When director of photography Marcel Rév and series creator and director Sam Levinson began discussing their visual approach to Season 2 of the HBO series “Euphoria,” they immediately agreed on one thing. “We did not want to repeat ourselves,” Rév told IndieWire in a recent interview. “We weren’t interested in imitating something we had already done.” The cinematographer noted that taking the series in a new direction was not only essential in terms of keeping him and Levinson excited and engaged, but to express the different tone of Season 2’s scripts. “We took the visuals to their extremes in Season 1, but for Season 2 we wanted to dig a little deeper rather than broadening the visual horizons,” he explained. “Season 1 was very in the moment and contemporary, and Season 2 is more intimate and has something to do with the way we remember things.”
The need to find a visual corollary for fading memories led Rév and Levinson to the most significant difference between Season 1 and 2, which was the decision to switch from digital to film. About half of the season was shot on Kodak’s recently revived Ektachrome format, while the other half was shot on Vision 3 500T stock. The shift required major adjustments on Rév’s part when it came to lighting. “It’s not only the difference between film and digital, but the difference between what we shot on Ektachrome and what we shot on Vision,” Rev said. “It’s a completely different approach to lighting between the two, because the 500T is a very good stock in a technical sense, with wide latitude and true color — you can underexpose it, you can overexpose it, and you’re still going to get a technically correct image.”
While the methodology for lighting the scenes shot on Vision 3 wasn’t that far removed from what Rév did digitally on Season 1, Ektachrome required an entirely different technique. “With digital and the Vision, you’re trying to shape your lights and focus them as much as possible,” he explained, “but Ektachrome is a 100 ISO stock that’s two-and-a-half stops less sensitive [and requires significantly more light to get exposure] than the 500, and it’s also a very, very contrasty stock. It’s a reversal stock but we processed it as a negative, which gives you these weird colors and creates a very thin, green, muddy negative that you either have to color correct or correct with filters in the camera. Because you end up with such a contrast-y image, lighting-wise you do the opposite of what you would do with digital or another film stock: You create a very flat situation with a lot of light because it’s such a sensitive stock.”
Using Ektachrome meant that what the cast and crew saw on set was nothing like what they would see on screen in the finished product. “It’s a really unflattering image on the day, like a bad sitcom,” Rév said, “but when you develop it it has a really nice contrast and just falls into place.” Rév ultimately reveled in the surprises and unique touches that Ektachrome provided, even if it was a difficult learning curve figuring out the stock’s properties. “You can have some idea of how it will look based on testing, but you never really know 100 percent,” he noted.
That willingness to take risks yielded some of the most audacious filmmaking on television (or anywhere else) this year, and relates to a topic Rév thought about often while shooting. “I’m constantly asking myself, ‘How much of filmmaking is an intellectual occupation and how much is a gut, sensual thing?’” he said. “Obviously it’s a mixture of the two, and while we try to discuss things as much as possible, at the end of the day you make a lot of instinctive decisions on set.” For Season 2, Rév and Levinson tried to create circumstances that left more room for those intuitive choices, relying less on storyboards than they had on Season 1 and letting their responses to the scene on the day motivate the camera moves and lighting. “You always have to have a plan, especially when a set has to be built around a certain shot or idea, but we allowed ourselves to be much more flexible in the moment than we were on Season 1.”
Rév added that because the show is both performance driven and highly sensitive in the nature of its intimate content, creating a comfortable environment for the actors is paramount. “The performances aren’t just Sam and the actors’ responsibility, they’re everyone’s responsibility,” he said. “Even the most technical shots are really just about creating an interesting environment for the performances.” Rév added that an episode like the fifth, in which series lead Rue (Zendaya) goes on the run to avoid rehab, found its kinetic visual style by responding to the actor’s energy. “We changed the whole style of the show just to be able to follow that performance and be true to the speed of the narrative.”
Still, the actors were only one component of “Euphoria” that dictated Rév’s choices in terms of camera placement, movement, and lighting; he also described how the music on the show led to inspiration. “The songs are often written into the scripts, and you take inspiration from that,” Rév said. “For the flashback in Episode 3, the INXS songs evoked a whole era for me as someone who was a teenager in that era. It became like its own ’90s period piece within the show, and that meant we didn’t shoot it like we would if it was contemporary — there were more stylized dolly shots, for example. The great thing about being inspired by music, as opposed to other movies, is that you don’t have to be shy about it — however it translates into what you’re doing, it will be you and will be something new.”
Ultimately, the artistic success of Season 2 came largely from this sense that inspiration could come from anywhere, including other cast and crew members. “If anyone from the team has an idea, we kick it around,” Rév said, “and Sam is really good at understanding all the obstacles everyone faces. He understands what an actor is dealing with, what a DP is dealing with, what a key grip is dealing with — he’s a real filmmaker in that sense. Sometimes the actors have great freedom in terms of their blocking; at other times, a scene has a certain choreography and we have to lay down marks and plan it really well. On both sides of the camera, it’s very technical work, and the tiny things you ask for can have a ripple effect on the entire scene. Sam is a very mindful person and takes all of that into consideration.”