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Cinematographer Stephen Murphy talks Season 3 of Atlanta (The FH Interview)

16 min read

Famously described as “Twin Peaks for rappers”, 's experimental comedy series made its way across the Atlantic for its third season which was set primarily within Europe, with backdrops such as Paris, London and Amsterdam throughout the season. Taking over for the show's key Director of Photography, Christian Sprenger, stepped in as the new DP for the European leg of the show. FilmHounds caught up with Murphy to find out more about his career and his experiences in the Donald Glover led show.

So I know that originally you did attend art school to study prosthetics and make-up. I was just wondering what originally inspired you to work in prosthetics and then what was it that led you to make the change to cinematography?

So, when I was a kid I was always drawing and making models. I'm very nerdy, still a very nerdy kid. So when I was looking at something to do when I was in school, there was a program on TV at the time called Movie Magic, which was this really great American show where every week they would focus on a different part of special effects. I love movies. Watched a lot of TV, watched a lot of movies, read a lot of comic books, made a lot of models and it just seemed like that was a good mix of the skills I was interested in. And I didn't realise you could do that as a job, as silly as that sounds. So, around about that same time I stumbled upon this magazine called CineFX which was, up until a couple of years ago, sort of the bible for special effects. 

So all of that happened within the same sort of time frame. Funnily enough my mum then saw this newspaper advert for a course in make up and prosthetics. Really what the course was was a course in make up for film and TV and it had a very small component that was prosthetics, but she showed that to me and so I applied to that college. I got in and the course wasn't what I expected it to be but the basics to prosthetics that they were doing helped me unlock the basics to making moulds and sculpting and colouring and applying prosthetics and stuff like that.

I was able to get work while I was in college doing some basic prosthetic work and some basic model making. Then as the course progressed, one of the things they wanted us to study was traditional photography so that we would understand what our prosthetics, or our hair and makeup on an actor, would do to someone's face. So they had us take some photography classes learning basic photography, black and white photography and processing and printing and I had never done that before and that blew my mind.

The school I was in at the time has a very successful film school and we were encouraged to try to work on some of the short films that the film students were doing. So I was getting a little bit of experience on those sets and broadening my horizons, broadening the scope of what I was seeing in terms of how film was made and the combination of discovering photography and then going on these sets and seeing the student DPs and student operators working with film cameras, then me getting a little professional work outside of that and seeing everything outside of the makeup studio or effects studio, it pushed me towards photography.

But the sort of straw that broke the camel's back was when I was coming to the end of my time at the college. There was never going to be a huge amount of opportunity in Ireland for prosthetics at that time, but the industry in the UK was doing really well and there was a lot of fantastic makeup effects studios working over there. So I took a couple of weeks to take my portfolio and show it around. Most of them were really gracious and happily sat me down and were very good about giving me feedback on my portfolio, one of the studios I went to was called ImageFX, run by a guy called Bob Keane, and they had just done Event Horizon. I loved that movie, I thought it looked amazing and it's still one one of my favourite looking movies. So I went along, showed them some of my work and I had a great chat with them. They were pretty quiet at the time, they had just scaled down after one particular project, they're flipping through my portfolio and the guy who was interviewing me said “you know, your photographs are very good” so I sort of gave him a little speal, “I'm sort of torn between prosthetics and photography” and he said “well if I was gonna do it all again I'd be a DP, I wouldn't do makeup effects, you should do that” so I went “ok”. I literally walked out the door and went “that's what I'm doing”.

Speaking of your past work with prosthetics, it seems to me that your passion has always been in creating something that looks good visually. With that in mind, would you say there are any transferable skills, or even a transferable mindset, between Prosthetics and Cinematography?

Yeah, there is, probably. So at the time that I was learning, the thing that sort of excited me about the work was, you know, the traditional visual effects work. At that time, when I was looking at stuff, the use of CGI had only just crept in, you know, you had The Abyss and you had T2 and Jurassic Park had just come out but there was still a mindset of “let's build it, let's use miniatures or matte paintings or animatronics” or whatever.

