The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the latest from Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, is a period piece about a recently separated New York City housewife who bucks convention to become a stand-up comic. The Golden Globe-winning show stars Rachel Brosnahan but also New York City, where it is shot. This late 1950s-era New York is populated with the culturati’s bold-faced, if no longer household, names — Jane Jacobs, Red Skelton and Lenny Bruce all drop in — and bursts forth in swirling tableaus through the skillful blend of production design, art direction, costumes and VFX. You probably won’t notice the 580 effects shots in Season 1, and that’s the idea.
Another reason for the heightened mise en scène is there really was a housewife-turned-comic that helped transform the profession for generations to come. Mrs. Maisel is not quite her story, but former vaudeville singer and dancer Jean Carroll, née Celine Zeigman, was a perfectly coiffed 1950s New York housewife who delivered her dry, husband-baiting barbs in glamorous outfits at top comedy clubs and on The Ed Sullivan Show. Moms Mabley was the first woman to perfect this kind of solo nightclub act, but Carroll never performed in character. By playing herself and using the details of her daily life as material, she directly influenced Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers and countless other women stand-up comics in a direct line to Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer. Sherman-Palladino folds aspects of all those later comics, who broke boundaries of their own, back into her own fictional pioneer, Midge Maisel.
For VFX supervisor Lesley Robson-Foster, helping to tell this full-color feminist story is a welcome and logical next step in a career that has flourished on shows like Sex in the City, Ugly Betty and the miniseries Mildred Pierce, not to mention on The Sopranos, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire and Vinyl. Because she is also a DGA director and a Local 600 IATSE DP, Robson-Foster regularly uses those skills on set at various stages of the production and post process. We spoke about how this has expanded her role as a VFX supervisor, the importance of an on-set VFX team and where you might spot her team’s work—if you look hard enough.
StudioDaily: What brought you to this project? And were you a Gilmore Girls fan?
Sadly, I don’t know Gilmore Girls at all, and I really need to go back and watch it now because I know Amy puts a lot of her parents into her work, and it’s fascinating to see how she does it. Mrs. Maisel is certainly a lot more about her father. But I took the job because the bulk of the crew and the main unit producer, Dhana Gilbert, are from Boardwalk Empire and Vinyl. Dhana likes to have the crew that she knows, and we all love each other and enjoy working together. And the idea of being back together with people who know you and how you work gives you a freedom to be brave and confident. With Dhana, I could go right in and say, ‘Let me shoot second unit, let me do this or that,’ and they let me. These days I’m looking for jobs where I can be a big part of the set-up. I don’t want to be called upon only when needed; I want to be right in there from the start. I’ve been lucky enough that the last several jobs I’ve had have been like that. Being a Local 600 DP and a director as well, it allows production to use me for all sorts of things, and it’s ‘Let me just dive in there and help’ in so many ways beyond my main role.
Did your role evolve any differently on this show, given that Sherman-Palladino hadn’t used effects to the degree she has here?
Although Amy and her husband, Dan, who is also an executive producer, don’t have visual effects shows in their background, it’s really been fabulous because they dare to ask for stuff without knowing how hard or expensive it’s going to be. That’s a working situation you can only dream of, you know? They’ll say, “We want this sequence to be four minutes long and there are no cuts, but there are two different time periods in the sequence.” If you look at the opening of Episode 4, you’ll see this long sequence to Barbara Streisand’s rendition of “Happy Days Are Here Again” while you see Midge alternately moving into her apartment with her husband and moving out after they have split. I’ve had phone calls from peers saying, “How did you do that?” Well, Amy invented it and asked for it, so we found a way. If you’d have read the script you would think that sequence would use up the visual effects budget for the entire episode. But Amy’s not afraid to ask. She’ll say, “I want the main character to be on a train, and I want to come hurtling through the carriage and head out the back window and watch the train disappear down the tracks.” She describes exactly the kinds of visuals she wants; she’s not thinking how it can or can’t be done with CG. That just makes my heart sing — that I can then go off and solve that.
What was the trickiest part of creating that opening segment in Episode 4?
