When it’s pilot season at Amazon a bunch of dramas battle for the golden ticket of being ‘picked up’, but does the look help?
Written and directed by Amy Sherman-Palladino, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a fifties tale of a wife being dumped by her husband only to find her true vocation as a stand-up comedian. For LA-based DOP M. David Mullen ASC, the goal, as always, was to pick a look that would serve the story. “Early discussions centred around the challenge of recreating the New York of the 1950s. Amazon had just done another period series set in New York, Good Girls Revolt, but had shot it in Los Angeles. However, the production felt strongly that the real Manhattan landscape allowed plenty of visual opportunities to recreate the past while naturally providing textures that were unique to this city.
“Production designer Bill Groom and his staff did a lot of historical research in terms of what the original Gaslight Café looked like, what the streets of Greenwich Village looked like, the Upper West Side and all that stuff,” says David. “The movie Inside Llewyn Davis came out three years before, which dealt with the same time period and similar settings such as the Gaslight Café so I looked at that as well as the reference material to see how they tackled it. However, the melancholy, cold wintertime look of that movie wasn’t applicable to our story, which is more colourful and upbeat.”
The Coen Brothers and DOP Bruno Delbonnel had created a very dark Gaslight Café interior for their movie, often with strong spotlight on the stage performances. “It was striking and dramatic, but I realised that for our story, since half the action involved the audience, not just the performers, I needed to add more light to the outer areas. We built the Gaslight inside a black box theatre space in the Lower East Side – for the rest of the series we are building it on a sound stage. Though in general I was aiming for a natural look for the lighting, since the Gaslight was inside a windowless room, there was no natural daylight. So all the lighting in there was artificial, theatrical. We had some practical lighting – a few table lamps and hanging fixtures – but being a club space it seemed correct to use theatrical stage lighting fixtures. Since the real Gaslight was in a basement space, we had a stairwell leading down to it that matched a stairwell coming from the street level. We used a street in the East Village because Greenwich Village has changed too much to be able to restore it to its 1950s appearance.
Refining The Look
Watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel does remind you of the early Mad Men episodes. Ironically, David shot one episode of Mad Men but there was no conscious decision to mimic that hit show. “For me it was more about getting to know the director’s camera style from what she did on Gilmore Girls,” he says. “One of the reasons I got to interview for this job was because I had done a number of projects with Jamie Babbit, a director who had done episodes of Bunheads and Gilmore Girls; she recommended me to Amy.
“So I watched what they did on Gilmore Girls and I knew that Amy had a style that involves lots of fast dialogue and actor movement captured with a moving camera – often very quickly moving – with few cuts to coverage. The challenge on the pilot was going to be to move the camera through multiple rooms in real apartments in New York as opposed to shooting on a soundstage.”
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is finished to UHD and HDR and shot in 3.2K ProRes on the ALEXAand then converted in post to 3.8K UHD. “The camera does allow you to up-res internally to UHD,” says David. “But there doesn’t seem to be any point because the difference between recording 3.2K and 3.8K just means you are going to use more memory with 3.8K. You might as well shoot 3.2K and then up-res afterwards.
“We shoot Log-C gamma and that allows me to finish in UHD. I took some tests to Light Iron in New York to view in UHD and HDR with colourist Steven Bodner – although on the set we monitored in regular HD.” Panavision supplied the cameras so the lenses were Primos combined with Angenieux zooms and a Panavision 19-90mm zoom, but most of the pilot was shot with the Primo prime lenses. “We had a little bit of diffusion throughout the shoot, mostly a 1/4 Schneider Hollywood Black Magic. This was something the director had done on the recent Gilmore Girls movies for Netflix and she likes that look. I tested a bunch of other filters in prep as well but she ended up picking the Hollywood Black Magic.
“I used the same filter when I shot the TV show Smash; it’s fairly subtle. Amazon suggested that we not overly soften the image nor do any kind of film grain emulation for a period look – things that would make it harder to make the UHD/HDR version. We tested everything up through UHD and HDR to make sure it looked good. Sometimes when the image has visible grain or noise in it, it looks OK in standard dynamic range but can get more aggressive-looking when you’re brightening all your highlights for HDR, so we had to check all that.
