The Cinematography of Atlanta
FX’s Atlanta, penned by Donald Glover is a fine achievement. As we patiently wait with our twiddling thumbs for season three, let’s take a look at one of the show’s defining features - it’s cinematography. While it’s true that in this gilded age of TV, cinematographers have elevated their shows’ look to a cinematic level, Atlanta, so effortlessly, transcends its company.
With an eponymous name, there is pressure to rightfully portray the city. Glover, and his team, refrain from romanticising the Big Peach, but generously convey the spectrum of emotion in this bold city, so famously framed by its rap scene. Summarising Atlanta’s premise is a bit tricky. It is one of many currents shows that mix drama and comedy. I have heard it compared to Twin Peaks, a nod to its surreal tone, but I see a resemblance to The Wire. Of course, the shows are wildly different but at the end of the day, Atlanta is a purely American show, hoisted by the social and economic commentary of its land, and the dreams of its people. The dreams in Atlanta mainly involve an elephantine ascent to rap stardom.
Atlanta’s look is crisp and refined yet the approach, purposefully, was not. Through an unconventional shooting format, in which they embraced the imperfections of light, lies a false perfection. There is minute attention to colours, usually seen at the city’s many clubs, deserted gas stations, or shadows in its vast carparks and forested freeways. The entire series has been photographed by DP Christian Sprenger.
A main focus, according to frequent director Hiro Murai, is to frame the show’s most strange plot points and occurrences in the background. They are usually out of focus and away from the characters. It serves as a replication of our peripheral vision; those hazy, almost dreamlike moments that some catch and others completely miss. This moulds Atlanta’s approach to hyper-realism.
Tapping into the darkness of the city’s streets and a seasonal feel, comes the idea of lighting the characters so that they fall in and out of shadows. This embodies its darker, moodier edge of comedy.
When pitching the show’s look, inspiration came from indie films, for their ability to craft a realistic dreamscape where the story is propelled by its own energy.
The triumphant sophomore season, played out less like a serial comedy, and often as a collection of vignettes. This allowed the creators the liberty to play around with a new visual palette every episode. In episode ten, titled "FUBU", there is a flashback to middle school in the 1990s. This time-frame offered the opportunity to experiment with wide-angle Super 16 lenses. Similarly, in the notoriously creepy "Teddy Perkins", more attention was paid to establishing melancholy and a feeling detached from Atlanta’s reality.
Christian Sprenger won an Emmy for his work on the season two episode, "Teddy Perkins".