At the time of this writing, The Chosen is the highest ever crowdfunded project in television and film. With creator Dallas Jenkins at the helm, the show has raised over $40 million for its first three seasons including $18 million for Season 3 alone. That may sound like a lot of money, but compare it to the cost of Netflix's Stranger Things final Season 4 at $270 million (roughly $30 million per episode) or Season 1 of Amazon's The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power on which they spent an astonishing $715 million (including a production budget of about $58 million per episode). In this age of "Peak TV," how does the production quality of The Chosen measure up?
I binged Seasons 1-3 last July, and overall, I'm impressed by the richly textured world that Jenkins and his team have created. I've selected several images from the series that represent notable achievements in production quality and art direction, and I've described how I believe these visual choices heighten our emotional experience and connection to the story.
"The human eye is drawn to light," says Jesus to Nicodemus in Season 1 Episode 6. As you would expect from a show that begins in AD 26, its lighting design relies on the manipulation of natural light (or the appearance thereof), candlelight, and other sources of flame. Whether pouring through a window, across a city street, or over the open sea, the natural light is often soft and gold. It catches dust and smoke, reflects on the water's surface, and is aided by warm color grading that works nicely with the show's predominant focus on people.
Particular attention is given to the lighting of Jesus during key moments of his ministry. The images below represent three miracles (healing a leper, raising Jairus's daughter, and exorcising a demon). These scenes are all dramatically backlit from the sun. This heavenly glow connects Jesus's miraculous acts to his divine nature and heightens our sense of awe, a feeling usually reflected onscreen in the faces of his witnesses.
When the sun goes down, the scenes twinkle with light from candles, torches, or campfires. This is done well throughout the series — many of the screenshots below could be baroque paintings.
Another important aspect of cinematography is framing. From the outset, The Chosen is exquisitely composed. Framing and lighting work together in the shots below to depict one of my favorite visual motifs of the series: the sense that, without Jesus, the characters are trapped behind bars (literal and figural). Narratively, these people are struggling with their demons, debts, professional obligations, and failures. These poetic images reinforce those plot points beautifully.
The angle of the camera is also used wisely. In the top row of images below we see Jesus awakening to a group of children visiting his camp. This is one of our first encounters with Jesus onscreen, and this point-of-view shot looking up at the children emphasizes his humility and nature as True Man. In the bottom left, Jesus has been rejected by his home town and taken to a cliff. The framing of this shot intensifies the conflict by making Jesus look trapped and vulnerable to larger, more formidable adversaries. In the bottom right, a lame man is brought to Jesus. The camera pans back to reveal his feet as the center and focus of the shot, where the miracle is indicated by the wiggling of his foregrounded toes.
This camera pan is one of many effective and varied camera movements throughout the series. Political and personal conversations are often accompanied by a handheld camera that gives a strong sense of immediacy to the discussions. Slower pans accompany more philosophical or intense scenes, which engages the viewer differently (and often without conscious awareness).
I will also highlight some moments in which the filmmakers shoot at a high frame rate to achieve a "slow motion" effect. This technique is employed when Jesus walks past a number of crucified men, when he is forcibly removed from the temple in Nazareth, and when Nicodemus is reeling after a miracle. Slow motion allows the viewer to penetrate the minds of these characters and feel the gravity of each situation more deeply.
As in most series, continuity editing is predominant. That being said, one of the things I love about television is that it allows writers and showrunners to play with format and experiment with novel ways of storytelling. One of the ways this is done on The Chosen is with montages in the cold opens (the first scene of each episode that plays before the titles). For example, Season 3 Episode 4 begins with a montage set entirely in black and white. This signals a departure in the narrative as Jesus's disciples have been sent away in pairs to spread his message and perform miracles on his behalf. Black and white images have a timeless and dramatic quality that accentuates differences in value (brightness/darkness) and consequently emphasizes lighting. And though it's not captured in the extraordinary stills below, camera moves and sound design contribute to the art direction by further connecting the missions in these disparate locations.
I've selected another montage from Season 2 Episode 4, in which the cold open tells the (non-Biblical, but plausible) story of Simon the Zealot and his crippled brother. Several decades are covered in this sprawling tale that includes the brothers' painful childhood, Simon's choice to join the Zealots, his training, and his brother's move to the pool of Bethesda. It's an ambitious story made easy to follow in a montage that includes match cuts and rhythmic editing. The shot types and compositions are varied, the camera moves are alluring, and the images are distinct and moving. This montage quickly builds the viewer's understanding of and connection to Simon ("Zee"), which is both difficult and imperative as new characters are added to an already large cast.
Another way The Chosen occasionally defies convention is with long takes. The longest appears in Season 2 Episode 3, a unique episode in that there is no cold open. The episode's first scene is a 15-minute-take that follows a number of disciples as they walk back to camp and discuss the day's events. This storytelling strategy captures a slice of life as Jesus's followers attempt to make sense of his ministry, their new lives and stresses on the road, and their relationships with one other.
Set Design & Costumes
"I don't like your frock," says John the Baptist to Nicodemus in Season 1 Episode 5. "The cost of the vestments alone could feed three children in Nazareth for a month." I honestly have no idea what the terrain, costumes, or sets should look like during this time period. But from a storytelling perspective, The Chosen uses its funding well. The costumes make it abundantly clear who works for Rome, who works in the synagogues, who has money, and who does not. They help us recognize different cultures, follow political machinations, and internalize identities in a way that's easier for many than reading the Biblical texts on which it's all based.
When the series begins in Capernaum, shots are infrequently wide and sets are rarely sizable. It feels small, condensed, even a bit claustrophobic in the dense city streets and interiors. The focus is not on establishing a vast world, but rather on the people that occupy the screen. As Jesus becomes a larger presence on the show, the shots "breathe" quite a bit more and the action progresses to locations that are more impressive in scope. When Jesus feeds the 5,000 in the Season 3 finale, it's a real spectacle.
Though the sets and costumes are skillfully done, it continually bothers me that the characters are not speaking Aramaic. I recognize that I have a higher tolerance than many for subtitles and the choice to use English prioritizes accessibility. But for this reason, I could never truly suspend my disbelief.
In terms of effects, this isn't an especially flashy show by today's standards. There's some minor VFX associated with miracles, a few matte paintings of important locations, and a longer sequence in which Jesus walks on water and calms the storm in the Season 3 finale. I found the quality of these effects to be respectable, and I appreciate the subtlety in the mechanics of the miracles generally. It wouldn't feel right to see the loaves and fish multiplying supernaturally onscreen, rather, Jenkins directs our attention to the characters' reactions.
The scoring blends middle eastern music with more contemporary styles and spirituals. It's consistently appropriate and emotionally resonant (in film, the sound tells you how to feel). Some of my favorite moments involve strong, rhythmic pulses leading up to a perfectly-placed moment of silence. The mixing is also well-done throughout. When Jesus is preaching to a crowd of thousands, I love how you can hear his disciples repeating his message to further groups.
During a time in which we've seen unprecedented growth in the cost and quality of television, The Chosen as a whole is at times breathtaking and flat, clever and tedious. Its inconsistency is typical of the medium (no series is perfect) and shouldn't diminish its achievements as a one-of-a-kind series that makes biblical content relevant in today's world. They have done amazing things with a modest budget, and the structure of each season will likely improve with time and practice. I'm most excited about The Chosen as a proof of concept. Now that demand and feasibility have been established, can you imagine a highly-produced and sharply written series that chronicles the epic battles and miracles of the Old Testament? This could be must-see television not only for Christians but for everyone currently tuning into HBO’s Sunday night showpiece.
Images used with permission.
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