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Mark Llobrera

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Shōgun’s Visual Style

I’m a few episodes in to FX’s Shōgun, a new adaptation of James Clavell’s book (I vaguely remember reading the book in my teens). I’ve been enjoying it, especially the way it looks—there are moments when characters are shot in very shallow focus, with old-timey swirley bokeh around them. It reminds me of shooting some of my older film camera lenses wide open. If nothing else, it looks different from the flat, evenly-lit and graded output on streaming these days. Different also means it’s probably not to everyone’s taste, but it really irked me to see read two articles in quick succession,1 both of which emphasize the negative audience reactions to aesthetic choices for Shōgun and Netflix’s Ripley, which is shot entirely in black and white.

First, The Ringer. “Why ‘Shogun’ (and the Rest of TV) Is Slightly Out of Focus”:

The internet, naturally, is not always so supportive. Shogun, on the whole, has been rapturously received by critics and the public alike. The unorthodox cinematography, specifically, has drawn some measure of praise but also some consternation, judging by various Reddit posts and comments. Some spectators seem to have been alienated (or just plain confused) by Shogun’s visual depiction of its characters’ alienation.

The article’s headline is frustrating, because it makes it sound like a mistake, instead of a creative decision. More importantly, it undercuts the body of the article, which is a really interesting look at the creative decisions behind Shōgun’s look:

In the digital era, van Tulleken says, cameras can be “very clean,” “pitiless,” and “ruthless.” That’s perfect for some projects—say, sports broadcasts—but with others, he says, “you’re trying to break that up” in order to “put an organic feel into that very digital realm.”

Shogun’s budget was plenty big enough for the production to pair its Sony Venice cameras with Hawk V-Lite and class-X anamorphic lenses, whose bokeh boasts a “really interesting swirl,” according to van Tulleken. (V-Lites were used on the British crime drama Top Boy, an early small-screen anamorphic adopter that van Tulleken and Ross worked on.) As Shogun begins, Blackthorne arrives in a land that seems strange and somewhat barbaric to him. The Englishman seems just as strange and barbaric to those he meets. To capture that mutual alienation, the filmmakers leaned into their tools’ distortive effects. The aperture of a lens controls how open it is; the wider the aperture, the more light it lets in, and the more noticeable the bokeh. Early on, van Tulleken says, “We were wide open a lot on the [lenses] so that we could really have a natural, strong focus falloff behind our characters.”

This is fascinating stuff! So to frame it as “this show is out of focus” feels like playing to the worst knee-jerk reactions, instead of encouraging viewers to engage with stylistic decisions from a more open posture.

Next, The Independent. “Netflix users unable to finish Ripley due to ‘annoying’ filming decision”:

But fans have been left frustrated by its defining feature: it is entirely black and white.

“I didn’t last the first episode. The cinematography is so annoying,” said one viewer.

“Why on earth is Ripley filmed in black and white? Surely the only reason to not film in colour previously was technology. Totally killed it for me, the dog seems quite OK with it though,” quipped another.

“Black and white is a good way to keep the budget down but adds nothing,” said one viewer.

I know this is all probably tied into generating clicks and engagement. And there’s nothing else to the article—it’s just quotes with no citation: “some people are saying…”. Ripley was shot by Robert Elswit, who was the cinematographer on…go ahead, look up his filmography—he probably shot one of your favorite films. If he’s shooting in black and white, you know he’s not mailing it in.

Both of these articles could have gone a completely different route. I was reminded of how the press around The Batman was filled with examples like this article on IndieWire: “Seeing Into the Darkness: ‘The Batman’ Cinematography Is Subtle, Masterful Work by Oscar Nominee Greig Fraser”. Or this one from No Film School: “Why Does ‘The Batman’ Look So Gorgeous? (And How You Can Copy The Look)”. Both dive into the aesthetic intent and technical details in a similar fashion to The Ringer’s Shōgun piece, except they are starting from a position of curiosity—here’s a film that looks unique, why is that?

These are weird times. On the one hand we have people strapping diffusion filters onto their expensive digital cameras to take the edge/perfection off digital, to the point that camera makers are building diffusion filters into models like the GR III HDF. On the other we have viewers who just DGAF about style and intent.

A line that has taken up long-term residence in my head is Brandon Taylor’s blunt assessment of tv aesthetics:2

…never has it been easier to borrow the signifiers and attributes of good art and commodify them to disguise deeply mediocre shit.

Shōgun and Ripley might not be your thing, but they’re both shows that have clearly put care into their visual look—they’re not lazy, and that deserves better critical engagement.

  1. Via tv critic Phillip Maciak, who has been succinctly interrogating the weird framing of these articles. ↩︎

  2. Just an absolutely casual, devastating dismissal that left me reeling. ↩︎