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The Impossible-to-Resist, Retro-Yet-Modern “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

“The way the directors like to work helps keep the audience with the character and the pacing keeps you engaged.”

The year is 1958, the place New York, and Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) is leading the life of the upper-class housewife she’d always imagined for herself… until, that is, her husband, a would-be standup comic, blames her for his failures and takes off, leaving Midge alone with two young children and an upended life.

This is where the Amazon series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, created by Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls) begins. The first eight-episode season—a second is on order)—follows Midge as she tries her hand at standup comedy and, with the help of would-be talent agent Susie (Alex Borstein), turns her natural sense of humor into an improbable career in fashionable downtown clubs, such as the Village Vanguard and the Gaslight Café.

Cinematographers M. David Mullen, ASC and Eric Moynier were an integral part of capturing the feel of the period. It was also essential that they be able to set up lighting that allowed for the types of extended takes, often following characters moving quickly around large spaces—the type of scenes the filmmakers love. Sherman-Palladino and husband/creative partner Daniel Palladino direct alternate episodes and stage scenes of rapid-fire dialogue within single shots in a way that suggests Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday or Twentieth Century more than a little.

Prior to shooting the pilot, Mullen worked with the principal creatives to set an overall visual treatment for the series. “We talked about a ‘period’ look,” says Mullen. “If you look at magazine ads and movies from the era, you see there’s a lot of variation in what that actually is. But we stayed true to the colors of the ’50s which I’ve described in the past as being ‘aggressively pastel.'”

That might seem like a contradiction, he admits, “but you’ll see a strong pink or pale green color offset by a pale gray. You think of these images as very colorful but when you look at them, it’s a kitchen that’s painted all gray but there’s a yellow refrigerator so that [color] stands out. Or someone walks into a room in a red dress and the red seems very saturated, but some of that feeling comes from the neutral colors in the rest of the frame.”

Digital Imaging Technician Charlie Anderson then built a LUT in DaVinci Resolve to create a starting point for the look on set and in dailies.Much of the series takes place in stately, Upper East Side apartments—first Midge’s and then, after her situation devolves, her parents’ (Tony Shaloub and Marin Hinkle). For the pilot, the production shot in actual pre-war apartments in Manhattan. Subsequently, production designer Bill Groom meticulously rebuilt the apartment set at Brooklyn’s Steiner Stages (Studios). The single space represented the lead character’s home for the first episodes and her parents’ for the remainder of the season. Other frequent settings, include Village nightclubs, including the interior of the Gaslight Café, were also built at Steiner and on city streets.

The two cinematographers (each shot four episodes) used ARRI [Alexa] Minis throughout. Mullen explains, “We shot the pilot with an ARRI [Alexa] XTR and used a Mini just for Steadicam work. But between the pilot and shooting the rest of the season, I worked on [EPIX series] Get Shorty and the [pilot’s cinematographer David Franco] wanted to use Minis for everything.”

The smaller body initially seemed not quite as easy to work with as the XT, Mullen recalls. “I was concerned because access to the menu system is in the viewfinder, not on the side of camera. But that turned out not to be much of an issue on Get Shorty so I suggested we just use Minis for the rest of Maisel. The smaller size was very helpful, especially since so much of the show was shot on Steadicam. Sometimes the operator needed to get right up against a wall and the Mini’s small footprint definitely helped in those cases.”

The cameras recorded Maisel in 3.2k [Log-C] in ProRes 4:4:4:4, for mastering in UHD and HDR. The cinematographers made use of Panavision Primo glass—generally between 24 and 50mm focal lengths—and mainly through Schneider Hollywood Black Magic filters (1/4 strength), a favorite of the Sherman-Palladino from the Gilmore Girls [revival for Netflix].”

Occasionally, they would switch out to 1/2 Tiffen Black Diffusion/FX when a setup involved shooting directly towards a bright light source. While in ideal circumstances, the filmmakers preferred the Schneider’s effect on skin, Mullen explains, “Every strength of the Hollywood Black Magic has a 1/8 Black Frost as its base, and because of that, it sometimes made bright highlights glow more than we wanted. For those cases, the Black Diffusion/FX was preferable.”

Unlike much of television work, Maisel is shot with very limited coverage. “If they can tell a story in one continues frame, they will,” says Moynier of the directors’ approach. Steadicam operator Jim McConky would work with the director and cinematographer as they’d block the long takes and they’d make extensive use of the Artemis Director’s Viewfinder by Chemical Wedding. The system uses hardware that let us connect the Primo lens to an iPad and then an app to use the iPad’s sensor to capture what the lens sees. McConky also made use of Wave1 by Betz Tools to help always preserve a level horizon.

