Screen Overload: Cinematographers M. David Mullen, Christian Sprenger and Ashley Connor on Shooting Television
During “The Long Night” episode of Game of Thrones’ final season, the Twitterverse erupted when the sprawling Battle of Winterfell was deemed “too dark” by some viewers. People who had previously given little thought to the job of television cinematographer were suddenly offering very vocal opinions on the profession. The uproar highlighted the challenges DPs face in this new Golden Age of Television. They must create stories that retain their visual appeal across a myriad of devices, resolutions, color spaces, and screen settings. A show must work on a 60-inch OLED television and on an iPhone, on a finely tuned monitor and at your parent’s house with motion smoothing.
These cinematographers have largely plied their craft in anonymity. It’s the series creators who are mythologized, the authorial voices behind Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire and The Sopranos. The DPs of these paradigm-shifting shows aren’t the recognizable names of their movie counterparts like Roger Deakins and Chivo.
In this issue of Filmmaker, we shine a light on the craft of television cinematographers as we look at the ever-evolving medium through the lenses of M. David Mullen (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), Christian Sprenger (Atlanta), and Ashley Connor (Broad City).
M. David Mullen
An Emmy nominee for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, M. David Mullen spent nearly twenty years in the indie film trenches before his first television gig on HBO’s Big Love in 2007. Though he’s continued to shoot features—including Karyn Kusama’s cult item Jennifer’s Body—he’s become a television mainstay, shooting episodes for all four major broadcast networks in addition to HBO, Showtime, AMC, Amazon, and even VH1.
Filmmaker: You work on Westworld, which still shoots on film, but in general what era was film supplanted by digital in television?
Mullen: It was actually pretty dramatic. It started when I was doing the pilot for The Good Wife [in 2009]. There was a potential Screen Actors Guild [SAG] strike, and basically pilots were all being made under an American Federation of Television and Radio Artists\[AFTRA] contract to get around SAG. Part of the deal with AFTRA at the time was that if it was narrative and shot on film it had to be a SAG production, but if it was shot on digital or video it could be an AFTRA production. So basically that pilot season all went digital in order to work under an AFTRA contract. It’s funny how these external things that you wouldn’t think about change the technology of filmmaking. But also at that time digital camera technology was catching up. This was the time when you finally got 35mm [sized] digital camera sensors with the Panavision Genesis and the Sony F35. Before that you had 2/3-inch high def cameras and a lot of people didn’t like the look of them. Once those cameras and then the Alexa and the Red came along at the end of the 2000s, you could get closer to a traditional film look.
Filmmaker: How different is the way your TV work is shot now compared to a network pilot from ten years ago like The Good Wife? Is the idea of running multiple cameras all the time and throwing zoom lenses on them to churn through coverage still as prevalent?
Mullen: There’s so much television being shot at so many budget levels right now that it runs the gamut of style and approach. Generally, a lot of TV is still shot like that—three cameras with zooms and everyone’s grabbing shots of different sizes—because today’s style tends to be more coverage and more cuts. But [The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel] is shot more like a single-camera feature. Eighty percent is one camera and mostly prime lenses.
Filmmaker: Back when you were first getting into television you didn’t have as many variables to deal with in terms of how people were going to watch your work.
Mullen: Well, you can’t possibly plan for every type of viewing experience now. When I’m composing a shot and figuring out the size of it, I can’t compose a shot that works equally well on an iPhone as a 60-inch TV screen. To some degree you have to shoot for what you think of as the most common viewing scenario or the way you’d like people to see it. There may be versions that you can create in postproduction that are optimized for different viewing platforms, but often the same color corrected master gets used by all these different services.
Filmmaker: And now High Dynamic Range [HDR] is giving you a whole new version to contend with.
Mullen: I don’t necessarily shoot with HDR in mind. We create that as kind of an alternative version of the show. I’ve been asked if I wanted to monitor in HDR since we do an HDR version of [Mrs. Maisel], but when talking to other DPs who have done that they tend to find themselves lighting their scenes flatter to compensate. If it’s too bright outside the windows, they’ll brighten up the interior of the room to balance it to the exterior more, or they’ll dim a lamp down to make it less hot. I don’t want to bring everything into the middle just to make sure it won’t be distracting in HDR.
Filmmaker: There are more and more shows using the model of having one cinematographer that shoots every episode of a season. On Maisel, you’ve split the episodes of each season with another DP. I guess the trade-off is you actually get prep time but you don’t have as much control.
Mullen: Yes, there are trade-offs in both approaches. One aspect I do like about alternating, though, is I find I learn a lot watching the other DP tackle similar sets and locations and scenes. It’s always a pleasure to watch other DPs at work. It’s not something that I normally get to do.
Filmmaker: You’ve shot a lot of pilots over the years where you didn’t ultimately shoot the series.
Mullen: I don’t think I ever planned it that way. The series generally didn’t start up until six months after the pilot was shot and often you wouldn’t be available by then, at least under the old model, though that’s changed now. Doing the pilot is a little like doing an independent film. It’s often a three-week shoot and you plan for it like a feature. But I do like doing pilots, because you’re starting from scratch and you get to design the look.
