The shooter lensed Donald Glover's new FX series with an eye toward simplicity and truth.
The day cinematographer Christian Sprenger found out about Donald Glover’s new show Atlanta, he was working on the set of a Wendy's commercial. “I remember getting the phone call while I was with my gaffer Cody Jacobs. My agent soft-pitched it to me and I was like, 'holy shit that sounds incredible.' When I came home and read the script, it exceeded my initial excitement.”
After having watched the first handful of episodes, my sentiments are nearly identical. Atlanta is fantastic television. Honest. Profound. Addictive. It follows Earn (Glover) who’s essentially a homeless, broke father balancing his life with his girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz) while hustling to manage his cousin Alfred aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), an up-and-coming rapper.
Glover created and wrote the pilot, with Paul Simms and Dianne McGunigle executive producing, but it was the directing of Hiro Murai that gave it its distinct flavor. “I interviewed over the phone with Donald and Hiro on my lunch break. I thought it went terrible. I didn’t think I was going to get the job, but an hour later they called to offer it to me. I was over the moon.”
“Embrace the imperfections and let those things shape the reality of the show.”
In the interview, Sprenger pitched the idea of making Atlanta’s visuals simple and as true as possible without getting caught up in the minutiae of lighting everyone’s face perfectly or getting the perfect matching coverage. “What I believe we all love about shooting film are the imperfections you don’t have control over. Those become the things you fall in love with. That sort of became our mantra on this project,” notes Sprenger. “Embrace the imperfections and let those things shape the reality of the show.”
While the two wanted the series style to come from the story and the emotional plot, they did use an underexposing technique for the visuals. Shot on ARRI Amira cameras using Kowa Cine Prominar lenses, Sprenger bumped the ISO to 1280 or 1600 and underexposed up to three or four stops. “We definitely had the idea to muck up the image as best as we could without being too detrimental to the final quality. We did quite a bit of camera testing with help from A camera 1st AC Justin Watson, and sent those tests to our incredible colorist Ricky Gausis at MPC Los Angeles for his thoughts to make sure we were in a good place,” Sprenger explains.
"The real trick during shooting was trying to see what was in the eyepiece. Sometimes it was almost completely black."
On set, they lit using light meters and mounted Teradek COLR boxes on the cameras for real-time color grading control. “We were pushing the ISO and underexposing so far. The real trick during shooting was trying to see what was in the eyepiece. Sometimes it was almost completely black,” describes Sprenger. “It was very challenging in terms of digital cinematography. We were shooting dark complexions and a lot of times night exteriors so our DIT Chris Hoyle would live grade the images back up those three or four stops to normal exposure to see what it was going to look like. Being able to see our noise floor and see where the bottom was without completely destroying the image was very helpful.”
Using a combination of DaVinici Resolve and Pomfort LiveGrade, they built custom curves to apply to the Rec.709 image and would then send those baked images out for dailies and editorial use. “We essentially didn’t work with a post house. We did it all of it on set and had a post PA send everything out to Los Angeles. It was a totally seamless way to work and integral for the look of the show.”
Pace and tone was another topic of conversation for the visual storytellers. “The pilot read in a very interesting way where I couldn’t quite nail down the tone. The whole show has this fluid tone identity where there were these goofy elements, these dreamy-realism elements and then this harsh reality,” says Sprenger.
The mood of it reminded the cinematographer of the film Memphis directed by Tim Sutton. “I saw a midnight screening at Sundance a few years ago and had a borderline religious experience watching it. It was so experimental in the way it was shot, in the way it was covered, in the way it was edited. As an audience member you felt like you were dreaming watching the film,” says Sprenger. On day one of prep he wanted Murai to watch it. “We didn’t want to rip the movie off or copy it in any way, but how Tim captured the emotion and energy rang very true to me when first reading the pilot.”
During production, they were up against an aggressive schedule of four days per episode. “We did a little bit of storyboarding on the pilot as we were developing the initial style, but once we started shooting the series we did close to 80 percent off shot lists. This way we would at least have a plan going in for the day and not be wasting time,” Sprenger notes.
The majority of the series was shot with a single camera by operator Jarrett Morgan who also was on steadicam. When a second camera came into play Sprenger would hop on, with heavier two-camera days bringing in Danny Ekler as a B camera.
The location heavy production looked to make the city of Atlanta a main character as well. “Our line producer Alex Orr drove us around to these great neighborhoods which were radically different than Los Angeles. We wanted to delicately include the city as a character without making it feel like we were cramming it down the audience’s throat,” says Sprenger. “To treat it as fresh as we could in an unbiased way without the visuals being a bunch of landmarks. It was more about capturing the texture of the city without being obvious.
A combination of LEDs and practical fixtures were used to light sets. TruColor Cineo LEDs were brought in, with custom light fixtures built by LiteGear. Quasar Q-Line Linear LEDs were also used. “We had a really amazing rigging gaffer A. Spike Simms and rigging best boy Michael Conner who had both just come off the Jennifer Lawrence project Passengers. We were very fortunate to have them for a few months. It was a type of schedule where we would bounce around to three locations in a day and they would be ahead of us pre-lighting and wiring a dimmer to every fixture. It’s very much like NASCAR. You rely on an incredible pit crew that can shave a few seconds off throughout the day so ultimately Hiro and I can gain five more minutes to cover something or to shoot a few more takes,” says Sprenger.
"It’s very much like NASCAR. You rely on an incredible pit crew that can shave a few seconds off throughout the day."
One moments when they tossed aside the shot list was in the third episode where Earn is arguing with his girlfriend after a very arduous date. “When the couple returns home and Earn is standing outside the bedroom door, we had all this coverage planned but, after our first rehearsal, Hiro pitched that it could be so much more elegant to cover the scene instead as a one take dolly shot,” says Sprenger. After figuring out how to make the scene work, it plays out with Earn telling Van behind a closed door that he shouldn’t have to sacrifice his dreams to become a family man. It’s simple. Clean. And the story takes center stage instead of the camera work.
The cinematographer admits that, in terms of filmmaking, not one second while shooting Atlanta felt like making a TV series. “FX was so gracious and respectful during the creative process and completely trusted us. There was no one telling us what we couldn’t do or say. I give them a great deal of respect for being so smart and forward-thinking,” confesses Sprenger.
“Even to Donald’s credit, he directed two episodes later on and has such an incredible eye, especially for finding unique and interesting people. The level of depth and flavor we found with even the extras or someone with maybe only one line was unbelievable. I remember going to the table read for the second episode and my brain exploding from the unexpected greatness of the talent that was in that room. I thought to myself, 'What is this show we’re making? It’s incredible.' I’m looking forward to seeing everyone’s reaction.”