key pieces in design from.”

Besides its multiple Emmy nominations last year, including a win for Billy Porter as best lead dramatic series actor, Pose has garnered other accolades which reflect its groundbreaking stature. Last year at the 12th Television Academy Honors--which celebrate programs that examine and portray complex issues and challenges facing our society, making an extraordinary impact by enlightening, educating and motivating audiences--Pose was one of two winning drama series (the other being ABC’s A Million Little Things). Making television history, Pose features the largest cast of transgender actors in series regular roles, the biggest recurring cast of LGBTQ+ actors ever in a scripted series, as well as a host of LGBTQ+ individuals behind the camera.”

Created by Murphy, Steven Canals and Brad Falchuk, Pose delves into the 1980s’ “Ball Culture,” part of the LGBTQ scene in New York where people belonged to houses, competing for prizes at various balls of fashion and dance.

The TV Academy Honor for Pose came on the heels of the series earning a Peabody Award for excellence in entertainment. The Peabody judges noted that Pose “follows the ongoing rivalry between the established House of Abundance and the upstart House of Evangelista in an honest telling of trans and gay people of color at a critical time in history. Presided over by Billy Porter’s Pray Tell, the competition and its delicious melodrama serve as backdrop for the burgeoning LGBTQ community and family, doing important representational work and storytelling both on and off the ballroom floor.”

Accurately depicting that history is essential. “I immerse myself in the research,” affirmed McCall. “I do a lot of online research which takes me down these rabbit holes, finding photographs and imagery that inspire me, that help us get that point in history accurate. Luckily it was documented pretty well. We could see what the streets looked like, what the interiors should look like.”

For McCall, Pose brings a sense of greater purpose to her work. The contemporary period piece series taking us back to the ‘80s reflects “a point in history that a lot of people don’t know about. A lot of my friends who are in the gay community knew nothing about it. It’s a part of history that hasn’t been talked about ever. The show delves into that, educates a lot of people to open up their minds and hearts to be more compassionate. I’ve learned a lot from the show and the community.”

This is the eighth installment in SHOOT’s 16-part weekly series of The Road To Emmy feature stories. The features explore the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners in September, and the Primetime Emmy Awards later that month (9/20).

MySHOOT Company Profiles