Jun. 19, 2018

Spotlight on DP Christian Sprenger

For both "Atlanta" and "Brigsby Bear," Christian Sprenger made an interesting choice to shoot with the ARRI AMIRA.

Jun. 19, 2018

Cinematographer Christian Sprenger has shot wildly different but always compelling projects: from FX Network’s quirky "Baskets" (with creators Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis, and Jonathan Krisel) and "Atlanta" (starring and created by Donald Glover) to the recent indie hit "Brigsby Bear" (with director Dave McCary). He picks his projects, he says, based on the director or creative producer he’ll be working with. “That bond between a director and cinematographer is special,” he says. “Having that collaboration is the most important factor to me. When I have that, whatever I’m working on can really come alive, no matter the content. And then we have the connection to the audience, and that’s the magic of storytelling. So I try to choose projects where I can foster a healthy relationship with the director, and that’s led to an eclectic body of work.” It is also fun, he admits, to “bounce around” and try different genres and styles. “I’m always conscious of not doing too much of the same thing,” he says. “I choose projects where I know I can stretch myself creatively and push the boundaries.”

In doing so, he’s gotten “addicted to the idea of doing projects that aren’t really classifiable,” “When I find a project I can’t compare to anything else, that’s a good sign to me that it’s something I want to be involved in,” notes Sprenger. One constant in his career, however, has been his use of ARRI cameras. “When I first started my career, I worked a lot with ARRI film cameras as an assistant and operator,” he explains. “I learned them in film school, and they were always the gold standard to me. I remember seeing the D-21 when it first came out and I thought, ARRI has really nailed the digital film camera.”

For both "Atlanta" and "Brigsby Bear," Sprenger made an interesting choice to shoot with the ARRI AMIRA, which is typically seen as a documentary-style camera. He explains that what drew him to the AMIRA, just before he shot the "Atlanta" pilot, was the camera’s 3.2K format. “I shot a lot of ARRI open gate and I was excited about shooting something with a wider field of view,” he says. “I liked the idea of open gate using wider lenses as punctuation or using a telephoto shot as a wide establisher, but with super shallow focus.” The "Atlanta" pilot, he continues, was also “very run-and-gun. “We had a very small support crew and did a lot of handheld,” says Sprenger, who first tested the camera. “I felt it was the perfect storm of a great handheld camera. It was very well balanced but it also had the 3.2K format. It was also able to easily load LUTs. I had never shot a full production with it, but I decided to try it for the pilot, and it was amazing, paired with vintage lenses, and also balanced well on Steadicam.”

Sprenger also appreciated the camera’s internal NDs. “The camera is performing several stops below where it should be, and then we use LiveGrade software back to a normally exposed image, which creates a film aesthetic with a grittiness to it,” he says. “The internal ND is also a lifesaver. I always use diffusion and not having to stack multiple NDs helped me move quickly and tweak things. I’ve become very addicted to those amenities of the documentary camera.” His positive experiences using the ARRI AMIRA on "Atlanta" convinced Sprenger that it would work well for "Brigsby Bear" which was a low budget run-and-gun feature. “It was the perfect choice,” he says.

Hiro Murai, who directed the "Atlanta" pilot and most of the first season, brought Sprenger onto "Sea Oak" a zombie comedy for Amazon starring Glenn Close. The two looked closely at the work of photographers Joel Sternfeld and Todd Hido in building a look book, and were increasingly drawn to the idea of shooting with the ALEXA 65 from ARRI Rental. Sprenger shot tests with the camera, with ARRI 765 film lenses, and brought them to Company 3 colorist Tom Pool. The result, he says, was magical. “At Company 3, we were all dumbfounded at the look,” he says. “It was like I was stepping into a new frontier. There was a learning curve to make sure we could support it, but the production team integrated it very nicely into our workflow.”

Sprenger notes how satisfied he is by the reactions of producers and audiences to these projects. “Seeing how excited they are about the choices I made me want to push into an even more untraditional TV aesthetic,” he says. “Right now, TV is an exciting place where you can do those things, and I feel I can always trust the ARRI camera and know the results I will get. Going into production, it’s such a good partner to have.”

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Photos: Guy D'Alema/FX