Inside the stunning visual world of Netflix’s first German original series.
Following the trend of internationally produced Netflix originals, Dark is Netflix’s first original German series. The visual storytelling of Dark has had the show nominated for numerous awards in Germany, including Best Visual Effects in the German Television Academy Awards in both 2018 and 2020, the same award show where they also won both Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography in 2018.
What really sets Dark apart is its artistic value. Dark is known not only for its complex plotlines and effective storytelling, its cinematography is also widely praised by viewers and fellow filmmakers alike.
With multiple reddit threads commending its artistic value, ARRI dedicating a short documentary and behind-the-scenes look into creating the visual world in Dark, called The Art of Dark, as well as Big3’s Media’s own managing director Willie Lee highly recommending this series, let’s dive into what makes this German film a cinematographic marvel. In this article, we run through three key points for their outstanding visual world (warning spoiler alert!).
1. Using colour to highlight different time periods
One of the key themes in the series is time travel. Usually, cinematographers show the difference in time by using a different editing style or having a slight difference in the character’s appearance; e.g. Clementine’s hair colours in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Unique to Dark, the producers did not have particularly different cinematography styles for each time period. In an interview with Firstpost, cinematographer Nikolas Sommerer credits it to “keeping subtle strings with a distinct look in various strengths, to separate and support each time period.” So how did they do that?
A different and unique colour palette denotes each time period. For example, 2019 and 2020 look elegant and gentle while a very harsh, high contrast, gritty and desaturated look is reserved for the post-apocalyptic future.
Inspired by old photographs, the 50s are tinted brown with age, to create a warmer, compressed and darker colour palette while the ‘80s are cooler in the shadows.
This deliberate step in demarcating time using colours starts from the close collaboration between the director and colourist on set to create this effect, and while on set, it was crucial that the production team made sure they were using the allocated looks for the right scene.
2. Details of darkness
Netflix is generally strict about which cameras can be used for their original series, with camera type and resolution requirements set in place to ensure a certain standard of eventual output quality. Amongst the brands of cameras on Netflix’s approved list, RED is the most commonly used for Netflix’s original series. The brand is responsible for some of Netflix’s most renowned series, like Stranger Things, Narcos, 13 Reasons Why, Black Mirror etc. And we suspect that it’s popularity is because its workflow for Netflix’s required native 4k is better. So why was Dark shot on an ARRI Alexa instead?
When he was discussing the style of the series with one of its creators, Baran bo Odar, Summer was told that the series title was Dark and that he, as a cinematographer, would be required to contribute to the “darkness” of the show through its look and feel. And with that, Summerer’s heart was set on using an ARRI Alexa.
This will come as no shock to cinematography buffs. Since ARRI Alexas are designed for use in high budget feature films, television shows, and commercials, its tonal range, colour space and latitude exceed the capabilities of film, giving it one of the best image qualities in cameras today.
Since shooting in the dark can be tough, many production teams rely on day-for-night shooting, capturing their scenes in the day and editing them to look like night so as to keep as many details as possible, without them blending into the dark. But the ARRI Alexa’s outstanding colour reproduction and dynamic range allowed for the directors to shoot in the night while still showing details of the scene. This contributed to making the scenes dark and gloomy while still separating the different dark shades.
Just check out these scenes to see what we mean.
3. Using colours as plot devices
We’ve already discussed how Dark’s colour palettes are carefully curated to separate its many timelines. Here we’ll be talking about the prominent colours and their symbolism in the series that otherwise keeps to a dark and bleak colour palette.
Promotional poster for Dark
Yellow is the most prominent colour we see in the series. From the start, this bright shade of yellow serves as an anchor. This can be seen in the promotional materials and from the first episode where Jonas’ iconic yellow raincoat is the old bold tone against a muted backdrop – Winden.
From a production standpoint, yellow stands out from the surroundings, but yellow in the series is actually used as a colour of warning.
The radiation warning known as the nuclear trefoil was first conceived in 1946. This universal sign was designed to represent the activity radiating from an atom. It is this sign that the design team took inspiration from for the series. After all, a significant nuclear power plant location is the epicentre of the action in Winden.
In Season 2, Jonas continues with his yellow motif in the form of his face mask as he goes through a now poisoned Winden. This yellow face mask is a symbol of the unnatural, tying into the hazmat suits still awaiting them in the nuclear plant.
These bright yellow hazmat suits are another big yellow warning the directors give us. While its bright and cheery colour may seem like a promise of hope or in this case – protection, their more faded appearance later on due to the toxic energy source only goes to show that no protective equipment cannot prevent or shield them from the apocalypse.
It is through colour that the brains behind Dark juggle themes within the narrative. This extends to the costume and production design, which makes it such an aesthetically-pleasing experience in having your mind blown.
With top notch equipment, award winning art direction and a strong crew, it is no wonder this series has gained so much attention from both laymen viewers and professional filmmakers alike. If you haven’t already watched it, all three seasons are now out on Netflix Singapore.