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Lights on Broadway: Cinematographer David Mullen's Methods for 'Smash'

3/21/2012 11:00 AM Eastern

Cinematographer David Mullen, ASC (Big Love, United States of Tara), takes on some unusual lighting challenges for his work on the musical theater-themed NBC series Smash. The show, from Universal Television and DreamWorks, examines the world of Broadway theater through the experiences of a disparate group of characters mounting a Marilyn Monroe-themed musical production they hope will take the Great White Way by storm. Smash follows the creators, producers, stars, and those hoping for stardom (the cast includes Debra Messing, Katharine McPhee, Anjelica Huston and many others) as it takes an entertaining and dramatic look at the magic of the theater from a wide array of perspectives.

  
Photo by Patrick Randak/NBC

Settings for the show run the gamut from all-out stage musical numbers to naturalistic storytelling that follows various characters through the tribulations of their personal and professional lives during this highly charged period. Lighting for the musical numbers is overseen by Broadway theatrical lighting director Donald Holder (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark), who has the time and tools to mount actual numbers as he would for a live show; he can spend two days programming lighting cues to the SMPTE timecode of the music playback and then work with Mullen on the day of the shoot to refine the work for camera. What may be a perfect light show for a live audience might require quite a bit of fine-tuning where two or even three Steadicam or crane-mounted cameras need to get in close to the performers.

"We go through shot by shot, and when we spot a shadow that doesn't belong there, he can go in and alter his program to maybe use a different light from somewhere else to accomplish the same effect," says Mullen of his collaboration with Holder.

In between these full-fledged theatrical numbers and the regular dramatic scenes that occur in rehearsal halls, offices and apartments, however, another sort of "reality" is apparent in Smash. In this reality, the viewer is watching something "real" that's enhanced by the characters' vivid imaginations. Creating these often quite elaborate musical sequences is entirely the responsibility of Mullen and his lighting crew, led by gaffer Bill Almeida.

"These scenes can take place anywhere," says Mullen. "We can be in the middle of a [traditionally shot] scene and suddenly the room becomes a more fantastical place and the character starts to break into song in their mind. Other times you're not supposed to be sure where they are. They're in a kind of limbo, singing, dancing. These scenes can run the gamut between very simple and very complicated. I'm learning by trial and error what are the best ways of creating these moments that aren't full-on Broadway stage numbers or normal dramatic scenes, but are something in between."

  
Director of photography David Mullen
Photo by Patrick Harbron/NBC

While the Broadway lighting makes extensive use of HMI and LED units, Mullen prefers to use tungsten light wherever possible. "I like the dimability of tungsten lights," he explains. "I constantly need to adjust the light output by very small amounts, and it's so easy to either run them through a dimmer board or put them on Variacs before we roll. I also think that for cinematography, tungsten is a nicer color light on the face. HMIs and LEDs can have a small green bias or other tints where I feel I'm not getting a true 'white light' out of them."

The series is shot on a number of stages in the New York area (in the Long Island City portion of Queens and in Brooklyn's Greenpoint). The show makes use of a relatively small stage in a converted warehouse—its ceilings are too low to stage elaborate Donald Holder musical sequences, but it's flexible enough to accommodate performances that either appear to be on a stage (though the "audience" must be obscured by blackness or lens flare) or take place in a limbo world inside a character's imagination.

Since these scenes are either partially or entirely fantasy, Mullen explains, the traditional concerns about "motivation" of the light really don't matter.

Mullen has tried quite a few approaches to give each of these fantasy or semi-fantasy numbers a unique feel. "Sometimes I'll get some intense backlighting from 'firestarter' PAR cans, and then I'll just fill the actor's face with a white card right by the camera. Of course, that's not something you would do in a real stage show, but it's a nice effect [for the camera]."

Mullen explains that these types of scenes allow for just enough theatricality to set the mood without fully declaring themselves as "musical numbers." "I might use an ETC Source Four as a follow spot," he elaborates, "or maybe I'll have a 2K Chimera on a dimmer that could subtly fade up and give me a very soft key light."

The first of these hybrid-type scenes that Mullen shot featured McPhee's character, Karen, inside a dance rehearsal space lit by daylight through windows; the sequence transforms in her mind into a fully realized routine with McPhee in character as Marilyn Monroe performing a number called "The 20th Century Fox Mambo."

