Christopher Manley ASC on MAD MEN

Christopher Manley ASC on MAD MEN

After seven celebrated seasons and four Emmys for Best Drama, MAD MEN concluded as the 60s decade came to a close. For six of those seasons, Christopher Manley ASC served as director of photography. His cinematography on MAD MEN garnered four Emmy nominations and two ASC nods. Starting in 2012, he also directed episodes from each season. Manley recently received another Emmy nod for his cinematography work on THE SECRET LIFE OF MARILYN MONROE. We talked to Manley about shooting MAD MEN's striking look, the switch from film to ALEXA and his jump to the director's chair.

How would you describe the look of the show?

The camera language of the film was set up in season one by Phil Abraham and we more or less adhered to that. They did a lot of low angles, which tends to make the characters look heroic. Also, they liked fluorescents in the ceiling of the office as a compositional element. Before I joined the show, I watched the whole first season in one day. The camera vocabulary they were using was from the period. All the lenses were a moderate range: 25 mm for wide shots, 50 mm for medium and 75 mm for close-ups which weren't even that close, more like MCUs (medium close-ups). They weren't giving anyone haircuts, they kept it pretty loose, which is a very old-fashioned style. I liked that a lot and the whole discipline of it all, because not many television shows did that. They didn't cut very often and they let the shots play out, which I liked very much. These are the reasons why it felt very period. I continued with that when I started and we agreed that we shouldn't move the camera in a way that it could not move in the 1960's, so we never used Steadicam until season six.

And lighting the show?

The lighting has evolved over the years. When I started season two, I studied the lighting from season one and found it to have a more classic Hollywood studio look. I tried to emulate that as much as possible. In getting to know Matt and learning his tastes, I discovered that he didn't really like that and wanted a more naturalistic look. That lighting style is my preference and so I started doing more of that -- using more window light, more soft source lighting. When we started, we were in 1961-62 and we went all the way up to 1969. Coincidentally, that's what happened during that time in cinematography as well. They moved away from harder Fresnels, film stocks became faster, more bounce lights were being used. It all coincided with what cinematography was doing in the 1960's, which was fortunate and interesting.

Switching to the ALEXA in season five helped me to do that because we could go more naturalistic and use more found lighting. We started using smaller units and more bounce lights because the chip was so sensitive, but not so much in the offices because the light level there was dictated by overhead fluorescents. I have to build up to that level, but in the other sets like characters’ homes, hotels, bedrooms, etc., I was using more practicals and motivated practicals, along with very small units to supplement the practicals. I love doing that.

What ARRI fixtures were used on the show?

When we went on location, we were using ARRIMAX all the way. We had two ARRIMAXes and two M40s all the time. We usually got additional M40s because I love them. We used the M18s all the time also. We used them mostly for day interior scenes on location.

The show switched from film to ALEXA starting in season five. How did that transition go?

When Lionsgate approached the producers about switching to digital, Executive Producer Scott Hornbacher asked me about it. I had already shot the HOMELAND and REVENGE pilots with the ALEXA. I told him I had shot a lot of digital and the only camera I would even consider would be the ALEXA. He talked to (showrunner/creator) Matt [Weiner] who said if Lionsgate would pay for a full day of testing, side-by-side, film vs. ALEXA, then he would consider it. We did it.

We had our principal stand-ins in full hair, makeup and wardrobe. We shot in all of our standing sets along with some exteriors with period cars. It was a full day of shooting and the results were really educational. In our Sterling Cooper office set, there are a lot of whites and off-whites, from the mids to the upper range. The biggest difference I found was contamination in the whites. If there were any mixed lighting sources, film would see it. This surface would be a little magenta, that one a little green, this one a little blue, and that one warmer. The ALEXA seemed to eliminate those issues. You could say it created a purer look.

It's all about perception, how our eyes and brain perceive things. If we look at a white wall with color contamination, our brain will turn it white, even though it may not be white. ALEXA is on the edge of our perception of color. That was really interesting. It made film seem old-fashioned and quaint in comparison, which you could argue would be a good reason to keep it for a period show. In the film there was a lot more grain in the highlights than I realized. Having used film for so long, most people were concerned with grain in the shadows and when it is underexposed. We have a lot of solid, white, large elements in our show and you could see the grain crawling in the image. Of course, ALEXA has none. Seeing the ALEXA footage versus the film footage actually made me more aware of the grain, when I hadn't really noticed it before.