If you kind of study the history of ILM, which is basically the history of modern visual effects, there is a fantastic problem solving mindset that is common to everybody. So if you look at the makeup effects legends, the Rick Bakers, the Rob Bottins, the Steve Johnsons, Dick Smith, those guys, they're incredibly talented craftsmen, you know, they can paint and sculpt and mould beautifully, but they just had a really great way of problem solving and thinking outside the box. It's a massively transferable skill because when you're working on set you've made a plan, you've spent weeks prepping something, you've got the equipment you need in place, but all of those plans are sort of made in isolation without the actors or without consideration of the weather, which has suddenly changed or a script rewrite that's happened the day before, which ripples through the scenes that you do now. And so you do have to be able to think on your feet and you do have to be able to kind of look at the scene that you're gonna do that day and see it with fresh eyes or translate the conceptual idea that you had with the director in prep months ago to the practical reality of what you're dealing with now so that's been useful or very useful for me.

Throughout your career you have always worked on feature films and TV shows, even working on The West Wing when you were first starting out in the industry. However, you have also worked on a lot of short films over the years. I feel like shorts are incredibly under-appreciated and underrepresented. How do you feel about short films as a place to hone your abilities and for their ability to display up and coming talent within the industry?

They've been really useful for me. I wouldn't have the career I have, I don't think, without short films. Partially that's because in Ireland when I was, working as a trainee and then a loader, an operator and stuff. There's a culture of short film making in Ireland that didn't really exist in very many other places at the time. And a lot of that was because the government was very good at subsidising the funding of the short films. There would be a pool of money that you could apply to and writers and directors could apply to and they could be first time writers, first time directors and stuff like that. So the way it worked was you'd work on a TV show or a movie, or you'd be doing commercials, but there would always be time between those projects where you would have nothing to do. That might be a week or two weeks, or if it's a really slow year, it might be a couple of months and shorts, you'd never made any money off them. If I was a loader and I wanted to step up the focus pulling, that was a way for me to do it, you know, to practice it without necessarily the intimidation of having to do it on like a full size film or a full size TV show.

So when it came time to me learning to light, I was still working as a camera assistant at the time to pay the bills. And then I would do shorts between projects and I experimented like crazy. I mean, most of the shorts I was doing, if not all of them were on film, 35 or 16. I didn't really know what I was doing. You know, you sort of learn from making mistakes. So I could experiment on those. Most of the time you're working with directors that are happy for you to experiment on them because they want something a little striking that'll stand out. It was really good for me, that sort of outlet.


As for Atlanta, it is a show that's incredibly renowned and known for its unique style because it is a show that is so driven by its visuals. What did it mean to you to have the opportunity to work on a show which is as renowned and visually driven as Atlanta, and how did it come about that the job was offered to you?

So it came to me because the original plan was season three was gonna be shot about a year before it ended up getting shot. They were all set to go and then COVID hit and they got shut down. And the DP who normally shoots it, Christian Sprenger, he was gonna shoot season three. And when it came time for them to ramp up he was about to have a baby, so he couldn't leave the US or couldn't go that far away from home. So they decided that because of the way their schedule was working they were gonna shoot the six episodes in Europe first. Then they were gonna go back to Atlanta, do all of season four, which then finished out the cast and then they were going to finish with the four standalone episodes of season three.

So they decided they would just have a different DP for the European episodes and Christian would take over then when they went back to Atlanta. They were looking around for someone to replace Christian and my agent put my name forward. They liked my reel and they set up a call and I think maybe the day after I spoke to them on zoom, I was jumping on a plane to go to London. It was very quick. 

