Against all odds, Netflix’s adaptation of The Sandman is a very good show. But why does it look like that?
You know what I’m talking about—the so-called “Netflix Look.” Netflix’s in-house produced television shows and movies tend to all have the same look and feel, to the point that it’s sometimes really distracting. Although it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly makes all Netflix shows look the same, a few things stand out: The image in general is dark, and the colors are extremely saturated; Especially in scenes at night, there tends to be a lot of colored lighting, making everything look like it’s washed in neon even if the characters are inside; Actors look like the makeup is caked on their faces, and details in their costumes like puckering seams are unusually visible; Most annoying to me, everything is also shot in an extremely conventional way, using the most conventional set ups to indicate mystery or intrigue as possible—to indicate that something weird is going on the framing always has a dutch angle, for example—or more often just having everyone shot in a medium close up.
Much like you can instantly recognize a Syfy channel production by its heavy reliance on greenscreen but not as expensive computer-generated special effects, or a Hallmark movie by it’s bright, fluffy, pastel look, Netflix productions also have recognizable aesthetics. Even if you don’t know what to look for, it’s so distinct that you’ll probably be able to guess whether or not something was created for Netflix just based on a few frames.
The Sandman, despite having great writing and great acting, suffers from these aspects of the Netflix look. Although the main character’s domain is the world of dreams, often in the show dramatic moments are reduced to scenes of characters talking in a medium close up. Fans of the show have also gotten frustrated by the show’s aspect ratio, which makes the frames look like they’ve been stretched upward. Tom Sturridge’s face looks especially made up as Dream—his lips are so red they’re almost distracting. Worst of all are the muddy colors, especially because the comic that The Sandman is adapting had such an exuberant color palette.
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J. D. Connor, an associate professor in Cinema and Media Studies at USC, told Motherboard that the reasons for the Netflix look are varied, but one important reason is that Netflix requests some basic technical specifications from all its productions, which include things like what cameras to use, Netflix’s minimum requirements for the resolution of the image, and what percentage of the production can use a non-approved camera.
“It started as a big topic in the cinematographer community,” Connor told Motherboard in a phone call. “Netflix had an accepted camera list for its Netflix branded products. The initial list, while there were ostensibly open parameters for what cameras might qualify, there really were only like two. And yes, you can do a ton within those parameters. But it meant that this was one way that the uniformity emerged, was through their real insistence on that.”
Netflix’s list of approved cameras on their Partner Help Center website now has a lot more cameras than just two. The company explained in a video why it has a list of approved cameras, with Netflix camera systems specialist Krys Pyrgrocki saying, unhelpfully, “One of the biggest priorities for us as a studio is helping our filmmakers do their very best work. We want our filmmakers to not just feel enabled, but also encouraged to use the latest and greatest capture technologies out there to tell their stories.”
Connor says that these cameras are important to Netflix products beyond just wanting creators to use new technology.
“The other thing that really drove a lot of this was, they did what they call future proofing their content. They wanted it all to be shot in 4K HDR, ” he said.
It isn’t a totally unreasonable idea to want to make sure Netflix content still looks good when 4K televisions become more common, but it does limit your options as a filmmaker in terms of what technology you can actually use. 4K video files are also extremely large, and when compressed through streaming, that compression changes how the image looks to the streamer. It’s also important to note that Netflix, which chargers customers more for the full 4K experience (a basic subscription costs $9.99 a month while the Premium “Ultra HD (4K)” subscription costs $19.99 a month), also has a financial incentive to increase the amount of 4K content in its catalog.
“When it gets compressed, and jams through the cable pipe, or the fiber to get to your television, Netflix takes as much information out of that as they can through compression in order to reduce the amount of data that's going through, so you have a smoother streaming experience,” he said. “One of the weird things that happens when you have a very high resolution image, in general, when you shrink the amount of information the edges get sharper.”
Connor said to think about it in terms of movies from the 70s, whose visual effects look great on a huge screen, because the film grain blurs some of the details, but much worse on a smaller television.
“But when you take a movie like the original Superman or something and put it on television, all the edges get really sharp, all the blue screen looks really hacky,” he said. ”Something quite similar happens when you take a big 4K image and you jam it through a massively compressed amount of data to put it on TV.”
All of this helps to explain why the Netflix productions look uncanny. But some of the unpolished details are due to a more mundane issue: money.
Connor described the budgets on Netflix projects as being high, but in an illusory way. This is because in the age of streaming, “above the line” talent like big name actors or directors get more of the budget that’s allotted to Netflix projects because they won’t get any backend compensation from the profits of the film or television show.
“They're over compensated at the beginning,” Connor said. “That means that all of your above the line talent now costs, on day one that the series drops, 130 percent of what it costs somewhere else. So your overall budget looks much higher, but in fact, what's happened is to try to save all that money, you pull it out of things like design and location.”
“So the pandemic hurts, the technology of capture and then post production standardization hurts, the budget point squeezes all the design side stuff, and that hurts,” Connor continued.
Connor pointed out that there are many projects on streaming services that skimp on things like production design, and that some of this is due to ongoing impacts from the pandemic. But it can be particularly noticeable in Netflix productions because it happens so often.
“Red Notice to me is like the pinnacle of this sort of thing I’m talking about. It cost a fortune because they had to pay the stars a ton. It was shot in the pandemic, so they're cutting around absences in ways that are at times very, very funny,” Connor continued. “And the whole thing just looks when I watched it on my TV, and I have a fairly good TV, I thought it looked just horrible, beginning to end. A sort of brutal experience.”
That’s not to say that the Netflix look is always bad. There are a lot of kinds of projects that Netflix makes, ranging from the prestige work of Martin Scorsese to schmaltzy young adult fare like The Kissing Booth. When you’re making a young adult romance story, the Netflix look doesn’t feel totally out of place. In fact, it’s not too far off from what shows produced for the CW, like Riverdale, already look like. When you’re watching The Sandman, which is based on a beloved and very experimental comic, it comes off as totally incongruous with the story that they’re trying to tell. The technical specifications that Netflix enforces on its productions wouldn’t feel so out of place in a different genre of story.
“It all, kind of, totally works with the Adam Sandler comedies,” Connor said. “The budget point is fine, because Adam Sandler gets all the money, and like, the things just look fine. Nobody is making really theatrical comedies anymore, that whole market segment is just vaporized. And you know, I kind of want to live in a world where there's a Hubie Halloween rolling out in mid October and my theaters but like, barring that…”
Television and movies also, generally speaking, don’t have to look like that. Connor repeatedly mentioned Tokyo Vice as an example of a show with particularly rich production design, and other works on HBO, like the drama Station Eleven and the comedy Rap Shit, also put a great deal of time and care into their visual presentation. Shows like The Bear on Hulu, nominally a comedy, is extremely considered in how it frames its characters, and builds out its kitchen set with a lot of personal details. As streaming television, these shows will also always suffer from what happens to images when they’re compressed—but these shows are also shot in ways where that’s not as noticeable to the streamer on the other side.