  
(L-R seated) Christian Borle as Tom, Debra Messing as Julia,
Anjelica Huston as Eileen. (In mirror, center) Megan Hilty as Ivy Bell
Photo by Will Hart/NBC

"The space has a low warehouse ceiling with just some overhead fluorescent lighting," the cinematographer says. "Our fluorescents aren't dimmable—they're either on or off—so I knew I couldn't have one lighting cue where the room would transform from fluorescent to a stage show look. In that case, we conceived of hiding the transition in a cut rather than a dimmer board cue. There is a hard cut to the fantasy, and I gelled all the windows on the set with a deep pink gel and I put rows of old-fashioned-looking movie lights—open-eyed 5Ks—in a row right outside the windows in front of the New York City backdrop. We took the lighting off the backing and left the 5Ks and a smaller row of PAR cans all pointed into the camera lens through this pink gel. We put a gold gel over [an ETC] Source Four and used that as a follow spot on her.

"So that was how we transformed this bright fluorescent-lit space into a darker area with pink and gold lighting," Mullen continues. "Then we had the 5Ks and the PAR cans on a dimmer board, and our dimmer board operator, working on the fly, could flash them up at full intensity during peak moments in the song and then dim them back to a lower level so they were kind of pulsing to the music."

One set was initially built to represent the stage and backstage at a Broadway theater. We find several of the show's characters at this location while they're on another production and developing the Marilyn-themed musical. "For the pilot, they shot those scenes at the St. George Theatre on Staten Island," says Mullen. "They have a big stage where we could shoot large Broadway numbers and a backstage area where a lot of scenes could take place. But it's difficult to get to Staten Island and so they decided to build that backstage area on one of our warehouse stages, along with a blank, empty stage that could work in the background.

We dressed [that stage] with real lights but originally intended to shoot only scenes there that were set after hours, when there was nothing actually happening on stage. Our scene might be set when it's pre-show and you see just a few people setting up, or we'd be there after hours."

  
(L-R) Executive producer David Marshall Grant
and director of photography David Mullen behind the scenes
Photo by Patrick Harbron/NBC

But once producers saw there was this small-scale version of a Broadway stage available, they decided to use the space for some of the fantasy stage numbers, Mullen says. "Normally, the big truss columns of PAR cans and Lecos were just there as set dressing, but they're all wired to work, so we've been using the stage to do musical numbers when they're happening in someone's mind. We do them as 360-degree Steadicam moves, and if the camera is pointing to where the audience would be, we just see a black void with lights flaring into the lens.

"My dimmer board operator has to have all the lights cued," Mullen says. "As the Steadicam operator circles a performer, I want to always be backlit no matter where the camera is so we're not throwing a camera shadow on the singer. That requires us to fade up four different directions during the course of a shot. Sometimes there might also be more than a single color of gel that we want to alter during a move. That's where we're really pushing the limit of what we can do with our dimmer board."

But perhaps even more challenging are the fantasy numbers that aren't set in a theatrical environment at all. In one, McPhee's character is not feeling well and we find her alone in her apartment singing to her iPod. "We had conceptual discussions about the scene," Mullen recalls. "The script didn't indicate that it was a fantasy sequence, but some of the executives still wanted to see fantasy lighting and theatrical colors. So are we looking at something 'real' or something 'not real'? I worked on finding ways to make those scenes look a little more magical without crossing the line into theatricality."

Mullen references the look of the Francis Ford Coppola musical One from the Heart, shot by the renowned Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, in speaking about the inspiration here to transition from a kind of reality into the realm more associated with the musical. "I had all the practical lamps in the bedroom set to fade away when she starts singing," he says. "I didn't have colored spotlights come up to replace them [as in One from the Heart]. Instead, I had a soft light from a 2K Chimera over the lens that gave her that kind of bright, frontal key light you see in a lot of music videos. It just makes the scene a little more glamorous. When she's done, the practical room lighting fades back up [and we bring down the Chimera]. Was it real? Was it fantasy? I think it was somewhere in between. The character hadn't been feeling well and she's taken some medication, so the lighting change really has a psychological basis.

"That's the tricky part of these scenes," Mullen says of the thin line between shooting reality and fantasy. "Sometimes it's a matter of just timing a camera move so the sun flares into the lens at a key moment in the song. Maybe the sun gets a little bit sunnier or the colors become a little bit richer right at a certain moment in the [music]."

As he was prepping to shoot a Bollywood-style musical sequence, Mullen described his work: "It's fun and challenging. You have to think in bold strokes and come up with exciting lighting cues all the time. We've done [the show] enough to know the basic ways to shoot in terms of lighting, cranes and Steadicams, but each dance number is unique unto itself and the lighting has to be conceived from the ground up."

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