DPs Get Creative to Give Series a Filmlike Look

Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the June 19 issue of AwardsLine.
Cinematography that stands out from the TV crowd is now about more than looking better than most other shows—it’s about getting a look that meets the high standards once reserved only for feature films.
But with television schedules and budgets typically only a fraction of their big-screen counterparts, cinematographers on shows such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Good Wife and Vikings use every lighting and camera tool or trick at their disposal to deliver the goods.
Digital technology and the popularity of cameras like the Alexa, which operates well in low-light conditions, have helped immensely, but it still takes creativity to find camera moves and lighting techniques that truly stand out.
Going back to basics has paid off for AMC’s Mad Men. Cinematographer Christopher Manley likes, whenever possible, to drop the second camera typically used to ensure closeups and coverage of every scene. “We set up A shots, and if the B shot can work without compromising either shot, then we’ll use it. Otherwise, we don’t,” he explains.
The result is more medium shots, giving the closeups more impact and evoking a classic big-screen style. “Doing closeups a lot of the time in television is more about a holdover style from when TVs were much smaller and people were sitting in their living room looking at a 20-inch screen 8 feet away,” says Manley. “Nowadays, everybody has a large 16:9 television that dominates their living room, so I think it’s OK to go back to a more old-fashioned scale of using wider shots.”

Experimental camera techniques elevate the look of AMC’s Breaking Bad.
Experimental camera techniques elevate the look of AMC’s Breaking Bad.

Sister AMC show Breaking Bad goes for the opposite effect, giving itself over to experimentation in shooting. That freedom allows cinematographer Michael Slovis, who joined the show in its second season, to stage all kinds of shots from a one-shot 5-minute teaser and vantage points as diverse as toilet bowls and wine glasses, to shots using macro and periscope lenses.
“The mandate was to tell the story any way that you could, organically, and that expanded our brush strokes,” he says. “We expanded our skill set to a more traditional film approach rather than television.”
The intelligent way the show was set up allowed Slovis to eschew traditional coverage and keep the show on its 12-hour-a-day, eight-day-per-episode shooting schedule.
Another advantage that Breaking Bad had, especially in its early years, was shooting on film—a practical decision that had immense creative payoff. “The autonomy of the camera when we started was really important,” Slovis says. “At the time, you still had to tether digital cameras to a recorder, and it would have slowed us down tremendously.”
Veteran TV cinematographer John Bartley says having most of the scripts for History’s Vikings in hand early on was key to prepping the series shoot in Ireland. Using digital Alexa cameras and soft Panavision Primo lenses, Bartley used cranes, remote cameras and lifts. “We kept it moving all the time,” he says.

Good Wife DP Fred Murphy, left, uses large-scale lighting for speedier shoots.
Good Wife DP Fred Murphy, left, uses large-scale lighting for speedier shoots.

Quick lighting solutions are another way to get a cinema-quality look on TV. On CBS’ The Good Wife, cinematographer Fred Murphy uses large-scale lighting and self-lit sets to limit or eliminate the need to relight every shot. “You could move in and shoot the closeup, and the camera could move through the set and there wouldn’t be any relighting,” he says.
On Mad Men, Manley says the lighting has evolved from a studio style to a more naturalistic look, aided by a switch from film to the Alexa in Season 5. “The Alexa allows you to work with less light, and it’s very exciting,” says Manley.
Bartley tapped into the special-effects department to create and manage fires and candles for Vikings as practical light sources, supplemented by fluorescent lights. “I kept saying we could never have enough candles, and they got very good at being able to make them brighter and darker,” says Bartley.
Of course, working on a series has the benefit of standing sets that very quickly become a known quantity for cinematographers and their crews.
“It’s always faster onstage, particularly when you’re working on sets you know inside and out and have worked on many times before,” says Manley. “The danger is that you start repeating yourself, and it can get stale, so I’m always looking for ways to try to keep it fresh.”

Bob Odenkirk on Industry Lessons

Anthony D’Alessandro is managing editor of AwardsLine. This story appeared in the June 12 issue of AwardsLine.

On mentors
(My improv teacher) Del Close was the first guy that I saw, in person, do what I would call “acting.” Occasionally, in class he would get up and do the exercise, and he was fundamentally better—and, of course, a lot older—than everyone else. But it was a revelation. You could really feel the difference between what we were doing, which was reaching and searching, and an actor who was discovering the moment in a very immediate way.
(My late manager) Bernie Brillstein always said to me, “Trust your own talents.” I love collaborating and that got a little annoying with Bernie at times. He said, “Just do your thing. You have a voice, just do it.”

On professionalism
Watching Chi McBride, who starred in some of the movies I directed, really made me think. He came in to audition for one part; it was a long monologue. He knew it cold, and he delivered it with the intensity and the professionalism that you would want in the final performance. And I was like, “Holy shit! You brought it big time.” I either forgot or never realized that there are really professional actors out there who show up completely ready to rock. But Chi was one of the first that I saw, just in auditioning, at another level. Seeing him made me think, “This is what I have to do if I’m going to call myself a pro and not just get jobs from my friends, or jobs that I wrote for myself.”

On big breaks
My first big break was Saturday Night Live, and I’m not sure I ever got it right. I hung in there. I was a bit overwhelmed by it. I think at a certain point you get set back on your heels and you get intimidated, and from that you either quit the biz or you learn that you have some modicum of talent to rely on. Breaking Bad has also been a huge break for me. Outside of The Larry Sanders Show, which had a very real feeling, I’d never have roles like Saul Goodman offered to me. I guess it’s shown me that I can approach acting with a seriousness of purpose, and people have been pretty positive about the result.

On learning from mistakes
I constantly repeat my mistakes and say, “I’ll never do it again!” That’s what being a person is all about. I guess one mistake I try to avoid is saying yes to material before I really know it and know that I can contribute. I’m so thankful to be a part of this crazy business that I have, on occasion, accepted an offer or tried for a project that I don’t have the necessary connection with. That rarely comes out well. Nowadays, if I don’t really “get” the material, I’m much more apt to back away. That can be very hard to do, saying no to an opportunity, but I need to be confident that I can participate.

On giving advice
Spend more time developing the idea than executing it. Act 3 doesn’t mean a thing if the first five pages don’t make me excited to hear your story. And if I’m super excited about your story, you can probably mess up a million times and I’ll still be interested. You can make it better as you go. It doesn’t matter if Page 48 has a good joke on it, or where the damn act break belongs, if I don’t really care about the story. So think about that story that’s really worth telling, and then worry about laughs or the structure. Unless you’re writing a book about structure, then go nuts! You’ll sell a million copies! I’ll buy one, and it won’t help me a bit!