In this edition of the Art of the Shot, I had to opportunity to talk to “Atlanta” Director of Photography Christian Sprenger. The FX show starring Donald Glover is about two cousins, with different views on art versus commerce, as they work their way through the Atlanta rap scene. Christian and I talked about how he achieved the in-camera look unique to “Atlanta,” and the future of lighting fixtures: HMI versus LEDs.
HALLETT: Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got to where you are in your career?
SPRENGER: I’m from Chicago originally studied cinematography at Columbia College. I moved out to Los Angeles right after graduating and started working right off the bat. I arrived in LA during the writers’ strike so it was a tough time to break into the industry but I was pretty lucky. I teamed up with some pretty successful young directors who were also starting out and hit a really good lucky streak I guess.
HALLETT: How did that lucky streak begin?
SPRENGER: I guess the catalyst was starting out in music videos. You know, music videos are often everyone’s in, because 9 times out of 10 you’re working for free or for close to free but they can be a really great way to advance early in your career. While I was shooting music videos, some of the directors I was working with started doing these little internet videos for sites like Funny or Die and College Humor. No one really knew how to make money in internet video yet and so these companies were very eager to find young new voices who were cheap to hire. A lot of those directors and producers went on to get signed at commercial houses and create TV shows and I was just lucky to ride that wave with those guys. I continued to work in music videos and eventually became close with production companies and producers. It all kept pushing in the same direction.
“You have to have some sort of love and fundamental understanding of photography and lighting”
HALLETT: What kind of person succeeds at being a DP or Cameraman in your mind?
SPRENGER: In terms of narrative work, you have to have some sort of love and fundamental understanding of photography and lighting but it’s equally important to pay respect to the art of storytelling. Production is a community of craftsman that all come together to lend their creativity and skill set to tell a story and remains constant on a 30 sec commercial or a 2-hour movie. It’s easy to get caught up in the technology but ultimately I’m most interested in finding techniques that help the audience emotionally connect with the story.
HALLETT: It still is a tech industry, it still is important isn’t it?
SPRENGER: Technology in our industry is becoming increasingly important every day. We are experiencing the democratization of filmmaking and also experiencing an increase in competition. It’s very important to understand the technology as it changes if you want to stay competitive. You have to master that technology and not just cameras and lenses, but color correction, editing, projectors, monitors, scopes, all of those things inform the work of a cinematographer.
SPRENGER: I hope in the same place, maybe in a bigger house! I was thinking about this earlier today. There was definitely a time in my career when I eagerly looked forward to the point when I’d be shooting big features and big budget commercials and now we are experiencing this time in entertainment when television holds almost as much cultural value as feature films; to some audiences even more value. And commercials are no longer just 30-second spots; they can be so many different things. What I’ve realized has become important to me now is just the pursuit of quality work and fostering creative relationships with like-minded people, who have the same taste as I do. That is where I’d like to be in ten years, further down that path.
HALLETT: How important is networking, getting out there, or finding your tribe, right? How did you find those people?
SPRENGER: In some ways, this is a testament to the value of going to film school. I was really fortunate to befriend a really amazing group of people in film school; we would all crew for each other and help each other out, trade equipment and resources, it became a really strong network of maybe 20-25 people. At the time, there wasn’t much happening in the business in Chicago so most of us moved to L.A. after graduating. It was really a lucky break because I arrived in town and already an awesome group of supportive friends and a network of super smart crew. To this day I still work with a lot of those wonderful people. My gaffer and my A-cam 1st have worked all together for over 12 years. As for networking with directors and producers just seems to happen organically. Filmmaking is all about gathering as many of the resources as possible. As time goes on, you want to start carving out what type of people you want to be working for or spend 14 hours a day with. That greatly affects my quality of work and quality of life and so that’s really a top priority for me.
HALLETT: What about somebody who did not go to film school? What if someone, like a cameraman from Milwaukee, they’re shooting there, they’re getting some commercials, some web doc work… Do you think it’s important to move to New York or L.A.? Once there, how do they meet the people that could be their tribe?
