A Look at the Visual and Musical Language of Euphoria

Euphoria style and music

Highlights

Euphoria’s style of cinematography, fashion, and music has become iconic
Director Sam Levinson employs a combination of dramatic lighting, bold color, and complex camera movement to accomplish what he calls “emotional realism”
The highly stylized cinematography gives the show an otherworldly, dreamy quality through contrasting primary colors, haze and plenty of bokeh
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“Euphoria,” a teen drama now in its second season, is so popular it is second only to “Game of Thrones” as the most-watched show in HBO history. Deadline reports that the finale of season 2 had more than 6.6 million viewers across all HBO platforms, with most episodes averaging nearly 16.3 million viewers.

The highly stylized cinematography and the emotive soundtrack make Euphoria stand out just as much as the scripted drama of the lives of a dozen teenagers in a fictional small town in Southern California as they grapple with addiction, sex, love and family secrets.

The story

The show follows Rue Bennett, played by Zendaya, a 17-year-old who has survived a drug overdose and is attempting to recover from addiction. Creator Sam Levinson said he wanted the show to look the way teenagers feel and how they imagine their lives to be. So the highly refined camera movements reflect the turbulence they experience as they navigate relationships and come to terms with their own identities. Levinson calls the cinematic style “emotional realism.” In contrast to shooting scenes literally as they look, the show pushes the boundaries of reality with a dreamy, otherworldly cinematic style that has become instantly recognizable and even iconic.

The fashion

“Euphoria” style is now recognized in fashion and music as well. The show is known for the flamboyant fashion of its teenage girls, including Kat, a young woman played by Barbie Ferriera, who becomes an unexpected dominatrix and starts stepping out in shiny red latex, leather halters and O-ring collars. Other characters, such as transgender teenager Jules, have more of a “Clueless” meets “Sailor Moon” aesthetic with her ever-changing pastel hair color and rotation of plaid and pleated schoolgirl skirts. As a result, the “Euphoria” style has become highly influential as the dress code of Gen Z.

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The music

Music is expertly used in “Euphoria” to convey the auditory distortions of a drug trip and to describe emotions such as isolation, fear, lust and young love. The “Euphoria” soundtrack is less about pop hits and more about emotive tracks and electronic motifs that follow each character. Composer Labrinth, who scored the show’s music, often uses waltzy guitar, crystalline chimes and heavy reverb to match the surrealistic cinematography.

Artlist has a “Euphoria”-inspired music collection that can lend just as much dreamy emotionalism to your video.

euphoria style

Camera movement

The “Euphoria” visual style is paramount to its focus on teenage emotion. Because the show grapples with drug addiction, the cinematography is often psychedelic, playing with the lines between reality and fantasy through color, camera movement and lighting. “Euphoria” cinematography is always specific to the meat of the story and used quite deliberately in concert with the dialogue and action.

The show has been noted for its sophisticated camera work, including long, complex tracking shots, whip pans and rotations of both camera and set. The camera is often omniscient and almost always kinetic.

One of the most iconic scenes shows Rue at a party taking drugs. As she walks down a hallway, she begins to scale the wall, and the whole set rotates 360 degrees as she struggles to stay on her feet. Even though this scene is reminiscent of “Inception,” it was all achieved with practical effects and not CGI.

It certainly accomplishes the mission of creating “emotional realism” and draws the viewer into Rue’s perspective as the drugs disorient her and cripple her ability to walk upright.

Another famous scene from season 1, episode 4, takes place at a carnival. The episode opens with a 10-minute long tracking shot linking all the characters together through the chaos of the environment. It starts in a pretzel stand and ends at the top of a Ferris wheel. The scene required a crane and 100 feet of dolly track but accomplished the goal of connecting all the main characters.

At the end of the same episode, we see Rue and Jules in bed together sharing a tender moment as friends, but the camera rotates around the bed in a montage that shows them alternately at school, then back in bed, then the carnival and finally in bed again where they have their first real kiss. Constantly in motion and flowing through their moments together like a flipbook, the camera emphasizes the momentum of their young love. And paired with a vintage melodramatic instrumental score, paints them as a classic couple.

Color

Euphoria’s director Levinson is methodical in his use of color to match the characters’ emotions on screen. He plays with color temperature, such as the classic teal/orange combination in stark contrasts, keeping faces either cool or warm and backgrounds opposite. The use of reds, magentas, and purples express the characters’ deep emotions as they navigate teenage mood swings, trauma, and even house parties gone wrong. While yellow tungsten lights symbolize eerie isolation and sometimes danger, especially when antagonist Nate is involved.

Season 1, episode 7 contains one of the best examples of the surreality of a drug experience, when Jules gets high at a party and has a protracted moment of equal parts euphoria and fear. The frame strobing with green, red and blue lights, the picture goes out of focus, the angle changes—all to symbolize both the high’s loss of motor skills and perception and the recent traumatic events Jules has experienced with high school bully Nate. It’s a nightmarish fantasy sequence that ends with her getting revenge as well as experiencing sexual pleasure. It’s all in the service of throwing the viewer headlong into the heightened emotions of the drug and teenage experience.

Lighting

Euphoria’s use of dramatic lighting, warm colors and haze also lend to its dreaminess. In most outdoor scenes, haze machines are used to give the sets a foggy, surreal vibe. And because the show is about teenage emotions and drug use, this works to communicate the uncertainty that the characters often feel. Other times, starker dramatic lighting is used to express feelings of danger and isolation, such as when Jules rides her bike to a motel and is illuminated by a bright spotlight while the rest of the street is pitch dark.

Much of the show is shot at night in low light, with soft colored lights illuminating the characters. Bokeh is also a hallmark of “Euphoria” lighting accomplished by using shallow depth of field to keep characters in soft focus and the background dreamy and out of focus. The use of prime lenses with lots of bokeh emphasizes the surreality of their lives and the intangible realities these teenagers are struggling to make more concrete.

Because there are many drug scenes, Euphoria often employs multiple lighting and camera techniques to both ground and disorient the viewer imagining how the character feels getting high. The camera often tilts and rotates and even goes out of focus in scenes where the characters are using drugs, simulating the visuals they may be experiencing.

For example, when Rue and Jules do drugs together for the first time, the camera stays out of focus, and their faces appear iridescent and sparkly, simulating trippy visuals. In addition, the use of a wide, almost fisheye lens rather than the usual 80mm prime adds to the distorted way they see one another as their eyes no doubt dilate and respond to the drugs.

If you’d like to add some of that Euphoria style to your video, you can find similar footage on Artgrid, such as this story called “Girlfriends.” 

or a similar dreamy story of a “Woman in a Flower Bath.”

Wrap up

“Euphoria” pushes the boundaries of reality with a dreamy, otherworldly style that has an iconic visual and musical language all its own. No wonder it’s the most-tweeted-about show in the last 10 years! So let it be your inspiration, whether literally or artistically, when it comes to thinking outside the box and using expressionism rather than realism to convey the deep emotions of your story and characters. And don’t forget to search the Artlist stock footage libraries to source beautiful stock footage and music to match.

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Jessica Peterson is a travel and documentary filmmaker with a background in journalism and marketing. She runs Purple Noon Productions from sunny Los Angeles. She has 20 years of experience producing content in 114 cities and 25 countries. In 2016, she directed and produced her own documentary about her then-home of Guam. Her clients include CNN, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Matador Network, and Tastemade.

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