Cinematographers & Cameras: Emmy Nominees Discuss "Atlanta," "Station Eleven," "Gaslit," "Dopesick," "How I Met Your Father"
Checco Varese, ASC
DPs Christian Sprenger, Larkin Seiple, Checco Varese and Gary Baum shed light on their work, collaborators

One DP garnered his third and fourth career Emmy nominations--both for collaborations with a director whom he first worked with on a commercial.

Another cinematographer garnered his first Emmy nomination while a feature he shot gains momentum in the early Oscar season conversation.

Yet another DP became a first-time Emmy nominee for a limited series that reaffirmed for him the power of film and TV to raise awareness of issues and spark positive change.

And our fourth lenser just brought his career Emmy nomination tally to a dozen.

Here are insights from Christian Sprenger on Atlanta (FX) and Station Eleven; Larkin Seiple on Gaslit (STARZ); Checco Varese, ASC on Dopesick (Hulu); and Gary Baum, ASC on How I Met Your Father (Hulu).

Christian Sprenger
It all started with a commercial. That’s how director Hiro Murai and cinematographer Christian Sprenger first got together as collaborators some seven years ago. Sprenger recalled that he and Murai “came up in the same circles,” primarily in the music video and commercialmaking world in Los Angeles. 

Eventually they would work on the pilot for Donald Glover’s TV series Atlanta. “That really got the ball rolling” Sprenger recalled. “We found we share a lot of the same tastes, sentiments, that our style of filmmaking was well aligned. We became great friends and both value the ability to go to work with our friends every day. It’s been one of the highlights of my career.”

This in turn has translated into other highlights--an Emmy win for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Half-Hour Series in 2018 for the Murai-directed “Teddy Perkins” episode of Atlanta. (That same year Sprenger also earned an Emmy nod for his lensing of the pilot for GLOW, directed by Jesse Peretz).

And this awards season, the collaborative bond with Murai helped yield two more Emmy nominations for Sprenger--one for Atlanta, specifically the “Three Slaps” episode; and the other for the pilot of the limited series Station Eleven.

Based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven--a post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction miniseries created by Patrick Somerville--took on a profound relevance. Twenty years after a flu pandemic resulted in the collapse of civilization, Station Eleven introduces us to survivors who look to rebuild and reimagine the world.

Sprenger and Murai had the luxury of having the script quite early on, affording them a bit of extra time to discuss the concept for the show, the style and aesthetic well before they went into pre-production. “Hiro and I had several meetings before we traveled to Chicago to start prep,” said Sprenger, adding that Sommerville also became party to the dialogue. This along with the shorthand Sprenger and Murai have developed over the years helped immeasurably with the pilot, defining what the series would become. 

Sprenger had shot both the pilot (“Wheel of Fire”) and episode 3 as part of what he described as “a one-pilot production” completed in February 2020. Then the COVID pandemic and the resulting production shutdown hit. It was a jarring example of life imitating art. Sprenger said it felt “bizarre to have just wrapped the pilot about a global pandemic” and then to face the COVID reality.

Episodes 1 and 3 had been shot with a planned hiatus in effect as the producers waited for a change in weather to align with the season in subsequent scripts. But the wait became much longer in duration--some seven months--due to the emergence of the real-life pandemic.

“All of us were feeling a similar panic,” related Sprenger, referring to personally dealing not only with the reality at hand but also how what was happening might impact the prospects for the series. On the latter score, he shared, “Would an audience be willing to sit down and watch a narrative re-creation of what we all just had been traumatically experiencing?” Ultimately, observed Sprenger, the science fiction dynamic “removed” the show just enough from present-day reality that viewers were able to connect with the story and characters from a bit of a distance, making for an objectively enjoyable yet emotionally honest experience.

Sprenger and Murai went with the ARRI Alexa LF for Station Eleven. The DP explained that the camera was chosen as a means to capture the larger scale of the city and story. “Patrick (Somerville) thematically in prep hit quite often on our telling this enormous story but from the perspective of a few common men. It’s not told from the military point of view or how the President was dealing with this global event. Instead it was about how is the guy in the streets of Chicago dealing with this. What does it mean for his life? We liked the idea of treating this grand story in a very grand way--but contrasting that with a narrator who was very common.” 

