Painting the Town: Interview With Cinematographer M. David Mullen


For many artists, New York City is not merely a backdrop or a setting, but a character in its own right. A place where diverse cultures, creativity, and imagination belong and converge.

M. David Mullen, ASC has spent the past few years photographing the city from day to night, for his work in film and his own personal practice. He is the cinematographer behind contemporary classics such as the 1999 film ‘Twin Falls Idaho’, the beloved cult favorite ‘Jennifer’s Body’, NBC’s broadway-driven ‘Smash’, and the critically acclaimed Amazon Prime television series ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ for which he has won two Emmy Awards.

During his time off set and in between production shoots, he has explored the city’s boroughs and captured moments of everyday life on 35 mm and 120 film — with images that embrace the grain and vivid atmosphere the city is known for. As someone who has visually transformed New York back to the 50s, 60s and mid-2010s for his motion picture work, this analogue street photography photo series provides us with a glimpse into yet another dimension of the city that never sleeps.

Here, we speak with David about his relationship with analogue and digital photography, his early years learning film, and the correlation between his work in motion pictures and still photography.

Photos by M. David Mullen, ASC

Hi David! Welcome to Lomography Magazine! Can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?

I’m a cinematographer working mostly on streaming and cable TV series these days, but I have shot over thirty feature films. I went to film school at CalArts, graduating in 1991, and worked my way up by shooting small independent features as a cinematographer – meaning I climbed the budget ladder rather than the crew ladder. I am mostly self-taught however; I didn’t get into film school until I was 26, by which point I had been filming my own projects for a decade, mostly in Super 8 film. I spent a lot of time in college libraries reading everything I could find on filmmaking.

In 1998, I photographed Twin Falls Idaho for filmmakers Michael and Mark Polish, which went to the Sundance Film Festival. It got me an agent and an Independent Spirit Award nomination.

In 2000, for the Polish Brothers, I photographed the first feature film shot in 24P HD to get a theatrical release in the U.S., a very small indie feature called Jackpot. For a while, I got a lot of work shooting in HD until the budgets climbed to where 35 mm film was still the norm. In 2002, I photographed my third feature for the Polish Brothers, Northfork, in 35 mm anamorphic in Montana. I experimented with flashing the Fujifilm negative and then skip-bleach processing the prints to reduce the color saturation – and received another Independent Spirit Award nomination. Around this time I had collaborated on the textbook Cinematography with Kris Malkiewicz, my professor at CalArts. In 2004 I was invited to join the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC).

Then in the mid-2000s I was hired to photograph HBO's Big Love and then Showtime’s United States of Tara. I also shot the network pilots for The Good Wife, The Chicago Code, Extant and Designated Survivor. I went back to 35 mm film in 2015 for the indie feature The Love Witch, which was finished photochemically, with contact prints from a cut negative. I also worked on two seasons of HBO's Westworld, which was shot on 35 mm. But for the last five years I’ve been working on the Amazon Prime series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, photographed on an ARRI Alexa.

Photos by M. David Mullen, ASC

What are you working on at the moment?

I hope to start work soon on a new series for the creators of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel - it’s about ballet, which should be visually interesting.

When were you first introduced to film photography? How did your earlier years with analogue photography lead you to grow into the art and practice of motion pictures?

My father was an avid amateur photographer – my early childhood is well-documented! He was an aviator in the U.S. Navy; he met my mother in Japan while stationed there. He had a 35 mm Nikon SP rangefinder, shooting mostly Kodachrome, and a 127 film (40mm x 40mm) Yashica-44 TLR; he had to use Ektachrome for that format but the slides fit into a regular holder with thin borders, what was called “super slides” – producing a large square image on the screen.

He taught me the basics of photography but it wasn’t until I started shooting my own short films in Super 8 mm that I really learned the finer details. I was studying Latin in high school and entered a talent contest at a statewide Latin convention. One could submit a short film so I made a Monty Python-esque version of the Trojan War with my friends on a borrowed camera. I eventually got my own Super 8 mm camera and made a number of short films, starting to get some paid work in music videos after college, which is when I decided to go to film school as a graduate student. I also spent a little time in darkrooms in college after taking a photography class. But I was more serious about cinematography than I was about still photography. What changed things a decade ago was that I started to get TV series work out of town, New York City in particular, and had time after work and on weekends to wander around and take photos.

Photos by M. David Mullen, ASC

What do you like or dislike about the process of shooting on film?

Often when doing street photography, I find myself at some spot with an interesting background or quality of light, waiting for some interesting human activity to happen. With a digital camera, I can take dozens of photographs as people pass by, hoping to catch and freeze some bit of interaction, but with film, I find myself holding back because I don’t want to waste half a roll on the same background. I can also use a very high ISO with a digital camera, which allows me to use a short shutter time even at night, which again helps when something quickly moves past the camera. But what I like about film, besides the aesthetic pleasures of the image, its texture, is that I have to be more precise up front, and be more committed to taking that image – especially when using the 127 film Yashica-44, since there are only 12 exposures on a roll. I think digital can make one a bit lazy, so going back and forth between digital and film is a good exercise in staying disciplined.

What were your first film cameras? Do you still have them with you to this day?

Because of my dad, I’ve always had a Nikon, but a cheaper consumer SLR. My old one from the 1980s stopped working (I think it was an N8008) so I got a used N80 to replace it. I occasionally use my dad’s cameras, the Nikon SP rangefinder and Yashica-44, but there aren’t a lot of stock options for the 127 film format.

Do you have go-to film stocks that you use all the time, or are you more open to exploring and trying out others?

