In Depth with 'Atlanta' DP Christian Sprenger: How He Switched Up the Mood in Season Two
Controlling light and creating shadows established the mood for Atlanta Season Two. Here's a scene-by-scene breakdown.
[Writer's Note: This article contains Season Two spoilers.]
Few shows shift tone as much as Atlanta did in its second season. Earn (Donald Glover), Alfred "Paper Boi" (Brian Tyree Henry) and Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) all reappear in a story arc that feels a lot like dread. For returning cinematographer Christian Sprenger it meant developing new color treatments, framing rules and visual styles that reflected the storyline's darker mood. From "Alligator Man" and "Teddy Perkins" to "FUBU", the DP breaks down the methodology behind the episodes.
"Nothing is off limits–anything that can improve the story should be part of the conversation."
NFS: Series can find themselves in a sophomore slump. Did you hesitate to return to Atlanta?
Christian Sprenger: Donald asked me to come back fairly early after Season One premiered. I haven’t really done a second season of a series but returning to Atlanta was a no-brainer.
NFS: Did Glover suggest a visual tone for Season Two?
Sprenger: The first three scripts came in and I knew we would be blocking the schedule–five blocks in total–with Hiro [Murai], Donald and Amy Seimetz directing the eleven episodes. We discussed wanting this to be continuation of Season One but further refined. Visually, we wanted it to feel darker, bleaker. Season One took place in the blistery, hot Georgia summer and we embraced the heat and the sweat. However, this season takes place towards the end of the year. There are a lot of changing colors in Atlanta [city] and I wanted to capture that autumn and winter accurately while letting us lurk more in the shadows.
NFS: Did you establish any early rules in creating the mood?
Sprenger: It was all quite organic where we landed but we did try to restrict ourselves to shooting at specific times of day for exteriors. In camera, we worked more in the 4000K-4500K compared to 4500K-5000K in Season One. I mostly used the same filtration and lenses as Season One but overall kept the lighting approaches cooler.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLExorkNANc
Episode One: Alligator Man
NFS: Episode One “Alligator Man” jumps off with a violent robbery at a fast-food restaurant. It’s visually different than anything else we’ve seen so far in Atlanta. Did you want to use it to set the tone?
Sprenger: In a way, yes. You’re getting thrown right into a middle of a gunfight. It’s almost like a short film. The characters never come back–it’s its own self-contained story that is there to set the darker tone of the season.
NFS: The robbers end up escaping through the drive-thru window before getting shot at driving out of the parking lot. One of my favorite moments is when the car stops and a girl gets out of the backseat bloody and shocked. Did Hiro and you force the editor’s hand in the shot selection? I feel like editors would want to punch in on her face but it was kept on a wide and it played so well.
Sprenger: It’s not that we don’t give editors options. I think that it’s more a mark of confident filmmaking when a director clearly knows how and why they need something and commits to it. You can feel that confidence in the final product. Occasionally, we’ll shoot things as a backup option but not too often.
NFS: Any examples where you felt like you needed a backup?
Sprenger: In episode nine, we had a frat house full of naked guys and we thought about shooting a version framing out the nudity, but we said nope, that’s what we are going to do. A lot of that comes with the confidence of FX allowing us to make the show we want to make.
NFS: Staying with episode one, blue hues are used to add weight to the storyline. Even the grade had hints of blue in the exteriors – the car ride when we learn about “Florida Man,” when Earn is at the probation office and learns about his fines, outside the gas station...Warmer tones only appeared inside Alfred’s home or when they visit Willy “Alligator Man” – played by Kat Williams. How do you know when you’re stepping over the line in terms of color?
Sprenger: I always want to ensure that there is a narrative reason behind the creative decisions that I’m making, or else they just end up feeling like vanity. The other side of that is that filmmaking is all about having collaborators who you trust. Quite often I’ll turn to Hiro or our gaffer Cody Jacobs and ask: is this too crazy? It’s important that you can all keep each other honest.
NFS: What things can a cinematographer ask from a production designer to achieve a look?
Sprenger: You can’t have good cinematography without good production design. I’m in constant conversation with our production designer Timothy David O’Brien and our set dressers about everything from built-in lighting fixtures, the color and texture of the furniture and artwork on the walls. Wardrobe is a constant hot topic. We all try to design the entire look of the show together. Nothing is off limits–anything that can improve the story should be part of the conversation.
Episode Two: Sportin' Waves
NFS: Episode two opens with Alfred looking to buy drugs from his regular dealer who then robs him at gunpoint inside a car. You address eyeline in the scene on a subconscious level – giving the higher angle to the gun wielder when things escalate. What can cinematographers look for in story to bring out those subtle changes?
