ONFILM Interview: Steven Silver

Published on website: December 01, 2011
Categories: OnFilm Interviews
Steven Silver. Photo by Douglas Kirkland

“As a cinematographer, it’s my job to create a visual dialog to help the audience navigate through a story and experience it emotionally. I accomplish this by creating images inspired by personal experiences. My hope is that the viewer will feel the same powerful, emotional connection to the images that I felt during the personal experience, which inspired me. Having the tools, knowledge and instincts to create the images that I'm inspired by is where the craft leaves off and the art can begin.”

Steven Silver has earned four consecutive Emmy® nominations for Two and a Half Men. He took top honors in 2007. A short list of his other cinematography credits includes Dharma & Greg, Titus, Still Standing and How I Met Your Mother.

 [All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.] 

A Conversation with Steven Silver

QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?

SILVER: I was born in Illinois, but raised in California, as were my older and younger brothers. My father was a doctor in the Air Force and stationed at a base in Rantoul, Illinois, when I was born. We came to California when I was about 6 months old, so my only memories of Illinois as a child come from photographs. I have pictures of us in the snow with my mother holding me. They are great memories.

QUESTION: Was your father in the Air Force while you were growing up?

SILVER: No, he went into private practice as a radiologist. He had planned to be an orthopedic surgeon, but was stricken with polio, which rendered him too weak to stand for long periods.

QUESTION: Where did you live in California?

SILVER: I grew up in Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley on the edge of Los Angeles. I went to Van Nuys Junior High School and Van Nuys High School.

QUESTION: What were your plans for the future?

SILVER: I wasn’t crazy about school, so I tried working in a variety of different businesses. I wanted to be self-reliant. By chance, I got into the swimming pool construction business. I remodeled close to 300 swimming pools between the ages of 19 and 22.

QUESTION: How did that happen?

SILVER: It was accidental, but it came easy to me. What happened was my mother decided that I wasn’t as scholastically inclined as my brothers, and should work with her brother who was in the business of cleaning swimming pools. My mother thought that was a good profession for me. I spent a summer learning how to clean swimming pools and servicing the gear. I thought that was going to be my career path. When I was just a couple weeks into doing that work, some people needed a swimming pool remodeled. I hired someone to do the plastering work. After we finished that job, he decided to hire me as a superintendent for his plastering company. I invested in buying some tiling equipment and ran some ads in the Yellow Pages.

QUESTION: How did you get from remodeling swimming pools into filmmaking?

SILVER: I just decided that I couldn’t remodel one more swimming pool, because the work doesn’t mean anything to me on a personal level. One day, I was about 23 years old, I happened to see a movie crew at work. They were wearing short pants, Hawaiian shirts and flip flops. I remember thinking, these guys are having fun. I was attracted to the lifestyle.

QUESTION: How did you happen to see a movie crew?

SILVER: They pulled up on the street where I lived and went to work. Just like any tourist, I was fascinated and watched to see what they were doing.

QUESTION: Were you a movie hobbyist at that time in your life?

SILVER: My father was working as a radiologist when I was a kid. Kodak was a vendor of the film he used. They gave him a Super 8 camera, film and mailers for free processing services. I started shooting home movies when I was around 12 years old. 

QUESTION: What types of films did you make?

SILVER: Mostly it was films of us doing things like diving into the pool at the local park and swimming. We became very passionate about making those films. We couldn't wait until we were sent the dailies. After I got into the business, I remembered how much making and watching those old films meant to me as a kid, especially when I looked at them again. We had a fairly sophisticated little camera with a zoom lens and an automatic F-stop. It didn’t require any technical knowledge … just an instinct for composing people in the frame. Using the stop-motion capability we would film shots of one of us jumping in the air. We learned how to make it look like the actor was floating in the air. Then, we would shoot at 48 frames a second to extend time for a person/dummy falling off a tall building. We taught ourselves how to tell little stories with moving images. Looking back at them today, they are hysterical. They are great memories of what life was like growing up. I was the cinematographer and my brothers and friends were the actors.

QUESTION: Were you a movie fan?

SILVER: Not until I discovered Humphrey Bogart’s old crime movies written by Raymond Chandler. I got into watching murder mysteries on videocassettes, and then I had to see everything that Bogart had ever done. I also discovered black-and-white film noir cinematography on videocassettes. When Apocalypse Now came out I began to appreciate what it was like to experience a film in a cinema though new eyes.

