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Making TV: Cameras And Characters

House of Lies gets inside its characters’ heads with the camera.

By Michael Fickes

Television dramas always evolve, especially during the first two years.

Showtime’s House of Lies really evolved. In the first season, it was an edgy, profane, sexually raunchy comedy about management consultants lying to clients and pumping them for cash. Then it morphed into a drama with characters you want to get to know. Many dramas leave that up to the actors. In this case, Peter Levy, ASC, ACS, the show’s cinematographer, uses the camera to help.

“Through the first season and into the second, the scripts became progressively darker,” Levy said. “I see the show as a tragedy, now. The main character [Marty Kaan played by Don Cheadle] is brought down by his own character flaws.”
Levy said he adapted the shooting style to the darker plots by lighting the scenes more like he would light a feature film – creating more contrast and emphasizing solid blacks, which make the video richer and darker.

Working with Colorist Keith Shaw from Burbank-based Keep Me Posted, Levy pushes the darker tone further by vignetting shots when possible. “We darken the corners and keep the center part of the frame, or where the actor was, a little bit lighter than the rest,” Levy said.

Equipment and sets

Levy shoots House of Lies on an ARRI ALEXA. He likes Optimo zoom lenses that work on Steadicam and handheld shots. He also uses ARRI Alura and Angenieux zooms. He shoots most scenes with two cameras, one on a dolly or handheld and a Steadicam. “This cast is always moving,” he said. “The handheld enables the camera operator to respond.”

Levy usually uses prime lenses for wide shots. “A zoom on the wide end is never as good as a prime,” he says.

The lighting package includes HMI, tungsten, fluorescent and LED lamps. “We use HMIs whenever possible,” Levy said. “My gaffer, Jim Gilson, likes to use Chimeras over conventional tungsten lamps, and we combine these with fluorescents when necessary.

Don Cheadle as Marty Kaan and Ben Schwartz as Clyde Oberholtz in House of Lies (Season 2, Episode 8). Photo: Michael Desmond/Showtime.

“In the office set, we’ve installed 1,000 feet of RGB LED Ribbon, connected to a dimmer board, so that we can dial up any brightness and color we want.”

Management consultants spend a lot of time flying, so a passenger jet interior is an important set. It too uses LED lamps to create different glows for different times of day.

“My approach to lighting is to try to make people and places feel three-dimensional,” Levy said. “Light emphasizes dimensionality. I like to shape a face and set a shadow.”

Glares and reflections

Levy likes reflections, too. “I could shoot things clean, but I think reflections make a scene feel more real,” he noted.

For instance, the consulting firm’s conference room features floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on buildings in downtown Los Angeles. They aren’t really buildings. They are a backing created for the conference room set, and the windows capture reflections in many scenes.


Finally, Levy finds ways to get the camera inside the characters. In one episode, Marty Kaan introduces a client at a news conference. Marty’s statement is a lie covering up a morally bankrupt deal.

Morally bankrupt deals have never bothered Marty. This one does. Inside, he is disgusted. Outside, he tries to hide his feelings.
Popping camera flashbulbs punctuate Marty’s talk, while changing his point of view from outside Marty to inside Marty. The exterior Marty talks; the interior Marty sweats, flinches and grimaces. He loosens his tie and tries to smile. Another Marty seems distracted by a reflection of himself in an acrylic panel off to the side. Now and then, he looks at it and watches himself lie. Behind the panel, he can see his associates watching him lie.

Levy alters the shooting style for the different Marty’s. Exterior Marty appears mostly in long and medium shots. Interior Marty shows up in headshots that get closer and closer. Extreme close-ups show his mouth trying to smile or his bloodshot eyes.
By the end, you feel some of the same emotional pain that Marty feels.

July 10, 2013