Lighting Real New York Locations and Caring for the Image in HD and 4K HDR Versions

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was a success right out of the gate, with Amazon committing to two seasons of shows less than a month after the pilot debuted on the streaming service. The series, set in 1958 New York, focuses on Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), a housewife whose whole settled lifestyle begins to change once she realizes her businessman husband Joel (Michael Zegan) pinched his wannabe comedy routine from Bob Newhart. Things go from confused to much worse when she learns Joel has embarked upon an affair. Her life upended, Midge ties one on and winds up on stage herself at a comedy club, where she demonstrates an only hinted-at penchant for stand-up – one that winds up with her jailed alongside Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby). In later episodes, Midge continues to explore her talent for comedy, which is fueled by her ongoing family and life issues.

Series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino selected cinematographer M. David Mullen, ASC, to shoot the pilot, which, like the series, is shot entirely in the New York area. Mullen has amassed numerous credits on indie features (most recently the shot-on-35mm The Love Witch) and TV series including United States of Tara, Extant and Smash. For the series, Mullen shared lensing duties with Eric Moynier, who had moved up from camera operator to director of photography on Boardwalk Empire before shooting installments of The Blacklist and Z: The Beginning of Everything. The two cinematographers were interviewed separately about their work on Maisel, with the following Q&A edited together from their comments.

Rachel Brosnahan in <i>The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel</i>.

Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Amazon Studios

Studio Daily: Can you discuss how you got onto the pilot, and what sort of approach you took for it?

M. David Mullen: Director Jamie Babbit, who had worked with me previously and also with Amy Sherman-Palladino on Gilmore Girls, dropped my name into the hat. We started with a mixture of Alexa XTs and Alexa Minis, but switched to just Minis for the series. The cameras match pretty well, but the Mini’s signal seemed cleaner, with richer colors, and has a slightly newer processor, recording a slightly different pixel ratio in 3.2K ProRes. I monitored in HD on set and, as per Amazon, we did a 4K finish and HDR master at Light Iron New York. I was afraid at first that the image would be too sharp in 4K and HDR, but I feel that the compression in the streaming process acts as a slight diffusion that smooths things down. Also, we tested all our lenses and diffusion. We shot mostly on Primos, so there wasn’t the softening you’d get using older lenses, and usually offset that sharpness with Schneider diffusion: ¼ Hollywood Black Magic. Amy and [co-executive producer] Dan Palladino had done the same for Netflix’s Gilmore revival.

Rachel Brosnahan in <i>The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel</i>

Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Amazon Studios

Was there consideration given to creating more of a period look?

MDM: There was discussion of that, but not much interest, since the costumes and colors in the art direction got us so much of the way there; doing some stylized treatment in the camera wasn’t necessary or desirable. I studied color still photography and movies from the 50s, and there is a style of coloration in those movies I call “aggressively pastel,” where your primary colors are set against a neutral or white background. You could be in a gray-walled kitchen but with a yellow refrigerator and red tea pot, and the actress appearing in a pink dress. The look wouldn’t be very shadowy, because the light came from the front to bring out those colors, and that approach was very prevalent in much of that era’s advertising.

How did you wind up alternating episodes?

Eric Moynier: David was still shooting Get Shorty when we went to series, and producer Dhana Gilbert knew me from when I was an operator/tandem DP on Boardwalk Empire. I learned during my interview with Amy and Dan they didn’t want a lot of coverage. Instead, Amy wanted a moving camera that let the camera dance with the story being told. Right then, I said we needed a first-rate Steadicam operator, so we were lucky enough to have a good friend and collaborator of mine, Jim McConkey, come on. I wanted to honor the look David established — we were continuing directly from where the pilot ended — so that involved talking with and emailing David while studying what he did on the pilot. I found that he liked to use a lot of toplight, and we augmented most of the practicals from off-camera.

Inside the Maisels’ Upper West Side apartment.
Amazon Studios

How did episode prep work for you?

EM: Dan and Amy Sherman-Palladino were madly writing those first episodes, so I didn’t get a full prep with them. It wasn’t till the tech scout that gaffer John Oates, key grip Greg Cahill — later on Charlie Sherron was the key — and I decided what we needed to facilitate their vision, including the lighting approach. We were looking at how best to help the story while getting through the day’s work with the most efficiency. We found the new Artemis hardware very helpful. It lets you mount your chosen lens to an iPad, so you can rehearse and block while viewing and recording to it. This let us see where the problems were and where we could enhance things — all before using the Steadicam. Amy and Dan could also chime in so the choreography could be refined to really deliver the relevant story points while showing the physical space. As part of Amy’s style, we roam from room to room during extensive dialog scenes, so that requires considerable blocking and working out how to light across these expanses. Artemis was used both on stage and location; there was a lot of the latter, with our location manager Amanda Foley and production designer Bill Groom seeking out locales that suited story and production.