QUESTION: Was Apocalypse Now a seminal movie-going experience for you?

SILVER: Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter both made deep impressions. It was a time when it seemed like one great movie after another was coming out. I felt that was something I wanted to do. That didn’t seem impossible to me. I never took to the world of science and mathematics in school, but the world of T-stops, film exposure and footcandles was a language that felt natural to me. Everything clicked and made sense.     

QUESTION: How did you get started?

SILVER: I had bought a house in Los Angeles and was rooming with a guy whose girlfriend was taking a film appreciation class at Valley College in the San Fernando Valley. I built swimming pools half of the year, and then I would travel for the other half of the year. I had just come back from a trip where I traveled from Europe through Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. When I came back from that trip, I decided to sell the house, because I couldn’t handle being in the swimming pool business in Los Angeles any more. My friend’s girlfriend convinced me to take this film appreciation class at Valley College while I was fixing up my house to sell. As soon as I took that class I got hooked on the idea of a career in cinema, and started taking all the classes that they offered.

QUESTION: Was it all film appreciation, or did you get to make films, too?

SILVER: One of the interesting assignments was to make a series of shots on Super 8 film and put them together to create a story. We were working against the odds. The light meters didn’t work and the lenses really never found a perfect focus, but when I finally got to project my film on a big screen in front of a class, it was a fabulous experience discovering that I could move a group with my images.

QUESTION: How did you get to the point of making a living in the film industry?

SILVER: 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. After all, they are running a business. I ended up working for a camera rental house. I started out sweeping floors and making deliveries to the airport. I was paid $5.50 an hour for about a year and a half before I became a technician. My job became prepping equipment for rentals.

QUESTION: Did you get to meet cinematographers in that role?

SILVER: I did. I got to meet Bob Primes (ASC), who was shooting the background plates and stop motion shots of clouds for Rumble Fish. I loved that movie. It was really inspirational for me getting to meet and talk with a cinematographer. That reinforced for me that I wanted to make cinematography my career.

QUESTION: What was the next step that you took on that career path?

SILVER: I was hired by The Howard Anderson Company. The Anderson family pioneered visual effects during the silent film era in the 1920s. The company was being run by Howard Anderson, Jr. when I was hired. His son, Howard Anderson III was doing second unit work on several TV programs, including The Dukes of Hazzard.

QUESTION: How long did you do that?

SILVER: I worked with the Howard Anderson Company for two years. I learned a lot by watching and listening to him and to the other cinematographers and their crews. I got to know Jack Green (ASC), who was a camera operator at that time. I wasn’t just learning how to expose film. I was learning how everyone worked together to create films.

QUESTION: That’s interesting, but what does work together mean in this context?

SILVER: What it means is asking the right questions and really listening to the answers. They weren’t just recording perfectly exposed images. They were evoking the emotions that were envisioned in the script. Jack understood where the clips they were shooting were going to land within the story. I think that’s when I learned that it’s those little moments, one at a time, which determine whether a film is going to work or not.

QUESTION: Do you have any other memories to share about that experience?

SILVER: 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.

QUESTION: What year was that?

SILVER: That was around 1985.

QUESTION: What were the next steps on your career path?

SILVER: There was kind of a trend at that time away from the action-adventure shows that the Howard Anderson Company was doing. I was an assistant cameraman on a movie called Kansas with David Eggby, a talented cinematographer who was very generous about sharing his vast knowledge with everyone on the crew. David spoke about when to move the camera and when not to move it; how to choose the film stocks for different situations. He taught me about screen direction so well I've never been stumped by any director. I owe a lot to David Eggby.

QUESTION: What were some other projects during that formative stage of your career?

SILVER: I did some interesting work as an assistant with John Hora (ASC) on Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk film and on some television films. When a friend moved up from assistant cameraman to camera operator on My Sister Sam, he got me onboard as an assistant cameraman. The cinematographer was Meredith Nicholson (ASC). It was my first sitcom experience. I was used to a very serious atmosphere on dramatic films.  I thought I’d died and went to heaven. Everybody was laughing and having fun. I quickly discovered that I loved working on comedies.

