Taylor Sheridan’s new Paramount+ series “Special Ops: Lioness” is a military thriller that sets itself apart from other action programs in the first few minutes, immediately drawing the viewer in with a visual style that is less reminiscent of other similarly themed works such as “Six” and “Zero Dark Thirty” than Tony Scott’s films (“Man on Fire”, “Deja Vu”) in which cinematographer Paul Cameron began to hone his bold approach to camera positioning and filming. Cameron was the cinematographer on the first two episodes of “Lioness” and directed episodes 5 and 6, and in collaboration with Sheridan and pilot episode director John Hillcoat established the kinetic visual language for the series, a language that produces powerful effects by breaking the so-called “rules” of cinematography.
As in Cameron’s work with Tony Scott, “Special Ops: Lioness” takes an approach to coverage that pulls together all the pieces needed to tell the story, but presents them in an unconventional way. In Cameron’s hands, even a standard dialogue scene between two actors has an extra dynamism and energy that simply comes from looking for unorthodox angles or alternating focal lengths in a way that might seem counterintuitive. “The idea of pairing singles or overs in a conventional cut pattern has never really entered my vocabulary,” Cameron told IndieWire. “It’s more about what looks good on both sides: a 65mm lens on Nicole Kidman’s side might be better with a 50mm on the other side with Zoe Saldana, or one side might be more exciting with a steeper angle on an 85mm. Sometimes you have to be a little bold and break down the ‘Five C’s of cinematography’ (camera angles, continuity, editing, close-ups and composition) and deconstruct them.”
Interestingly, going against the standard cover storyline is what makes “Special Ops: Lioness” so compelling; the eye is kept constantly engaged in a way that makes the viewer an active participant in the action, preventing them from slipping into the placid, comfortable state of a more traditional procedural. There’s also a precision and clear intention behind every angle that comes not just from Cameron’s visual methodology, but from an edict Sheridan issued regarding the text. “When we started we learned the script was the Bible,” Cameron said. “The idea was to shoot the script exactly, which initially seemed a bit restrictive to me. But I actually found it liberating, because so often on a set there’s a lot of discussion and variation and the actors will find something that changes the action – so you have to go back and shoot again. In this case, no, we’ll shoot the line. We will shoot the action.
While the actors still had the option to get on the phone with Sheridan to change a line here and there if needed, from the perspective that the script was an immutable entity, it allowed Cameron to pick a visual point of view and stick to it — something that’s essential in the world of streaming, where schedules and money are tighter than studio features. “I appreciated having that kind of attention to prepare and demonstrate on such a busy schedule,” Cameron said, noting that streaming shows don’t offer the luxury of taking a long time to find the point of view of a scene on set. “They always fill the day with multiple pages, so you really need to have some perspective on how you’re going to do that — and you also need to have the perspective to know which shots you can do without.”