Steve Silver, ASC is busy shooting two Chuck Lorre shows on stages at Warner Bros., Big Bang Theory, now in its seventh season, and Mom, in its first season. The schedule is worked out so that cameras never roll without Steve on hand. He’s also serving as consultant on Two and a Half Men, where he spent 10 years directing the photography of more than 220 episodes.
“Chuck asked if I would shoot his new pilot, Mom, last season,” says Steve. “The show and look were so well received that afterwards he reached out and asked if I would leave Two and a Half Men and continue shooting the series for him.”
Steve consults on Men with the help of his friend and former operator, Mark Davidson, who took over as the primary director of photography.
Steve attributes his success in part to the mentorship of George Spiro Dibie, ASC, for whom he assisted and operated for many years. In addition to teaching Steve the fundamentals of lighting for situation comedy, Dibie helped him get into the union and co-sponsored his membership in the ASC.
“He was one of the most influential people in my entire career,” says Steve. “He taught me the basics, the ABC’s approach to sitcom lighting. Since then I think I break most of the rules daily but George’s basic teachings still work well today. George also taught me about on-set politics and the importance of respecting your crew and clear, strong leadership.”
Big Bang Theory and Mom are shot on the Sony F55, making them among the first sitcoms to shoot on a 35mm-sized sensor. There were shows that were shot on Panavision Genesis cameras before now, but the lack of depth of field and workflow proved challenging.
Constantly looking for new ways to improve the visuals, Steve has developed several new techniques. Mom is set in Napa Valley. Steve has chosen what he refers to as “low streaming Northern California sunlight” for his key source and inspiration.
“With most sitcoms, when you see an exterior, usually you can immediately tell that it has been shot on stage,” says Steve. “Especially in multi-camera, it is very difficult to trick the viewers into accepting exteriors with a traditional stage lighting approach. When you’re shooting in multiple directions and the cameras are split, it becomes very hard to sell believable sunlight. One way of making a sunny day exterior more believable on the stage, from a variety of directions, is to introduce the idea of an invisible tree.
“When we shoot outside, we don’t want to place our actors in the extremely harsh sun generally, so why take that approach on stage,” Steve explains. “I have the crew imagine that there’s a tree over the entire set. We break up the keylights from above and behind with tree branches (‘tree-alorises’) that cast a dappled light across onto all sides. This allows any buildings to have a projected effect on them and keeps them from being flat-lit. And on the front side of this imaginary tree, I play a low raking sun effect that comes underneath and hits the characters from the waist down. I’ll light 5-10 stops overexposed depending on how saturated the wardrobe and landscape are. This concept is especially friendly to sound. The booms can reach in without any interference.”
The exterior world of Two and a Half Men is comparatively very warm. “I like to source the quality of the Southern California coastal sun, but in addition I like to play the ambience cooler since my fill light is from the effect of the sun bouncing off the blue ocean,” he says.
The characters live on the beach in Malibu. Steve knows when it looks right, because he makes his real-life home there. “In Malibu, it’s a different quality of light that you’ll see in, say, Pasadena, where Big Bang is based. There we use a much softer and less saturated key light source for our approach though the windows, because it’s coming through Los Angeles smog and inter-city atmosphere.”
With his eye trained on three different shows, you might think that Steve has no time for hobbies. But you’d be wrong. When he’s away from the stage, he spends a good deal of his time surfing the big waves in the Mentawai Islands off Sumatra in Indonesia.
“I’ve always enjoyed a coastal existence, and I stay as close to the beach as I can,” he says. “I grew up in Sherman Oaks, and surfed every summer and on weekends, but I was always very jealous of the local beach kids. I always wondered what it would be like to smell that fresh beach air every day. As soon as I graduated high school, I made a life out there in Malibu.”
Steve’s cinematography and beach passions have intersected more than once. “One morning, I woke up super early on a crystal clear day,” he recalls. “I had rented an 8X10 film camera from Samy’s. I shot some photos of Paradise Cove at sunrise one morning and archived them. About three years later, Two and a Half Men started up and they couldn’t find a suitable image for a Malibu backdrop for their main set. I said, ‘Well, here are some shots.’ One of my shots ended up being the 70-foot backdrop that we’ve been using for 11 years on the Two and a Half Men main set! I focus 16 motorized Source 4 lights on the water from behind in order to keep the water from looking static. It’s nice when you are having a long day on stage to sit in that set and look out at Malibu.”