ONFILM Interview: Chris Manley, ASC

Published on website: July 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
Chris Manley, ASC - Photo by D. Kirkland

"My early experience working for Roger Corman taught me how to work quickly without compromising. At its best, cinematography reinforces the emotion or mood of a scene the same way that the music in the score does. It's almost intangible-the audience is only marginally aware of it on a subconscious level. I believe that shooting on film is part of the equation. There's an emotional quotient that you can't measure, but the audience can feel it. There have been experiments where audiences looked at the same scene recorded in both film and digital formats. They thought the performances were better on film, even though it was the same exact scene. … I trust my eyes. If I see it on set, I know the audience will see it on film in cinemas and on HD television sets. As filmmakers, every film or still image we see informs the images we choose to make in the future. We are all standing on the backs of the great cinematographers who came before us."

Chris Manley, ASC began his career shooting low-budget films for Roger Corman, including The Phantom Eye which won a daytime Emmy® Award for cinematography. His credits include the television series Threat Matrix, CSI: NY, Prison Break and Mad Men, which earned a 2009 Emmy® nomination for cinematography.

[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]

by Bob Fisher

QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?MANLEY: I was born in Philadelphia. My family moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania, when I was 3 years old. I grew up in Allentown.

QUESTION: What did your parents do? MANLEY: My father was the director of the Allentown Human Relations Commission. He was kind of an ombudsman who settled disputes about discrimination in housing, employment and things like that. My mother was a homemaker, but she went back to school and studied interior design. She became an interior designer.

QUESTION: Were either of your parents photography hobbyists?MANLEY: Both my father and grandfather were amateur photographers. My dad had a darkroom, where he processed film and made his own prints. When I was 11 years old, we travelled across the country for a month, camping along the way. My dad gave me one of his old manual 35 mm cameras. He taught me how to use a reflective light meter and take pictures. That was my first experience with photography. I remember being at Old Faithful at Yosemite, and waiting for the geyser to go off. I got so excited that I just keep shooting it over and over again. I took 30 pictures of the geyser that looked exactly alike. My dad also had a Super 8 camera that I wasn't allowed to touch.

QUESTION: What types of films did he shoot?MANLEY: Family events; and he was an avid tennis player. He had people film him playing tennis so he could analyze his strokes. We never had a projector. He had a viewer that allowed him to look at the film slowly and analyze his tennis form.

QUESTION: Were you a movie fan when you were a kid?MANLEY: Like all of my friends, I was a movie fan. I remember begging my parents to take me to see Excalibur. They didn't want to take me to see it because it was too gory, but I begged and they relented. I also loved Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars.

QUESTION: What did you want to be when you grew up? MANLEY: The earliest memory I have is wanting to be an archaeologist, because I liked dinosaurs and fossils, but I grew out of that idea.

QUESTION: Where did you get the idea of being an archaeologist?MANLEY: Probably from my mother. My father was kind of a pragmatist. He was pushing me towards studying business. By the time I was a senior in high school, I realized I didn't want to do that. I didn't know I was interested in film until I filled out some forms requesting information from different universities. I found myself asking for literature for photography and filmmaking programs.

QUESTION: Where did you go to college?MANLEY: I enrolled at Temple University as a radio, television and film major. I was exposed to a lot of classic Hollywood movies during my freshman year and really fell in love with filmmaking. I worked on other students' films doing lighting, sound, camera assistant, grip work, and I eventually started shooting graduate student films. After shooting a few, I began trying to figure out if I could make a living as a cinematographer.

QUESTION: Were there other things which influenced you during that period?
MANLEY: There was a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia called International House, which primarily exhibited foreign films that were never released in the United States, because the distributors didn't think that they could sell them to American audiences. I worked there as a projectionist. I saw some fantastic films. There were occasional retrospective screenings of different directors. They also organized the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema. I was the projectionist for that as well. One year they did a tribute to Richard Brooks and Conrad Hall (ASC) was a guest. I was in my early 20s and he was already one of my heroes. There was a reception afterwards. I wasn't able to talk with Conrad because he was mobbed by people who wanted his attention. When I saw him leaving, I chased him to the exit and asked a stupid question about how to light day interiors. He just said, 'Keep it simple, kid. Keep it simple.'

