David Mullen Ponders the Question: “It’s real, but is it interesting?”

While working in New York City, David made a series of still photographs, often from his apartment window or rooftop.

While working in New York City, David made a series of still photographs, often from his apartment window or rooftop.

M. David Mullen, ASC is currently prepping the pilot for Extant, a dramatic sci-fi series for CBS and Dreamworks in which an astronaut, played by Halle Berry, tries to reconnect with her family after spending a year in space, where she performed a series of strange experiments. The pilot is being directed by Allen Coulter, whose credits include episodes of Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos, and House of Cards. The shoot is being mounted at the Culver Studios in Culver City. At the moment, that’s about all we can say, as the details about Extant are still under wraps.

Perhaps David can relate to Berry’s character. He recently returned to Los Angeles after spending parts of the two previous years in New York City, where he shot two seasons of Smash. About half the time, the Smash production was done on stages in Long Island City and Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and the other half in the city, often around Times Square. The story is about Broadway, so that makes sense. An old theater in Staten Island was dressed for some of the big Broadway numbers, and in the second season, that role was played by the United Palace Theater in Washington Heights, which is sometimes known as Reverend Ike’s Church.

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03_NYC by David Mullen 3

“It was a great experience shooting in New York,” says David. “I absorbed a lot of New York photography while I was there from watching movies and going to the museums, just trying to get a sense of how other people tackled shooting the streets of New York. A lot of it is available light. It’s very difficult in New York to take up much room on the sidewalks with equipment, so you pretty much try to use natural light when you can.

“At night around Times Square, there’s so much light there that I didn’t need to do any lighting,” he says. “Often it was just all available light. In fact, I had to put a ND3 filter into the camera because there was so much light. It was like at a 5.6 on the Alexa, so that’s quite a lot of light to work with. On the side streets and other streets, we did a minimum amount of street lighting. But in general, we couldn’t take up too much of the sidewalks and couldn’t stop traffic very often or anything, so we had to work around all of the elements of the city.”

For the big production numbers, David called in Broadway lighting designer Donald Holder, a nine-time Tony Award nominee. “On the shoot day, he would tweak some of the levels for me to work better with the camera sensitivity,” says David. “But I didn’t have any trouble with exposure. The lighting is mostly HMI-based and it’s fairly bright, so I didn’t have any trouble with light levels. It was mostly a matter of balancing the contrast and the range because the lighting can plunge from extremely dark to extremely hot lighting sometimes. During the takes, I would have to ride the irises in all the cameras a little bit to just balance things out. I often shot dance numbers with a 90-degree shutter angle, which was not a problem between the sensitivity of the Alexa and the brightness of modern stage lighting fixtures.

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“When we were getting the tighter coverage on the musical members on the stage, I sometimes had to turn off some of the overhead stage lighting to get rid of camera shadows or to clean up the shadows on some of the faces,” says David. “And occasionally, I would bring in my own key lights for the faces. Then for the fantasy numbers that were not full-blown Broadway numbers, which were often in smaller spaces, I often had to light without Don Holder’s participation. That was an interesting challenge: to do something semi-theatrical on a little more limited scale, with less time and less preproduction.”

On Smash, David worked with Arri Alexa cameras and Panavision and Angenieux lenses. As you might know, David is very generous about sharing his wealth of knowledge of the history and technology of cinematography, and my conversation with him reminded me of some insightful thoughts he posted in an online forum a few months ago. I thought they were worth sharing here, even out of their original context. They appeared as part of a thread titled “It’s real, but is it interesting?”

A shot of David taken on the observation deck of Rockefeller Center in New York City, during his last week on SMASH.

A shot of David taken on the observation deck of Rockefeller Center in New York City, during his last week on SMASH.

While I agree with some of your sentiments that the need for controlled lighting to create the proper mood and look hasn’t changed just because cameras are more sensitive, I would caution against the implied notion that artistic value comes from how difficult something was to achieve and therefore something easy to achieve is less artistic. Often the best lighting is the simplest, after all, and bad lighting can sometimes take more effort and time than good lighting. It just depends.

It all comes down to TASTE. Cinematographers like Jordan Cronenweth, Ed Lachman or Chris Doyle have done wonderful work in mixed color temperatures, and in the case of Chris Doyle’s work, I think it really captures something of the emotional tone of cities like Hong Kong. It shouldn’t really matter if a digital camera makes that easier or harder to achieve.

Also, there is no agreement that the highest goal of cinematography is to achieve realism, something that is open to debate and interpretation anyway. And there’s no reason why mixed colors should be less interesting or less realistic than a monotone or color-balanced image, or vice-versa.

But if you are arguing against artistic laziness, not thinking these practical lighting effects through from any visual design standpoint, then I’m in agreement! And perhaps these modern cameras, by making things easier, may encourage some laxness in thought and execution, but I’d rather have tools that give me more freedom than less freedom to create. Certainly Kubrick would have liked to have been able to work in very low light levels.

One thing has been on my mind lately: that with these new high-sensitivity cameras, shooting in available light in a cityscape is so much easier that perhaps now we can move on to concentrate on actual content and meaning, that capturing pretty night photography isn’t enough — it has to mean something. Or pretty pictures in general, we seem to have a glut of them on the internet. It’s time to do something more with these tools. 

David Mullen, ASC
Los Angeles

2 Responses to “David Mullen Ponders the Question: “It’s real, but is it interesting?””


  • David makes some strong points. I find that some of the most interesting lighting usually comes from simple sources. It even shows this to be true with paintings that we admire from some of the finest artists in our history.

    The tools being more accessible most definitely adds to creative capabilities. It’s just that the discipline remains difficult to come by, especially nowadays with the need for instant gratification with nearly everything.

  • Mr Mullen is a constant source of inspiration with his articulate, layered, passionate-yet-level-headed thoughts on cinematography and filmmaking. Thank you for this.

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