Behind the scenes Amazon’s “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” DP Christian Sprenger

Moviecam lenses give “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” a vintage look

Cinematographer Christian Sprenger ASC discusses working in large format with the ARRI ALEXA Mini LF and ARRI Rental Moviecam lenses on Amazon’s action-packed spy series.

Mar. 18, 2024

Created by Donald Glover and Francesca Sloane, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” is an Amazon Prime spy drama series inspired by a previous 1990s series and a 2005 film of the same name. Glover and Maya Erskine star as spies who are thrown together in a fictitious marriage that provides cover for their dangerous missions. Cinematographer Christian Sprenger ASC set the look for the show, shooting episodes one, two, five, and eight, and also directing episode four. He speaks here about his visual approach, equipment choices, and creative challenges.

What drew you to the project, and was the 2005 film a visual influence?

I was approached by Donald Glover about the series in late 2021, while we were finishing up principal photography of “Atlanta” season four. The idea of doing a bigger genre piece with the same core creative team from “Atlanta” sounded like a really fun next step. In prep, there was very little discussion about the original “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” film. On occasion we would watch a specific scene or shot that Donald or Francesca wanted to pay homage to, but by and large we wanted to avoid borrowing too hard from the film. Stylistically and visually, we wanted this show to exist on its own.

Why did you decide to shoot in large format with the ALEXA Mini LF?

Given the genre and era that we were referencing, there was a long discussion in prep about either shooting the series on film or printing to film in post. I shot side-by-sides of Kodak 5219 and ALEXA Mini LF, and explored both quite extensively with our colorist Damien van der Cruyssen. Damien and the color science team at Harbor came up with a really incredible in-camera LUT and a post recipe to emulate what we liked about the 5219 look, so in the end we all collectively decided that the ALEXA Mini LF was the right route to take.

Ultimately, we carried four camera bodies and had cameras in all sorts of complicated scenarios. On an extremely fast-paced TV shooting schedule, the small size and agility of the Mini LF, paired with the freedom that a full-frame sensor allows, felt like the perfect choice for our show.

How did you collaborate with other creative team members to find a look for the show?

I am lucky enough to have spent many years developing a very strong shorthand with two of our directors, Hiro Murai and Donald Glover, in addition to my core team of gaffer Cody Jacobs and DIT Chris Hoyle. Hiro, Donald, and I spent a lot of time discussing the visuals and sharing references with each other, as well as with production designer Gerry Sullivan and colorist Damien van der Cruyssen. While building the look of the show and designing our show LUT, Cody Jacobs and Chris Hoyle joined me in the DI suite and weighed in on many decisions. It’s really a team effort and I trust the opinion of these guys as much as my own.

Which characteristics of the Moviecam lenses appealed to you, and how did they contribute to the visual aesthetic?

I had only seen test footage of the Moviecams, so early on in preproduction I arranged for myself and a few of our key crew to spend a day with them. The soft skin tones and warm highlights and flares really nailed the look and feel of 1970s/1980s cinema that I was after, and at the same time, the wider focal lengths were well corrected for distortion. They just seemed to handle our sets and our actors with the perfect balance of vintage sharpness and ever-present character that was not distracting.

How did you balance the action sequences with more intimate moments in terms of your cinematography?

From day one, the goal was always for the audience to forget that the show had action sequences and instead to be lost in the interpersonal relationship story of John and Jane Smith. This meant approaching their intimate narrative in a very honest and soulful way. We strived to be intentional with our lighting and our blocking so that the actors felt free to give honest and grounded performances. Often this meant lighting or covering a scene to give room for improvisation and the trick was how to do that while still maintaining a consistent visual aesthetic. All of this was carefully crafted so that when their world suddenly explodes, the audience feels literally thrust into something foreign and at times very uncomfortable.

What was it like taking on a directing role for episode four?

Serving as the director for episode four was an incredible experience. Not only did I get to step into a new set of shoes with new responsibilities and new skills to explore, but it was also unbelievably exciting because my very dear friend and collaborator of more than 20 years, Cody Jacobs, stepped up from his position of series lead gaffer into the DP role. The two of us having the opportunity to collaborate in this new way was one of the highlights of the series for me.

What other challenging or rewarding moments were there on the show for you?

The most challenging and fun sequences of the show were our car chases in episode two in New York City, and in episode five in Italy. We had a very complicated stunt sequence that took place all through lower Manhattan at night, in the rain, which required heavy stunt rigs, multiple units shooting in multiple cities, camera cars, live SFX, wet downs, and VFX vehicles.

And yet, none of that compared to our Lake Como car chase shoot-out scene in episode five, which had most of those same components but now on an extremely narrow mountain road and with our lead actors shooting and dodging bullets! Each required months of previz, extra scouting, complicated coordination with local authorities, and an extreme amount of planning on behalf of the AD team, the stunt team, and the camera team. These sequences required a lot of additional camera equipment and we felt very well supported by our friends at ARRI Rental in accomplishing these complicated shoot days.