MDM: There are often issues in New York when putting lights on sidewalks, and if you’re working a few floors up, setting lights outside of windows is difficult. Joel’s office was a top-floor corner office found in midtown, but fortunately it had a porch right outside the window on which we could place our HMIs. His private office had no fluorescents, just some can lights, so I taped up LED Sourcemaker blanket lights to the ceiling. Then I had to feather in a color correction anytime we moved in and out of there to the main office, because we were going from daylight to an area mostly lit with overhead fluorescents. Those tubes couldn’t be changed out, and were closer to tungsten balance after we gelled them to remove a lot of the green.

Were there any extensive revamps of existing buildings?

MDM: There are many scenes across the series taking place at B. Altman’s department store. We shot the exterior of what was originally the real store, which has very distinctive huge picture windows and doors. We found a good match for the interior at the Williamsburg Art Center, in this old wooden room that was probably an old bank building. Bill Groom wanted the camera to be able to look all the way from the floor to the very high ceilings, so that meant designing a practical lighting scheme that let us shoot up and down, side to side and all the way around. There were four big columns in the room, and at the top of each one, we wrapped them with what looked like frosted, art deco style chandeliers. In reality, they were Quasar tubes inside a housing built by Bill’s team, and our setup was switchable from daylight to tungsten balance, so we could create any kind of color mix. Then we had tungsten practicals in the countertops and bi-color LED ribbons under the counters. But with the big windows and revolving door, the question remained: do we light the whole thing for daylight balance, or gel the windows and doors with CTO, then light for tungsten balance? We decided on a mix, leaving the windows ungelled for straight daylight, but putting half CTO on HMIs coming through the window sheers and setting our LED units halfway between daylight and tungsten. Then, with the last episode set at Christmas, I switched all interiors to tungsten, but took the CTO off the HMIs, which made it feel colder outside, conveying that winter feel in contrast to the warmth inside.

Can you discuss your approach to shooting the comedy club scenes?

MDM: In the fourth episode, Midge and Susie [Alex Borstein] visit an ‘underground’ club, then the more upscale Upstairs at the Downstairs, and finally the Copacabana. The latter was historically painted and decorated all white, so I went pearlescent MGM feel with lighting. The Upstairs at the Downstairs was designed with a circus-striped decoration (based on historical research) that used orange and purple colors, plus had warm practical lamps on tables – so by process of elimination, I went with blue and green lighting to make the first club seem distinctive compared to the other two.

A musical trio onstage at the Gaslight Cafe, based on an influential Manhattan performance venue from the 1960s.
Amazon Studios

Did you wind up having to finesse the illumination when doing close-ups of performers in the spotlight?

MDM: I had the same issue years ago on Smash and Akeelah and the Bee. Do you switch from the hard key that a follow-spot creates in wide views to a soft key? I saw Inside Llewellyn Davis, which had scenes at the Gaslight just like ours, and they alternated between using a hard PAR for some performances —  keeping it hard-lit for the close-ups — to a soft overhead for others. We only went that route once, when there’s a couple auditioning during daytime hours. I figured they might not have the follow spots turned on for an audition, so I rigged a soft light above with a LightGear LiteMat and keyed the performers that way. Other than that, the performers were always keyed with an ETC Source-4 Leko spot. If you switch to softer light, you risk losing the hard circle pattern on the wall behind them. We’re covering with three cameras on some of these performance pieces, so the lighting has to stay the same through the different shot sizes because we are shooting wide and close at the same time. Watching footage from [Bob Fosses’s] Lenny, that hard, hot spotlight became a good look for us to emulate. And our lead is so lovely that she takes that strong light very well. We did have problems when moving, because the potential shadow cast by camera on a Technocrane or Steadicam crossing through the follow-spot wasn’t something we could avoid by putting our spotlight higher; there wasn’t any vertical flexibility on our set because of the low-ish ceiling height (the real Gaslight was in a basement space.) Sometimes I turned off the Leko mounted to the ceiling and put one on a stand, closer to the stage and more to one side, to avoid a camera shadow. Fortunately, Amy doesn’t like really tight close-ups, so I don’t usually get the camera lens that close physically to the performer, which helps minimize the chance of a shadow.

