American Cinematographer - July 2015 - 26

I

Beneath the Surface
By Kevin Barnes

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe is
a four-hour Lifetime miniseries that follows
the tumultuous rise of Norma Jeane
Mortenson (Kelli Garner) from displaced
child to global cinema icon. Having seen
director Laurie Collyer's earlier films Sherrybaby (AC Sept. '06) and Sunlight Jr., Chris
Manley, ASC knew he was on the right
team. "I knew she would be able to bring
the most out of the cast and get amazing
performances," he says. "A story that deals
with mental illness both in Marilyn and her
mother, Gladys [Susan Sarandon], was
something we hadn't seen before and
would be an interesting one to tell."
The narrative covers four decades,
and care was taken to give each era its own
distinctive look. For reference, Collyer
amassed an abundance of publicity shots,
portraiture and documentary stills of
Monroe's public appearances. The 1982
film Frances - shot by Laszlo Kovacs, ASC
(AC March '83) - was also influential, as it
spanned some of the same decades and
depicted an actress' struggle with mental
health.
The production rented two Arri
Alexa Classics from Panavision Toronto, as
Manley prefers working with the company's
Primo lightweight zooms - specifically the
26

July 2015

15-40mm (T2.6) and the 27-75mm (T2.6).
Manley had tested them during his tenure
on Mad Men (AC Oct. '09) and found them
equal to primes in sharpness and lack of
distortion. "They don't barrel or keystone,
and they don't breathe when you rack
focus. Plus it's a quick swap to a prime,
when necessary." The Angenieux Optimo
45-120mm (T2.8) was another favorite.
"When you need to go beyond 75mm, it's
also a quick change," the cinematographer
adds. The production also carried a 24275mm Primo zoom (T2.8) and a full set of
Primo primes. The Alexa footage was
captured onto SxS cards.
Manley sought to decrease image
contrast and imbue the shadows with a
color bias, and so, through most of the
shoot, he paired the Alexas with an Arri
Varicon. The Varicon is a descendant of the
ColorFlex - later renamed Lightflex -
which Gerry Turpin, BSC invented in order
to make it possible for negative flashing to
be applied in-camera rather than being relegated to the lab. The flashing process
affects the shadows and midrange while
leaving skin tones and highlights unaffected.
"It gives you more exposure in the
shadows by lifting the toe of the characteristic curve," says Manley. "The Varicon can
be dimmed up or down to taste." The
process also intensifies the latent image, so
American Cinematographer

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe photos by Ben Mark Holzberg and Danny Feld, courtesy of A&E Television Networks. Photo of Chris Manley, ASC by Louie Escobar.

Norma Jeane Mortenson (Kelli Garner) transforms herself into a global cinema icon in the
miniseries The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe.

that otherwise undetectable details become
visible in the shadows.
Before determining to use the Varicon, Manley explained the look he wanted
to Technicolor Los Angeles colorist Tim
Vincent, who said he could achieve the
effect in postproduction with Autodesk
Lustre, but increased noise would result. The
cinematographer also considered filters, but
the Varicon was ultimately favored for its
ability to boost exposure and preserve the
image integrity.
For scenes set in the 1930s, Roscolux
99 Chocolate was added to the Varicon gel
holder, and colors were skewed toward a
muted, pastel palette. The 1940s replaced
Chocolate with Lee 728 Steel Green as
secondary colors were introduced, including
yellow. And with the mid-20th-century rise
of Technicolor came an increase in saturation and primary colors; though Manley
used the Varicon to lift the blacks in these
scenes occasionally, he did not color-bias the
shadows. These looks were further finessed
with decade-specific LUTs made with the
help of Vincent and digital-imaging technician Baha Nurlybayev; final-color responsibilities were shared between Tim Vincent in
Los Angeles and Brett Trider of Technicolor
Toronto.
The Varicon slides into two filter slots
on an Arri MB-14 matte box, adding
awkward weight that makes it best suited
for studio-mode shooting. Nonetheless,
Manley always opted for whatever operating mode was most appropriate for the
scene at hand. When Monroe is rehearsing
All About Eve with acting coach Natasha
Lytess (Embeth Davidtz), she shrinks from a
window, claiming to hear voices outside; at
Monroe's insistence, Lytess hurries to extinguish every light. Camera operator Keith
Murphy chased Davidtz through the
complex blocking with the Alexa on his
shoulder. "The stability of the camera
mirrored the stability - or lack of it - in the
characters," muses Manley. (When
Steadicam was warranted, however, the
Varicon was replaced with a Tiffen Ultra
Con filter.)
In 1955, The Seven Year Itch generated one of the most iconic images of the
20th century: Marilyn Monroe, standing
over a New York City subway grate as her
dress billows revealingly from the updraft.



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