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The Bear

The Bear has been the television phenomenon of recent years, thanks to its innovative ability to tell as much about the fast-paced world of haute cuisine as it does a sweet slice of an impromptu family.

Carmy is the chef in the Bear
The Bear

Set in Chicago, The Bear is the story of Carmy Berzatto, a promising star chef who finds himself having to relaunch his family's sandwich shop, "The Original Beef of Chicagoland." Helping him in this endeavor are overlapping cumbersome and boisterous personalities such as Sydney, a self-taught stove enthusiast, and Richie, Carmy's penniless cousin.

The success of this series lies in the sum of the many small details, from the inspired and exquisitely graphic direction to the masterful acting performances of the actors, via a very careful selection of locations and costumes.

For us at LightScene Studio, however, the most intriguing aspect of the TV series is undoubtedly the cinematic use of light admirably orchestrated by the cinematography of American DOP Andre Wehde.

The Bear is a teeming succession of images, footage and impressions that unsettle the viewer, taking him now to the din of kitchens, now to the smoky streets of Chicago, now to Carmy's family home on an anxious and seemingly disconnected journey into the lives of the characters.

Light is the essential protagonist of each scene, the key tool for reinforcing the emotional load and underscoring the sentimental state of the protagonists.

It happens this way for all the images that frame the dishes: juicy samples of high-class cuisine, cuts of meat leaning against the counter of a butcher shop, precisely sectioned fish fillets on the aseptic kitchen counter, and appetizing sandwiches served under the warm light of a typical American diner.

The lights in this case define the details, enrich the food, help to visually determine the location in which one is (diffuse and precise lights for the dishes spinning on the kitchen pass, warm and "cinematic" lights for the street food) and work in harmony with the rhythm of the narrative.

When the series flows fast and frantic, the lights assist the direction by generating a sense of controlled confusion. When, on the other hand, there is a need to slow the directorial pace, the lights become calmer, diffuse, relaxing.

Therein lies the Director of Photography's great ability to shape the emotions of the scenes through a series of simple but impressive gimmicks.

When Carmy calls the kitchen brigade to order and the stress of serving in the dining room approaches the stove fires blaze, the workstations glow with a dramatic contrast between the cool ambient lights and the warm, pinpoint accent lights.

A scene from the Bear
Cool ambient lights vs warm pinpoint accent lights

When, after the exhausting exertions of cooking, the whole brigade gathers for lunch to work off the stress, a calm and relaxed atmosphere is required. And so enter the scene natural wide, airy lights, typical of a placid sunny day.

A scene from the Bear
Natural light

But that is not all. The photographic direction of The Bear is really a continuous dialogue between aggressive and soothing lights, as if to connect one scene with another and to give a sense of continuity to the whole narrative. So where we would expect totally aseptic, diffuse lighting we find some detail of accent, cinematic lighting. And vice versa, where we would expect warm, soothing lights our eye is distracted by some detail lit by cool lights.

Another key aspect of light in this successful series is the meaningful and consistent use of natural light. By DOP Andrew Wehde's own admission, natural light is used as a dual tool. It serves as a leveler for all other lights. In the kitchen, the quintessential location of the series, natural light filters through the street-facing cabinets and envelops all other accent lighting. It sets up the blue tones of the cleaning station and sinks, the red tones of the stove station, and the yellow tones of the pastry station. Natural light harmonizes, unifies and gives consistency.

A scene from the Bear
Natural light gives consistency

Second, natural light serves semantically to connect all the scenes and, consistent with other cinematic tools, to give continuity to the narrative. And so we perceive it in the indoor scenes, in the cramped kitchen of The Bear but also in the small apartment in Sydney, where it assists the joyful menu tests that the protagonist carries on with Carmy.

Obviously, the use of natural light finds its greatest expression in the (few) outdoor scenes in the series, in the breathtaking carrels among Chicago's architecture, in Carmy's runs through manholes and railroad tracks, and in Sydney's long walks in search of Chicago's best street food.

The Bear is a little gem, and its light scenes help make it one of the best TV series in recent times. The third season is due out on June 27, 2024.


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