Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople in the industry. In this entry, we chat with cinematographer Jonathan Freeman about the visual requirements of emotional proximity found within Defending Jacob.
Unconditional love is a fortune worth more than all the gold buried inside Fort Knox. But are humans capable of such a thing, or is it a gift only available to dogs and other household pets? You love your child, but could you still love that child if they committed the most heinous of sins? Take a moment, think about the worst crime possible. Now, attach that crime to the heart of your child. Do you still love them?
Defending Jacob places two parents in such a scenario. Assistant district attorney Andy Barber (Chris Evans) is tasked with the prosecution of a young boy’s murderer. The victim was a classmate of his son Jacob (Jaeden Martell). During the early stages of the investigation, evidence suggests the dead high schooler fell under a blade belonging to Andy’s son.
The eight-episode series, currently streaming on Apple TV+, whips Andy and his wife, Laurie (Michelle Dockery), through an emotional tsunami. Doubt, rage, rejection, and confusion confound them. Their Jacob could not possibly be capable of such barbarism… well, maybe, he could. Now what?
Crucial to the narrative’s success is achieving the appropriate point of view. Director Morten Tyldum and cinematographer Jonathan Freeman went through the script page by page. Together, they designed shots to impact the audience based on how they perceived the main characters. The question became: who gets the objective lens, and who gets the subjective lens?
“[Mort] wanted the audience to experience the story through the protagonist’s eyes as much as possible,” says Freeman. “We referenced films like Michael Clayton, Mystic River, and some Polanski and Bergman, where there is a very subjective approach to the way in which the audience experiences the story. For example, with Polanski, where the camera is intimately close to the character, and you’re seeing what’s happening literally over their shoulder.”
Defending Jacob contains many similar moments with the camera anchored to Andy and Laurie. As the series progresses, and the doubts seep deeper into their being, the camera gets tighter and tighter to their person. The audience is tied to their anxiety through closeup, freeing the actors to emote in the most minuscule of ways.
“All of that was pretty exciting,” says Freeman. “In the sense that we had these great actors and that the drama was going to be played out in these intimate closeups. We would cover Jacob in a somewhat more distant way, in a more subjective way, where we feel, in some cases, physically drawn away from him as the suspicion starts to build.”
Covering Jacob from the parent’s perspective creates a mystery to the teenager’s motivations. Visually and narratively, we’re highly aware of what Andy and Laurie are thinking most of the time, but Jacob remains a terrifying enigma. Given the moment, the audience’s interpretation of the suspect could go either way, and the puzzle that is their child is as equally horrific to the violent acts he’s accused of committing.
“[Distance] was done in the blocking,” continues Freeman. “We discovered that with the actors, by framing characters, separating them through architecture, whether it be a doorway or a window. We used a lot of negative space when we could to show the distance between them. It’s very basic stuff, but hopefully not enough that it’s subconscious.”
In a further effort to capture the required intimacy, Freeman selected the Panavision XL II as his instrument of choice. As a heavily performance-oriented piece, Defending Jacob demanded a tight, distinctive frame. The XL II thrives atop the faces of actors.
“We started with the most important thing for us,” he explains. “What was the glass that we were going to use? This is an intimate story. It’s a story of three principal characters that are going through quite traumatic events. We considered anamorphic, and we did some tests, and we decided that, in the end, we would go with the G series from Panavision, which has this beautiful aesthetic to it.”
Apple has its specific delivery requirements. If Freeman wanted to shoot anamorphic, the camera had to deliver the resolution that they needed for their broadcast. The calculation is not merely one plus one equals two.
“My brilliant first assistant did all the math,” laughs Freeman. “I don’t know how he did it, but he worked with Panavision to confirm that the only sensor we needed that would deliver what Apple needed was the XLII, which of course, has the RED Monstro sensor in it. We shot, I think, 8K, 6.5, anamorphic in full sensor mode.”
The goal was high contrast, high resolution that did not scream of digital technique. Morten Tyldum wanted the warmth of film present on screen. Matching the right lens to camera was pivotal.
“All of these cameras are beautiful in terms of resolution,” says Freeman. “However, they can come out a little bit sharp depending on what glass you’re using. The G series really had a beautiful softness to it that still renders sharp details in the eyes and other details as well. It just smoothed out those edges a little bit, which was great.”
When it came to lighting the series, Freeman found inspiration in his director’s Norweigian origins. He sought a Nordic vibe where a lack of natural sunlight implies peril. He did not necessarily crave a bleak environment, but he was interested in the dangers of neutrality.
“Less light created varied emotions,” he says. “I think that’s better in some way. My goal was to keep in as naturalistic as possible, leaning toward it being slightly cool. To totally saturate it and hold the parts together while trying to keep it understated in some ways. Hopefully, it’s not too somber, but more like a requiem.”
The story is one of distance. There is the space between the characters, and there is the space between the viewers and the protagonists. Freeman is the master of the tether, continually releasing and tightening the slack. His camera is a weapon of anxiety.
Defending Jacob is a tragically-minded thriller where performances are sold through careful, strategic craft on both sides of the lens. Freeman’s camera dissects unconditional love. Within the frame he’s composed, the audience considers their reflection, and the actions they would take in the footsteps of these two tormented parents. Freeman never plummets the visuals into despair, but he does bump against it.
Defending Jacob is now streaming on Apple TV+.