With over 500 scripted shows on TV and streaming platforms, one of the mandates of “peak TV” is that in order to get the audience’s attention shows need to be bold. While that certainly has impacted the type of stories being told, it also applies to visual storytelling. One of the most noticeable shifts in the last couple of years is that not only are half-hour shows pushing the envelope in terms of narrative structure, but how they have redefined what we expect in terms of the cinematography and filmic language in a TV comedy.
This year three sophomore shows – in three very different ways – have brought a cinematic style that challenges the notion that TV comedy must depend on the dialogue to carry the story. IndieWire talked to the cinematographers, directors and creators behind “Atlanta,” “Dear White People,” and “The Good Place” to go behind-the-scenes and learn how these filmmakers executed their shows’ unique visual style.
A Specific Window
Cinematographer Christian Sprenger: Top down, the general philosophy of the show is to always make decisive choices in the ways that we cover a scene, or frame a shot, or light a location. We try to shoot with a lot of intention, cover scenes with strong choices and do our best to film using one camera at a time. We weren’t interested in reinventing that philosophy or look of the show, more so [we] wanted it to mature.
Director/Co-Exec Producer Hiro Murai: We tend to shoot relatively wide, 28mm to 32mm, and we like to position ourselves in situations where multiple actions can happen in a single frame.
I don’t like things that look too fussy. I think anytime we are trying to make a point, your point is made better if you aren’t putting it up on a pedestal and you are letting the audience lean into it. That’s sort of how I experience life – I’m gazing and zoning out and something absurd in the corner of my eye catches [my attention]. So I never want to foreground those moments. We do this a lot on the show, where the most absurd elements are happening backgrounded and out of focus.
I always bring up the invisible car from the first season as a reference, where they are coming out of the club and they just got their money back from the promoter, so they are celebrating and then all of the sudden they hear gun shots off screen and they all start scattering. And in the deep background you see the invisible car that was planted earlier in the episode, and that moment would not have felt right if you had cut to a close-up of an invisible car hitting people. That moment only works as a fever dream moment where you are lost in the escape of these characters, but you just happen to see the car hit the people in the background.
Sprenger: Because it’s a show about a wonderfully real city, our priority is to preserve that authenticity. I try to light through windows and from hidden or practical sources as much as possible to free the actors up and allow for spontaneity. More often than not I’m using haze or smoke on interiors. LED lights play a huge role in our approach as they allow us to move very quick and make very precise adjustments on the fly. We shoot each episode in 4 days so every second counts.
Murai: In the first season we always talked about how we want the show to feel unlit – allow people fall into darkness as long as they come back into light at some point. We don’t always need to see people’s faces. And I think we took that further in the second season. Because it’s a more dramatic season [Sprenger] lit the guys in a slightly more edgier and moodier way – less filled-in, but it’s all following our initial manifesto of lighting the space, not people’s faces, and blocking people in a way that makes them lit.
Sprenger: We knew that the tone of this season would be darker and bleaker so from the beginning it felt like a moodier visual approach made sense. Season 2 takes place toward the end of the year and so the summer-y lush green palette of Season 1 was replaced with the colors of a Georgian autumn. I wanted to embrace this natural changing palette and then lay in a cooler, less saturated, treatment when it made sense for the story.
Murai: A lot of time we have fun changing the voice of the camera based on the type of episode it is.
Sprenger: Each episode’s look is guided by the story we are trying to tell. Episode 10 was a 90’s flashback and we chose wide angle Super 16 lenses with deep focus. In episode 4, Earn finds himself uncomfortably stranded in Helene, GA and we covered almost entirely from telephoto perspectives. The series is almost a collection of short stories so while it’s important to maintain a broad visual consistency, there is still a lot of freedom to play episode to episode.
Murai: Christain and I talked a lot about approaching [the “Teddy Perkins”] episode by removing ourselves from the “Atlanta” look a little bit. So once Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) comes through the gate with his U-haul, that’s when the “Atlanta” look ends and once he’s on Teddy’ s property we’re lighting it different – a little more naturalistic and kind of somber feeling. Because the “Atlanta” look is pretty stylized, both in the color correction and then way it’s lit, but we realized that Teddy’s face just felt so much more uncanny when everything else looked a little more natural.
Color Grade, Camera, Lenses
Sprenger: Our colorist Ricky Gausis has been instrumental in helping design the look of our show since day 1. During prep on the pilot, I shot a series of camera tests to determine underexposure and what lens / filter combination would work best with our plan for the grade. Ricky and I worked very closely during that development period. In the final DI not only is he fine tuning film grain scans and LUTs but he is our trusted authority on where final exposure should land. On episode 10, “Fubu,” of this season, Ricky and his team at MPC LA engineered a full episode film-out and 4K re-scan to achieve a specific look that we were after. The man is a true artist.
We shoot 3.2k ProRes4444 on the ARRI Amira with Kowa Cine Prominar Spherical Primes & Angenioux Optimo zooms. We mainly stick to the Kowa Primes unless there is need for an actual zoom shot. The Kowas have a great vintage soft patina and some fun quirky characteristics that add an interesting layer to the look. Their imperfections fit our story quite nicely.