How did the skin tones compare on film and ALEXA?

I did a lot of work on set trying to balance lighting sources to the overhead fluorescents in the office. The fluorescents were color corrected movie fluorescents, but they still had a bit of green spike in them. We had some really pale-skinned actors, like Christina Hendricks and Aaron Staton. When you mix lighting sources with them you can see one side of their face and the other side is a different hue. It used to drive the colorist crazy -- even though I am within one or two points of color correction -- you can still feel those differences. With the ALEXA, that all went away.

Matthew Wiener noticed this in the coloring. He was on the fence for the longest time because he was a die-hard film guy and a big cinephile. He was very reluctant to switch. The ALEXA reproduced the wardrobe colors exactly how we saw them on set. The wardrobe didn't shift at all; none of the blues or greens shifted. We hadn't known how much film could shift the colors of fabric. It wasn't until we saw them side-by-side that we noticed a suit could be teal, but with film it looked a little more blue. Matthew also likes to blow up shots occasionally, and with the ALEXA we could do that much easier than we could with negative.  I was happy shooting film because I felt like it might be the last time I would shoot with film. I was also happy to shoot ALEXA because I was going into my fourth year. If we switched formats after all these years, I could try new things and bring a different approach to the show. It would be creatively energizing for me. Either way, I was fine with whatever Matthew decided. We discussed the pros and cons of both. Matthew felt like he wasn't being true to himself by switching from film, but in the end he felt that the benefits exceeded that.

After directing episodes, did your approach as a cinematographer change?

It changed pretty much right away. When I started directing, my biggest concern was that I wouldn't be able to give up the photography. That ended up being the easiest thing to do. It was all-consuming trying to deal with the actors, trying to mold a performance and go deep into the subtext of the script on a whole new level. That process was so consuming that I didn't even think about the cinematography. Don Devine, my camera operator, did a great job so I didn't really have a whole lot of worries.

What I learned directing was that waiting for lighting is excruciating for your director. It made me much faster and much more aware of how painful it is as a director to watch your day slip away. The other thing I learned is how painful it is to be in the editing room and not have a shot that I needed. As a DP, it made me faster. I have always been sympathetic to directors, but it made me more so. Also it made me fight even harder to get a shot for them. I don't want them to be in the editing room and be disappointed because there wasn't enough time to get a certain shot. That has made me a little less precious about the photography, so maybe it has made me a lesser cinematographer in regards to the final look [laughs]... But as an advocate for the director, it has made me much better.

You mentioned earlier that camera movement was influenced by what was available during the time period, but for the story, what motivates the camera movement?

We used to do it a lot more because there were a lot of interior moments where people felt very isolated and alone. That is when we used to push in on their faces or pull out through a doorway. Over the years as we got to know the characters, the stories became denser and there were less reflective moments for characters than there were in the earlier seasons. Occasionally, there's an episode where at the end, we check in with the characters to see how they're doing. We used pans, wipes, dissolves and had one shot lead into the next shot of another character. Those are really fun to do, but those opportunities are not that common. Usually when we did it, we would do a static shot as a safety because it may be overdone and in the context of the cut, it may not work.

We have a lot of aspiring cinematographers who read these articles. Any advice?

The best advice I can give is to shoot as much as you can, and keep low overhead so you don't have to give up low or no-pay DP jobs because you need to take a job in another position for more money. You're going to have to work for free for a long time and you have to afford to be able to shoot for free.

Watch your favorite movies with the sound off. It's the best way to learn as a cinematographer and as an editor. If you watch it first with sound, then immediately replay it with the sound off, then you will really notice all the cinematography, editing, coverage, the blocking, the lighting. Some movies that I really love, I will watch slowed down on my DVD player. For instance, I remember doing that with the great action sequences in THE MATRIX. We have the tools now to analyze films in a way that my generation didn't have when we were learning.