Making Mrs. Maisel Look Marvelous

If you’ve got a winning recipe then you don’t change ingredients. Amazon’s second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel wisely kept faith with the talent in front and behind the camera which made the period comedy drama an Emmy®-winning smash.

Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino about a housewife in 1958 New York City with a knack for stand-up comedy, the first season won the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, and eight Emmys including Outstanding Comedy Series and for lead actress Rachel Brosnahan.

Sherman-Palladino selected cinematographer M. David Mullen, ASC to shoot the pilot, and he, along with Eric Moynier, continued to share lensing duties on the second 10-episode run. The two DPs relied on Panavision for their camera package and on Panavision’s post production division, Light Iron, for dailies processing and finishing.

Mullen explains that the approach to shooting season two was the same as for the first, albeit this time around with new locations, from Paris to the Catskills. 

“Paris has a lot of orange sodium street lighting, which is not period-correct,” Mullen notes. “Unable to change that, I had to embrace the warmth that they gave the night exterior scenes. I decided to give some scenes back in New York a colder winter look to create color contrast. In particular, we had a very blue twilight shot when Susie (played by Alex Borstein) is being walked to a house on a dock in Far Rockaway. The Catskills scenes were set during the summer, so I often had warm, hot sunlight coming into the rooms to create a feeling of heat.”

The workflow extended to the DI, which Mullen devised in concert with Light Iron using DaVinci Resolve for LUT creation and for the final grade. Having established a series of pre-sets for the show, the workflow is more streamlined, especially for reoccurring sets and locations.

Aggressively pastel color palette

The template for the show’s style itself was set in pre-production discussions for the first season.

“Amy and [co-executive producer] Dan Palladino didn’t want a faded sepia look, but they also didn’t want the image to be too sharp and modern,” Mullen recalls. “Lighting-wise, they wanted a natural, believable approach that was also flattering to the actors. I was reminded of [legendary DP] Conrad Hall’s term ‘romantic realism,’ which describes lighting that feels like it comes from practical fixtures and natural light, but the lighting is heightened to be at its most dramatic or attractive.”

Mullen’s term for the 1950’s look for movies and advertisements of the time is “aggressively pastel. There are strong color accents, though sometimes those colors are pastels, set against neutral backgrounds of grey or brown.”

He further observes the lighting in offices and businesses of the time as “industrial optimism” – fairly bright and soft. “Amy and Dan also wanted the camera movements to be fast and fluid; they didn’t want a static proscenium-style for the show. And they told me that they didn’t shoot close-ups.”

Having shot Gilmore Girls on Super-16, the execs wanted the image for Mrs. Maisel to feel “film-like with attractive skin tones,” Mullen explains. “We chose the ARRI Alexa camera for this show.”

Primo lenses ideal

Mullen considered using older optics but was worried about how these would interact with the lens diffusion they were planning. Additionally, since they were shooting on location with daytime windows and practicals at night and lighting much of the shot, he didn’t want a lot of distracting flares from those sources.

“Panavision Primo lenses seemed ideal for this project. We also used the Panavision and Angenieux zooms for a few shots,” notes Mullen.

Mullen occasionally used two cameras for dialogue scenes, often cross-shooting, but the moving camera style, plus the looser framing that Sherman-Palladino wanted, pushed him to using the 21mm and 27mm Primos on Steadicam for much of the time [on the pilot] in single-camera style.

“After the pilot, we discovered the 24mm Primo, which became our workhorse lens for the show,” he says. “Because our lens choices tend to be on the wider side, we added a 30mm Primo which we use a lot for our singles. We also went from having a Classic Alexa for B-camera and an Alexa Mini for A-camera/Steadicam on the pilot to using Alexa Minis for all the cameras. Sometimes, for the stand-up comedy performances in front of crowds, we used a third camera.”

He adds, “Even when I was a film student, Panavision was always supportive of filmmakers and they have some of the best people working in all their departments. Panavision is always quick to respond to service calls, but we rarely have any equipment problems so most of our dealings after we start shooting for the season revolve around special items we need for particular shots that come up.”

LED lighting was used for interiors. Mullen added some bounce lighting with tungsten lamps, and for big day interiors, large HMI’s outside the windows were favored.

“Amy designs very complex camera moves for the show so there is a lot of discussion with our operator Jim McConkey, our Key Grip Charlie Sherron, and sometimes Jim solicits advice and help from his brother Larry McConkey,” Mullen says. “We mostly use the Steadicam for these moving shots, with a Betz Tools Wave1 to maintain the horizon level, but sometimes we employ a Movi and have even mounted it to a telescoping crane with an electro-magnet to be able to attach or detach the Movi.”

In season two, a drone was used for the first time on the show to shoot the family car driving into the Catskill mountains.

DI workflow with Light Iron

“After the initial LUT was set with the test footage prior to season one, David and I then created a custom LUT for the show,” says Light Iron Supervising Colorist Steve Bodner, “The footage David and Eric shoot is spectacular – from lighting and composition to moves and texture.”

DIT Charlie Anderson would send Bodner a set of stills from set each day. Bodner would use those as a reference point and perform the entire first pass unsupervised. Once completed, Mullen or Moynier would then visit Light Iron’s New York office to work alongside Bodner or supervise a virtual session from Light Iron’s Los Angeles facility.

After the SDR color pass is signed off, Bodner creates an HDR10 trim pass. All deliverables are created from Resolve except for the final metadata analysis of the HDR Production Master QT, which is done in Colorfront Transkoder. The Amazon final deliverable is a UHD ProRes 422 HQ Quicktime for both HDR and SDR along with uncompressed file sequences for archival delivery.

Amazon has already ordered a third season with prospects of many more awards to come.