Having worked in the camera department on various high-profile films (Furious 7, La La Land) and TV series (Big Little Lies, The Vampire Diaries), along with shooting a handful of short films, Robert E. Arnold takes on his first series as cinematographer on Netflix’s Astronomy Club, an ambitious 6-episode sketch series from America’s next great wave of comedic actors.
Mixing pop culture (Robin Hood, Mary Poppins, Boyz ‘n the Hood, The Twilight Zone) with parody, the sketches tackle black culture, racism, sexism and social issues in easily digestible 30-minute episodes.
Spearheaded by an all-black cast, Arnold explains that he got the gig because he could shoot cinematically.
“They wanted to be super cinematic; not overly lit like a high-key sitcom. This matched the style I wanted to focus on.
“[Traditionally] Sketch comedy is super overly lit, looks like a sitcom opposed to something you’d expect to see in a film. Cinematic style is completely different; a lot of things play in medium-shot or wide-shot in comedy. You seldom punch in to do close-ups or extreme-close-ups. The camera movement is a lot more subtle.
“That was challenging because I love the moving camera and seeing characters have vast spans of movement within their blocking. For Astronomy Club this was a lot more contained. And the lighting style, even though I wanted and was hired to make it look cinematic, I had to keep a certain light level, so things weren’t too contrasty. The element of comedy is light, bright, and I had to find the fine line of balancing out the lighting ratios, so it still felt like comedy but with taste and flair to it.”
Arnold’s challenge was taking 30 sketches (minus the interstitials) and make them look like short films.
“The shooting schedule was nuts,” he admits. “2-3 sketches a day and we were shooting 12-hour days. It was challenging because they wanted a cinematic aesthetic, but the budget didn’t allow for me to have all the bells and whistles to apply that for certain sketches. I didn’t have a rigging crew to pre-light ahead of time. One of our sketches takes place in a game show setting and I didn’t have a demo board operator, so it was pretty challenging for my gaffer to hit all the cues in a timely manner on an ipad versus having an actual demo board with a technician to control it.”
Robert E. Arnold is the first to admit that not all of the sketches hit a bullseye, however, he is very proud to have worked on this ground-breaking show. “I think like all sketch comedy some of them fall short, that’s to be expected, but comedy is the best medicine. It’s a great tool to heal people when they are down and sad. People love to laugh so it’s cool that I’ve been able to contribute to that.
“We had so much fun onset, we were laughing hysterically every day, all day and quite often. That made for the challenges quite light and airy. I could tell myself ‘I know why I’m doing this. I’m glad I signed on for this. This is extremely worth it’.”
Astronomy Club is streaming on Netflix