The perspective of the everyday person juxtaposed artfully with the grand scale of what was unfolding in Station Eleven.

The favorable experience on Station Eleven with the Alexa LF in turn informed what Murai and Sprenger opted for in the season 3 episode of Atlanta, which too garnered an Emmy nomination for its cinematography. Sprenger noted that Atlanta has been shot from its inception with a documentary-style camera, the ARRI Amira. But there were a few episodes in seasons 3 and 4, which were being shot in conjunction, that called for a larger scale approach akin in some respects to what was adopted for Station Eleven.

For the “Three Slaps” episode of Atlanta, for instance, Sprenger explained that the story was shot from the perspective of a youngster. Wider lenses were deployed, action was captured from a sort of lower angle as if to reflect how things would look through the eyes of a boy who was going through a traumatic experience. Sprenger said that the positive turn he had with the Alexa LF on Station Eleven turned out to be “a happy accident” which yielded the decision to go with the camera on select episodic work for Atlanta.

Station Eleven also reinforced for Sprenger an approach that serves storytellers in good stead. The show had its share of challenges, “a lot to figure out--particularly in episode 3 which tended to be this woven narrative that jumps in time, space, reality and subjectivity,” he said. “It felt quite chaotic and confusing at times. But one of the biggest takeaways, the guiding light, was to identify the emotional truth of the characters and story--to use that emotional truth for guidance, to get us through the moments we didn’t quite figure out yet. Using emotional truth as your guide is ultimately an incredibly powerful practice.”

Station Eleven wound up with a total of seven Emmy nominations, including a directorial nod for Murai for “Wheel of Fortune.” Meanwhile Atlanta came away with three nominations, yielding another for director Murai for the “New Jazz” episode (shot by Stephen Murphy).

As for what’s next, Sprenger is working with Murai and Glover on an Amazon series, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, based partly on the 2005 feature of the same title. The series, said Sprenger, is an inspired “reconceptualization” of that movie.

Larkin Seiple
It’s been an eventful stretch for cinematographer Larkin Seiple. Everything Everywhere All At Once (A24), the feature he shot for directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, aka The Daniels, made an auspicious debut at the SXSW Fest in March and has been generating early buzz for the upcoming Academy Awards season. 

Then just last month, Seiple earned his first career Emmy nomination--for the “Will” episode of the limited series Gaslit. The nod is one of four received by Gaslit--the others being for prosthetic makeup, sound editing and sound mixing.

A modern take on Watergate that focuses on the untold stories and forgotten characters of the scandal, Gaslit has a stellar cast headed by Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell and Sean Penn as her husband, Attorney General John Mitchell. Martha Mitchell is a prime focus of the series, a big personality with a penchant for unfiltered talk, ultimately becoming the first “insider” to publicly sound the alarm on President Richard Nixon’s involvement in Watergate, which caused his Presidency and her personal life to unravel. The Gaslit cast also includes Dan Stevens as John Dean, Betty Gilpin as Mo Dean, Shea Whigham as G. Gordon Liddy and Darby Camp as Marty Mitchell.

Among the challenges posed by Gaslit for Seiple was shooting in Los Angeles during the summer for a show that takes place in Washington, D.C. during the winter some 50 years ago. He credited several collaborators with helping him pull it off, including production designer Daniel Novotny whose “unique and spirited” sets “always felt like we were on location.” Among the feats of Novotny and his team, which included supervising art director Rob Tokarz and set decorator Jennifer Lukehart, was the re-creation of environs that are incredibly memorable and indelibly etched in the minds of many viewers--a prime example being the construction of the famed U.S. Senate hearing room from which the Watergate proceedings were televised. The decision was made not to just make a room that felt like the real room--but to match that authentic setting with dead-on accuracy.