As for the first part of your question, at the time I hadn't seen the show at all. When my agent called, she was like, these guys are interested in you, have you seen Atlanta? And I said, no, I've heard of it, but I haven't seen it. She said “you really should watch it, it would really be your cup of tea”. So I said “okay” and I sat down and I was like 10 minutes into the first episode and I just texted her. I went “yep, I totally wanna do this” and I binged the whole of seasons one and two in like two days and I loved it. I was amazed because it's very well written. It's very visual and not in a nice way. It's not about the visuals. It's about the writing, it's about the story, but the visuals support the writing in a really nice way, hundred percent. So I got really excited to do it. I then got really nervous about doing it when I got offered the job because I didn't wanna screw it up because it is really good. 

I went over to London and met the guys and you know, very quickly we just fell into a groove and everything was fine, but yeah, it was really nice to be involved in a show that you know is going to be good from the outset and it's gonna be made with care and consideration. I sort of use the term singular point of view, even though it's not, it's not singular because there's many writers. It's obviously Donald's show, there's many writers and then Hiro is the director for most of the episodes, but they all coalesce and compliment each other so well, it's really remarkable, there's no ego. You know, somebody will have one idea, someone else will sort of take that idea and twist it a little bit and they hand it back and then they'll put their spin on it and then the ball gets passed around a little bit like that and it always works. It's really great. It was nice to be involved with something that was being handmade with love and attention, which doesn't always happen on every show. Some shows, for a variety of reasons, it's a job and you do really good work and everyone works really hard, but it's not necessarily made with the same sort of fingerprints.

 

Discussing how renowned and unique the visuals for Atlanta are, that visual style of the show has very much been set since it first aired. How was the collaborative process between yourself and Donald, Stephen, Hiro etc and how did you feel going into the show? Because I understand how it could be daunting working on a show that has such a distinct style, perhaps feeling as though it could restrain your ability to really make the work your own.

 

Kind of the opposite, actually. I mean, when I spoke to Hiro he was really encouraging and very clear from the beginning. He said “look, you know, we're going to Europe. Obviously the show needs to feel the same but it doesn't need to literally look the same. We know it's gonna feel and look a little different because they're in Europe and they're in different places. We want you to be you, we're choosing you for a reason. We want you to bring that to the show”. Now obviously I was never gonna turn around and drastically, you know, change things, because it works so well. So it was me trying to find a balance between being faithful to the visual style of season one and two and being true to the new episodes, the new setting of Atlanta.

Hiro's a great collaborator. Aand Donald, I mean, they're all really nice guys and they all listen. You can give an idea, they'll run with the idea a little bit, they'll steer it one particular direction or another way, you know, they're very, very good filmmakers. 

So most of my work ends up being with Hiro because he's directing most of the episodes. And Donald is just so busy, you know, between acting for the show and then getting the scripts ready and stuff like that. Then I get a bit of prep time with Donald as we're shooting and stuff and we're getting closer to his episode. His episode was the end of our European schedule in Paris, so then I'm talking to him a bit, between takes or if we get a bit of time to sort of talk about what he wants to do for his ep. But yeah, most of it's sort of dealing with Hiro and then Hiro's working on the scripts with the guys as well. Then as we're seeing new locations, new ideas are forming or they're, you know, revising the scripts or things like that. But it all works really well. It's really seamless, or they make it seem like it's really seamless.

 

So, with the shooting style, was there any particular shot that was particularly difficult to capture or any scene that you guys were having trouble with and it took a while to crack? 

No, not really. Again, a lot of that stuff is kind of relative. There might have been a scene where you think “okay, this is gonna be easy. It's just two people in a room when they're talking” but then you get into the scene and you kind of go “oh, actually…” and you can see the cast and Hiro working things out. And, you know, the sort of subtlety of the performance is key. And you can see it start to evolve, or see that it might take a little bit of time, so the scene seems like it might overrun, but they only overrun if it's important, and again, part of the strength of the show is that those guys all recognize when we need to spend a bit of time and focus on things.

