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Sublime and Ridiculous—Hilariously Depicting the Dashed Dreams of ‘Baskets’

In the new FX series "Baskets," the titular Chip Baskets (Zach Galifianakis) bets his future to enroll in a Parisian clown college in the hopes of starting a career as a professional clown.

In the new FX series Baskets, the titular Chip Baskets (Zach Galifianakis) bets his future to enroll in a Parisian clown college in the hopes of starting a career as a highly respected professional clown. As we learn in the first installment of the 11-episode season, his Parisian adventure does not go as planned and he returns to Bakersfield, finding work in the far less respectable clowning milieu of the local rodeo.

The show, created by Galifianakis, Jonathan Krisel (who directed the season) and Louis C.K., combines often surreal comedy with moments of pathos involving not just his creative struggles but his relationship with green card wife Penelope (Sabina Sciubba), headstrong mom (played by the male comedian Louie Anderson) and odd companion Martha (comedian Martha Kelly), who tags along.

Zach Galifianakis as Chip Baskets
Photo by Frank Ockenfels/FX

Christian Sprenger, who shot all 11 episodes, had worked with Krisel on The Kroll Show and was used to the often bizarre deadpan tone Krisel had helped create as writer and/or director on shows such as Portlandia and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! He was also familiar with C.K.’s frequent infusions of seriousness in his genre-transcending comedy series Louis. Baskets, says Sprenger, “is like a comedy in the sense that we have jokes and reveals, but for the most part we approach it as if it’s a drama.”

A significant portion of Chip’s adventures occur in the small city of Bakersfield, which lies about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, and the filmmakers hone in on its sunbaked suburban sprawl, defined by superstores and chain restaurants. “We based a lot of the look for the show on the German photographer Peter Granser’s collection Sun City,” Sprenger notes of the collection of images depicting an Arizona retirement community. The grimness serves to offset Chip’s feelings about his brief period in the City of Light. “Paris is an extraordinary magical dreamland and Bakersfield is not. We wanted it to be a harsh, realistic, sun-washed and flat place.”

Photo by Ben Cohen/FX

The season was block booked like a single feature and broken down so that the team had roughly four and a half days per episode. They shot for a week in Paris and the rest of the time in and around Los Angeles, using locations such as Chatsworth and Van Nuys to stand in for Bakersfield.

Sprenger carried three RED Dragon bodies (shooting in 5K and mastering to 4K), generally using two at a time and holding the third as backup. Sometimes both cameras would cover the same action; other times the second camera would break off to shoot second unit material. “For me, the size of the camera was very important for this show,” Sprenger says. “It’s a small production and we’re just popping around and jumping in and out.”

He says that a significant amount of the show was shot handheld or with the camera mounted on a Freefly MoVI rig.

Director of photography Christian Sprenger on the set of Baskets
Photo by Ben Cohen/FX

The cinematographer used Cooke S2 Panchro optics for the pilot and first episode, then switched to Cooke S4s. “I love the S2 lenses,” he says, “but they have a quirkiness to them, and we had availability issue because we shot with two cameras. Also, everything was full wireless focus and iris, and it helped that with the S4s, all the barrels lined up perfectly.”

He and Krisel both embrace some rather “old school” techniques in their work. “I used a lot of filtration in front of the lens,” Sprenger explains. “I started doing it partially because we had no DIT, so it would have been too complicated to try to [alter] looks on set using LUTs. I built a few basic LUTs with [rental house] Keslow Camera, but then I also used a lot of filters: different colors, low-con, smoke and haze filters. In the days of shooting and finishing on film, you had these constraints, these decisions you had to make, and I think working that way can help you be more creative.”

Sprenger and the crew shoot a scene with Zach Galifianakis and Martha Kelly, who plays Chip’s quirky friend Martha.
Photo by Ben Cohen/FX

Likewise, he used some color gelling on his lights—”A lot of steel blue and steel green.” He adds that he would also work with his gaffer to ensure color temperatures were close to where they needed to be for his sources. “RED cameras are more susceptible to color pollution if the sources aren’t perfect,” he says, adding, “At least, it’s more of a concern than it is with [ARRI] Alexa.”