Seiple said that doing justice to the time period was a delicate balance. “We wanted it to feel like you were in the 1970s as opposed to watching a ‘70s film,” he explained. “The nostalgia is there but not being harped upon. The look was built more around our characters--softer, more intimate lenses for Martha Mitchell, sharper lenses, more distorted for the villains.” For Martha Mitchell, there’s a theme of mirrors and reflections. “We’re often seeing her through mirrors and how she sees herself--contrasted with how the world sees her,” observed Seiple.

By adopting a character-driven visual dynamic and not getting too preoccupied with that ‘70s movie look, Gaslit becomes a story with contemporary relevance. “It mirrors politics now, people stepping forward and speaking up about issues--especially when they’re told to stay silent. The current January 6th hearings kind of mirror Watergate--people stepping forward in our system of government.”

Seiple went with the ARRI Alexa Mini for Gaslit, wanting a more classic look, departing from the current tendency to shoot in large format with a bigger sensor. Instead Seiple opted for a sensor more akin to super 35mm film. Production began with the deployment of a single camera, then two. “Then after the first week, we went with three cameras the whole time--being able to capture everyone’s performance at the same time completely changed how the story played out, characters inhabiting their space, unrestrained, changing how the performances were seen. Actor performance really dictated the visuals,” related Seiple. “We would at times discover scenes as we shot them. We had so many good actors and we had to fully take advantage of that.”

Seiple’s first Emmy nomination came for the first full series he ever shot. Previously, his TV exploits were confined to a couple of pilots.

Director Jon Watts, a friend of Seiple, opened the door for the DP to take on Gaslit. Seiple had shot one of Watts’ early features, Cop Car. And it was Watts who connected Seiple with Gaslit creator Robbie Pickering, which then led to the lenser meeting director Matt Ross. Seiple felt simpatico with Ross who “avoided the generic route” and brought funky, crazier, inspired ideas to the table.

Speaking of simpatico, Everything Everywhere All at Once once again brought Seiple together with The Daniels. Many moons ago Seiple went to school with Kwan and Scheinert but “didn’t quite know them” back then. Fast forward to The Daniels’ first music video upon moving out to L.A., and Seiple was most impressed with what he saw. “It was like a hundred dollar video, playing alongside videos from established directors. And Daniels’ video was the best of the bunch. It led me to seek them out and say, ‘Remember me? We went to school together.’ I wound up shooting short films and music videos for them. It’s been a fun relationship. They like to do absurd, crazy, silly projects. My job is to shoot them as if they were completely normal, serious projects to counter what they’re doing, to help make the audience believe it’s real or could happen.”

On the feature side, Seiple lensed The Daniels’ Swiss Army Man, which won the Dramatic Directing Award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and earned Kwan and Scheinert a Best First Film nomination from the Independent Spirit Awards. As a directorial duo, Kwan and Scheinert are represented by PRETTYBIRD for commercials and branded content.

Checco Varese, ASC
Dopesick scored Checco Varese, ASC, his first career Emmy nomination--for the lensing of the “Breakthrough Pain” episode directed by Barry Levinson.

An eight-episode limited drama series, Dopesick delves into opioid addiction in America, drawing us into a distressed Virginia mining community, a rural doctor’s office, the boardrooms of Purdue Pharma, and the inner workings of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Based on Beth Macy’s 2018 best selling nonfiction book, “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company That Addicted America,” the series spans the past 25 years with different storylines that personalize a drug epidemic fueled in large part by Purdue’s insidious behavior.

Dopesick performances include that of Michael Keaton who portrays Samuel Finnix, an old-school, good-hearted doctor from a small mining down in Virginia. Convinced by a Purdue salesman (played by Will Poulter) that OxyContin is pretty much “nonaddictive,” Dr. Finnix prescribes the drug to relieve pain. Among the patients we meet is a young mine worker, Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Dever), who becomes addicted. Her parents (Ray McKinnon and Mare Winningham) desperately try to save her. Other prime characters in the narrative are Richard Sackler (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) as the mastermind behind Purdue’s push for profits via OxyContin, Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgaard), the Assistant U.S. District Attorney who leads the Justice Department investigation into Purdue Pharma, DEA agent Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson), and Assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Ramseyer (John Hoogenakker).

