For the past four seasons, Chris Manley, ASC, has given AMC’s critically acclaimed and award-winning dramatic series Mad Men a retro-fresh look and cinematic scope that has, in turn, earned the DP three Emmy® nominations and two ASC nominations for his work. Manley, who began on the 1960s-era series in Season Two, is currently shooting Season Six, which premiered in April. In a major move, the show began shooting digitally in Season Five, finally joining the digital revolution that has swept across TV production in recent years.
According to Manley, Lionsgate asked the show’s producers to switch from 35mm to save money. "But show creator Matthew Weiner was very much against it," reports the DP. "He’s a cinephile and film purist, and we discussed it, and I told him that if we had to, the only camera I’d use would be the ALEXA." Manley had shot the Homeland pilot with the ALEXA and was "very impressed, especially with its amazing low-light sensitivity." After also shooting the Revenge pilot with the ALEXA, he had become "a big fan" says Manley, "and Matthew was surprised I liked a digital system, so he told Lionsgate that if we could shoot a side-by-side film versus ALEXA test, using all our sets, then he’d look at it and consider making the switch."
To this end, the filmmakers spent a day with a full crew shooting cast stand-ins in most of their standing sets in the Sterling Cooper offices, along with some day exteriors and period cars. "I shoot chip charts, and our dailies colorist, Dennis Mackelburg at Technicolor, who has been with us for a while, is set up for the charts, and he color-timed the film footage based on what he knows the look of the show to be," explains the DP. That footage then went to the final colorist, Tim Vincent, who adjusted the film dailies to what the team typically does in final color. "He then took the ALEXA footage and tried as best as he could to match it to the film footage," Manley reports.
The result? "It was kind of amazing," admits the DP. "Obviously, the ALEXA footage was grainless, which doesn’t really work for our show. But the ALEXA is also far less sensitive to green, and in our office sets we use a lot of mixed lighting sources, including overhead fluorescents that we combine with Kino Flos, along with simulated daylight coming through the windows, which is big Tungsten sources on stage, and a lot of warm practicals."
Manley notes that the show also features a lot of actors with very pale skin, "in particular, Christina Hendricks, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser and Aaron Staton. And their skin picks up the mix of color temperatures very quickly, and it often gives Tim a headache trying to, first, make everyone in a scene look normal, and second, trying to even out all the tonal differences, which is mostly the green-magenta problem."
In any event, Vincent found that dealing with these issues was "far easier" with the ALEXA, notes the DP, "as it wasn’t picking up the green from the Kino Flos." Another plus for the ALEXA was its ability to deal with all the white tones. "Our office sets use a lot of whites, off-whites and then lighter mid-range tones, and film would render all of the different light sources, contaminating different white surfaces. So in a white background, there would be a little green here, some blue there, and so on with film. But with the ALEXA, all this was cleaned up, and the highlights were just purer." The DP goes on to stress, "While film is technically correct—if you stood there and studied the highlights, you’d see a little green and pink in there—psychologically and perceptively our brains tend to make everything neutral. So the Alexa is truer in that sense, which is very interesting."
The film versus digital tests revealed some other aesthetic surprises. Although on earlier seasons the DP had used Kodak 5219—"the highest-end, highest-speed stock," he notes—"[the film] simply looked more old-fashioned compared to the ALEXA. Critics have described digital as being too clinical and sterile, but I don’t find that to be true." And while it may sound counterintuitive to go with a cleaner, sharper digital image for a period show, he adds, "It ended up working out better for us and the look of the show."