Sprenger explains that the production concept for lighting Baskets was influenced by his previous work. “I did a show last year, Last Man on Earthcreated by and starring Will Forte for Fox—”and there, we thought, ‘no artificial lighting,’ ‘no “studio” lighting.’ That show was run-and-gun and we got used to not having to lay down a ton of distro and power for day interiors that should feel unlit anyway.”

Chip Baskets at Parisian clown college
Photo by Ben Cohen/FX

There wasn’t such a strong edict for Baskets—Sprenger carried a number of ARRI HMI units and did do some lighting, even for day interiors—but he wanted to hold onto some of the benefits in speed and cost that he’d realized on the previous series.

“We used a lot of LED lighting,” he says of the Baskets production. “You pop them into house power and you can light very quickly without having to constantly deal with power and distro. On a show like this, every trick that can shave off a minute or two is very important.”

He used a lot of fixtures from Litegear. “These were lightweight LED units that we could tape to the ceiling or a wall,” he says. “It looked very much like daylight and ambient light through a window, and the color rendition is about the cleanest I’ve seen.”

He also relied on Cineo TruColor RPT (remote phosphor technology) units. “A 400-watt light puts out about as much light as 1,200-watt HMI, but it’s in this tiny, lightweight but robust box. I’d say 75 percent of the series was lit with these two kinds of lights.”

Photo by Ben Cohen/FX

Given the tight schedule, the DP didn’t always have the option of lighting for a predetermined ISO setting. “I generally found ISO 640 was the sweet spot,” he says, noting that there were plenty of night scenes that required a significant boost to 1600 or even 2000. Here he called on the RED Dragon’s interchangeable OLPF (optical low-pass filter), a feature whose merits have been touted by some on the Reduser discussion forum. He’d heard about another cinematographer who frequently swapped his camera’s OLPF to great results.

Normally inseparable from a camera sensor, the OLPF on newer models of the EPIC Dragon or Scarlet Dragon can be swapped out to one of two models—one of which is designed to favor color rendition, especially in skin tones, at the expense of light transmission, while the other benefits low-light shooting at a cost to color rendition.

Photo by Ben Cohen/FX

“When I heard about someone who swapped these out as needed, I thought it sounded ridiculous, but Keslow sent out both and if we had low light or no light, I’d switch it out and it worked very well,” Sprenger recalls. “I didn’t do it often, but it was a nice extra trick to be able to do it.”

A significant portion of Baskets takes place inside cars, and here again the Baskets team went “old school,” shooting almost every car interior on a rear-screen projection stage at 24 Frame in Venice, Calif.—although the projections were done with very new DLP projectors. “I think the nice thing about doing car scenes this way is that everyone is looking at monitors” and seeing what’s outside the windows, says the DP. “The actors have a reference to understand that it’s dark in the desert or bright in the neighborhood. You can’t even compare how much easier it is to light the scene this way than it is to arbitrarily light to greenscreen.

Louie Anderson plays Chip’s mom, Christine Baskets.
Photo by Frank Ockenfels/FX

“If you try to shoot out on the road with a process rig, you’re hemorrhaging money every second. It just wouldn’t have been practical,” he adds. “And unlike with greenscreen, you can have dirt on your windows without worrying about fringing on people’s hair. We were surprised how many big movies, like the last Mission: Impossible and Nightcrawler, actually used rear-screen projection, too.”

Asked if there was a particularly challenging sequence from Baskets, Sprenger demurs. “It was interesting to learn how to shoot the rodeo scenes,” he says, “but really the most challenging and rewarding aspect is capturing the tone that [show creators Galifianakis, Krisel and C.K.] are going for. It’s a comedy, but we wanted to treat everything that happens seriously and with as much respect as possible to make it feel dramatic and believable.

“I think shows like Louie open people’s minds to that kind of genre melding, and it’s very exciting as a DP to think in those terms,” he sums up. “You’re always trying to work out, ‘How should the audience feel when the saddest thing ever is happening and this very funny thing is being said?'”