Varese saw the Dopesick storyline consisting of patterns akin to “Olympic circles that intersect in the middle”--the middle being a giant OxyContin pill. One circle represents the victims, ranging from minors to blue-collar workers. Another circle encloses those looking for justice and duty bound to enforce the law--including the DEA, prosecutors and civil servants. And the third circle houses the wealthy in Big Pharma who profiteered from the misery wrought by opioids.

Varese came up with visual references for each circle. The victims conjured up for him images from director Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter--not the Vietnam portion but rather the renderings of blue collar America, a cool, overcast world that was very warm and dignified inside. The DEA/civil servant circle stirred in Varese images from Michael Mann’s The Insider, which tackled Big Tobacco, depicting the sense of purpose within those sworn to uphold the law and protect the public. And the third circle of wealth and privilege had Varese hearken back to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, marked by visuals reflecting opulence.

Varese shared his vision over the phone during a call with Dopesick series creator/showrunner/director Danny Strong and director/EP Levinson. Halfway through the call, Varese recalled that Strong sent him a text which read, “You’re hired.”

Varese shot all eight episodes of Dopesick, a challenge he welcomed. “In a miniseries, you usually have two cinematographers. One preps while the other is shooting. In this case, though, I took the bull by the horns. That was a great decision philosophically speaking. But there was the challenge of physical exhaustion, working seven days a week--prepping on Saturday with the next director, on Sunday for the upcoming week. But it was worth it. The work has one imprint, one look. And it was doable because I surrounded myself with great people.”

The philosophical justification, explained Varese, came from the fact that with different directors in the Dopesick mix--including Strong, Levinson, Patricia Riggen and Michael Cuesta--the cinematographer could play a key role in maintaining an overall visual continuity. Riggen in an earlier interview told SHOOT that having the same DP throughout the episodes provided “a great safety net” for directors who want to retain the show’s big picture visual feel while still having room to bring their filmmaking sensibilities to bear. Riggen has worked with Varese in the past. They have a close collaborative and personal bond. On the latter score, they are married. On the former as a working couple, they have teamed on varied projects ranging from the pilot for Proven Innocent, a Strong-created series, to the feature film The 33, the 2015 release which followed the extraordinary real-life survival story that captured the world’s attention five years earlier--the collapse of the Copiajo gold and copper mine in Chile and the miraculous rescue of all 33 miners after 69 days of being trapped.

The 33 earned Varese a Golden Frog nomination at Cameriage in 2015. He garnered a second Golden Frog nod last year for the TV anthology series Them (directed by Nelson Cragg).

Varese deployed the Sony VENICE on Dopesick, coupled with Zeiss Super Primes. He opted for the VENICE based on its “flexibility and the beautiful image it creates,” selectively sprinkling in the smaller Sony FX3, a camera which shoots 4K and has the same sensor as the VENICE.  He got access to a prototype FX3 to use in scenarios that called for especially nimble camerawork, including a scene in which youngsters break into a pharmacy to steal OxyContin--all in a continuous take facilitated by one operator handing the camera to another over a pharmacy counter.

Dopesick reaffirms for Varese “the power of the medium whether its a series or a movie. It’s the power to help bring about change, the power for good, maybe almost the power for revolution. You can change minds and souls with what we do. That’s what I took out of Dopesick--with or without a [Emmy] nomination. I can change the future of my daughter who is 14--so she doesn’t have to deal with a doctor who gives her OxyContin. You can do this with a TV series. You can do it with a movie--about the events of January 6th or about Roe v. Wade.”

Varese’s nomination is one of 14 garnered by Dopesick, including for Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series and directing as well as writing for the show’s creator, Strong.

Varese regards the Emmy nominations as “recognition of the suffering of all victims of opioid exploitation. Their pain and grief permeated every frame we shot. It is also a tribute to those who fought to bring this story to the public eye. May greed and commerce never again take one more life without consequence. May the light overcome darkness.”