QUESTION: Did you meet people at Temple that you got to work with later in life?MANLEY: Actually, I did. I volunteered all my free time to work on graduate student films. I learned a lot from the graduate students. One of them was David Jacobson, whom I later worked with in Los Angeles on Dahmer. It was a very low budget movie, which was kind of a psychological study of the serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer. I always liked working on David's crews at Temple. I liked his aesthetics. I knew that if he did a film about Jeffrey Dahmer, it would be interesting without sensationalizing violence. It was nominated for several Independent Spirit Awards.

QUESTION: When did you actually decide to focus on cinematography?MANLEY: There was kind of a turning point in Philadelphia when I realized I loved being a cinematographer rather than writing or directing. I loved collaborating with directors on sets. I thought it was the best job there is.

QUESTION: What did you do after graduating from Temple?MANLEY: I did a little work around Philadelphia, but there weren't many opportunities. I knew I needed to get more training. The only program I was interested in was at AFI, because it was more of a conservatory style of learning.

QUESTION: How did you hear about AFI?MANLEY: Most of our professors at Temple were documentary filmmakers. A professor named Jeff Rush came to our school from Penn State. Suddenly, there was somebody who could answer our questions about narrative filmmaking. I found out that he had gone to AFI. Another graduate student at Temple was also interested in AFI.

QUESTION: What was that experience like?MANLEY: It was perfect for me. I was 25 years old and thought I knew a lot, but I learned more during the first three months than I did in five years in Philadelphia.

QUESTION: Who were some of the cinematographers and other filmmakers who mentored you at AFI?MANLEY: When I started in 1994, they had a policy of rotating professors every six weeks. They taught classes, advised us on projects and conducted workshops. Our rotating teachers included Tom Denove, Stevan Larner (ASC), Bill Dill (ASC), James Chressanthis (ASC) and Bob Primes (ASC). We had a great teaching assistant named Denise Bressard who brought in guest teachers for a day or two, including Conrad Hall (ASC), Vilmos Zsigmond (ASC), Russell Carpenter (ASC), and Darius Wolski (ASC).

QUESTION: What did you do after you graduated from AFI?MANLEY: I'd walk to the newsstand, buy the trades, look at all the film start-ups and make cold calls, send resumes and reels. I must have sent 200 reels in those early days. One of my classmates said, 'You might as well throw your reel off the cliff and hope it hits a director in the head!' I got jobs as a gaffer and electrician on very low budget films. Looking back, I knew a lot of talented people who got discouraged and gave up.

QUESTION: You did some work as an electrician and gaffer. Tell us about that.MANLEY: My name got around because I had done a lot of work as a gaffer at AFI and on low budget movies. I needed to make money to fund my shooting, and there are more jobs for electricians than camera assistants. I also thought of it as an opportunity to learn more about lighting.

QUESTION: How did you get your first job as a cinematographer?
MANLEY: Right after of school in 1996, I was referred by someone at AFI to shoot a no-budget feature called Irish Whiskey. We had a $26,000 budget, but they got a lot of donations. We shot 35 mm short ends with a Panavision Gold camera and had print dailies which we watched every night at Deluxe. Soon after, I was hired as a second unit cameraman on an independent movie with a $300,000 budget called Under the Influence. The week before we started, the first unit cameraman quit and they promoted me.

QUESTION: What happened next?
MANLEY: The producer of that film had a friend who was directing a movie for Roger Corman. The title was Running Woman. Later, I did a movie for Roger Corman in Ireland called The Suicide Club and a television movie that he produced for AMC called The Phantom Eye. I won a daytime Emmy for that film. For a while, Corman put all his resources towards his TV series called Black Scorpion. I led the greenscreen unit for a few episodes and some second unit work.

