Emmy Creative Arts: Netflix, Amazon Try New Approaches Without Broadcast Restrictions

From 4K to casting breakthroughs, over-the-top series are changing production

Over-the-top streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have drastically altered TV viewing habits, but their original programming is also beginning to change how shows are actually made.

Netflix’s first original series, “House of Cards,” is being shot in a non-standard 2:1 aspect ratio wider than today’s typical 16:9 TV format. “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black,” another Netflix original, are finished and streamed in 4K, as is Amazon original “Alpha House.”

That’s just the beginning of the evolution of TV crafts as programs detach from traditional “linear” networks.

“It’s much harder to bring innovation to network television because network televisiond works as a strong corporate entity where change is maybe not as easily applied,” says Igor Martinovic, cinematographer for “House of Cards” season two. “New media companies, they’re willing to experiment, they’re willing to take chances.”

(Illustration by Dan Page for Variety)

Martinovic cites the Hollywood films of the 1970s as an influence of the look of “House of Cards.” Of the wider aspect ratio, which means “House of Cards” is letterboxed on most TVs, he says: “It probably wouldn’t happen if we didn’t shoot for Netflix. It’s a new medium of presentation. They didn’t have any policy there. It’s also seen on so many different screens and on so many different devices.”

Martinovic’s last point is crucial. Streaming services go onto TVs, but also onto tablets and smartphones and there’s no fixed 16:9 aspect ratio for those screens. That frees up streaming series to use whatever ratio suits them.

Orange Is the New Black” key makeup artist Karen Reuter Fabbo says streaming services allow more creativity, as there are no corporate sponsors to insist on a specific look or impose other restrictions.

“Certain networks don’t want to see any tattoos at all on anyone and in a day and age where there are a lot of tattoos, we have to hide them,” she says.

Binge-viewing also affects the crafts on streaming shows. Because multiple episodes of the show can be watched back-to-back in a single sitting, Reuter Fabbo says the hair and makeup teams have to pay closer attention to maintaining continuity. Changes to a character’s look that viewers may not have noticed when seeing a show once a week are more likely to be caught by a binge watcher.

Casting options are also broader on streaming series. TV casting directors dread the phrase “network approvable,” as networks sometimes reject talented unknowns. Amazon’s “Betas” probably wouldn’t have found a home on a broadcast or major cable outlet because it has no big-name stars. Amazon approved the show anyway.

Streaming series also have freedom to embrace on-screen diversity. “Orange Is the New Black” features a mainstream series’ first openly transgender woman of color: Laverne Cox. And the characters don’t all look like they spend their days at the gym.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve never worked on a show that was so female-heavy,” says Reuter Fabbo. “And that’s something that happened because of Netflix’s vision. … These aren’t Victoria’s Secret models running around in prison uniforms. These are women who are different sizes and different shapes and different backgrounds and different colors.”

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