Gary Baum, ASC
Last month Gary Baum, ASC earned  his 12th career Emmy nomination. It came in the Outstanding Cinematography for a Multi-Camera Series category on the basis of the pilot for How I Met Your Father. Baum is a two-time Emmy winner--for Mike & Molly in 2015 and the revival of Will & Grace in 2018.

“It never gets old or tired,” said Baum of being a nominee. Particularly significant to him this time around, though, is that the multi-camera category is dwindling in the primetime Emmy competition as much of the family and children’s-appeal programming has shifted on the awards front to the National Television Academy’s Emmy competition. Both DPs and picture editors fought for the multi-camera category back in the day and to see those entries start to decline is cause for pause. Baum thus views his latest nomination in the multi-camera arena as a particularly humbling honor.

He also regards it as an honor to again work with Pamela Fryman who directed multiple episodes, including the pilot, for How I Met Your Father, a spin-off of the hit sitcom How I Met Your Mother. Baum had previously teamed with Fryman, an EP on How I Met Your Father, on episodes of Man with a Plan, One Day At A Time and Call Your Mother.

Baum cited the inherent challenge in How I Met Your Father--an array of flashbacks and flash-forwards in what amounts to a co-mingling of parallel scripts. The DP credited Fryman with helping to create this hybrid dating back to her days as director/EP on 
How I Met Your Mother. “I can’t think of anybody who can pull this genre off better than her,” said Baum of Fryman. “The way her mind works is amazing. We have the same sensibilities of where the show is and how it should look. All the while she keeps a calm set, moving ahead in a sensible direction for a hybrid that could otherwise breed chaos. She works with the actors, getting their characters developed which is the most important thing in situation comedy.”

How I Met Your Father afforded creative and experimental opportunities to Baum that were not normally part of a multi-camera stage series. The mix included going out to the backlot every week, day and night exteriors, and a showrunner vision not typical of multi-camera fare. “They wanted it a bit dark, moody, more cinematic,” related Baum. “At one point I was told ‘you can’t make it dark enough for us.’”  

For How I Met Your Father, Baum went with the Sony F55, which he described as “Panavised,” accommodating customized 11:1 Primo Panavision zoom lenses. The F55 facilitated the 4K delivery required by Hulu.

Baum also deployed the ARRI Alexa LF camera outfitted with Fuji Premista lenses from Panavision for scenes shot on the Disney volume stage, featuring a curved LED wall set on which appeared images of the Manhattan skyline and the Brooklyn Bridge. Baum said How I Met Your Father was the first show to use the Disney volume stage, giving the show a viable option to blue screen or lensing in New York. 

In the big picture, Baum said that with How I Met Your Father, “I was able to stretch my vision and artistic view of my work more than any other project I’ve been on”--collaborating with directors including Fryman, Kimberly McCullough, Morenike Joela Evans, Phill Lewis, Kelly Park and Lynda Tarryk.

Baum’s latest Emmy nomination is one of two received by How I Met Your Father, the other coming for multi-camera picture editing in a comedy series.

At press time, Baum was about to embark on a second season of How I Met Your Father. He recently wrapped lensing That ‘90s Show (Netflix), a follow-up to the hit That ‘70s Show.

In addition to the Emmy nod for How I Met Your Father and the wins for Mike & Molly and the return of Will & Grace, Baum has garnered three other nominations for Mike & Molly, two more for Will & Grace, and one apiece for Superior Donuts, Garry Unmarried, The Millers and 2 Broke Girls. Seven of Baum’s Emmy nominations over the years have come for episodic work he lensed for director James Burrows, including the Emmy-winning “Gay Olde Christmas” for Will & Grace

It was on the original Will & Grace--which ended its first run in 2006--that Baum advanced from camera operator to full-fledged DP when the now late Tony Askins, ASC retired. Askins had recommended that Baum succeed him as the series DP. And then EP/director Burrows and series creators Dave Kohan and Max Mutchnick gave Baum that pivotal career opportunity.


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