Getting the Many Looks of Key and Peele
Director, DP, and Colorist Go for a Different Kind of Sketch-Show Visual
Comedy Central’s Key and Peele spares no one with its unfettered humor. Now in their third season, stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have taken on Dominican baseball players, Mafia hit men, vampires, DEA agents and interracial couples. A classic sketch from the show’s first season centers on a hyperbolic “Anger Translator” hired by President Obama. The current season’s debut featured an elaborate parody of Les Miserables where the villain, played by Peele, becomes incensed by the scene-stealing antics of the show’s leads.
The look of Key and Peele is as diverse as its subject matter. Directed by Peter Atencio, the show is shot by cinematographer Charles Papert, primarily on the ARRI Alexa, and finished at MTI Film, where colorist Steve Porter grades the show on a Nucoda Film Master. Atencio, Papert and Porter employ an array of lighting, camera and grading techniques to fashion a wide-ranging assortment of visual aesthetics — meaning each sketch gets its own look.
The Les Mis parody is cast in the rich, moody tones of its big-screen counterpart. A bit about a martial-arts instructor is made to look like a bargain-basement infomercial. “Each show includes five or six sketches, so every three minutes there’s a new look,” explains Atencio. “Charles and I consider all the different tools that we can use to tell the story more effectively or establish the world where the story takes place. Part of the fun is in using those tools.”
Papert says the show chose Alexa as its primary camera system because of its versatility and raw capture support. “We’ve created a lot of film looks with Alexa,” he says. “We’ve done 1930s [and] 1950s Technicolor. The Alexa has been amazing in that regard.
"I use limited filtration and aim for a meaty exposure that allows us latitude to create the final look in post-production, where it's more cost-effective. On set, we build custom LUTs for each sketch that carry into the grading suite as a reference. Often they are quite close, but there's always room for discussion and experimentation.”
In choosing a colorist for the show, Atencio and Papert looked for someone who could fully engage with its unusual comic sensibilities. “We wanted someone who could take it to the next level,” Atencio recalls. “We liked Steve’s energy and style. He had strong opinions, but he was also willing to listen. That’s what we wanted in a collaborator.”
Each episode of Key and Peele goes through offline editorial before it arrives at MTI Film. Once the MXF files and EDL are loaded into his Nucoda system, Porter begins working through each sketch, usually with Atencio and Papert in attendance. “It’s a very collaborative effort and the sketch-comedy format leaves a lot of room to be creative, so it’s fun,” Porter says. “Charles always gives me great material. He has an impeccable eye, and the way he uses the Alexa allows me almost unlimited choices as to where to take the color.”
Those choices often lead far from standard comedy color grading. “A lot of the looks aren’t classic comedy,” Porter says. “We sometimes go for very dark blacks and contrasty images because that’s what works for the subject matter and Key and Peele’s particular brand of humor. Normally, comedy lands at the top of the range because you don’t want the audience to have to work too hard to find what they’re looking for. This show is more nuanced, complex.”
Atencio agrees, but says careful viewers may discern certain aesthetic values that prevail throughout. “There’s consistency in the taste of Charles and Steve,” he says. “We like our blacks at a certain level, not super-crushed, and we don’t like low contrast. We’re all in the same ballpark in terms of the hues and color palettes that we’re drawn to and prefer, for a certain kind of storytelling.”
Creating the many looks required by the show can be daunting, especially given its tight schedule, Papert points out, “but it’s also very rewarding. One sketch may have gorgeous visuals, while the next may look purposely low-budget, but both are equally satisfying to me, because that’s how they're meant to be,” he says.
It also helps, adds Atencio, to have a post-production partner who shares the show's sense of fun — and commitment. “MTI Film has been great,” he says. “No matter what we throw at them, they handle it in the blink of an eye. If it’s important to the show, it’s important to them.”