Sprenger: Do your best to discuss what the scene is about beforehand. That specific scene, we wanted to begin nonchalantly and feel like an average transaction for Alfred. Then the scene turns and we jump over the eyeline for the shift in power dynamic. When before, these characters seemed to only causally pay attention, they’re now both looking towards the camera and in very low angle shots.
NFS: How do you approach scenes in terms what the actors are giving you?
Sprenger: I prefer to approach a scene prepared, but not committed to extreme detail; more of a general outline. Once we see the actors rehearse and observe how they interpret the scene, we adjust framing and coverage to accommodate what we’ve just learned. We want to embrace what the actors are giving us instead of putting them inside a box.
"We want to embrace what the actors are giving us instead of putting them inside a box."
NFS: Each project comes with its own set of rules for framing. Atlanta uses handheld sparingly. Why?
Sprenger: Our theory with handheld is that it should be used as punctuation or to add something to the beat. Sometimes nothing needs to be added. Sometimes your audience should sit and stew in the static tension of a scene.
In handheld, you’re physically placing the audience there in the room–you’re allowing them to feel the breath of the camera. For Atlanta, it tends makes more sense to us to strip the style down and allow the audience to dwell in the emotion or discomfort of the scene without adding too much butter on top of it.
NFS: So then what’s the approach to camera movement?
Sprenger: The general mantra on Atlanta is if we’re going to make a big choice, we have to be able to back it up with a narrative reason why. Hiro and I both prefer a more grounded dolly approach. We will hop onto steadicam at times, but when we do, I always ask our operator Jarrett Morgan to make it feel like a dolly shot.
Episode Three: Money Bag Shawty
NFS: In ep three, Earn tries to take his girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz) out but he can’t seem to find a place willing to accept his $100 bills. It’s heavy on bar locations, extras and moving pieces. What can cinematographers do to create better atmospheres on screen?
Sprenger: The story should drive what should be on screen. Break down the scene and figure out how empty a location should be. How busy. How hip or lame. Discuss what the vibe should be and what the other people in this place should look like or feel. Those simple conversations can allude to a lot of creative direction.
NFS: You visit a strip club in ep three too. How did you address the lighting?
Sprenger: That location is an actual strip club in Atlanta called Onyx. We liked it because every surface was covered with mirrors giving it depth in every direction. We only had 24 hours in the location so gaffer Cody Jacobs and his crew came in on the first shift to rewire all the pre-existing LEDs in the club so they were usable. He brought in an arsenal of Astera AX1, Quasar QLEDs, and Arri Skypanels and placed them so they could be seen on camera as practical lights. His team built and programmed all of this on the first shift. Then once we were done shooting, another team came and tore it all out. Probably one of the more challenging days of this season.
NFS: How did you control everything while shooting?
Sprenger: We made sure everything aside from the QLEDs was RGB controllable. We had a main dimmer board as well as several Astera apps running on tablets controlling different sections of the club. All of this allowed us to make big changes and match color palettes very quickly.
Episode Four: Helen
NFS: In episode four, “Helen,” Earn and Van are driving to celebrate Oktoberfest and there’s a cut in of the backseat as they’re talking. It’s of an empty baby seat – letting us know that their daughter is still part of the story but probably at a babysitter. With shows having such a limited amount of time to tell story how can DPs approach b-roll?
Sprenger: I have to give our director Amy Seimetz credit for that shot. She pitched it and I thought it was brilliant. I’m pretty opposed to sloppy b-roll or having an operator go shoot cutaways. On Atlanta, we shy away from that and the directors and I try to have intent when using cutaways or b-roll. This is a half-hour show so every second counts and it’s important that everything has purpose.
Episode Five: Barbershop
NFS: Ep five, “Barbershop,” Alfred simply wants a haircut but he’s pulled into a crazy day with his barber played by comedian Robert Powell. The action was driven by handheld. Was the decision behind that to push the pace of the story?
Sprenger: Yes. We wanted this episode to feel more chaotic than what you’re used to experiencing on the show. Early on Donald explained that this was probably the jokiest episode and should feel fun and frustrating. It was important to give Robert the freedom to be able to riff and going handheld definitely aided in that process.
Episode Six: Teddy Perkins
NFS: One of the most talked about episodes was “Teddy Perkins.” What was your reaction to reading that script?
Sprenger: We got the script pretty early on and it was a pretty hush, hush secret. We knew it would stand out and feel different than the rest of the season. It was an episode that allowed us to play around and incorporate different styles and aesthetics in terms of our lighting approach and color grade.
