‘Atlanta,’ ‘Barry’ and Other Emmy-Nominated TV Cinematographers Discuss the Bold New Look of Comedy

TheWrap magazine: The six nominees for this year’s Half-Hour Cinematography category share their trade secrets, including why the landscape of the comedy series has changed so, well….dramatically

A version of this story about TV cinematographers first appeared in the Down to the Wire: Comedy issue of TheWrap magazine.

There were more than 550 television shows in contention this Emmy season, a daunting task for voters to parse and the driving engine for the “Is There Too Much TV?” chatter mill. But in the case of the Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series (Half-Hour) category, the nominations were an impressive overlay of the evolution of the half-hour series. All six nominees, drawn from 86 eligible contenders, are technically comedy series — but more urgently, they’re a bold representation of how that genre has blended into popular entertainments that are not afraid to go to darker, more diverse places while delivering the laughs.

The six nominees in this category have a distinguished range of backgrounds in television (and rather sweetly, all are rooting for each other) and spoke to TheWrap to take us inside their nominated episodes.

And the nominees are…

“Atlanta” (FX)

ATLANTA (FX, “Three Slaps,” Season 3, Episode 1)

Cinematographer Christian Sprenger is the only previous winner in this category (for Atlanta’s marvelously surreal “Teddy Perkins” episode in Season 2), and he’s also nominated in a separate category this year for shooting HBO’s “Station Eleven.” But the audacious third season of “Atlanta” proved a new challenge for Sprenger as he shot all four standalone episodes whose tense, tangential stories barely include the show’s principal actors but do inform the series’ narrative universe.

“Three Slaps” starts with a spooky night-fishing expedition and opens up into the larger tale of a Black child (Christopher Farrar) who is sent to live in a home run by a cult-ish, white female couple (Laura Dreyfuss and Jamie Neumann). The episode has the show’s trademark acidic humor but draws from the horror genre with its dark folklore and child-in-mysterious-peril storyline, mostly told in steady, often-still vignette bursts.

Christian Sprenger (Getty)

“We tried to avoid leaning into major genre tropes, and we’ve created a real cadence on this show,” Sprenger said. “But we knew we would have to borrow horror aesthetics, and we got to lean into that a little which was fun.”

Sprenger fully believes the half-hour series is having an evolutionary moment and is happy to be ensconced in it. “There are less rules now placed upon half-hour series than there once was,” he said. “There’s been this incredible lineage of shows like “Louie,” “Baskets,” “Better Things” — very genre-bending. I mean, “PEN15” is one of the most groundbreaking shows in the last five years. It’s such an incredibly cool format to be working in.”

“Barry” (HBO)

BARRY (HBO, “starting now,” Season 3, Episode 8)

This show’s admirers were quite surprised that cinematographer Carl Herse wasn’t nominated for his work on the dazzling motorbike chase-scene episode “710N,” but there is a reason for that. “Ultimately, the choice was mine,” first-time Emmy nominee Herse said. “This submission is more of a referendum on the whole season because (co-creators) Bill (Hader) and Alec (Berg) and I try to treat the whole season like one big movie. It best expressed the tone that we were moving towards throughout up to that final shot, which to me was one of the most powerful shots of the season” (showing Barry’s arrest through a window).

Carl Herse (Getty)

The nominated episode is the last in the edgiest season yet, with hitman Barry’s world finally closing in on him. It also contains peak setpieces, such as Sally (Sarah Goldberg) violently grappling with a gangster, and lovestruck Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan) getting drugged and kidnapped, then escaping as a panther roars offscreen. Herse cites “Jaws” and “Paris, Texas” as big influences on sequences seen within, often with a roving camera that acts almost as a bystander, all fueled by Hader’s longtime cinephilia.

“It’s not really about ripping off a particular convention but rather having a common language on set,” he said. “Bill is always talking about the absurdity of the universe, and how one person could be suffering while another person is having the best day of their life. All of the terrible things that have happened over the last few seasons have to be eventually answered for, and so we were very much on the same page about what we can do with the camera and lighting to feel this sense of consequence.”


grown-ish (Freeform, “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See,” Season 4, Episode 6)

The sole 22-minute basic cable entry in the category, this episode is actually the back half of a two-parter in which the “black-ish” spinoff series addresses Yara Shahidi’s Zoey and her friends grappling with realities of police brutality, inherent biases and the necessity of protesting. But nominated cinematographer Mark Doering-Powell said the filmmakers tried to avoid the pitfalls of that kind of episode.“

“(Director) Jenifer Rice-Genzuk Henry said one of the things that she didn’t want it to be was, like, a ‘very special episode,’” Doering-Powell said. “It’s a challenge every week to tell a story, and this one was so spartan and simple the way it lays out the events.”