QUESTION: What was it like shooting in front of a live audience?

SILVER: It was exciting but very intimidating having to pull perfect focus on every shot with a live audience staring at me.

QUESTION: Were the actors spontaneous or did they follow the script all the time?

SILVER: They were absolutely spontaneous. Robin Williams would come on and start doing his thing. All of a sudden we were following his character into areas of the set where we hadn’t intended to shoot. There was no video assist in those days.

QUESTION: Do you have any other memories to share?

SILVER: Some people have the impression that the stories just kind of happen in front of the cameras. I remember thinking that this is a place where I could put my signature on the stories I was helping to tell. I felt that the lighting and cinematography for situation comedies shouldn’t be mundane with bright, flat lighting and laugh tracks that insult the public’s intelligence. We do dramatic lighting because there is drama in comedy and comedy in drama. The producers I work for don’t add laugh tracks. If the audiences don’t laugh, they rewrite because otherwise it feels fake.

QUESTION: 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. That summer, I was the camera operator on a low-budget film called Zapped Again. 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 and 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.

QUESTION: Give us an example of a memorable Murphy Brown day at work.

SILVER: I was operating the fourth camera on an episode of Murphy Brown. Candice Bergen, playing Murphy Brown, was going to testify at a Senate hearing committee. The other three camera operators had specific assignments. There was a moment when she was coming out into the meeting getting ready to give her speech to the grand jury. I laid back and we got a single of her framed by the backs of heads of all those people in the hearing room. I pulled back and revealed the room slowly. They actually edited some of the script in order to use this shot which told the story without words. That’s just one example of thinking outside the box.

QUESTION: What did you do when you weren’t working on Murphy Brown?

SILVER: During hiatus, I operated on other films, commercials and music videos. I bought a Super 8 camera, which I used on some music videos. I just loved that Super 8 look. In fact, I still have and play with that camera. I got to work with Bob Giraldi, whom is a great commercial producer/director, on interesting projects featuring everyone from Michael Jackson to Paul McCartney and the tennis star Jimmy Connors.

QUESTION: Do you think music videos influence narrative filmmaking?

SILVER: I think there was a time when that happened, because the youth of America was fascinated by music videos, and everybody wanted to take advantage of that. I am more likely to revert to the visual styles of classic movies and paintings when I light. I try to think what the best way to tell a story is. I’ll look at old movies that evoked emotional responses and try to figure out what they did and why it worked. There are always new techniques, but the question is do they do a better job of telling the story?  

QUESTION: 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 Dartland, who is now Dotti Zicklin, asked me to shoot the pilot for Dharma & Greg. I had no idea that it was going to be such a big success. I told both cinematographers I was working with that I was leaving their shows and that I was going to take a crack at Dharma & Greg. As it turned out, it ended up running for five years.

QUESTION: Tell us about that program.

SILVER: Dharma & Greg was filmed on two big stages at Fox on sets that were built to the max. It featured Jenna Elfman as Dharma and Thomas Gibson as Greg. They are beautiful people, which made my job so much easier. It’s not like you are painting on a blank canvas. It begins with the people in front of the lens, especially when you are running four cameras.

QUESTION: Keep that thought in mind, and let’s fast forward to one of your current shows, Two and a Half Men. You are now in your sixth season with more than 100 episodes in the can. That’s the equivalent in minutes of shooting 20 movies. It’s a Warner Bros. series which airs on CBS-TV and gets great ratings. You have earned four consecutive Emmy® nominations from your peers and took top honors in 2007.

SILVER: The series features Charlie Sheen as a care-free bachelor who drives a trendy sports car and lives in a beach house in Malibu. His lifestyle changes when his brother Alan moves in with his 10-year-old son Jake. I have lived in Malibu for the past 25 years, so I had a sense of the place. Malibu is like a character in the story, because it tells us about Charlie Harper’s (the character portrayed by Sheen) lifestyle. The sets for the house were built on stage 26 on the Warner Bros. lot. I took an 8-by-10 still photo of the beach, ocean and beautiful blue sky in Malibu that was blown up to make a 70-foot long transparent backdrop that is used outside the windows of the house to establish a sense of place, and also to motivate lighting and colors in daylight scenes. Charlie is a bachelor who has a different girlfriend every week and the girls are always supposed to be spectacular looking.

