Big Beautiful Wides


I'll admit, when I first finished Jessica Jones I had no intention of revisiting the show (which I had previously done for the first season of Daredevil). I greatly enjoyed watching Jessica Jones, but I must have had my eyes closed the entire time because the cinematography did not stand out to me at all.

Boy, was I mistaken.

I found a StudioDaily article on Twitter exploring director of photography Manuel Billeter's approach to shooting the series; instantly I was intrigued, doing a complete one-eighty on a potential revisitation. What stood out to me the most was his choice in lenses, using old Panavision PVintage prime lenses from the 1970s. According to the StudioDaily article, Billeter also opted to use only wide angle lenses. This reminded me of Emmanuel Lubezki's approach to shooting The Revenant, which utilized focal lengths between 12mm and 21mm. With all the fancy new glass that's around these days, I always find it interesting when a cinematographer decides to use older lenses. Often times this lends itself to a unique look. Jessica Jones is no exception.


I pull a ton of stills from each episode, but only a few of them ever make it to Twitter. Sometimes it's contingent on my mood, or just some shots I particularly enjoyed. Other times it's because I notice a theme or trend — this is one of those times. Side by side it is easy to notice how similarly each shot is framed. Billeter knows what he's doing here.

By framing Jessica in the doorway, the audience feels like they are privy to something special, perhaps something they should not be seeing. A blatantly obvious example of this is the shot of Jessica on the phone in her bathroom (left); Billeter explicitly violates the character's privacy with his camera placement. This carries some interesting parallels with Jessica's work as a private eye, since she's accustomed to violating people's privacy to make a living. Shots like these push the boundaries and effectively engage the viewer.

Luke Cage's bar is one of my favorite set pieces in this show, rivaled only by Trish Walker's apartment. Imagine my disappointment when it explodes in episode eleven... anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. All of the glassware and dark wood in Luke's bar act as beautiful foreground elements in so many of the shots. It feels incredibly organic. I can only imagine how fun it must have been to frame up some of those. The wide and medium-wide shots, paired with hyper-close foreground elements, quickly became one of my favorite aspects of Billeter's style.

The refusal to reveal Kilgrave's face in the third shot (bottom right) serves an obvious function of preserving the mystery of the villain. It's ominous and I think it was the appropriate choice. The dirty windowpane through which we see his face serves to keep us on the outside, following the trend of the audience looking in on things that perhaps they should not see.

Billeter often uses large amounts of negative space in Jessica Jones. It directs the viewer's eye to a very specific part of the frame, limiting the scope of visual information. The shot of Jessica on the stairs (left) is a great example of this. Half of the shot is nothing but darkness. It feels ominous, almost claustrophobic in a way, as something is blocking a huge portion of the shot. It's an interesting way to approach a wide shot, something that normally reveals a location, by instead purposefully obscuring it. The shot of Trish follows a similar trend, with two blank walls filling two-thirds of the frame. It isolates the audience and forces them to be alone with her character.

The shot through the security mirror (bottom right) struck me as something very clever. Yet again it is a frame within the frame, placing the viewer a step further away from the characters. It reminds us that we are but mere observers of this universe, trying to catch whatever glimpses we can of the story. Extremely creative and a great use of what could have been a boring location.

I do not know how else to say it: I absolutely love this sequence of shots in Trish Walker's apartment. LOVE. It is an awesome set piece and the camera does nothing but justice to that. The symmetry of the wide shot (left), once again looking through a doorway, is beautiful. It makes sense for the character, too. Trish is balanced person, unlike Jessica's binge drinking insomniac ways, and this shot reflects that. The other shots play so well together, I could not pick which one was my favorite (so obviously I had to include all three). The hard profile (bottom right) is particularly striking, while also so similar to the closer doorway shot (top right). Everything about this sequence, from the lighting to the composition, is gorgeous to a fault.

Cell phones have a strong thread running through the entire season, and it's important to note that Trish is on the phone in this scene. Phone conversations carry the risk of being dull, with limited character interaction. Jessica Jones, embracing our twenty-first century culture, certainly has a lot of phone calls. However, these tend to be some of the more visually interesting shots of the show. Billeter goes above and beyond to showcase the beauty hidden within the mundane.

The first two shots from this episode (left and top right) fall neatly into Billeter's already established visual style. The former utilizes hyper-close foreground elements to make a phone call a little more interesting. The latter has foreground obscuration as well, coupled with a partially open doorway to make the viewer really feel like they are spying on the characters.