“I did find that if you pushed the camera to higher ISO levels the noise was more obvious in HDR than it was in SDR so I kept that in mind. It wasn’t a big problem as I only boosted the ISO for some night exterior work in the Greenwich Village scenes. Some shots were done at 1280 ISO to get enough exposure from the street lights and the neon signs, but most of the pilot was shot at 800 or 1000 ISO.”
There is a tendency when you do ‘period’ to make things desaturated or slightly faded but this material, being a comedy with dramatic elements, needed a certain energy without being too muted looking. David trusted the production design and costumes (by Donna Zakowska) to create the period look, without relying so much on the photography to add any patina. So the diffusion filtration was used to be more romantic and flattering than it was to add a period look.
“In terms of the saturation a lot of that came from the sets and wardrobe. In my research, it was interesting to see movies shot recently that are set in the 50s versus movies shot in the 50s in terms of colour reproduction. I call 1950s colour ‘aggressively pastel’: strong pinks and cyans or pale greens that are very dominant when they’re in the frame because they are often offset by neutral grey or brown walls. That gives you a poster-like quality to the colours that’s very graphic.
“I wanted the lighting to be natural but flattering and not too theatrical. I didn’t want the locations to look like soundstage sets with too much backlighting or individual spots on areas – plus the fact that the camera was sometimes racing through small rooms in these apartments meant that I couldn’t really hang a lot of lights anyway. So a lot of those rooms were lit with a combination of practical lamps and natural daylight and then I would sometimes hide a soft light, usually in the ceiling. We often mounted LED Sourcemaker Blankets up there so I could dim them way down and create a soft key light that was so tight to the ceiling that it wouldn’t show up in the camera movements. Other times I would bounce a tungsten or HMI lamp, depending on the colour temperature I wanted. For instance, in the lobby of the apartment building I used an HMI Source-4 Leko for a ceiling bounce. I think the soft light, being less shadowy, helped bring out those 50s colours.”
We are first introduced to Mrs. Maisel at her wedding reception dinner. “The venue was a large ballroom in a college in the Upper West Side,’ says David. “It had a white ceiling so I first thought I could try bouncing off of it but the trouble was that we planned such extreme wide shots in that room there was no floor area off-camera to place a light. The ceiling was very broad and smooth, so there were no architectural elements to rig off of.
“I decided to float a balloon light over the centre of the room. In general, I didn’t want to give the pilot a golden, sepia-toned look because I wanted a range of colours, but the question was whether this wedding, which was also a flashback, should have a romantic warmth to it. I also had to consider that this room had windows and the scene would be shot in the daytime.
“One of the inspirations for the set was the wedding of Joan Rivers’ daughter, Melissa. She had used the movie Dr. Zhivago and its winter scenes as the basis for her design. I knew our wedding reception was going to have a similar look so instead of going for a warm tone, I decided to set the ALEXA to 3200K colour temperature and then light the centre of the room with white tungsten balloon light, but have uncorrected daylight come in through the windows. This would add a blue ambience to the side of the rooms. At the back of the room on a stage was a musical band in front of silver curtains which I lit with daylight Kino Flos. So I had her surrounded by cold blue light with white light on her in the centre of the room. This scene was intercut with flashbacks even earlier in time, which I tried to shoot in colours that would contrast with the blue tones of the wedding – one flashback, for example, was at a nightclub and I used mostly red lighting in it.”
A lot of the camera movement was done on an ALEXA Mini mounted to a Steadicam, operated by Maceo Bishop; the shoot also used a Technocrane. “We had four days of shooting in the Gaslight and for one of them we got a 30’ Technocrane in so we could move over the heads of people in the audience,” continues David. “This was for her big comedy act at the end and we wanted a lot of angles and movement. We had three cameras with one of them on the crane.” However, for the most part, this was a single-camera shoot because so many scenes were staged with a Steadicam following actors through various rooms.
“The final colour correction at Light Iron NYC matched the look of dailies for the most part, preserving the rich colours of the sets and wardrobe as much as possible. “I was back in Los Angeles by the time the picture was locked, so I sat in Light Iron’s facility in Hollywood while working with colourist Steven Bodner live in New York.”
The show has been picked up for two seasons with Amazon and inherits the budget and paraphernalia of a greenlit show. But watching the pilot and hearing the background production story has you in awe of what can be achieved with what some would call guerrilla filmmaking.
The Marvelous Mrs Maisel pilot is currently available on Amazon Video.