QUESTION: This is a situation comedy, filmed with multiple cameras, but it is also a drama that plays out on people’s faces, including Charlie’s beautiful women. How do you approach lighting and filming faces on a sitcom?

SILVER: There is a different actress playing a new girlfriend every week who requires distinctive lighting. Factor in that this is a multi-camera sitcom, and it becomes very tricky. We use a dimmer board for on-air adjustments if needed and keep the lighting looking as organic as possible.

QUESTION: Please give us an example of how.

SILVER: The audience sees our characters through the eyes of the lenses of four (Panavision Gold) cameras. The light has to be right for the place, time and mood of every shot in each scene. Characters are moving around the set in different types of light depending on the time of day and we are covering them from four angles. Sometimes at the right moment we’ll make someone’s eyes glow and hit them with a hot backlight which is a traditional way of making a woman look beautiful, but it’s not right for everyone. You have to look at your subject, know the story and decide how you want the audience to see them through their eyes. Do you want them to feel the heart palpitations that Charlie’s character is feeling as he looks at her? Until you make those decisions, you’re not doing your job. Lighting the women is a big part of the job.

QUESTION: Is it experience or instinct, knowing how to use the paint on your palette, working with the cast, directors and crew?

SILVER: The script is your map to guiding you to the right image for the right moment.  Get to know the actors, how they walk, talk, their eyes and body language. We have a new leading lady character every week. When I meet her for the first time, I look into her eyes and decide how to light her. Then, we have a conversation. I ask her how she likes to be filmed. Then, I try to make her feel comfortable, and let her know that I’m her new best friend. It is important in any photography that the subjects are at ease with you. If they don't trust you it is almost impossible to do your best work. Some performers instinctively know how to find their light. They say show me where my light is and I’ll be in it. Others turn away from their key light without realizing that’s what they are doing. When that happens, you have to make adjustments like keeping them out of really strong light, and choosing moments to bring the right light straight into their eyes while keeping their face tones looking smooth. There are other variables, including the color of their hair, their physiques and what features I’m trying to enhance for that scene.

QUESTION: So, one of the weapons in your arsenal is establishing rapport and trust?

SILVER: That’s right, and you have to establish that trust immediately, because we have got very little time with them. When we are setting up lighting with their stand-ins, some of the actors and actresses will come in and look at the monitors. If their stand-in looks fantastic that gives them confidence that if they hit the same marks they’ll look terrific too.

QUESTION: Charlie Sheen, your male lead is a genuine movie star.

SILVER: I feel lucky to be working with Charlie Sheen, and also with Jon Cryer and Angus Jones who play his brother and the 10-year-old nephew. They are all talented professionals who understand and appreciate what everyone else does. You never hear a complaint. They show up with smiles on their faces. Those attitudes come through on film.

QUESTION: Are you working with different directors every week?

SILVER: All the time. I believe I’ve worked with every comedy director in the business.

QUESTION: Do you always cover scenes with four cameras?

SILVER: There are times when we have seven or eight cameras depending on the director. Gary Halvorson, whom I have worked with a lot, believes more cameras are better for the kinds of coverage we have to do, but I feel there are times when fewer cameras would be better. We have shot dramatic scenes with one camera. Certain moments shouldn't be compromised in my opinion.

QUESTION: It sounds like shooting this situation comedy is a collaborative process.

SILVER: There was a time when people at the networks thought that comedies should be shot in bright fill light. They have become much more sophisticated. Everybody contributes with their attitude as well as their performances. 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 and other places. Our executive producer, Chuck Lorre, loves to write low light level comedies. Or at least that is how I envision these scripts. I find myself working at four footcandles a lot of the time, and crashing in big lights at 300 footcandles at other times. 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 created for one camera can end up being the front light for the camera on the opposite end of the stage.

QUESTION: How do you do that?

SILVER: There is no formula in a text book. It depends on the scene. In general, instead, of using one light, we are using several, though it looks like the motivation comes from a single source. Maybe we have two people looking directly at each other with a window behind them. We give each character strong three-quarter backlight that looks like it is coming from the window, even when we are shooting from two completely different angles. We take a lot of artistic license. If I just bang a light through the window, the glass is going to cut the light so much that we wouldn’t get the effect that we need for four cameras. We get around that by lighting from above the window, so you can cover the shot from different angles and look consistent. This is obviously, a very different approach than lighting a single camera show.

