Cloud City On A Shoestring

Written by and starring MADtv veterans Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, Comedy Central’s sketch comedy series Key and Peele has emerged as something of a sleeper hit for the network. Already renewed for another season, just weeks after the third season began airing last fall, the series features a wide variety of humorous bits (more than 200 thus far), all directed by Peter Atencio and shot by director of photography Charles Papert, a cinematographer with an extensive feature and TV history as camera and Steadicam operator.

Each season, the cinematographer receives a massive bible of scripts some weeks out from the commencement of production, allowing him and the director to begin planning how to tackle the more elaborate skits. "For every large-scale spot, we compensate by shooting three others very simply, usually just a master and coverage of each of the guys," he explains. "That lets us keep up with the demands of production while also staying economy-minded."

Production functions in a cycle, proceeding from a week of prep to two weeks of shooting and back again, with at least two sketches being shot each day, and nearly all of them taking place at different locations. "We have no standing stages, no resources to carry over from one sketch to the next, except when we revisit the same characters," says the cinematographer. "Working on location exclusively means we’re going from apartments to trailer homes and sometimes to stages with existing sets that our art department can modify and dress up to work for our needs."

Papert’s gaffer and key grip accompany him on each location scout. "We’ll scout on a Monday for the next block of sketches, so that means looking at about two dozen locations that day," explains Papert. "We’ll go all over the area, from Whittier to Santa Clarita. Peter will have done a creative scout and let us know that his intent is to shoot in a particular direction, letting us know which walls will be visible, so we know what we need to worry about. As I take all this in, it’s a matter of coming up with an idea for lighting pretty much on the fly. I talk it over with my guys in broad strokes. So I’m spending 10 minutes with Pete, another 10 with my guys, and then it’s back in the van and onto the next."

Papert readily acknowledges that some locations aren’t 100% ideal. "We might find our guys on a sofa in front of a white wall and aren’t permitted to paint the wall darker. So, in that situation, I would be subtracting light, taking the wall down, while at the same time building it up on the actors, reshuffling the values as needed creatively."