QUESTION: What came next?MANLEY: I continued working on micro budget and low budget movies. I worked on films in Eastern Europe. I did second unit on a TV series called The New Adventures of Robin Hood, a television movie called Wolf Girl in Romania, and another film in Lithuania. I also worked on films in Canada and then in New York.

QUESTION: What did you do in Canada.
MANLEY: The first thing I did was a movie in Vancouver called The Stickup. The lead actor was James Spader and Rowdy Herrington was the director. I also shot a two-hour TV movie in Toronto called Thoughtcrimes, directed by Breck Eisner.

QUESTION: When and how did you get into doing shooting episodic series?MANLEY: The producer of Thoughtcrimes, George Perkins, hired me to shoot the Threat Matrix series, which aired on ABC in 2003. It was about agents for Homeland Security who tracked down terrorists. There was a lot of action, shooting at practical locations during 16 hour days. I thought I was getting fired every day, because we were supposed to finish in 12 hours. My agent warned me not to get fired on my first TV series. She said that would be a disaster. Then George told me not to worry. He said that I was moving as fast as any cinematographer he had worked with on other projects. He said, 'It's the scripts-they're too large and ambitious for the eight-day format. It's not you. Don't worry.' That was kind of a relief. Looking back, I think my experience working on Roger Corman films was a big help, because it taught me how to work quickly without compromising. At AFI, we were taught that cinematography is an art form and we're artists doing important work. When I was shooting for Corman, I learned that you're expendable if you don't make the schedule. I had to balance those two points of view, because the truth was somewhere in the middle. You have to be artistic on a budget and stay on schedule. I was nominated for an American Society of Cinematographers Outstanding Achievement Award for Threat Matrix in 2004. That meant a lot to me.

QUESTION: Are there any other memories to share about Threat Matrix?
MANLEY: We had a brutal schedule, but I had a great crew, great technicians with the equipment and resources we needed to tell interesting stories. It was a great experience in collaborating with the people on my crew. No one does it alone.

QUESTION: After CSI: NY, for which you earned another ASC nomination in 2005, you shot a couple of television movies and then Prison Break. What do you recall about that experience?
MANLEY: A lot of our background extras were former inmates. Our setting was the prison in Joliet, Illinois. It was built in the 1830s and housed Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. There were stories about the prison being haunted by the ghosts of former prisoners. I didn't see any ghosts, but when we scouted around the prison for locations, some of the guards would say things like, 'I'm not going in there. You are on your own.' During color timing, we introduced a green tone into the shadows, because it was right for the place and mood. The logistics were difficult shooting at the prison, though we also shot a lot of scenes on stages.

QUESTION: We are going to fast forward to 2008 and Mad Men, the first episodic series to air on AMC (American Movie Classics) channel. How did you get on that project?
MANLEY: It's a small world. A production executive at AMC had overseen The Phantom Eye, the miniseries I shot for Roger Corman that aired on AMC nine years earlier. Matt Weiner conceived, wrote and produces the series which is set in a Madison Avenue advertising agency during the early 1960s. Matt is a huge classic movie fan. I saw a lot of the films that he loves while I was a projectionist in revival cinemas in Philadelphia, but Matt would also bring up titles of classic movies that were new to me.