QUESTION: Is every episode shot entirely on the sets at the studio?

SILVER: There are occasional scenes filmed on location. For instance, last season there was an episode where Charlie’s brother Alan is suffering from insomnia. We shot a night scene with him jogging on the beach at Malibu. He is mistaken for a burglar. We lit about a quarter mile stretch of the beach showing the police surrounding him. A helicopter hits him with a spotlight.

QUESTION: You won an Emmy for that episode. When you are shooting on sets at the studio, are you typically in the video village or by the camera with the actors?

SILVER: That’s a good question. I’m in the video village while we are setting up shots with the director and stand-ins. When the actors come on the 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.

QUESTION: Is that intuitive or something you learn, or a combination of both?

SILVER: I think it’s intuitive. I learned by watching people who are really good at it, but you have to understand that no two people light the same scene the same way.

QUESTION: Are you composing in 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio?

SILVER: We have a combination 4:3/16:9 ground glass on the lenses, which can be extremely challenging for the operators. We are composing for 16:9, because that is the way of the future, but presently none of the action can play outside of the 4:3 frame, because networks in different markets are still transmitting in 4:3. It is obvious that the way of the future for Two and a Half Men in syndication is eventually going to be 16:9 everywhere.

QUESTION: What film stocks do you have on your palette?

SILVER: I’m using three-perf (KODAK VISION 500T) 5279 and (KODAK VISION2 HD Color Scan Film) 5299 (color negative) … mainly 5299. Both are 500-speed negatives balanced for tungsten light. My colorist pushed me to into trying 5299, which is designed for scanning in HD format. The 5299 stock is very fine grain, and it allows us to record details deep in the darkest shadows. We can also choose to crush the blacks if a scene calls for truly rich, dark tones. That range gives us flexibility for painting pictures in telecine.

QUESTION: Why are you using three-perf film?

SILVER: It reduces our costs and increases our run time by 25 percent without compromising image quality, because you only use three quarters of the frame on TV.

QUESTION: Who is your telecine timer?

SILVER: His name is Tony D’Amore at Technicolor in Los Angeles. He was doing dailies when we first started working together. We have become friends as well as collaborators. We have a constant dialogue. We are always talking about how dark or bright should this scene be, and what about the texture? The latitude of today’s films allows us to create more nuanced looks. It’s a collaboration with a lot of other people, including the editor who picks the shots, and the producers who trust us and understand what we are doing and why.

QUESTION: How do you time the shows with your shooting schedule?

SILVER: Most weeks I leave Tony verbal messages by phone about my intentions. Then, I look at the assembled video master and give him notes for fine tuning it. When I see the final, color corrected master, if I’m not totally satisfied I write a note asking for refinements before the show airs. Recently, we had some programs where we shot on a Friday and it aired on the following Monday. In those situations, I went into eight-hour timing sessions in-between two shows. In one case, it was 11 ½ hours, from about 10 a.m. until about 9:30 at night on a particular show that was very important to me.

QUESTION: Do you develop a visual vocabulary for communicating with the colorist, so he can visualize exactly what you mean when you say darker or brighter?

SILVER: Absolutely. That is what is so great about having a colorist who is dedicated to your program. You have got to teach him to see things your way, because no two human beings see things exactly the same way. That is true of any form of artistic expression when others are involved, whether you are a writer, a painter, a photographer or a cinematographer.

QUESTION: Do you think that the stories we see on television, comedies and drama, are pure entertainment or do they affect how we see and think about the world?

SILVER: I think it can be both, depending on the vision of the writers and the ability of the cast, directors, cinematographers and crews to make it happen. In Two and a Half Men our goal is to take the audience on a ride through Charlie Sheen’s world.

QUESTION: 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. 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 when creating them 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. My fill light level is one way I render moods, and camera movement may be the tool I turn to to evoke emotions. I approach each day’s work with pre-visualized intentions. I use a variety of film stocks depending on the latitude and grain structure to further support the mood and emotion. Contrast and color saturation is another line of defense in the fight to communicate and express and support my intention.