Amy is a big fan of Steadicam and uses it in most scenes on the show. Jim and Larry McConkey are really experienced Steadicam operators, and Amy and Dan use them to the fullest. In that scene, a montage of those two different but similar events a few years apart, the idea was that the camera moves in a circular way around the room. As you pass a wall or a door, the scene would change from time period back to time period back to time period. We knew we couldn’t bring a motion-control rig in; it just doesn’t work with Amy’s style and the way she directs the actors and all they have to do in a given scene. So in the QTAKE Video Assist [log/capture/playback software interface] we simply tried to line the Steadicam shots up as near as we could knowing we’d have to fix them later! The biggest one is the last one in the scene where there’s a very, very long take at a New Year’s Eve party and the camera tracks in on Midge. You get closer to Midge from behind and go around her back. When you come around her front, everybody’s gone and the furniture is completely gone. Phosphene, one of our effects vendors, with their infinite wisdom, helped me join those two shots together from the left-behind head of the previous shot on the body of Midge in the empty apartment shot. That’s just one of the many little complicated things we’re all doing to make it look beautifully seamless.
In your view, can VFX become an integral part of the production process from the start? And how is that changing what we’re seeing on television?
I think it’s pretty interesting how the future of the visual effects supervisor really is changing for the better. Maybe we really do belong in the art department now, right along with the production designer. The bulk of production designers these days know that we’ll be working together on virtual sets, or they’ll just do the foreground and we’ll do the whole background, or they’ll do up to 10 feet height and we’ll do everything above. We’re really two critical pieces of the whole set. So as a visual effects supervisor, you must make that part of your purview and hook up with the designers to make sure you’re all in it together. But of course you’ve also got to be aligned with the DP for when you need to shoot the composition of something that doesn’t exist. But based on shooting schedules, quite a few DPs will just give it to you and walk away, so you better know exposures, resolutions and the camera you’re working with.
If I had to speak to the VFX supervisors of the future, I’d say grasp all of that with both hands, because that will only make the job more interesting and it is absolutely the future for high-end television. But that said, I’m working on the film The Goldfinch at the moment, and Roger Deakins is the DP. So that’s a completely different thing, knowing I’d like to shoot certain things and worrying what someone with his experience would say about that! But sure enough, I’m working with another producer I’m very familiar with, Mari-Jo Winkler, and I said I could shoot all the driving plates for the car scenes in Amsterdam, and I did. When Roger arrived and we went to the post house to look at how we fit together — not scary at all sitting with Roger Deakins and showing him your plates (laughs) — but it worked out fine. I’ll be doing it more as we’re filming. You really have to know how to shoot plates and all the rest if you’re going to call yourself a visual effects supervisor on any high-production television or film project. And given that we don’t have our own union, sadly, the home for us for the time being is the Directors Guild and the Cinematographers Guild.
Was it difficult to gain access to DGA and Local 600 with your title, though?
To get into them, you really just need a producer to believe in you and to tell those guilds that you are doing that job in your full role as a VFX supe. The way we think about television and film there’s still a great divide but the work we’re doing on them isn’t different at all. Sure, there’s invariably more time and more money to do my job on a feature, but these high-end shows at HBO, Amazon and Netflix are not like the networks at all. So it’s definitely not The Gilmore Girls. We have really great budgets. It’s relentless, episode after episode, and we keep going for a year, but it’s still the same work for me. And being able to have the same team — my producer, my editor, my matte painter, the temp compositors — and carry them from job to job with me has made a huge difference. We travel as a pack. That means I have to convince the producer to work this way with an in-house team, but I’m lucky enough that the ones I’ve worked with have agreed to this full team. It serves production so very well.
You used a Blackmagic Design Ursa Mini Pro to shoot second unit on Mrs. Maisel. Why that camera?
To collect all the establishing shots and create the plates, we needed a camera that would cut in with the Alexa Mini that we use on the main unit. Though it’s not at all the same kind of camera as the ARRI, it’s very good and it’s very useful in that it allows us to be really flexible. We can pack the whole thing with all our Canon lenses we’ve got on our still cameras, and use the EF mount to switch them over. It’s also got a built-in monitor and it goes on our Gitzo tripods that we carry and it can go on a backpack on my back or anybody’s back or in the car, and off we go. A lot of times we react to the light and we need to be able to move on that. When we notice it’s going to be a great sunset, for example, we’re off to go get the Upper West Side and the bridges. We’ve used the same kit on on the other jobs we’ve done and we typically ask production to buy us those cameras because they are so reasonably priced. But if there’s dialog or talent in the shot, then I’m always going to ask for the B or C camera off the main unit because you really have to cut in shot to shot in those moments. Whereas the establishing shots or VFX plates are sort of little self-contained tableaus, so they can be cut in or composited in and flow just fine. But if 50 percent of a painting I need to replace is in the scene with talent, then I want to be shooting with a main-unit camera for obvious reasons.