And if there's a scene later on in the day, maybe we compromise on that. You know, we scale that back a little bit but they're very good at recognizing the soul of the show or the soul of each episode and what to focus on, you know, in terms of our time. 

So, I mean, if I was gonna be purely technical, and sort of just a visual level [pause] I've mentioned this before, but there's a scene in “New Jazz” where Paper Boi is running through Amsterdam. He gets chased by these school kids, they run him down one of the alleys and he hides in a room and he sees the kids throw the baby through the air and stuff and then he shuts the door and he's in a black box. Then he hears someone crying and he turns around and he goes from this total black box into a bigger black box. But in the middle of the black box is a very pale skinned, white woman in white colour clothes kneeling down and she's in the pool of light and he walks up to her and he's wearing a fairly dark purple jacket. And he's obviously got very dark skin, so to deal with that contrast range and see just barely enough detail in Brian's skin and just barely the right amount of detail in her skin and her clothes, and to then reveal that as he gets closer and says “can I help you? Are you okay” that there's actually an audience in that room that you haven't seen yet, and just barely reveal it, like, technically that's really, really hard to do, and I'm super happy with how it turned out, but it's the kind of thing that nobody will ever know that that was difficult because all that difficulty is hidden, which is the way it should be.

 

 

What are some of the parts of your career that you're proudest of? 

I'll say Atlanta, that's the easy, short term answer. nice. 

I mean it changes, it changes year to year. I have this thing I, I'll shoot something and I will have a great time shooting it and I'll get to the grade and I'll grade it all and I'll go “yeah, it's fine” and then I go through a phase of me going “I'm a terrible DP. I dunno what I'm doing” and then maybe 12 months later, I'll look at something and go “actually maybe that was okay” and I do sort of pat myself on the back a little bit.

So it depends, you know, it does depend on when you ask me. I'm proud of a lot of the work I've done, sometimes for different reasons but I suppose the short term answer, the easiest answer is at the moment, Atlanta, probably for a lot of the reasons that I talked about.

It's very, it feels like it's something that's been made where every one of the filmmakers was pulling in the same direction and that's why it feels so consistent.

I've done other jobs where I can look at it and go, “actually I think that looks great” or I think the design is great or whatever but maybe the movie's not so great or maybe the show's not so great or something, you know, and it's probably a little harder to feel the same level of pride for that, even though you've no control over the script or how it gets made or how it's directed. But Atlanta is something that I know I will always look back on and go that is really good filmmaking across the board from everybody. So short term answer, Atlanta.

 

I love that. So lastly, in an interview with British Cinematographer you said your aspirations for the future were “To shoot features and drama.” I think we could both agree you have since achieved that goal. What are your current aspirations for the future?

To shoot more shows like Atlanta [laughs].

I would say maybe to shoot better features and TV shows. It's kind of like what we were saying earlier on about the quality of work being really high, cinematography wise. I don't wanna say it's easy, but it's relatively easy to make really good looking pictures, but it's really hard to make really good looking pictures on a project that is good. Finding those projects that are good with good filmmakers is hard. That's the hardest part of the job I think, you know? So if I can get more, if I can continue to work on higher quality stuff, I'll be happy. 

I sort of made a promise to myself, which I've managed to stick to, since Atlanta because the quality of the work in Atlanta was so good; writing and performances and direction, I kind of said “I'm gonna try and not just take the next job. I'm gonna try and be particular and hold out for writing that's good”. So when Atlanta wrapped I ended up taking like five months off because I was turning down so much work where the writing just wasn't there. The projects probably would've been really nice to do. I could have done really nice visuals but I sort of said to myself “I'm gonna try and be picky if I can. Even if the budget isn't great, if the writing is good, I'm gonna try and hold out for that stuff” and I've managed to do that since then. So that's probably the answer, to improve the quality of the work I am taking where possible. It's not always possible, sometimes you need to work, you know, you've gotta pay the bills and all that kinda stuff. You know, it's trying to curate, more than just take the work.