Filmmaker: On the flip side, what’s it like to come in on an established series and just be a hired gun for an episode? How do you bring your own personality to it?
Mullen: When you’re a guest DP you don’t want to take the show into a different kind of look. Part of your challenge is to make it seamless. But it’s a lot of fun to do those. It’s a mental and technical challenge to come in and match the look of a show.
Filmmaker: I’ve noticed more and more television DPs essentially having a home base, where they’ll work with Netflix or HBO repeatedly on different shows. You don’t seem to do that. You’ve worked for almost everybody. Do you have to be more adaptive if you’re constantly shifting to a network or streamer that might have a different set of technical parameters?
Mullen: So far I’ve almost had the opposite problem. There have been times when I’ve wanted to experiment and try a different camera, but the director and the producers just love the look of the Alexa so much. I love the look of the Alexa too, but when I used to shoot film I deliberately never settled on one technology. I would shoot a movie on Fuji film or Agfa film or Kodak film. I’d shoot on Panavision cameras and then Arriflex cameras. I’d shoot Zeiss lenses and then shoot Cooke lenses. I wanted to try a little of all the different technology that was available. So I don’t mind using different equipment if I think it will achieve the look I want, but the Alexa is so popular that there’s not been much reason to not use it.
Filmmaker:The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is the first show you’ve done that’s been released all at once. What do you think about the idea of someone consuming an entire season in a few sittings?
Mullen: In some ways it’s a little frustrating that people binge watch. We’ve worked for six months and people literally watch it in a day and immediately ask “When’s the next season coming out?” (laughs) It’s a lot of work to make these shows. I wish people would chew them a little slower.
When Christian Sprenger selects a show to work on, he tries to adhere to certain parameters: He wants to be the lone cinematographer rather than alternating episodes, to work with a director or showrunner with a unified vision, and he only wants to shoot one season. So far, that formula has worked. Sprenger picked up a pair of Emmy nominations in 2018 for his work on GLOW and Atlanta, winning for the latter.
Filmmaker: With the exception of Atlanta, you’ve mainly shot just one season of each show. Why that approach?
Sprenger: If you make a great season of a show with all the sweat and blood that goes into it and the reviews and the ratings are good, then you’re basically just asked to go back and do the same thing all over again. It’s like making a sequel to a movie. I can’t imagine doing five or six seasons of something because it would be like making five or six sequels.
Filmmaker: You’ve frequently worked with FX, but you also did season one of GLOW for Netflix. How is your experience different when working on something that’s released and binged all at once compared to the traditional TV model of weekly installments?
Sprenger: The interesting thing about a Netflix show where they release everything at once is that you are able to sit and look at everything together as a whole, as opposed to something like The Last Man on Earth, where the show is airing while we’re still shooting. You’re putting episodes out before you’re even done making the next one. There’s a lot of extra pressure put on the filmmaking process when they’re coming out of the oven and being served as fast as you can cook them.
Filmmaker: What technical requirements come with shooting for FX?
Sprenger: They don’t require 4K, but they do require an HDR finish. GLOW was one of Netflix’s first HDR shows and they told us that we weren’t required to plan for it but that everything on the network would be finished in HDR regardless. So their theory was, why don’t you just shoot for it and at least you can have creative control over it, versus us doing it in post outside of your control. It was something that I was very opposed to in the beginning and then by the end I embraced it and enjoyed the process.
Filmmaker: At least with HDR you get to do a grade specifically for that type of delivery. How do you deal with grading a show when it’s going to be watched on so many different types of screens with settings that are completely unpredictable?
Sprenger: It’s frustrating. I will say that I do think it has gotten more uniform in the last three or four years. In the days when I was shooting Eagleheart [Adult Swim’s spoof of Walker, Texas Ranger that ran from 2011 to 2014], I remember having conversations with producers who would see the color pass on a laptop and freak out because it was too dark. Then we’d look at it on a television and it would look fine. Those conversations don’t necessarily happen as much anymore. And I think Apple has done a great job at slowly bringing their display technology closer to Rec709 as a standard. An iPad Pro is a pretty well calibrated display right out of the box.
The settings thing is an unfortunate problem that everyone is still working out, but there is definitely more awareness happening in the last year or two. Tom Cruise did a PSA about changing your settings and when Roma came out Alfonso Cuarón [released a guide] where he walked people through how to properly set up their television.
Filmmaker: With the sheer volume of amazing television we have at our disposal now, is there still the same romanticism to working in movies?
Mullen: I made a film a few years ago called Brigsby Bear and it was a really interesting experience. I was coming off all these TV shows where I had been fetishizing this idea of going and making a movie. We made a great little film that almost nobody saw and didn’t really get a huge life online. It just kind of went away. Studios and networks have huge advertising budgets. If Netflix is putting $50 million into making a season of a show, you better believe that they’re also going to put half of that or more into advertising it. So all of my television work gets seen, but I could make an amazing little feature that could get completely lost if it doesn’t get the right attention at a festival or it doesn’t get the right distributor.
