Cinematographer and director Christina Alexandra Voros tells IndieWire how she captures the “main character” of the modern western: the land.
Taylor Sheridan’s modern western “Yellowstone” tells an epic story about characters trying to hold on to values and a way of life that are rapidly changing in an ever-changing world. The style of filmmaking the show has adopted serves as the perfect cinematic follow-up to its themes. Thoughtful and precise in both its narrative and visual construction, “Yellowstone” has more in common with the classic Hollywood genre films of John Ford, George Stevens and Clint Eastwood than with most contemporary television series.
According to cinematographer Christina Alexandra Voros, this is entirely intentional. “Taylor’s mantra is we’re not making a TV show, we’re making a 10-hour movie, and that extends to every facet of how the show is made,” she told IndieWire. “There is no pattern. The pattern is how to make the best show possible and that means some episodes are shot for eight days and others 14 and there can be one episode that’s just at the ranch and another that has 30 different locations . There’s something incredibly liberating and something incredibly scary about it.”
A large part of the show’s power comes from its juxtaposition of intimate character study with epic panache and grandeur, something Voros is never far from the mind of while filming. “It’s important to keep track of things because the main character of the show is the country,” she said. “It’s what everyone keeps fighting for and trying to protect, so showing this character in all his glory is imperative. We pay a lot of attention to the time of day and build on it more than we do on other projects. Of course everyone wants to shoot magical hours all the time, but sometimes there are landscapes that are more impressive against the light, or the effect is more emotional when the sun is two hours before it sets and hits the leaves of the trees in a certain way.”
Cam McLeod / Paramount Network
Voros credited Sheridan and season 1 cinematographer Ben Richardson for devising an approach to lenses and camera placement that enhanced the beauty of the locations. “We lean on the longer end of the lens, which might seem counterintuitive because we all want to go as far as we can on our iPhones to capture as much space as possible,” she said. “But that’s not how our eyes see things. So instead of taking a wide shot of a field with a 25mm lens, we go back a mile and shoot it with a long lens. It’s not uncommon for us to use a doubler on a 400mm. There’s something about the compression when you have all these layers of Montana topography that gives it heightened subjectivity – you feel like you’re in space.”
The lyrical passages that depict the country and offer some of the show’s most hilarious moments are punctuated by their stylistically contrasting, brutally violent set pieces that show what the characters are willing to go through to hold on to this country. The fourth season, for example, begins with a nerve-wracking 13-minute sequence that sees multiple characters under siege in escalating action including bombs, car chases, and gunfights in multiple locations. For Voros, shooting a sequence like this requires a delicate balance between planning and being able to react to any surprises that crop up in the moment, a skill she learned in her previous life as a documentary filmmaker. “The beauty of shooting multiple cameras is that you have control and incredible precision, and you also have the opportunity to capture the magic as it happens,” she said. “If you look at this season premiere, there are pieces that are very designed and there are pieces where the sun just happens to be at the perfect angle in the perfect place and you couldn’t have gotten that if you’d planned it for weeks. ”
Voros trusts their Operators—whom they say are the best in the business—to capture those unexpected moments on the fly. “The idea is once you’ve reached your goal, if you see something else happening, go get it,” she said. “I think putting those extra layers on top of the storyboard is what makes the show feel more elevated.” Voros also tries to extend that flexibility to the actors: “I’m always looking for a balance between visual power and the possibility of that Giving actors the freedom to make decisions. I like lighting spaces so the actors can move around in them and don’t feel constrained by the technical requirements. I never want to say to Kevin Costner, ‘Oh that was beautiful, but you stepped out of your light.’ The show is incredibly taxing on the actors because we’re blocking four episodes at once. An actor could do episode three in the morning and episode six after lunch. I’m very careful to give them the space to lean into their craft.”
Voros’ role on Yellowstone has evolved since season one, when she began as a cinematographer. She was promoted to cinematographer in season two, then was unavailable for filming season three, but returned as director for two episodes. For the fourth season, she photographed six episodes and doubled as director and cinematographer on two. (Cameraman Dino Parks shot the other four episodes.) “I wouldn’t do it in a different setting, but because we’ve basically had the same crew for four years, there’s a huge shortcut,” Voros said. “I know the show and I feel like it takes less time to set up the cameras and design the lighting plans myself than it does talking to another DP about what I want. But you know, we’re a well-oiled machine. There is no learning curve to catch up with anyone.”
https://www.indiewire.com/2022/06/yellowstone-cinematography-1234729199/ “Yellowstone” cinematographer: “The main character is the country”