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How ‘The Americans’ Turns Brooklyn Into an ’80s World of D.C. Espionage, All on a Basic-Cable Budget

The show has a gritty, visually aggressive look for a period show on a budget. Here's how they do it.

THE AMERICANS -- Pictured: Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX

Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings in “The Americans”

Matthias Clamer/FX

A Look of Danger

Stoloff taps into the noir tradition of a one-source key light, no fill and letting a portion of the frame fall into darkness. “The story is about the threat of what you can’t see, what maybe lurking in the shadows,” he said. “The sense of danger in noir lighting has been part of filmmaking forever.”

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Stoloff takes advantage of the light sensitivity of digital cameras and fast lenses to rely on the old New York City street lights as a primary source light and then matches their orange-green color with a special gel when he needs to add additional light.  However, the city has been swapping out old lights for LED street lights, which throw off a different color and a distinctly modern look.

This means Fucci needs to find the remaining streets with old-style lamps for the night work. Stoloff thinks they’ll be able to keep the look for Season 6, but guesses in a couple years – when “The Americans” will be off the air – it will be impossible as all the old lights will have been replaced.

THE AMERICANS -- "What's the Matter with Kansas?" Pictured: (l-r) Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings. CR: Patrick Harbron/FX.

The Orange Street Lights in “The Americans,” Season 5, Episode 4

Patrick Harbron/FX.

Eliminating 2017 and Weather From the Frame

One of the advantages of shooting wide open with fast lenses is a shallow depth of field, so the details of the modern Brooklyn backdrop are soft and out of focus.

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Fucci  has also developed a sharp eye for subtle visual signifiers of 2017 Brooklyn versus 1984 Washington D.C. , including modern glass, doors, cable dishes, and A/C units. Yet the task of finding the perfect ’80s backdrop is impossible.

“There’s barely a shot in the show that isn’t touched by visual effects,” said Long. “Built into our budget is the need to eliminate all those little details, but also adding little touches that are uniquely D.C. You won’t notice that we changed something small like a street sign, but that attention to detail that so many shows skip is vital to us grounding you in the realism of this world.”

VFX also becomes vital to dealing with weather, which Long and Fucci say is the biggest challenge in creating the show’s unique look. The show shoots from fall to winter every year and to achieve the season-less look it’s a constant struggle.

THE AMERICANS -- "Darkroom"" -- Season 5, Episode 10, Irina Dvorovenko as Evgheniya Morozova

The Use of Shallow Depth of Field in “The Americans,” Season 5, Episode 10

Jeff Neumann/FX

“When you see the emotional climactic moment of season five that we’ve been building to, know that it was three to five in the morning, eight degrees, and starting to hail – and there’s Keri [Russell] dressed in normal clothes. If you’d turned the camera around you would have seen the crew dress like we were on an Arctic expedition,” laughed Long. “Now it’s a miracle she could give that performance without looking cold – she’s amazing – but we need to be able to match that season-less look in post as well. When I’m sitting back in 85 degree weather in Venice watching it on my TV, like everybody else, that’s when I realize just how amazing the world we’ve built really looks.”

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