Filmmaker: Has that changed your desire to shoot features?
Sprenger: There was definitely a period of time around GLOW and Atlanta where I shifted in my brain. I used to think, “I’ll do a few more TV shows and then I’ll start doing only features,” and that shifted into “Wow, some of these shows are way bigger than the features that I would be shooting right now.” What hasn’t changed is with TV you’re still shooting an hour’s worth of content in seven to ten days whereas a feature film, even a low budget one, might be shot over five or six weeks. That’s the one thing to me that’s always been the separation—the amount of prep time you have, the amount of shoot time and the amount of turnaround time in post and editorial.
It’s a really exciting time for cinematography in general and especially for television. When I started in television there was rarely any priority put on the aesthetic. Obviously there were shows like The Sopranos or Twin Peaks, but those were outlier projects. In general, the old way of thinking was, “Well, it’s for TV. We’ve got to make an hour episode every week. How it looks is not that big of a deal.” The expectations are much different now.
Like M. David Mullen, Ashley Connor came up in the world of indie film. Her resume includes the Sundance entries The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Madeline’s Madeline, for which Connor earned an Independent Spirit nomination. After lensing a few ill-fated pilots, Connor recently shot her first full season of television with the latest misadventures of Comedy Central’s Broad City.
Filmmaker: I don’t know if you’ve been following this, but there was a recent Game of Thrones episode where people went ballistic over how dark a battle scene was.
Connor: That cinematographer [Fabian Wagner] was right. You can only protect for one atmosphere and you can’t protect against people who have their TVs on the sports setting. Every single time I go home I fix my parents’ television settings and every single time I go back they’ve somehow turned it back to the worse looking image possible. Cinematographers talk to each other about this all the time. It’s like whenever you go into a coloring session you have to say, “Okay, we’ve gotten this looking great for a projector. Now let’s watch it on a shitty MacBook.” (laughs)
Filmmaker: Do you feel like that gap between what people understand extends to television execs? There’s a growing mandate for 4K, but the Alexa, the best digital camera of the last few years, hasn’t shot 4K.
Connor: Everything now is “4K this and 4K that, it has to be 4K.” And the reality is, it doesn’t—unless every single person is going to build a theatrical environment in their house to project something large enough to make 4K, 6K or 8K matter. You end up with these situations where a Sony a7S that does 4K is on the list of approved cameras but an Alexa XT is not.
Filmmaker:Broad City is the first full season of TV you’ve shot, but you’ve done a few pilots. How were those experiences?
Connor: Shooting a pilot is a big deal because you are establishing the visual language of the show. You get far more prep time. It’s more like a movie in that sense. So I really like doing pilots for that reason, but then it’s very upsetting if that pilot doesn’t go to series. Some of my best work over the past couple of years has been done on pilots that didn’t get picked up for reasons I won’t even get to totally understand.
Filmmaker: What led to the gig on Broad City?
Connor: I shot a movie that (Broad City co-creator) Abbi Jacobson was in called Person to Person and we got along well. So when [Broad City’s] DP left, Abbi was the one who really instigated it and I’m very grateful to her. They had actually brought me in for an interview [for one of the earlier seasons of the show] and the execs were like, “Absolutely not. She’s never done a lick of television.” And actually I think that was smart of them. (laughs) Broad City was my first full season and it’s hard. You learn an incredible amount working that fast. The show doesn’t have the biggest budget, so you’re still working similar to an independent movie, but you’re shooting an episode every 4 1/2 days and it’s a grind that just keeps going.
Filmmaker: Wait, you only have 4 1/2 days to shoot each episode? It’s funny that they wouldn’t even give you that final half of the day.
Connor: Yeah, it’s tight. I think they realized that it’s impossible to do it in four days per episode, like that would just be absurd, but five seemed gratuitous. (laughs) The show is like 93 percent scripted. They don’t do as much improv as people would think, but they pack in so many jokes into their scripts that they are a little bit longer. So we were shooting five or six pages a day, sometimes more.
Filmmaker: How does that condensed schedule affect your coverage? I imagine you’re not going to be doing fancy oners that take half a day to shoot but only give you 30 seconds of runtime.
Connor: Yeah, that is not going to happen. (laughs) With Broad City I had to pick and choose when I wanted to go more high concept. There’s an episode called “SheWork” where Ilana makes a fake outdoor WeWork office space at one of those monolithic charging stations in New York City. For that one we took the time to do this West Wing shot where the characters are walking and talking, but just around one table outside in a park.
You really have to choose your battles on a show that moves that quickly, especially because I’m somebody who does not like to go into overtime. You hear horror stories about TV shows always going into 17-hour days. For me, you have to get it done in 12 hours. That’s already so long. At the end of the day, it’s a compromise but I would rather everybody get out on time than obsess over getting the perfect lighting. I’m shooting a TV show right now for the BBC in London and they do ten-hour days and it’s wonderful. You feel like you have a life. When I’m working on a show in the states, I go to set, I work and then I go home and lay on the couch for 20 minutes and fall asleep. It’s really difficult to feel like you don’t disappear.