SPRENGER: Milwaukee is an interesting example because there are some really cool auteur indie filmmakers that call Milwaukee their home. It really depends on how much you subscribe to the big fish in the little pond or the little fish in the big pond concept. I think we can all agree that most big projects originate from New York or Los Angeles but I have a great deal of respect for the filmmakers who continue to make their own films, outside of “the industry.” Look at Moonlight! There is so much value in working outside of NY or LA. But at some point, you’ll probably end up learning how the business in New York and L.A works. Often people ask, how do I do it? How do I get on set? How do I make it and survive? Really the tried and true method is, you just go and you do everything in your power to try to get on set, meet new people and network from the bottom up. A set PA whom I met on one of the first TV shows I ever shot is now my network E.P. on one of my shows. If you’re smart, quick to learn, and ambitious, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll figure it out.
HALLETT: What was one thing, one of the biggest things you learned from shooting “Atlanta?”
SPRENGER: One of the best learning experiences… it’s hard to choose just one.
HALLETT: Give us more than one.
SPRENGER: Well, we really wanted to create something that hadn’t been made for television before, didn’t feel derivative. There’s normally a great deal of fear when making a decision like that; worry that the producers or the network will freak out or that audiences won’t connect to it. On Atlanta, I learned how important it is to ignore that fear. In our case, we were very lucky that our producers were also the directors and FX was the network; across the board, everyone was super supportive of these weird ideas and radical approaches. If you can avoid that fear, you find more room for creativity to become a priority. I think that’s how we ended up with the show that we did. Unfiltered access to creativity brings some really special results. Another profound lesson was how much your relationship and understanding of the shooting location guides your work as a cinematographer. The access that we had to all these cool weird quirky things, places where we shot, most of that access came from our local crew and the fact that Donald grew up there. Our line producer, production designer, our ADs, everyone understood that city way better than we ever could and they became our shepherds, our guides to the city – – all played a really important role in making that show.
HALLETT: Let’s talk tech. What did you shoot on? What lenses did you use, and what kind of light?
SPRENGER: I shot on the ARRI Amira with Kowa Prominar Spherical Prime lenses. Keslow Camera was our rental house. Lighting-wise, I would say 75% of the show was lit with LEDs. Our gaffer Cody Jacobs works very closely with LightGear and we built a lot of custom fixtures, LED gem-balls and LED pancakes, and little fixtures that we could hide or quickly toss up on the ceiling. We used a lot of Cineo Trucolor sources and ARRI SkyPanel lights. Then we also sort of pilot tested out the Cineo Quantums that Cinelease makes. I think we were one of the first shows to use them at the time.
HALLETT: What do you remember was the hardest shot to execute on the show?
SPRENGER: I guess my mind would go to episode 3 when we had a sequence out in the woods where the Migos were conducting business. I don’t know if I can necessarily nail down a specific shot but the whole sequence was fairly complicated. We were base camping about an hour outside of the city, out in the middle of the woods and right after some pretty heavy spring rain; it was a very muddy situation. The various scenes had us looking in almost 360º degrees so we had condors up in the distance in every direction. We shot it all over a few nights on a pretty demanding schedule but it was a ton of fun.
HALLETT: What got you through? Was it the crew? Was it enthusiasm? Was it food?
SPRENGER: Well, the food in Atlanta is amazing and definitely helped get us through some hard days. But no, that particular scenario it was our incredible grip/electric crew. Our best boy grip was out there 3 days prior to the tree trimming crew trimming pockets of the woods for our condors, our electric team had to cable a 360º set in the cold muddy woods, our gaffer built all of our lighting into a wireless dimmer board so we could be adjusting lighting values on the fly. Grip and electric were certainly the heroes of that whole sequence as well as our incredible A cam / Steadicam operator, Jarrett Morgan. Our crew was definitely able to see the light at the end of the tunnel and remained super positive; just a total A-list team of people.
HALLETT: Are you going to ever go back to HMI and Tungsten or are you like everyone else that’s excited that these LEDs can change the light and dim it in just a matter of seconds.
