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The Beauty, Wonder & Weirdness of ‘Atlanta’: Moving the Series’ Cinematography Between Dramatic, Dreamlike & Hilarious

“It was exciting to do something with a tone that’s complex and has multiple levels,” says cinematographer Christian Sprenger.

The new FX comedy series Atlanta, created by and starring Donald Glover (Community), skates effortlessly from laid-back, naturalistic humor to drama and even veers into fantasy, which is precisely what attracted cinematographer Christian Sprenger (Baskets, The Last Man on Earth) to the project.

As Atlanta kicks off, we meet Princeton dropout Earn (Glover), back in his Georgia hometown, trying, often poorly, to live up to his potential. Earn’s minimum wage job isn’t enough for him to live on, much less to help girlfriend Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) care for the young child they have together. But when he discovers that a cousin, Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), has recorded a rap song under the name Paper Boi that’s getting some traction, Earn sets out to become the rapper’s manager.

Keith Standfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest “Earn” Marks, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles. Photo by Guy D’Alema/FX.

Sprenger joined Glover and director Hiro Murai, who helmed seven of the first season’s ten episodes, to build a look for the show that captured the deadpan tone and distinctive feel of Glover’s genre-defying scripts. (Late in the season, Glover would direct two episodes and Janicza Bravo one.) “It was exciting to do something with a tone that’s complex and has multiple levels,” the cinematographer states. “I think in features these days, you need to sell trailer and marketing and nail the genre down. In TV, you can have the kind of fluidity and pacing that attracted me to Atlanta. By presenting scenes in an honest way, it allows for contrast between events that are goofy and absurd or a little dreamlike or dramatic. It all melds together into this world.”

With that in mind, Sprenger and Murai, who’d collaborated on a number of commercials several years earlier, got together during preproduction to discuss a visual approach that supported Glover’s vision. One of the key concepts involved “mucking up the image,” the DP says—steering clear of the high-res, high-fidelity, “clean” look that digital cinematography makes possible but wasn’t desirable for Atlanta.

The show shot on ARRI Amira in 3.2K (for a 2K finish), recording to ProRes 4444 Log C. The DP and director both liked the sensors and ergonomics of the Alexa family of cameras, and the Amira’s small footprint and its internal ND filters made it a perfect tool for the fast-moving production, which had to shoot each half-hour script in four days and almost entirely on location.

Darius and Alfred Miles. Photo by Guy D’Alema/FX.

But getting the look they were after required pushing the camera’s highly developed sensor and processing technology close to the breaking point. Sprenger would generally dial in an ISO of 1280 or 1600, he says, “and then we’d underexpose another stop or two based on our meter readings of the scene. We were really working very close to the noise floor. And then we’d bring everything back up.

“By pushing the camera almost to the end of what it’s capable of, it’s like if you were to underexpose film stock several stops and push process it,” he adds. “You’re introducing a layer of imperfection that we really liked. You lose some color fidelity and saturation. You gain an otherworldly amount of highlight latitude! And you get a lot of weird variances that we really liked.”

On set, DIT Chris Hoyle used Teradek Bolt boxes, which were attached to the Amiras, to apply LUTs he had built in Pomfort LiveGrade Pro to the camera signal. The LUTs allowed crew on set to see images with the underexposure corrected for and rough color grading that approximated the look the show would ultimately have after final color work.

Sprenger also eschewed the optical perfection of modern multicoated lenses and carried vintage Kowa Prominar spherical primes. He and Murai delighted in the flares and strange aberrations these rehoused mid-20th century optics brought to their images. “They’re somewhat difficult to work with,” Sprenger admits. “These are very old lenses. If they were coated at all, it was many decades ago, and I’m sure most of it’s rubbed off over the years. They certainly function like uncoated lenses. Conventional wisdom says to go with a perfectly matched set of lenses—all the same color temperature and the same diameter for focusing. This was definitely a grab bag of different sizes, widths and quirks.”

Photo by Guy D’Alema/FX.

