Amazing Mentor! Interview with Steven Silver, Director of Photography for Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, sitcoms on CBS.
By Andrew Sibner, Contributing Writer
Steven Silver is an award-winning cinematographer and Director of Photographer. He has worked as a cinematographer on the well-known shows Dharma & Greg and Still Standing and has worked as Director of Photography on Titus, Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. He has been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography five times, and won once in 2007. Let’s pull Mr. Silver out from behind the lens and get a look at how he became successful in his career.
AK: How did you get your start? How would you describe your journey?
SILVER: I had a friend who was taking a film appreciation class at Valley College in the San Fernando Valley. She convinced me to take the class and as soon as I did, I got hooked on the idea of a career in cinema and started taking all the film classes that they offered. I needed a job while I was going to school, so I knocked on doors at places that rented cameras, editing equipment, and did special effects work. I got five job offers on my first day. As it turns out, if you tell the proprietor you’ll do just about anything to break into the business, including take minimum wage, you will get their attention. Eventually I was hired by The Howard Anderson Company. The Anderson family pioneered visual effects during the silent film era in the 1920s. His son, Howard Anderson III was doing second unit work on several TV programs, including The Dukes of Hazard. That job with Howard Anderson got me the hours and experience I needed to become a member of the Camera Guild. That was a really important stepping-stone in my career.
AK: When and how did you move up from first assistant to operator?
SILVER: I worked on nine episodes of My Sister Sam, and then I was an assistant on the pilot episode of Murphy Brown in 1990. Gil Hubbs (ASC), the Murphy Brown cinematographer, moved me up to camera operator at the beginning of the second season. I worked with him as a camera operator for eight years on that show. It was like being paid to go to school. I watched, listened, and learned the possibilities and limitations of cinematography for situation comedies. I also learned how to break through those limitations in order to create looks that might have been too moody in those days, but are well received by today’s sophisticated audiences.
AK: How did you get a chance to start shooting films and TV programs?
SILVER: I was working as a camera operator on Caroline in the City when the executive producer, Dotti Zicklin, asked me to shoot the pilot for Dharma & Greg. I had no idea at the time that it would turn out to be such a big success and run for five seasons.
AK: Is shooting a situation comedy a collaborative process?
SILVER: There was a time when people at the networks thought that comedies should be shot in bright fill light. (Fill light is used to reduce the contrast of a scene and provide some lighting in areas that are in shadow.) They have become much more sophisticated. Everybody contributes with their attitude as well as their performance. Each operator has a specific assignment, covering one or all of the characters from different angles. Sometimes we are hiding cameras outside windows, in doorways, or other places. Our executive producer, Chuck Lorre, loves to write, what I envision to be, low light level comedies. I find myself working at four foot-candles a lot of the time and crashing in big lights at 300 foot-candles at other times. (Foot candles is the amount of light that actually falls on a given surface. The foot-candle is equal to one lumen per square foot.) In other words, we use the entire range of latitude that film has to offer in order to capture the emotional content of story. It is very hard to do that with four cameras, because a strong backlight that we create for one camera can end up being the front light for the camera on the opposite end of the stage.
AK: How is your creativity expressed through your work?
SILVER: As the cinematographer, my objective is to translate my own emotions into a visual vocabulary in order to navigate the audience through the story. My hope is that the viewers will feel the same emotional connection to the images that I intended for them when creating it in the first place. This is, for me, my greatest desire and at the same time my greatest challenge. As a cinematographer I try to assign moods and emotions to every scene in order to create images that will support the story.
AK: Is every episode shot entirely on the sets at the studio?
SILVER: There are occasional scenes filmed on location. For instance, we once shot a night scene with a character jogging on the beach. We lit about a quarter mile stretch of the beach showing the police surrounding him and had a helicopter hit him with a spotlight.
AK: When you are shooting on sets at the studio, are you typically in the video village (the area near the set where the script supervisor, producers, director, and writers sit that has monitors from all the cameras so they can see what’s happening in the shot without getting in the way) or by the camera with the actors?
SILVER: I’m in the video village while we are setting up shots with the director and stand-ins. When the actors come on set for a rehearsal, I’m usually in between the B and C cameras. The A and X cameras are at the edges of the set. That way, I can see how the lights are playing on the actors in the masters. Then when we shoot I stand near A or X cameras so I can view how the close-ups are working. I light by eye. One of the things I bring to the table is light placement. Usually, I can set a light without a lot of changes unless the blocking changes. With the lights projected from so far away and the actors at times so close to one another, there is always a constant management of lighting during the production week until the scenes are shot.
AK: What are some of the lessons you have learned about cinematography and visual storytelling?
SILVER: I have learned more about cinematography and visual storytelling from watching my 2 year old jump through a sprinkler on a hot sunny day or seeing him kick a ball down the beach on a foggy morning than I have from any of the classes or seminars that I have attended throughout my career. In saying that, I do not mean to discount the necessity of a formal education. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. Having the tools and knowledge to create the images that I’m inspired by is where the craft leaves off and the art begins. The trick for me is to try to recreate images from my personal experiences to use as a visual storytelling tool.