The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Man in the Chair
Crossing the Line
DVD Playback
David Watkin
ASC Close-Up
Cinematographers from three top series (Mad Men, Desperate Housewives and Bones) reveal their secrets.

Mad Men photos by Doug Hyun and Cairn Baer, courtesy of AMC.

Desperate Housewives photos by Ron Tom and David Grossman, courtesy of ABC. FRame grabs courtesy of Modern VideoFilm.

Bones photos courtesy of Fox Television.

Mad Men  

Set in the Madison Avenue advertising world in 1960, the AMC series Mad Men looks like nothing else on television. “Many TV projects rely greatly on close-ups for coverage, and that is not necessarily part of our language,” notes cinematographer Phil Abraham. “Mad Men has a somewhat mannered, classic visual style that is influenced more by cinema than TV.”  

Mad Men made its debut last summer, and the series’ second season is scheduled to go into production later this year, depending on the duration of the writers’ strike.  

Abraham recalls that when he began discussing the look of the show with creator/executive producer Matthew Weiner and pilot production designer Bob Shaw, “we talked about not simply referencing the period as seen in movies of that time. We wanted to be more genuine than that. Movies were an influence, but we didn’t say, ‘Let’s make The Apartment.’” Other reference materials included photography, graphic design and architecture of the period. “We noticed that in all the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designs of contemporary buildings, the ceiling — the overhead grid of lights — was a strong graphic element in all the office spaces. In one design we loved, the whole ceiling was like a lightbox. It was a time of high modernism, and we embraced the notion of presenting the world in that way. These were new work spaces — sleek, not stuffy.”  

Abraham segued into Mad Men after wrapping The Sopranos, for which he earned four Emmy nominations. After shooting the pilot mostly on practical locations in New York (with two days onstage at Silvercup Studios) using a crew that included many Sopranos veterans, the production moved to Los Angeles, where Abraham worked with an entirely different crew at L.A. Center Studios. Frequent Sopranos director Alan Taylor helmed the pilot and first episode of Mad Men, and that continuity helped, according to the cinematographer. “Once we moved to L.A., there was a continuity of style that came from Alan and me, and that was important to Matt [Weiner].”  

The lives of Mad Men’s characters are as conflicted as the era they inhabit — America was prosperous in 1960, and John F. Kennedy was poised to beat Richard M. Nixon at the dawn of great social upheaval. “1960 was on the precipice of change in terms of design and politics, and that was definitely something we were trying to capture,” notes Abraham.  

The protagonist of the show is the charming but enigmatic Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the star creative director at the fictional Sterling Cooper ad agency. Not even Draper’s wife (January Jones) knows much about his history, and as he navigates the treacherous waters of office politics and extramarital affairs, his dark past begins to seep into all areas of his life. “Don is a character right out of literature, and I was always looking for opportunities to suggest his air of mystery,” says Abraham. “I often shot from behind him or framed him so he was a bit obscured. However, I didn’t have a playbook for shooting each character; you go by intuition and see what you discover in rehearsals.”  

Abraham is a big fan of practical lighting, and the fluorescent-light grid in the drop ceiling of the main Sterling Cooper office is the primary source in that set. “The art department went with a 2-by-2 four-tube fixture, which they determined was period-accurate,” recalls Los Angeles gaffer Mike Ambrose. “But when our set-lighting crew came aboard, we discovered the fixtures were modern internally and had been designed to hold 2-foot T-8 tubes. Getting more than 800 2-foot color-corrected T-8 tubes became a major issue, and none of the regular suppliers had enough in stock. Movietone stopped production of whatever bulbs it was making, retooled the plant and started manufacturing the T-8s we needed. The last shipment arrived the morning of our first day of shooting!  

“The bulbs had perfect color rendering, were consistent throughout the set, gave us plenty of stop and lasted the entire season. When we were working with Phil, we were rating at an ISO of 400, and we were able to meter a T4.5 at head height underneath a fluorescent fixture. We were reading a T3.2 between fixtures, so we usually shot scenes in the office at a T4 and let the hot spots burn an extra half-stop when the actors moved through the set.”  

To keep the overhead light from being unflattering, Abraham had to devise a light-control system as the set was being constructed. Unable to implement all the wiring necessary to control each light, the crew settled for controlling rows of lights. Key grip Pat O’Mara created 2'x2' and 2'x1' Coreplast blackout panels and frames of 216 that were fitted with small but strong magnets. When a scene called for an actor to stand under a fluorescent, a blackout or a 216 was quickly popped over the fixture and diffused sidelight was brought in to sculpt the face. “If somebody was walking through the office in a wide shot, I just turned the overhead lights on,” says Abraham. “But if Don was talking to someone at his desk and the office was the backdrop, I turned all the lights on and then selectively removed some; then, I brought the key around with Kino Flo Image 80s through 4-by-8 frames of 250 or 216, or sourced my key with a larger Fresnel through the window.”  

The perimeter offices of the Sterling Cooper set have windows looking out on a TransLite of the Manhattan skyline that’s lit by 5K Skypans on 8' centers. Ambrose’s crew rigged 25' trusses on chain motors and attached aluminum I-Beams to accommodate traveling trolleys that held Arri T-12s. “The flexibility of the I-Beam trolleys and the chain motors enabled us to move quickly and efficiently in focusing the window look,” says Ambrose. “We also had four 20Ks and a few more T-12s on stands that could be rolled around the office floor. For tungsten close-ups, we often used Barger-Baglite six- and three-light units with Chimeras, soft cloth, diaper baffles and 60- and 90-degree honeycomb grids for control.  

“The walls of each office feature textured plastic ‘glass’ that has quite a specular quality,” he adds, “and by placing small fixtures in strategic places, we were able to create some nice highlights in the background.”  

In characters’ homes, Abraham used more traditional studio lighting but implemented practicals as much as possible. Draper’s house was a practical set, and some scenes required four or five rooms to be lit at once. “I love the color spectrum of the household bulb,” notes the cinematographer. “We used a lot of batten strips with 100-watt household bulbs. The bulbs are so close they’re almost touching, so they create a single source that doesn’t cast multiple shadows. Over time, we built housings for them with channels into which you can slide diffusion frames or egg crates. We call them ‘Whiteys’ because the guy who knocked these shells out of tin back in New York was named Whitey; I used them extensively on The Sopranos and felt they suited the homes in Mad Men as well.”  

Sterling Cooper’s iconic ceiling influenced how the show’s Panaflex Platinum cameras were positioned. “We always talked about having the camera down low to show the ceiling, and that cued a lot of different things,” says Abraham. “It took on a life of its own — even when the ceiling wasn’t involved, we were usually down low. There was something going on with the lower-than-eyeline camera that we were all tuned into. Normally, you think of a low angle on someone as a kind of heroic vision, and there’s an element of that, but when you shoot everything that way, you don’t necessarily feel it.”

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