Cinematographer Chris Manley joined Mad Men with Season 2. He talks to AMCtv.com about how the camera work helps the show achieve its period feel… and what prop he once secretly adjusted.
Q: What Season 1 aspects did you continue into Season 2?
A: The thing that I like about the first season, and that really plays to Matt’s tastes, is the fact that it felt like it was shot in 1960. So we try not to do anything that they couldn’t have done in 1962. We never use steadicam at all. We don’t move the camera that often but when we do, it’s on a dolly and we do old-fashioned moving shots. They didn’t have such a variety of lenses back then. One thing I loved about Season 1 is that the close-ups were medium lenses which is almost impossible to do with two cameras, so it felt like they were shooting it like a movie. One shot at a time. What a medium lens does is it keeps more of the background in the shot in terms of perspective, so that you feel the environment more. You feel the set. You feel the smoke. You feel all of those elements that make you believe it’s 1962.
Q: Did Matt Weiner point to a specific scene from Season 1 to help you understand what he wanted?
A: Not at all. The great thing about Matt is that he’s kind of a
maven of that era. I worked for years as a projectionist at revival
cinemas. So I had projected almost everything: classic films, foreign
films, cult films… you name it. I have a pretty strong viewing
vocabulary but Matt Weiner was throwing titles at me that I had never
even heard of, let alone seen. His film knowledge especially from that
period is astounding.
Q: Is there a signature way you shoot?
A: Early on Phil [Abraham] and Matt and Alan Taylor, who
directed the pilot, talked about using a lot of low angles, partly
because they were shooting in this office space with a low ceiling and
the lights from the ceiling were a fantastic element. Matt also likes
it because it feels heroic, like a John Ford Western or Citizen Kane.
Finding the right height for the camera, that’s always an issue on our
show because we know we want it to be low — but how low do you go?
Q: Did you ever do something fun in a shot that only you would notice?
A: Well I did do that once and I don’t even know if I should
talk about it. I guess it won’t hurt me now: The globe behind Don
Draper’s desk. No one could figure out which side of the globe should
be facing the camera. So I adjusted it to India. Because my wife’s from
India and I’ve been there many times.
Q: Who would notice that?
A: Matt would. Matt notices everything. He’s the most
detail-oriented person I’ve probably worked with. In a good way. He
inspires everyone else to do their best work. I mean my crew guys, when
a new script comes out, you see them on set reading. I have trouble
getting their attention sometimes because they’re so wrapped up in the
next script and so excited about it. You don’t see that on other shows.