‘Atlanta’ Cinematographer Aims for Stylized Realism in FX Comedy Series

The TV Academy has been steadily increasing the number of categories honored by Creative Arts Emmy Awards, from 75 in 2010 to 92 now, including an additional six categories in the past year. But perhaps the shift that most directly recognizes the creative process is the one that divides cinematography for single-camera series into two awards: one for hour-long series, the other for half-hour ones.

“We’re all really excited they’ve reopened the category,” says Christian Sprenger, the DP on season one of FX’s “Atlanta.” “It was a real grassroots movement to get it accepted, so hopefully it will be good for DPs moving forward.”

FX, Sprenger believes, is the perfect partner for those with ideas that challenge the norm. “Working with them is a creatively freeing experience,” he says. “[The producers] let you go be an artist.”

“Atlanta” is shot less conventionally than most half-hour comedy formats. The approach is to make the visual palette as simple and true as possible without getting stuck in such minutiae as flawless lighting or perfectly matching coverage. “We were going for this stylized realism where we embraced the imperfections to shape the look of the show,” Sprenger says.

The strategy of director Hiro Murai, who helmed most of the episodes, including the pilot, was to have the narrative and the emotional tone drive decision-making.

Sprenger notes that the team didn’t let the look of a scene overshadow the action. “We didn’t want the aesthetic to outweigh the storytelling,” he says. “But I think even though we chose to make everything in service of the story, you can still find ways to introduce interesting visuals without clouding the audience’s experience.”

The production schedule was an aggressive four days per episode, shooting mostly on location in Atlanta. Arri Amira cameras were paired with Kowa Cine Prominar lenses, and Sprenger deliberately underexposed some images three or four stops.

“We wanted to delicately include the city as a character without making it feel like we were cramming it down the audience’s throat,” the DP says.  “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 city’s texture without being obvious.”

Sprenger credits actor Donald Glover and Murai for the show’s success. “It was really Donald and Hiro challenging us to do our best work and to come up with unique ways of doing things,” he says. “If it didn’t work out, no one would be punished. There was just this understanding that everyone had the freedom to be creative and bring ideas to the table.”

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