The third shot (bottom right) is equally characteristic, but it catches my attention more than the first two. I don't know if I've ever seen a conversation framed from the inside of a car before, and if I have then it was nothing special enough for me to remember. The presence of the windshield between the lens and the characters adds an extra level of mystery to this shot. Once again, Billeter has found a unique way to capture a scene by shooting ordinary things in unusual ways.

I think close to forty percent of the stills that I tweeted from Jessica Jones were of phone calls. I usually associate shallow depth of field with telephoto lenses and DSLR videography, so it's refreshing to see it harnessed here with a wide lens (left). Regarding the second shot (right), it feels rather dark and threatening despite having such a bright color palette. Something is awry and the audience knows it — the bus driver is in danger. As I continue to point out, the foreground elements make the viewer feel more intrusive; in this particular shot, it's almost as if we are seeing from Luke's point of view in the back of the bus. He's going to attack the bus driver, the rest of us are stuck along for the ride.

This is the only one to make it to Twitter (top right), but time and time again there were many shots of Jessica and Trish sitting next to each other in near silence. It's a great moment and feels intimate, despite being framed on the wider side. The close up on Trish (left) is once more an effective use of negative space. I won't get into it too much because I don't want to risk becoming too repetitive, but I will say that Billeter has his visual consistency nailed down. There aren't a whole ton of silhouettes in Jessica Jones, so the wide shot of Malcolm (bottom right) stood out to me right away. In my opinion, it's no easy feat to pull off a truly beautiful wide shot, so when you do see one it's impossible to miss.

I'm curious as to how close phone conversations are to outnumbering face-to-face interactions in this show. Billeter pulls out all the stops in these two episodes, using foreground elements (episode eight, left), windows (episode nine, top right), extreme wides (episode nine, left), and some immaculate composition to keep this abundance of phone calls interesting. The shot of Trish on the sidewalk (episode nine, bottom right) is stunning, with her red jacket standing out in the sea of blue. She is a headstrong character and this shot gives her a lot of power.

There are a noticeable amount of instances where cell phones die and/or need to be charged over the course of the season. Somebody wants the audience to remember that cell phones exist and to carefully consider the role that they play in the story, for better or for worse.

Nothing new here. Billeter knows what he wants and he definitely knows how to capture it.

In a series filled with big beautiful wide shots, this episode had a couple close ups that screamed to me for attention. They were not disruptive, but it did feel different to me. I'm not entirely sure why. This episode was directed by ASC cinematographer Uta Briesewitz. I have a theory that she may have brought her own style to the table and influenced Billeter towards these close ups, but I have nothing to found that on besides a hunch. Either way the close ups are still very good, such as the shot of the pill (top right).

The trippy effect that the mirror produces in the flash back shot of Jessica (left) is an awesome use of objects in that space. Another interesting instance is the fire hydrant in the foreground (bottom right), lurking in the dark as Luke's bar burns. This shot is so different from the close up of the pill, more in line with what we are used to seeing from Billeter throughout the course of the show.

Three different ways of filming three different conversations. Do you see some of the differences?

In the first shot (left), Jessica and Luke are boxed together close. The two of them have a special bond (not to mention undeniable chemistry) and this shot is framed in such a way as to push them towards each other. On the other hand, we have the shot of Trish talking to her mother (top right). Trish hates her mother and tries to keep her out of her life. It shows — the kitchen faucet sits smack in the middle between them, serving as a visual barrier. They are literally separated by the anatomy of the shot. In the last one (bottom right), Malcolm and Robyn feel very small as they mourn Ruben's death. They are the peripheral characters of this story, caught in the crossfire between those with superpowers and their conflicts. The little people are unimportant and insignificant to the likes of Kilgrave.

These shots are almost opposites, but they resonate with me for the same reason: distance.

Kilgrave is far away in the wide shot (left), looking down from the balcony. He is a dangerous character and Jessica wants him out of her life once and for all. Luke, on the other hand (right), is safe and we are much closer to him as a result. No longer under the influence of Kilgrave, the audience knows that he's one of the good guys and can be trusted. This shot is yet again a great use of negative space — so much of the frame is just darkness since his torso is obscuring the light.

Thanks for coming along with me as I explored Jessica Jones. I don't have as grand of a theory or statement to make as I did with Daredevil's first season, but I certainly enjoyed taking a closer look at Manuel Billeter's work. If you have different observations or thoughts, please don't hesitate to share them with me on Twitter or via email! I look forward to hearing what you have to say.