The season-ender features a flashback to Midge’s wedding, with a big memorable 360-degree camera move.

MDM: For that I added another layer of diffusion — 1/8th Black Frost on top of the Hollywood Black Magic — to get the globes and candelabras to glow a bit more. When doing these elaborate 360-degree moves, the practicals often have to provide real lighting rather than just serve as accents. I managed to light the center of the dance floor with a lighting balloon just above frame, and the people along the perimeter with practical standing candelabras, but when the camera moved away from the center to discover Midge and Joel watching from the sidelines, I asked Bill Groom and set decorator Ellen Christiansen to find me two additional standing candelabras to place near the actors, because I couldn’t rig off the ceiling to light that end of the room and there was nowhere to hide any movie lights on stands.

Rachel Brosnahan and Michael Zegen

Rachel Brosnahan and Michael Zegen (as Joel Maisel).
Amazon Studios

In depicting 1958 New York, how much of the environment would be dressed as an in-camera effect vs. being handled with VFX?

EM: On the second episode, we had an elaborate Steadicam move taking place on West 23rd, so for that the AD and I had to steer the ship to deliver Amy’s vision. We had to figure out how many trucks we needed to camouflage 2017 from camera, while also trying to find out which period facades needed to be made. Then we’d be collaborating with VFX supervisor Lesley Robson-Foster to figure out what visual effects could be done to enhance the location and how many elements they’d have to erase. I knew Lesley from Boardwalk Empire, so it was no problem to communicate extensively about what would be egregious versus what would be doable. Her crack team never slowed us down with their measurements and recordings. [Robson-Foster shot her plates with a Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro in 4.6K, with effects work being handled at Phosphene, Alkemy-X and Shade VFX.]

Mullen: We had a shot that started close on Midge riding the subway, then pulled back away from her, the camera seeming to fly right out the rear window of the subway car to then see the car recede down the tunnel. We only had a partial subway car set, so Lesley didn’t just have to do the transition pulling out of the car and into the tunnel, but also fill in the rest of the missing interior. VFX also helped us with time transition on episode four’s montage as we match-dissolve from past to present, leaving a New Year’s Eve party with Midge and her husband and winding up on Midge alone in there in daylight, the furniture now all gone as she is finishing moving out. Amy wanted a hidden transition, with just the room changing from past to present around Midge as she stands in the same spot. The camera does a complex move, pushing in from the dining room to the living room and then circles Midge twice, the transition happening in the second rotation, a sort of figure-9 move that becomes a spiral. In a small set, this move could only be accomplished with a Steadicam, so there was no way to use a motion-control dolly and head for the two passes, one for the night scene and one for the day scene. Knowing that some zooming in and reframing would be necessary to line up the two shots, I decided to use a 21mm Primo, but set frame lines for a 10% crop all around, which would get us closer to the view of the 24mm Primo we typically used. We also used video playback so that operator Jim McConkey could overlay the previous shot on his Steadicam monitor as he was lining up the second pass. We decided the best moment for transition would be when Midge had her back to the circling camera and the background was the relatively blank fireplace wall — this helped reduce the number of things we’d see change during the transition. We also realized Midge would have to wear a party dress for the first pass that was similar enough to her outfit on moving day in the second pass so that we didn’t see a sleeve or collar appear of disappear during the transition. Lesley took our two passes and found a way to hide the transition, altering elements in both takes so that things would stay lined up as the camera moved around Midge.

Rachel Brosnahan

Rachel Brosnahan
Amazon Studios

How involved were you on the DI?

Mullen: We shot tests in prep and took them through 4K and HDR at Light Iron. The color-correct was done for standard dynamic range, which Eric and I supervised with colorist Steven Bodner, who later did an HDR pass, watching the highlights to keep them from getting distractingly hot. I also found from testing something that Amazon had warned me about — that if you didn’t have enough light and shot a scene at a high ISO like 1600, the HDR and 4K versions would have a bump in highlight contrast that makes the noise sizzle a bit more.

Moynier: DIT [and camera operator] Charlie Anderson stayed on for the series, so the established color space was carried through to the DI. When I went to Light Iron for the intermediate, it was mostly just polishing, a matter of tucking in the shirt on the episodes. I think the look works well for the series, and it has been a lot of fun to work on.