I’ve been trying out a few stocks, trying to decide what I prefer. I recently shot a few rolls of Ilford HP5 and (perhaps) prefer it to Kodak Tri-X. In color, I’ve mostly shot Kodak Portra 400 and Cinestill 800T, but I shot a roll of Portra 800 a few weeks ago, which was hard to get last year in NYC for some reason. I’m certainly interested in trying some different stocks. Right now I have a roll of Ektachrome in my camera.

Photos by M. David Mullen, ASC

Throughout the last couple of years you’ve been sharing your film photos shot around New York City on Instagram – using different film cameras, formats, and film. What has it been like capturing the city on film at this time? And what prompted you to shoot on the specific formats that you did?

While working in NYC, I often took a photo walk after we wrapped just to relax, especially if we were on location rather than on stage. A friend of mine gave me an old Agfa Clack 120 film camera, so I shot a few rolls of Kodak TMax 100 on it, in full sunlight because the camera is limited to an F/11-12.5 range more or less. The view is similar to my Yashica-44, like a 40 mm to 50 mm in Full-Frame 35. That can be a bit limiting for wide shots in NYC, but on the other hand, at night I almost exclusively use a 50 mm Nikkor f1.8 on my digital Nikon Z6 anyway. I took some pictures of Coney Island on the Yashica, and also around DUMBO, but most of my street shots on film have been with my Nikon N80; regular 35 mm seems better suited for that sort of subject matter. I shot some rolls of Cinestill 800T in Chinatown because I thought the colored lights and neons would interact with the lack of an anti-halation backing on the stock in an interesting way.

Photos by M. David Mullen, ASC

You have also shot a lot of New York street photography on digital. How does your approach differ when shooting on film vs digital?

The truth is that I mostly shoot digitally on the streets of NYC, mostly because I like to use a fast shutter and a high ISO in low-light to freeze action. I also find that there is a lot of flexibility to color-correct the raw files later (I use Adobe Lightroom.) However, film has a timeless quality that fits so well with the neighborhoods of New York, which have elements of different eras. So to a limited degree, whether I use digital or film depends on how much I want the image to feel immediate and new versus from an indeterminate time, though I am not beyond manipulating a digital image (even from my iPhone camera) to make it feel more like it is from the past.

Are there any other subjects or experiences you are looking forward to capturing with film photography?

I’m still exploring film to discover what advantages it has over digital. This is one reason I’ve resisted getting a decent 120 film camera and using slow, fine-grain film stocks in it – that sort of technical perfection seems to belong to the world of digital. Why use film if most viewers will think it was shot with a digital camera? I don’t have an answer for that. I also have a fascination with the Pictorialism movement of the early 20th Century, so using film (with further digital manipulation) is perhaps one way of obtaining that sort of painterly quality.

Photos by M. David Mullen, ASC

I understand that shooting on 35 mm for moving pictures and taking photographs on 35 mm are vastly different. But I am curious to know if you have an overarching philosophy when it comes to working with film as a whole. Are there common ideals, rules, or approaches you believe are universally applicable to both film photography and filmmaking (shooting on film)?

Obviously the technology is similar but the common issue is understanding how exposure affects the film and then how that exposure works with whatever technology you are using to color-correct and display that image. I remember in film school being in the office of my cinematography professor when another student came in complaining that their 16 mm footage was milky and grainy. When told that this was because the image was underexposed and printed “up” to compensate, the student said “How could it be underexposed? I shot wide-open on the lens!” As if that’s all you had to do no matter what the light levels actually were. So as a general rule, color negative likes exposure! I also feel that film has most of its latitude in the highlights and digital has it in the shadows.

How has your work in filmmaking influenced how you approach photography?

In some ways, my street photography is an escape from filmmaking rather than an extension of it. TV and feature production are heavily reliant on skilled crews in order to achieve anything, plus most of what you shoot has been constructed and brought before the lens, rather than found on one’s own while wandering around a street. However, I find that the art of composition is similar, other than the fact that a movie frame has to be “read” by the viewer much faster than a still image (or a painting) does, which tends to encourage simpler arrangements.

Who are your favorite storytellers, artists, filmmakers, and creatives who also shoot on film?

For color, I love older color processes like Autochromes or 3-strip Technicolor (though those two are very different from each other). The work of Pictorialists from the early 20th Century who worked in Autochromes is fascinating to me, like the color photos of Edward Steichen, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Karl Struss. My favorite color photographer though is Saul Leiter. I also am inspired by Ernest Haas and Jay Maisel. In terms of filmmaking, my favorite directors are Kurosawa, Welles, Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Spielberg – which I guess are somewhat obvious choices. But their sense of shot design combined with editing as they advance a narrative idea was very formative for me in college.

Photos by M. David Mullen, ASC

What is something that's been particularly invaluable in your film photography journey thus far?

I really started taking photography seriously when I began working in NYC in long stretches due to TV production schedules. For me, New York has the wonderful combination of architecture, coastal weather, and human activity on a walkable scale that inspires me every time I step outside. Combine that with discovering Saul Leiter’s book Early Color while prepping a feature in New Jersey about 16 years ago.

Anything you’d like to share with the Lomography community?

In terms of cinematography, there were three books that had a big influence on me in college: Film Lighting by Kris Malkiewicz (on cinema lighting techniques), Masters of Light by Dennis Shaefer and Larry Salvato (interviews with famous 1980s cinematographers), and Film Style & Technology by Barry Salt (history of movie technology and its impact on style, decade by decade).

Thank you to David for sharing his film journey and photographs with us! View more of his work on his Instagram and website.

What's your favorite part about photographing New York City on film? Comment down below and share your photos with our analogue global community by creating your own LomoHome here.

written by garden_song on 2023-11-15 #people #film #120 #street-photography #new-york-city #35-mm #still #cinematography #motion-pictures #asc

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