Mark Doering-Powell (photo by Sophia Doering-Powell)

The episode begins with the Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit” and later incorporates animage pulled directly from the 2020 Minneapolis protests after the killing of George Floyd.“ There’s a photograph by Julio Cortez of one of the protesters walking with an upside-down American flag backlit by the police cruiser fire,” he said. “And we wanted to work that into the episode at the end, to have the irony of playing ‘What a Wonderful World’ over it. We did have to cheat a little bit to make the interiors work with the story in which we go from late-day dusk to night—but massaging it all together, it really works as a nice transition.”


HACKS (HBO Max, “The Click,” Season 2, Episode 6)

Adam Bricker, nominated for the second time for “Hacks,” is only one of two individuals in this category to have photographed every episode of the season, and the only one who has shot every episode that the series has ever aired. Season 2 takes legendary comic Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and her entourage out on the road (with a notable stopover in Memphis) to create a newer, more confessional standup act and leave her comfortable Vegas residency behind.

Adam Bricker (Getty)

“We started with these huge spaces like Deborah’s extravagant living room and massive dressing room and these Las Vegas theaters,” Bricker said. “And then everything just got way tighter in Season 2 in a really fun way, where we’re replacing those with a dive bar or small dressing room and a narrow tour bus.”

He particularly loves “The Click” because the episode includes a romantic interlude between Deborah and a handsome younger man (Devon Sawa) she meets in a bar. “It was making those two very beautiful in a very naturalistic way,” he said. “We all want the filmmaking to be very sleight of hand. I don’t want you to notice the lighting, I want it to be working on a subconscious level. We’re trying to work in that subtlegray area where you don’t feel us manipulating the scene.”


INSECURE (HBO, “Reunited, Okay?!,” Season 5, Episode 1)

Ava Berkofsky’s nomination, their third for the series that ended this season, is bittersweet. It’s their final collaboration with “Insecure” super-director and EP Melina Matsoukas. “She and I really created the style and visual language for the look of the show together,” Berkofsky said. “So, it was really fun being able to bring it full circle.”

The Season 5 opener finds Issa (Issa Rae), Molly (Yvonne Orji), Kelli (Natasha Rothwell) and Tiffany (Amanda Seales) attending a college reunion at Stanford University. The experience makes them re-evaluate their legacies. “We shot a bunch of it at Stanford, with other campuses in Southern California standing in, but what we really wanted was to take in this world, because this is such an L.A.-centric show,” said Berkofsky, who has been praised for their sensitive attention to photographing BIPOC actors, particularly women.“

Ava Berkofsky

My job is to use my eyes and embrace what’s in front of the lens, and I was lucky enough to have this amazing cast of women of color in front of me,” Berkofsky said. “I have my own techniques, but one of the nice things about shooting something over a period of time, even if it’s just a movie, is you get to know actors in terms of their skin texture, and the colors that tend to pop. I consider it an honor that I’ve gotten to work on this level.”


RUSSIAN DOLL (Netflix, “Nowhen,” Season 2, Episode 1)

Ula Pontikos didn’t shoot any episodes of the first season of “Russian Doll,” but she was behind the camera for every episode of Season 2. “I’ve never slotted into somebody’s work,” said the U.K.-based Pontikos, who took inspiration from mood boards and storyboards created with the directors, along with Douglas Hofstadter’s 2007 self-referential nonfiction book “I Am a Strange Loop.” “I love deconstructing the script, and part of the challenge as a cinematographer is to really figure out what the world is.”

Ula Pontikos (Getty)

In Season 2, the free-spirited Nadia (cocreator Natasha Lyonne, who also wrote and directed this episode) takes a subway ride back to 1982 in a new adventure that eventually finds her retracing her family’s Holocaust legacy, often while existing in the body of her pregnant mother (Chloë Sevigny), which she discovers in a mirror effect at a pivotal moment in this episode. “We really did not want to do that on a green screen,” Pontikos said. “Part of the charm of this project is to kind of make it quite lo-fi and fun.”

“Nowhen” is complete with subway scenes that span different decades, all shot in three and half days with a myriad of cost-saving techniques and with visual nods to films close to that era, including Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out” and Alex Cox’s “Sid & Nancy.” “Ispent hours walking around the Lower East Side trying to figure out, on a limited budget, how we could have a key light source and yet not lose that quality of that tungsten light, which is so dominant in the ’70s and ’80s,” Pontikos said.

Read more from the Down to the Wire: Comedy issue here.

Photo by Steve Schofield for TheWrap