Now in its 10th season, Curb Your Enthusiasm has a palpable visual history. The series debuted in 2000, broadcasting a standard definition 4:3 aspect ratio (480i) for its first 6 seasons. It wasn’t until 2009 when it jumped to 16:9 widescreen (1080i), with co-creator and star Larry David jokingly admitting he had no idea why anyone would watch this way since “no one wants to see this old man on TV.”
For most of its history, the half-scripted, half-improv’d comedy captured scenes cinéma vérité style using two cameras. That changed in Season 9 when cinematographer Patrick Alexander Stewart modified its visual aesthetics again.
“When [executive producer] Jeff Schaffer, who I did several seasons of The League with asked me if I wanted to do Curb, I said yes, but with a couple suggestions. One of them being that we shoot with three cameras,” says Stewart, whose work includes Flight of the Conchords,Arrested Development and Brews Brothers, a new Netflix series.
On set with cinematographer Patrick Alexander StewartCredit: HBO
The request stemmed from Stewart watching the series over the years. “I could immediately tell how many cameras were in a scene just by watching the cut,” he says. “I’d notice that some of the more important lines from Larry would be said in profile and that would only happen when you have two cameras and not enough time for coverage.” Adding a third camera fixed this allowing the cinematographer to efficiently divide up each scene. It also cut the majority of production days down from 14+ hours to well below 12.
For Season 9 and 10, production moved from Sony FS7s to Panasonic VariCam LT cameras, capturing 4K UHD 3840 x 2160 at 23.98fps. Images are recorded in 10-bit 4:2:2 AVC Intra in V-Log and a V709 LUT is used to monitor on set. For lenses, Fujinon Cabrio zooms are the primary workhorses including the 14-35mm T2.9, 19-90mm T2.9 and 85-300mm T2.9-4.0.
To cover scenes, Stewart will divide coverage up like a pie. The master is C camera and usually starts with the 14-35mm in the center. The camera on the left covering all the action on the right is A camera and B camera is on the right, covering all the action to the left. Both are normally fitted with the 19-90mm. Once the scene progresses, and there’s no longer a need for a master, C camera will move to help A or B clean up the scene. Lenses will be switched out for the 85-300mm depending on coverage needs.
The camera operators, which include Patrik Thelander, Parker Tolifson, and John Purdy, will shoot wide open at T2.9 but can range to T4 depending on the sensitivity of the scene. Stewart tends to limit notes as the operators are very experienced and understand the aesthetics of the show.
To light locations, the cinematographer will play to the natural lighting of the space. If it’s an office, the lighting will come from the top. If the office has a window, the lighting will come from the top with a push from the window. To create contrast and mood, Stewart will use different techniques to soften sources, create shadows or modeling. “When I read a scene and see the location I will then dissect what the blocking should be for the lighting and camera and what can make it funny,” he says. Fixtures are mainly kept off the floor as there’s little time to make changes once the scene gets rolling.
For the Mocha Joe’s location, a coffee shop Larry frequents (and happens to be building a spite store next door called Latte Larry’s), overhead lighting was created so that the single setup could be used for all the coverage. When the camera points to the windows and we see outside, hard gels are added to the windows instead of ND.
Stewart will use LiteTile Plus fixtures which can be easily mounted to ceilings and provide a soft push. Other preferred fixtures include the Lightstar Luxapar 12 lights that come in arrays of 24, 12 and 9. “The Luxapars are not a lens light so you can’t focus them, but you immediately have a nice spread and punch. You can add a Chimera to the front of it for diffusion or pan them in and out to accentuate focus. They’re also flicker-free when you dim them down to 1%,” Stewart explains. When a splash of sun is needed, larger 18K, 6K or 4K fixtures will be brought in.
Leon Black (J.B. Smooth) and Larry DavidCredit: HBO
What helps motivate the lighting is the native 5000 ISO of the Varicam LT, especially in low light situations. “I’m perfectly fine changing the Varicam ISO to 800, 1200 or 1600. There's no noise with these cameras. When we need to go to 5000, where there is noise, there’s very little with Varicam.”
However, Stewart expresses caution when working with higher sensitivity cameras. “The one thing you have to remember when the camera is more sensitive and you’re dealing with a room with windows is that when your camera has been turned up three stops, the window in the scene will be three stops brighter. So, there’s some give and take you need to understand. The give you get with Varicam is much better than the take.”