QUESTION: How did he explain vision for the story to you?
MANLEY: He wants it to look like a movie. AMC is a movie channel. We are seen in between two classic movies every week. I watched all of the first episodes that aired during the first season. The camera aesthetic was set. It's basically transparent. We don't want the audience to feel the camera moving. We only move the camera with the actors, and occasionally we push in or pull out during transitional moments getting into and out of scenes, or maybe when we draw attention to someone who is thinking about something that happened or was said. Basically, we don't want the audience conscious of the camera. The other thing I noticed while watching season one was that the lensing felt different than other television shows. It looked like everything was shot with one, two or three inch lenses between 25 mm and 75 mm. During the second season, we tended to use wider focal lengths in the medium range. Part of our shooting style is to use a single camera, which is more of a classic motion picture style. I've used two cameras on most of my TV shows in order to keep on schedule, but that requires some compromises with position and focal lengths. You are usually further away with longer lenses, which affect everything from lighting to sound and performances. We use a single camera most of the time, and a B camera when it doesn't compromise how we cover scenes. You can shoot a close-up portrait of someone's face with a B camera mounted with a 200 mm lens, but it doesn't feel as true, because you're crushing the perspective and not getting a sense of the environment. Whenever possible, I'd rather shoot close-ups with a 60 mm lens. You can feel the topography of the face. It's more intimate like you are standing close to a character instead of looking at him or her through binoculars. Let's not forget that on Mad Men, the environment in the backgrounds is what creates that 1960 verisimilitude. You see settings in the background and the wardrobe which helps to put you in the 1960s.

QUESTION: How about your approach to lighting?
MANLEY: In my discussions with Matt (Weiner), we agreed to take a naturalistic approach to lighting motivated by sources with less backlight, hair light and things like that. I ask myself before every scene, where is the light coming from?

QUESTION: You must have done something right. You earned an Emmy nomination. How about season three? Did you change anything in your approach to shooting?MANLEY: We created a lot darker look transitioning from season two to three, because the story becomes a lot darker. We isolated characters more in light sources, use less fill light and overhead ambiance. We let things fall off much more rapidly. Part of the temptation of a period story like Mad Men is that the sets are so gorgeous that you want the audience to see them. Even in darker scenes during the second season, we used lighting to create a low, natural looking level of ambiance. We did a lot less of that during the third season and let light fall off in backgrounds and lit characters in isolation.

QUESTION: Are you generally working with different directors every week? MANLEY: We rotate directors, so I am working with a different individual every week. On television series, the producer is your constant collaborator. I speak with Matt Weiner or Scott Hornbacher on a daily basis when we are shooting. It's an important relationship. You need the producers on your side sharing the same vision in order to get the resources needed.

QUESTION: How are you framing images?
MANLEY: We frame Mad Men in 1.78:1 aspect ratio. That's part of what makes it feel like a movie. A lot of other TV shows still have cinematographers composing 4:3 and protecting for 16:9. The inevitable result is that you are compromising the composition.

QUESTION: Is the visual grammar set or is it evolving?
MANLEY: We shoot with the idea that we won't be cutting every few seconds like other shows. Our shots are more likely to be held on screen much longer, which forces us to be more disciplined about quality. But there are no unbreakable rules, except to make every shot count. We make instinctive decisions.

QUESTION: What format is Mad Men produced in?
MANLEY: We are producing Mad Men in 35 mm film format. I believe that gives us an edge in realizing our vision for Mad Men. Cinematography works on a subconscious level. At its best, it reinforces the emotions or the mood of a scene the same way that the music in the score does. It's intangible - the audience is only subconsciously aware of it. I believe that shooting on film is part of the equation. There's an emotional quotient that you can't quantify, but the audience can feel it. There have been experiments where audiences looked at the same scene recorded in both film and digital formats. They thought the performance was better on film, even though it was the same exact scene.

QUESTION: Is shooting on film a learning process for cinematographers?MANLEY: When I started shooting 16 mm film as an undergraduate, it was like learning a new language. You learn by experience, and train your eye to do a mental translation from what you see to what will arrive in the film print. Now with the new stocks and modern telecine machines, I trust my eyes. If I see it on set, I will see it on film and on HD television sets.

QUESTION: You explained that Mad Men is produced for AMC audiences to watch in between classic movies. But, we should mention that this uniquely American story is popular in syndication around the world, including England, France, Germany, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey and other countries. What role do you think movies and television play in our global society? Is it purely entertainment or also how we learn about the world?
MANLEY: Every image affects how we see and think about the world. As filmmakers, every film or still image we see informs the images we choose to make in the future. We are all standing on the backs of the great image-makers who came before us.