I know we all talk about the look of Mad Men, and usually we mean the outstanding art direction and the costumes, but I was watching a mini-marathon the other day and I was struck by the cinematography. Every scene is beautifully lit. Since 2008, Chris Manley has been the Director of Photography. Manley is a master at using natural sources and illuminating the sets so that they look like oil paintings. I imagine it must be a challenge to light the SCDP offices but Manley pulls it off, giving the interiors a credible facsimile of fluorescent office lighting while still managing to make everyone look good. There is none of the hellish fluorescent greenish cast or ugly under-the-eye shadows that overhead lighting creates. And, damn, all those white surfaces, bouncing and throwing light all around!
In search of a better trained eye, I mentioned MM’s lighting to my friend Ethan Mass. Ethan’s quite a talented and accomplished cinematographer himself. Here’s his opinion:
Amazing. I especially love the use of cityscape translights outside the windows. Over exposed JUST ENOUGH to sell the effect of hot sun on the buildings, but without the hot beams of light associated with shows like Ally McBeal (which I thought was beautifully shot as well). I preferred the look of the old office, though. There’s something a little TOO modern about the new one for me. I know it’s 1965, but is the office in a brand-new building? The old office read to me like late 1950′s, the new one is too 1970′s. That’s really nit-picky, though. It’s probably the best-shot show on the air right now.
I also love the way he lights dark interiors like Draper’s forlorn bachelor pad and those divey bars to which the SCDP crew often absconds. Manley knows what to leave in shadows without it being annoying to the viewer. But my favorite sequence by far is the beginning of The Summer Man, the colors pop out without ever being garish and you share Don’s delight at suddenly realizing that summer is upon him. Bam! Right then and there you get that wonderful feeling of walking out of a New York City office and suddenly getting hit with the vibrant vitality of the city.
Manley makes possible that voyage back to the 60s–an era that I missed but always wish I’d experienced. His cinematography makes everything look real, as if I were experiencing it myself.