How an Emmy-nominated cinematographer brought a sunrise to a soundstage.
Most of us laud the work of cinematographers like Janusz Kaminski, Emmanuel Lubezki, Hoyte Van Hoytema, and Roger Deakins. But if there are equivalents to admire in the scripted multi-camera genre, one of those cinematographers would have to be Steven V. Silver, ASC. For more than 20 years, Silver has been lensing aesthetically pleasing visuals that heighten character identities and plot points with a deceiving simplicity.
This Emmy season, Silver has been nominated for both of the Chuck Lorre-scribed comedies he juggles: Mom and The Big Bang Theory.
“I really didn’t think I would have been nominated this year,” Silver told No Film School. “It’s usually bigger productions, in terms of stories, that get recognized. The sets weren’t overly elaborate and there were very few location shoots. This season ended up being more simplistic.” But it was Silver’s approach to these simplistic stories that caught the eye of Emmy voters, as each nominated episode featured car work that represented two completely different visual styles.
For Mom’s “Sticky Hands And A Walk On The Wild Side,” the characters find themselves smuggling maple syrup across the Canadian border in an attempt to get rich quick; while crossing, they find themselves emotionally shaken by the passing of a close friend. As the SUV inches toward the checkpoint, a distraught Christy (Anna Faris) sits in the driver’s seat before breaking into tears along with Bonnie (Allison Janney), Jill (Jaime Pressly), and Wendy (Beth Hall). When the border officer taps the window to ask if everything is okay, Christy cries, “Nothing is!” The border officer sympathizes with their pain and lets them pass without searching their car.
The sunrise effect was created by taping stripes of colored gels on a 4x4 ft frame.
The border set was built with large panels of chroma-key/blue fabric surrounding the set. Exterior shots of the Canadian border crossing were then fused with the studio work to further enhance the realism of the sequence. "We ended up mounting four Sony F55s around the car," Silver explained, "three on the hood, and one through the passenger side window. On the hood, we had two 19-90 zoom lenses, and one 15-40. Through the side, I used a 35mm Prime Lens with a split diopter in order to hold focus on the driver and the passenger."
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At dawn, Christy pulls to the side of the road for an impromptu AA meeting and shares her feelings about their friend passing away. Christy leads the group in serenity prayer as the sun rises, creating an optimistic mood with the hope of a new beginning. In order to visually pull this scene off, Silver timed a 19 second sunrise to match the dialogue perfectly.
"Once again, the scene needed to be shot on stage," said Silver. "We knew that an on-location sunrise shot was going to be in the background, but we had to guess what colors the location might provide." Silver decided to use the cooler colors of pre-dawn and then transition to warmer tones, imagining the low raking sun appearing over a distant mountain range.
The sunrise effect was created by taping stripes of colored gels on a 4x4 ft frame, starting with Lee Filters’ Fuchsia Pink, Medium Lavender, and Full CT Blue. As the sun rose, Silver and team transferred into Light Pink, Deep Straw, and, finally, Light Amber. Silver elevated the 4x4 frame vertically through two 10K light sources.
"Chuck came up to me right before the shot and asked, 'How are we going to do this?'" Silver recalled. "I said, 'Let’s roll the cameras and if you don’t like it, we’ll change it on the second take.' It turned out he loved it so much that a second take wasn’t needed."
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For The Big Bang Theory Emmy, Silver submitted the episode "The Convergence Convergence," highlighting a clever car chase between the characters, which ultimately lands Howard (Simon Helberg) in hot water with the police.
"When you have a car scene with one chasing the other, what you can do is integrate the chase vehicle into the foreground vehicle, and show the relationship between those two moving objects in a way you normally can’t with a single car driving in an artificial environment," Silver said. "As the car behind is getting closer, I was able to use the idea of the chase vehicle’s headlights to create movement and drama. The fact that it was actually their friends trying to keep up with them made for a hilarious and funny scene. The producers were concerned about building tension appropriately to the scene, in order for the comedy to play out as written. Chuck [Lorre] was very happy as he watched the scene play on the monitors, so I knew the crew and I had succeeded in helping enhance the comedy.”