A SMASH hit: Q&A with David Mullen, ASC

NBC's musical series SMASH looks at the mounting of a Broadway show about Marilyn Monroe from the perspectives of the creators, actors and producers. Shot by David Mullen, ASC (Shelly Johnson, ASC, had cinematography duties for the pilot), SMASH mixes moments of straightforward drama, all-out Broadway-style musical numbers, lower-key performances in nightclubs and karaoke bars, and routines that occur inside characters' fantasies. Shot with ARRI ALEXA cameras on stages and locations throughout New York, the show is executive produced by Steven Spielberg and packed full of stars, including Katharine McPhee, Debra Messing and Anjelica Huston. ARRI News caught up with Mullen to talk about his use of ALEXA on the show.

ARRI News: Were you involved in choosing ALEXA for SMASH?

David Mullen: Shelly Johnson shot the pilot with the ALEXA so it was already decided, but that would have been what I proposed anyway - I like the camera. The sensor is very good and the ergonomics of the body helps us keep moving; the ALEXA can go very quickly from handheld mode to Steadicam mode to studio mode.  

AN: The camera has a number of recording options. Which configuration do you use?

DM: We record to the internal SxS PRO cards, using Apple ProRes 4444. We also use the ARRI Look Creator software, which allows us to build a look into the Rec 709 output to the monitors without having to carry LUT boxes and all that entails. I've also created a conversion LUT at Technicolor in New York for dailies that matches the look we've created for the cameras.

AN: This is your first time shooting musical numbers like this. Have any specific references inspired your work?

DM: Shelly Johnson and I both watched a lot of movies with the director, Michael Mayer, before we started working on the show. We watched Carlos Suara's CARMEN AND TANGO. We watched Bob Fosse's TV special “Liza with a Z” and CABARET. And, interestingly, we watched a lot of Woody Allen movies specifically for dialogue scenes. We play the more straightforward, dramatic scenes in wider shots with somewhat loose coverage that lets the actors move through the frame and lets the audience see the environment. It's not a lot of tight shots and cuts.

AN: How different is shooting a musical from the work you've done before in films and TV?

DM: Each musical number demands its own lighting and photographic style; I'll change filters and colors based on what it needs. The style of the camera coverage is based on what type of musical number it is. I'm helped enormously because my A-camera/Steadicam operator, Jeff Muhlstock, has a background in shooting live musical events and he's very experienced at it. We see a couple of rehearsals and he memorizes all the choreography, so he can move in there with the Steadicam and he's in the right spot at the right moment.

AN: Do you like musicals yourself?

DM: I'm a big fan of old MGM Technicolor musicals and it's in the back of my mind all the time how those old movies were shot. Generally, the approach on SMASH is to stage and perform the musical numbers as they might be seen by a Broadway audience; we see the dancing often from head-to-toe or in medium shot. So again, not a lot of cuts and close-ups of feet dancing or things like that. The performers are really good and there's no reason to hide anything.

AN: What's it like lighting for all the musical routines?

DM: There are different situations depending on the scope of the number. For the big stage numbers they bring in lighting designer Donald Holder, who does Spiderman and other big Broadway shows. He has the tools to build elaborate light shows that then can be synched using the SMPTE time code to the playback audio. Then for the smaller numbers my gaffer, Bill Almeida, and I work out lighting cues that can be done with our dimmer boards.

AN: Is there enough light from Holder'’s stage show fixtures for you to get a good exposure?

DM: Oh yes - if anything some of the high-intensity LED units he uses give off more light than I want. I'm generally shooting at EI 800 and I usually don't want to close down beyond a T4, which sometimes means I'll use ND filters. I also shoot a lot of the dance numbers with a 90-degree shutter and that costs me some light, but I still have plenty of light to work with and plenty of depth of field.

AN: At the other extreme, do you use ALEXA’'s EI 800 base sensitivity to work in low light situations?

DM: Yes. It's very useful for location work because we move around to real bars and restaurants a lot and I often don't get to scout these places, as we’re shooting all the time. But in most cases I know I'll have enough light to shoot with the ALEXA, using just a minimal amount of lighting to augment the actors' faces. I won't have to light a whole restaurant from front to back; we might add some small table lamps or some Linestra tubes behind bottles at the bar to bring up the level, but I try to use as much of the natural ambience as I can.

AN: How do you like shooting in New York?

DM: I'’d worked in Hoboken, New Jersey and on Long Island before, but this is the first time I've really shot in the city. Architecturally it's a beautiful city to photograph, especially for someone from Los Angeles like me; I've even taken up stills photography in my spare time.