And in case the image was still too “clean,” Sprenger stacked a variety of glass filters—Schneider Hollywood Black Magic, Tiffen Smoque and assorted low contrast options—in front of the lens for virtually every shot. The filters allowed them to achieve certain creative looks on set—for example, “if there was a scene where someone is going through something emotional and we want to see only their eyes. We want everything else totally underexposed. Yes, we could have made that decision later, but I think going off the energy and the inspiration of what we were feeling in the moment was a stronger choice. It is possible that we’d see it edited together later and change our minds, but we felt competent to make those decisions [while shooting]. That whether or not they turned out to be the perfect decisions, we were making this flexible, toned final piece.”

Sprenger adds, “A lot of times you have networks and producers trying to get you to keep it as safe as possible and [make creative decisions] in post, but working with FX was a dream! They were so respectful of the creative process and so trusting of Hiro and Donald and me to make the right decisions.”

The show’s location informs every aspect of Atlanta. “We had a lot of locals in the cast and crew,” the cinematographer notes. “It’s a very diverse crew. The culture of the city is very important for a project like this. When you shoot New York for L.A. or Toronto for whatever it is, you’re always cheating something, whether it’s the fact that the buses don’t look right or it’s a different kind of street sign or you’re avoiding landmarks that give it away. Here it was the opposite. This is shot in Atlanta, with the city and houses and businesses always there. There’s so much texture in the forest and the plant life and the poorly managed streets and cracked concrete. We wanted to embrace that as much as we could.”

From left, Takeoff (as himself), Darius and Alfred. Photo by Guy D’Alema/FX.

This attitude also informed all of Sprenger’s compositions. “To frame this show in close-ups and over-the-shoulders would mean we’d lose the texture and depth of the city. We liked to create frames that the characters could move within, as opposed to creating frames that move with the characters. A lot of the time that meant the camera was further away from the action and we’d use a wider shot with a lot of headroom.

“The bigger philosophy,” he notes, “is that we want to give the audience as much credit as possible in terms of filling in the blanks and staying engaged,” he notes. “It’s often slow-paced and sometimes hard to follow, and we like the idea of presenting something and letting the audience find things within the composition instead of forcing them to look at one thing.”

Sprenger credits rigging gaffer Spike Simms and rigging best boy Michael Conner with helping light a show that jumps around locations on such a tight schedule. The DP made significant use of small but powerful TruColor lights from Cineo Lighting and easily hidden LiteRibbon LED units from LiteGear. He also carried some HMIs (ARRI M90s and M40s) for day exteriors or to push through windows for day interiors, and some DIY “covered wagon” lights.

Photo by Guy D’Alema/FX.

The approach was to use lighting to shape the look, but not to make anything too slick or clean. “We didn’t put flags up to kill [light] flares,” Sprenger says. “We let flares hit the sensor to see what would happen. If you were to go out and shoot these things happening without lighting and camera assistants, you’d probably be using a high ISO and you’d have to just accept flares and other [artifacts] that happen in reality.”

Sprenger stresses that while he and Murai oversaw the look, Glover had a hand in every facet of the show’s unusual tone. “He’s a very talented and intelligent filmmaker,” the DP says. “He admitted in the beginning that he didn’t know as much as we did about some things and he would sit on the sidelines and pay attention, but he was an incredible collaborator from day one.

“Hiro and I would shot list in Donald’s office,” he adds, “and it was great having him there explaining to us a certain character’s emotional motivation that would then inform how we covered the scene.”

Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) and Earn. Photo by Guy D’Alema/FX.

Sprenger cites a scene from the second episode to exemplify the results of their collaboration. Glover as Earn winds up in the holding area of a police station, and we soon realize that he’s seated between a man and his “girlfriend,” obviously a man in drag. An argument ensues between the two, with Earn squeezed in the middle, and soon everyone in the room is chiming in.

“The scene is sort of ridiculous and you’re laughing,” he says, “and then you’re suddenly shifted into, ‘Oh, this is very real and sad.’ The fact that the camera is so close to the characters and the lighting is kind of dark all affect your response. If you over-light it or pull back too far and bathe it in light, it might play as a funnier scene, but we didn’t want people to be laughing—or if they were laughing, we wanted them to be laughing out of discomfort. I think that sums up the way we approach this show.”   

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