NFS: Exactly. The episode starts off like a ‘regular’ Atlanta ep, but when Darius walks inside this guy’s home everything changes. What did you and Hiro discuss in terms of visual rules?
Sprenger: You’re right. When Darius is at the hardware store and driving, we’re still using our normal LUT and color processing. When we go into Teddy’s world, we wanted to enter a different universe. I doubt most audiences realize these types of changes but subliminally it feels like you’re entering into uncharted territory.
Our colorist Ricky Gausis did an amazing job transitioning a new LUT in and our normal one out as Darius drives up to Teddy’s house, as well as completely different film grain scan and color processing. Then by the end of the story, we transition back again into our normal look.
NFS: How did you want to light the sets?
Sprenger: My lighting concept was really just motivated by Teddy’s skin condition. He couldn’t be in direct sunlight so the story had to take place in shadow or indirect light only. We mostly pushed large HMIs through the windows and used different colored fabrics for the window coverings to create variations in quality and tone. The parlor and library had a lot of orange. We used red in the museum. Cyan in the foyer and mannequin room. My goal was to use these different colors to not only help geographically understand this shadowy mansion but for each new room to feel uncharted and potentially dangerous. Teddy looked pretty ghoulish when he played in shadow and so we worked in this idea of him coming in and out of light, almost appearing out of nowhere like a ghost.
NFS: The frame was controlled. Was that decision always the route?
Sprenger: Definitely. We knew we wanted it to be super static and use very slow, subtle movement. We wanted to soak up this majesty and creepiness of this big house.
"I use various light diffusions, older lenses, milky black levels; we add this romantic film grain to the grade. All of that is smoothing out the snap of high resolution."
NFS: Did you use any different lens treatment?
Sprenger: We did go a little wider than normal, playing in the 32-40mm realm. We usually don’t use wider focal lengths but in the parlor, we ended up on a 25mm.
NFS: When “Teddy Perkins” aired it was interesting to see the reaction on social media to when people found out Glover was playing Teddy. Did you try to keep that a secret on set?
Sprenger: We did. You really couldn’t tell that Donald was in there as he stayed in character all week. Our sound department didn’t know until the third day, same with our DIT. We thought we had a good chance of fooling the audience but the actor who played Benny did an interview and spilled the beans the next day. I was following along on Twitter while it aired and it was a lot of fun watching people trying to decipher what was going on.
NFS: Working with higher resolution, how can cinematographers approach lighting, especially women?
Sprenger: The trick on this show was building a forgiving aesthetic into the overall visual recipe. I use various light diffusions, older lenses, milky black levels; we add this romantic film grain to the grade. All of that is smoothing out the snap of high resolution. When lighting, we’re mostly bouncing or using direct soft LED fixtures. We tend to fill with soft ambient light and use fixtures that have precise control of color and intensity.
Episode Ten: FUBU
NFS: Episode ten was set in the 90s where a young Alfred finds a popular FUBU shirt in a department store and wears it to school only to find out it might be a fake. Like “Teddy Perkins” it had a different visual style. Explain what you guys did there.
Sprenger: We originally wanted to shoot on 16mm but when we crunched the numbers we couldn’t sell everyone on the investment. The ARRI Amira has a Super16 mode so after shooting some tests on Canon 8-64mm zooms, I chose that route. In the DI we did a film-out of the whole episode onto Kodak Vision3 5219 and then scanned back in 4K. All of the grain, weave and vignette is authentic to that film print. Being able to achieve that workflow with the help of MPC LA is a huge testament to our post producer Kaitlin Waldron. It’s not a cheap thing to do but it shows that we’re all working together towards the same goal.
NFS: Did you reference anything in terms of the style?
Sprenger: Donald was the director on the episode and we talked about City of God a lot which is a film that we both love. The camera feels ever present and alive, constantly in the middle of the action. It feels more docu-esque. We wanted the audience to experience the story from more of a place of wonder and innocence.
NFS: Any type of different filtrations?
Sprenger: Aside from what we were already getting from the old zooms and the film-out, I was stacking low-con filters quite heavy, scene to scene.
NFS: What was the decision behind the lack of shallow depth-of-field in the episode?
Sprenger: We liked the idea of forcing the whole scope of the school into focus, almost feeling hyper-aware. As a child, the world comes at you in every direction all the time. That’s what Donald and I wanted to capture.
NFS: Before we go – any advice for other cinematographers?
Sprenger: Stay humble and enjoy the process as much as you enjoy the final result. Drink green tea instead of coffee on shoot days. A big takeaway from this season for me was how imperative it is to really familiarize yourself with the script. On a tight schedule, it’s easy to quickly read a script, break it down and then put it aside. If It’s written well, all the answers can be found in there.