Awards Daily shoots off a quick work email to Severance cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné about the distinct look of Apple TV+’s fresh sci-fi drama.
Apple TV+’s Severance is a television series unlike any other, with a look unlike any other. At the fictional company Lumon, employees undergo a severance operation where their work selves never have to know their out-of-office selves—and vice versa. When employees like Mark (Adam Scott) enter into Lumon’s headquarters, they are welcomed with bright light and little pops of colors like blues and greens. The contrast of the innie world is stark compared to the real-life outie world, which is dreary and dark.
I had the opportunity to e-chat with Severance cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné about the series’ unforgettable look, what the color palettes represent, and what it was like filming the “Defiant Jazz” scene.
Awards Daily: What kinds of colors palettes did you work with? I feel like there are lots of greens. What do the colors represent?
Jessica Lee Gagné: That palette is very much inspired by Ben’s [Stiller] personal taste. It is safe to say that his favourite colour is blue. I think a cool green is the close second. These blues and greens were definitely a theme for us. If I were to look into it, I would say they are colours of coolness and calmness, which can relate to the illusion of serenity that Lumon gives off. If we were going in other tones such as browns or red, we were usually in spaces that could be unusual or uncomfortable for Mark.
The world of Severance is calculated and controlled, which explains the minimal and intentional use of colour. There was no specific plan towards colour. I think it was just intuitive decision making.
AD: How are the color palettes and look in the “real world” different than in the office? What did you do to create that contrast?
JLG: The look of the inside and outside worlds are quite different. You find vibrant, saturated colours with higher contrasts in the underground world. The outside world is drab and quite monotonous. There is also a different lensing style. The outside world is classically shot, mostly in studio style. The camera tends to be further away observing Mark at a distance, while on the inside the camera moves in a more robotic fashion. The innie universe is also shot with wider lenses and tends to be more unusual and awkward, creating anxiety.
AD: The light in the Lumon office is so bright. What did you do to achieve that brightness?
JLG: The main office was lit by about 90 S60 Arri sky panels. We pushed for using sky panels to get an optimum amount of power in order to shoot at deeper stops with some of our slower zoom lenses. Furthermore, we knew that there would be some fun colour design sequences coming up, such as MDR. So the choice was a practical one for programming. The vibrancy and pop of the highlights was something we leaned into in the grade with the colourists, Tom Poole and Drew Geary at Company3. We really pushed to use the Sony Venice’s potential with HDR, expanding the contrast as much as we could through pure whites and blacks, something you can really enjoy when using HDR to its full potential.
AD: You really get to play with a lot of angles on this show. Were there any particular ones that you had fun with?
JLG: There was an endless amount of angles. It felt infinite at times, like you could put down the camera anywhere and it was amazing. Sometimes the challenge of choosing the best frame was mind-boggling. I think this speaks to the genius of the MDR set. When a set is good, it provides endless frames. So for me, the frames in this set are my fave.
AD: There are definitely lots of color changes in the Defiant Jazz scene. What was it like shooting this scene?
JLG: It was like shooting a music video. We just let the music and Milchick guide us. This is why steadicam was the perfect tool for this dance improv. The lighting took weeks to perfect. Ben [Stiller] gave the gaffer and I the music, and we just took our time in developing a crescendo aesthetic that felt hypnotizing. Every time we tested it in the office, people would be so affected and triggered by it. You couldn’t help but be hypnotized by it after having spent months in that set with its white lights.
AD: I find it interesting that it’s so white and bright in the office and then outside it’s white with snow but has a duller light. Do you think they are reflections of each other in some way?
JLG: Definitely, I think the outside world has been tainted by life and its experiences. The grey and the dirty mess of the outside world reflects Mark’s depressive state. However, that state is meant to disappear as he heads down into the severed world where everything is clean and perfect, unaffected by life’s conditioning.
Season 1 of Severance is streaming on Apple TV+.