“If Jim is moving around a corner and tilting the Steadicam,” Moynier elaborates, “the sled will still keep its horizon, which is always an issue with Steadicam work. Wave liberates a Steadicam operator to concentrate on the shot. Jim could choreograph shots without worrying about the horizon so could focus on telling [the] story with the frame.”

Outside the apartment set on the soundstage, the art department made use of SoftDrops, Rosco’s woven backdrops, with the Upper West Side vista, which were primarily front-lit with 5K Skypans, then a combination of ARRI SkyPanel LEDs and tungsten 20K’s were used to create soft skylight and hard sunlight respectively. Inside, Sourcemaker Light Blanket LEDs or LiteGear Litemat LEDs would fit nicely on a ceiling or just out of frame, where possible. For actors, Moynier notes, “We did use a lot of tungsten units. There is a quality to tungsten light and the Fresnel lens that is very pleasing.”

Lighting for the many long oners, Mullen adds, posed challenges in terms of motivating necessary illumination while keeping any movie lighting equipment out of the frame. “I’d ask the art department to give me a table lamp or another kind of practical fixture in sets,” he says.

“A sequence in the first episode follows Midge down a long hallway as she follows her husband who’s walking out. He slams the door and then we push in on her as she finally turns away from the door, towards the camera. Since she goes the whole way down the hall and foyer,” the DP says, “the only way to light her face when she turned around was to have table lamp by doorway. That’s the only thing lighting her face when she shuts the door. So those are the kinds of things we’d work out with the production designer in preproduction.”

Although the majority of the apartment work was done on a stage, the filmmakers all wanted to approach the space like it was a location with ceilings and walls that didn’t move around a lot to make room for lights. They made extensive use of LED soft lights on a ceiling or bounced lights from tungsten Source-4 Lekos.

Mullen adds, “If I need a little eye light or a bit of fill, I have a variety of LEDs I can stick on the camera—Litepanels Cromas work, although with Steadicam, they can be a little too heavy so I use [a] Litepanels Micro or an Aputure AL-M9. It’s half the size of an iPhone and is charged with a USB cord. I can mount it on the matte box with Velcro and just dim it way down. I don’t want fill from it, just a little something to catch an actor’s eyes. Although sometimes an onboard camera light can help deal with camera shadows in these long takes moving through a space. If the camera passes in front of a table lamp and throws a faint shadow on an actor, the onboard light can soften the shadow a lot.”
Both DPs set the Minis at the standard EI 800 but would occasionally adjust down to 500 or 400 in low-light situations. “If you’re doing a low-light scene and you get nervous about noise,” says Mullen about artifacts that can show up, especially later in grading, “it’s better to drop down the to darken a shot rather than making things look darker by stopping down the lens so you’re not robbing the sensor of light. This approach only works,” he cautions, “when you are able to work at a lower ISO and are not trying to balance your lighting against a background of limited exposure level.”

To capture the real flavor of New York, the filmmakers constantly shot in streets, in front of buildings, in parks—everywhere at least some remnant of the city exists that could pass for 1958. “The locations are always interesting,” Moynier says. “There are so many signals around that it’s 2017. More than you might realize at first—signs, modern air conditioners, security cameras, satellite dishes—it’s a lot.”

They will resort to VFX but only as a last resort. “We consult closely with [VFX Supervisor] Lesley Robson-Foster and if we say, ‘can you remove that building,’ she’ll usually say, ‘no problem.’ But we try to find simpler ways wherever possible.”

Episode 2’s long Steadicam shot through the garment district, for example, involved careful timing of pedestrians, props such as wheeled clothes racks, and picture vehicles to conceal evidence of contemporary life.

When the unit shot inside a storefront with a window out onto the street, they were able to populate the visible portion of the outside with picture cars and extras in period costume but they couldn’t get a Fed Ex office across the street to remove its sign. It seemed like VFX might be required but, Mullen recalls, “We just frosted the top part of our store window so you couldn’t see the FedEx sign and it worked very well.”

Another sequence finds Midge and Joel getting into a cab that then takes off towards the camera, which then pans 180 degrees to see it drive down the street. Midway through the panning shot, there was a very prominent modern building. “We timed the pull-out of the cab so that a period bus drove by in the next lane just as the cab passes the building,” Mullen recalls. “Of course, there’s a limit to how many times you can do something like that. You can’t have a bus pass by in every shot.”

“It was a great challenge enabling this type of continuous shooting and doing a period show on so many locations,” Moynier sums up, “but it’s also very rewarding. The way the directors like to work helps keep the audience with the character and the pacing keeps you engaged.”