SPRENGER: LEDs are a very exciting world but we do still use HMIs. We were a full location show, no sets, so anytime we were indoors we were pushing light in through windows with large HMI bounces. But HMI keeps getting better as well; the ARRI M-series are really incredible. You get a lot of bang for your buck out of those new reflectors and we were constantly saved by them being watertight. They were definitely workhorses on this show. And of course, there is part of me that really loves a warm, dimmed down, tungsten source. Audiences have had a reference to that for over 100 years and I think it’s a very special thing that I don’t think I will ever abandon. But I have become incredibly reliant on the ability to wirelessly dim LEDs at a 1% increments; just an incredible amount of convenience and precision. I do think everything will continue to move in that direction for sure.
HALLETT: Are you going to be coming back for season 2?
SPRENGER: Yes, I hope so. I think we’re all kind of waiting on the schedule of Star Wars, so, we’ll see what happens. But it was a tremendous creative experience and I would love an opportunity to do it again.
HALLETT: How, just in your mind’s eye, how would you advance the visuals or would you keep it the same on Atlanta?
SPRENGER: You know we did this sort of funky, sort of digital push process with the camera and in the DI and we spent a lot of time testing and revising that throughout season 1. That’s something that I feel I have endless possibilities to continue to refine. Hiro, our colorist Ricky Gausis and I started collaborating on the show’s final grade from day one. In prep, Ricky was very involved in grading our camera tests and giving me feedback and Im excited to continue refining that concept. There is no doubt that the show will continue moving in this unconventional approach as a whole and the visuals will continue to evolve along side that.
HALLETT: Tell me a little bit about this push process; tell me what did you do there?
SPRENGER: I shot the Amira at 3.2K which is close to open gate and most of the time, set the ISO to 1280. Then we would underexpose on our meters several more stops depending on the lighting scenario. Our DIT Chris Hoyle would wirelessly LiveGrade the image via a Teradek Colr which allowed us to, in real-time, push the grossly underexposed image back up to a normal exposure. Basically, we were able to perform a push process the same way one would on a film negative, but digitally and on set, with live feedback.
I fear that we are moving towards this sort of homogenized look of entertainment.
HALLETT: Why go through that process?
SPRENGER: Well, it goes back to wanting to make a show that didn’t feel like television. This was my attempt at squeezing out something a little more unique from Alexa. Nowadays, every commercial, every TV show and most features are essentially shot on the Red or Alexa and I fear that we are moving towards this sort of homogenized look of entertainment. Our show itself is a very rough around the edges show, it feels like flawed realism. I think that my love for celluloid comes from those little imperfections that film stocks and photochemical processing introduces: those uncontrollable variables. So my concept was to merely force the Alexa to show us its dark underbelly; to give us something that we didn’t have full control over.
HALLETT: Would you have tried this effect on any other camera than the Arri?
SPRENGER: I’ve tested this a bit on the Red but I do feel like the Alexa/Amira/Mini seems to hold up very nicely when you’re underexposing it. The Red cameras have so much shadow latitude and such high resolution that I find they perform differently when you try to break the image apart. As with different film stocks, each camera is going to react differently when you intentionally push them to their limits. If you push an FS7 or a C300, I’m sure you’ll end up with something that looks different. Perhaps it won’t look pleasing, but it will definitely be different, and you know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
HALLETT: How much testing for this did you do? Was it a couple days or was it longer, was it shorter?
SPRENGER: On the pilot, I shot lens tests in Los Angeles and then had a day of testing in Atlanta once we selected our lenses. Then from what we learned from the pilot, we did two more days of camera tests down in Atlanta before filming the season. We took those camera test and sent them out to our colorist in LA and with his notes, I made further adjustments. You can never have enough testing, and Hiro and Donald are really understood the value of playing around with all of that before we started shooting.
HALLETT: How do you balance your work with life?
SPRENGER: I live with my girlfriend in Los Angeles and she is an amazing human being who also works in the industry so, as much as both wish we could spend all year together, she’s very understanding of the life of a DP. It’s certainly not an easy thing to balance. We try to look at long-term lifestyle and long-term career decisions together and I try to not be so super precious about every single job that I can or can’t do. She and I keep a very open dialogue when making a decision to take a job out of town. When either or both of us are working abroad, we really try to talk daily and make a point to see each other every couple of weeks, for a weekend out of the month or so. Family and personal life is so important and really keeps me grounded in the midst of insane stressful productions. It’s the reminder that everything is okay and life will go back to normal one day. I think that is the healthiest way for me to continue working in this crazy business.