How do you and your VFX team work with editorial during assembly?
While everyone is off shooting the next episode of the show, we’re talking with the show editor to work out what they are going to be needing. My visual effects editor is there to pull all the plates and test things with me. We’re big on temps and testing and the reason I like having my in-house team is that when Amy and Dan are cutting, we can have near-perfect temporary visual effects in there so it doesn’t take them out of the story. We can really fine-tune and design it. Until I send it out to the vendors, it’s being done by my Nuke artists and editor and matte painter, so we’re doing all the heavy lifting up front, which then goes out with the shot. This way, there’s no testing that has to go on after the shots come back from the vendors. We started this kind of system on Boardwalk Empire, in fact. I travel with visual effects producer Parker Chehak on all these shows, and we got into doing it this way when we had an editor who had had a bit of compositing experience in the Avid. We all very quickly discovered we could do much better if we had our own dedicated compositors. Since then, I’ve traveled with both a junior and senior compositor and a very senior supervisor and matte painter who can go on set for me if we have to be in two places at once, which tends to be the norm on these kinds of shows. We can manage all of the things we need to do with this team effort.
Are you compositing everything in Nuke?
Pretty much. I’ll often take After Effects people to fill compositor spots if and when they open, because it’s so simple for them to move to Nuke. In fact, the last two people on the team are After Effects people, which means they can work in After Effects if they like, and then just move it on to Nuke. But for both of those women, Djuna Wahlrab and now Irene Park, the skillset is the same and they can pretty simply move from one to the other. I’ve seen them both switch over to Nuke very quickly.
Did New York’s post-production tax credit help keep this New York-centered show in the city?
Oh yes, definitely. I think that’s also why I’m busy all the time! After 9/11, I moved to L.A. I’d just had a baby and we lost our house and couldn’t stay in lower Manhattan. It made sense for my career. But my husband really, really wanted to come back to New York. I thought, if I do that, I’m never going to work again. But we came back right around the start of the tax incentive. It’s a strange thing to say, but in a way I’m a bigger fish in a smaller pond, so I got the work. But then, thanks to the Netflix and Amazon and all the others, there’s just so much of it! I’ve been so fortunate and haven’t stopped all those years and have gone from project to project to project. After I finish The Goldfinch, I’ll go back and do another season of Mrs. Maisel.
When will you begin work on Season 2?
It will go back up shooting in March. And I did hear rumblings that Season 3 is being looked at, I’m sure in large part because of their success at the Golden Globes. But I’m really proud of the work we’ve done on the first season, and I’d like to see someone point out each of the 580 effects shots if they can!
Give us a few hints.
The back of B. Altman’s is all virtual, for example. We really did shoot the exterior of the building that was B. Altman’s in the late 50s and is now the library for CUNY; you can imagine how much we had to replace there. We shot the Seagram Building on Park Avenue but the MetLife Building wasn’t built then, so that had to be removed completely. The big Steadicam shot of Joel, Midge’s ex, walking through the Garment District is a matte painting. And of course, when we shot on the wrong streets and moved Washington Square Park into the scene. There’s a lot of period cleanup in the street, as you can imagine, and weather work, since we shot in the summer and had winter scenes. Again, I’m very close with Bill Groom, the production designer, so we really worked in tandem on so many scenes: he’ll do everything at ground level and I’ll do everything above. I’m really proud of the driving plates we shot, though no one will probably notice. We replaced every single modern car in those shots. We had a mock row of 1950s cars and we parked them all on the streets in those plates. When I can take my laptop to set and show them a temp effect and they have no idea it’s not straight footage, I know we’ve done it. It’s interesting to try to carve yourself a niche in this world of visual effects, but that’s what I’ve tried to do and that’s what I’m doing: invisible supporting stuff that never, ever takes you out of the story.