<I>The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel</I>: A look at Season 5's subtle color shift
Adrian Pennington
October 12, 2023

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: A look at Season 5's subtle color shift

Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel took several jumps forward in its fifth and final season, as viewers follow Midge’s (Rachel Brosnahan) career struggles through the 1990s and eventual reconnection with her manager Susie (Alex Borstein). In addition to those bookends, multiple narrative twists and loose ends are tied up, including Midge’s stardom from “The Gordon Ford Show” and her messy personal life with her ex-husband Joel (Michael Zegen) and her two adult children. 

The beloved series from Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, has earned 80 Emmy nominations with 20 wins, including “Outstanding Comedy.” M. David Mullen, ASC (pictured, left), has won two Emmys and earned five nominations for his work on the series. Mullen shot 27 of the 43 episodes, sharing duties with Eric Moynier on Season 1 and 2, and with Alex Nepomniaschy on Season 4 and 5.

Colorist Steve Bodner has been working with Mullen since Season 1, when he assisted the DP with the camera tests at Panavision. He created the show LUT that has been the template since. 

“Once you find something that works you don’t want it to change,” Mullen explains. “Steve did the pilot and had the look dialed down. It’s very easy to work with and communicate with him.”

Bodner’s work on Mrs. Maisel has been nominated for three “Outstanding Color Grading” Awards from the Hollywood Professional Association (HPA), and earned him the HPA Award in 2022.

“David is an incredible cinematographer,” he says. “I don’t have to go in an opposite direction. It’s more about enhancing what he has shot, together with the production design and wardrobe.”

Season 5 was tricky, featuring a complex flash forward and occasional flash-back structure of the script. 

“There was less continuity to an episode,” Mullen says. “It became a question of how to embrace its discontinuity. Dan and Amy did not want too anything too stylized for the flash forwards. It couldn’t be overly diffused or strangely colored. We decided that the 1960s, where the bulk of Season 5 is set, would be modern in terms of the color scheme. It’s not period looking or faded. If anything, it’s a bit saturated because they wanted things to look vibrant and poppy. So, if that’s the base for 1960, there are not many directions to go. For Alex, Steve and I, it was more a matter of how we subtly create a difference between the current and future times.”

Season 5’s first episode, “Go Forward,” is set in a psychiatrist’s office in the 1980s. Mullen decided to switch from their normal Schneider Hollywood Black Magic diffusion to a Tiffen low-contrast filter. 

“I felt the slightly diffused look would have a little bit more of the modern age about it, compared to the classic Hollywood Black Magic filtration. It’s something Steve and I enhanced in editorial. We didn’t go for anything obvious in terms of saturation or desaturation. I just wanted the stuff that was in the present day to be more straightforward and less manipulated — a little less poppy and diffused.” 

Photo (R):  Colorist  Steve Bodner

Mullen ended up settling mostly on Tiffen glimmerglass diffusion for the fast forwards to lend shots a mild diffusion effect. 

“A little bit of halation on the lights, but nothing too obvious,” he notes. “When we got to the final flash forward, all the way to 2005, I went with no filters at all.”

The DP was wary that in going too sharp, the actors’ prosthetic make-up might become apparent “but I knew that if I wanted to change my mind, Steve could soften the footage in post. If I decided I’d gone too far in pulling all the filtration, we could have added the effect back.”

For one of the season’s few flashbacks, set in Abe’s office in the 1950s, Mullen went for a golden look. 

“This is something we normally don’t do with period photography, but because this was a period scene compared to our main narrative period, and the office was outfitted with wooden walls and wooden blinds, I opted for a very warm, almost sepia, tone. It intercuts with the current-day storyline of an early morning breakfast scene, so for contrast I went for an overcast, cool look.

“It is when you go from these flash forwards and come back out into a different environment that determines the look,” he explains. “If the current day scene is particularly warm or cold, or saturated or desaturated, I tried to do something with the flash forward that felt like a jump in terms of the color, contrast and diffusion, but nothing too on the nose.”

Mullen retained the show’s signature use of Panavision Primo lenses mounted on Alexa Mini, except for the flashback to Abe’s office, where he switched to ultra speed primes and shot the scene through extreme fine grade black fabric.

“It was just me having a bit of visual fun,” he recalls. “With the vintage lenses, we were able to shoot more wide open, with a shallower depth of field. Shooting hot light through nets on the lens creates a kind of a star pattern, sort of channeling Janusz Kamiński.”

The show may not be heavily manipulated, but there were sequences where Bodner was required to do something unusual. A flash forward to Israel in the 1980s had to look like a semi-arid desert landscape, but shot it in upstate New York, where it was “wall-to-wall green.” 

Mullen wanted to create a desaturated brownish tone. Normally he might achieve this by making the footage as warm as possible and then pull the chroma down. For this scene, VFX wanted to digitally manipulate the colors in the fields and wanted to retain as much saturation (information) for this post work.

“I wanted dailies to have this brownish look to them, so I shot that scene in ArriRaw, where the color temp is not baked in. It’s just metadata, unlike our normal recording format, which is ProRes 444. By shooting ArriRaw, I could set a high color temp, 12,000 Kelvin. To make the landscape look very warm, that was desaturated by pulling the chroma down. I didn’t want every element of the scene to go brown. Vegetables in the scene had to look green and healthy. I knew Steve would isolate the foreground and keep the green, but take it out of the background hills.

“The first thing some colorists do when they get the project is neutralize everything and start from scratch, so all the warmth, coldness or greenness has gone before they add it back in, but that’s not the way I photograph. I try to bake in the color tones I want so the correction is more about enhancing, fixing or matching things. That’s what Steve is so good at. He does the first pass on the episodes before I see them, and they are 90 percent there already. The color correction has gone very quickly for these last four seasons because he has the look nailed. 

“I might ask for a window here or there, things I couldn’t do with photography or couldn’t fix with lighting. Sometimes I’d send notes in advance after seeing the offline cut — mostly simple reminders of what the scene is. It is obvious from the footage, and after a while Steve just intuits what my intent is.”

The start of Episode 9 flashes forward to Lenny Bruce’s last stand-up act in San Francisco. 

“Ever since the pilot, Amy and I had been talking about Bob Fosse’s movie Lenny as a reference,” Mullen says. “It’s a black & white movie, so the idea was to do this flash forward to look like a B&W image.”

Bill Groom (production designer) and Donna Zakowska (costume designer) pulled all the color out of the location and costume. Mullen lit it with tungsten and set the camera to 2,000 kelvin to obviate any warmth from the lights, and to make the room as cold and white as possible.

Picture Shop also managed show dailies and online, supervised by Bodner, in concert with online editor Matthew Breitenbach and assistant colorist Tyler Robinson.

Since Mullen lives in LA, he would go into Picture Shop’s LA office for color correction sessions. Bodner, who lives in upstate New York, was remote accessing all footage from Burbank and connecting with virtual sessions. 

“We’ve built a trusted shorthand with each other,” says Bodner, who color grades using Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve and a Sony X300 monitor. “I get his footage and I have a good sense of where he would want to go with color, saturation, overall brightness, tone and vignetting, and our reviews usually go really fast at this point, around 90 minutes. We’ve built a technical and creative pipeline that has served this visually-beautiful show. It’s been an honor to work together on this series.”