Mad Men” d.p. Chris Manley has a kind of era-sensitive litmus test for the shots he sets up on the Emmy-winning series.
“We’re really trying to remain true to the period,” he says, “so there’s nothing we do on the show that couldn’t be done with 50-year-old equipment if we had to. If we start to move in a direction of needing other kinds of equipment, we start to think we won’t get the look we want.”
Manley uses a narrow range of lenses on the show — from 25mm to 75mm — and a lot of low angles to create what’s become a signature visual style for the series. “Matt (Weiner, series creator) thinks shooting up makes things look heroic, and I agree,” Manley says. “It’s very John Ford.”
Altough currently gaining notice for “Mad Men,” Manley came to the job with impressive achievements. He moved to Los Angeles in 1994 to study cinematography at the American Film Institute. The thesis project he completed while there — “My Mother Dreams the Satan’s Disciples in New York” — went on to win the Academy Award for best live-action short film of 1999. He was also given the Eastman Kodak Scholarship Award based on his first-year work at AFI.
Manley is a graduate of another kind of academy as well that has produced many talented alumni.
“I guess you could call it the Roger Corman school,” says Manley, who credits the indie pioneer with helping him develop the skills needed to create art on deadline and within budget. “You have to take what’s given to you in terms of existing lighting and space and work with it, because if you don’t you’ll pull your hair out,” he explains.
Manley attributes much of his ability to keeping his cool under pressure. “I try to have a sense of calm,” Manley says. “When you panic, all inspiration just goes out the window.”
Film that changed my life: “‘Notorious’ opened my mind to the creative use of the camera.”
Mentor or inspiration: “Robert Primes, an instructor of mine at AFI. He was always very encouraging to me.”
Tool I can’t do without: “When you need to do a shot but you’re working with a time limit and a money limit, you come up with ways of getting what you need that aren’t dependent on a particular tool.”
Rep: Sheldon Prosnit Agency