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‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’: Inside the Show’s Improvisational Shooting Style

For the several million loyal fans of Seinfeld co-creator, writer, director, producer and professional pessimist Larry David, no doubt it’s been the longest 18 months in television history. But finally, on July 10, David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm returns to HBO after a hiatus that began in late 2009.

Because of its trademark improvisational style, the technical side of producing each episode has its challenges. “It’s a lot of improv, but we are following an outline from Larry,” says Erin O’Malley, one of the show’s executive producers. “Still, what we don’t usually know, for example, is how far characters will wind up walking down a city street during their dialogue, and how long that dialogue may go in any given scene.

“Our ‘rehearsal process’ is different from any show I’ve ever worked on. We can’t really rehearse in the traditional sense,” O’Malley continues. “Typically it involves the actors coming to set, discussing what might likely happen in a scene, or not happen—and then the crew has to figure out where to locate the cameras for the best angles. Sometimes we have to reshoot with different camera positions once a scene has fully played itself out.”

Curb usually deploys a two-camera setup—with one camera always trained on David. “Everything is entirely handheld. For this new season, we used Sony PDW-F800s, although we’ve used other equipment in past seasons,” O’Malley says. “Everything’s digital. We don’t use dollies and rarely use a tripod, and once or twice maybe we used a crane, but that’s it. Once you stick the camera on a dolly, it just doesn’t look the same. For audio, we usually use wireless lavalieres and boom simultaneously.”

Series cinematographer Bill Sheehy says the crew is usually tethered to a DIT cart that carries a 23-inch Sony high-resolution monitor. “The DIT [digital imaging technician] is invaluable to us. The extra eyes on the large monitor help catch problems. Having the PaintBox on the cameras helps us squeeze another 10 to 20 percent of image quality out of them and adds to the consistency of our look,” Sheehy says.

“We primarily use Kino Flo lamps of all types, and quite a few LED lights, with almost no traditional tungsten lamps. It’s important to keep the locations as tight and cool as possible [since] you can’t always increase air conditioning,” Sheehy adds. “One of the primary challenges of our lighting is to make it look completely ‘non-lit.’ The other challenge is keeping the time of day consistent as you shoot in real locations. Quite often we’ll start a scene at 3 in the afternoon and finish up at 10 at night. Unlike on a soundstage, the sun goes down whether we’re finished or not,” Sheehy says.

For postproduction, O’Malley says Curb enjoys a schedule that others in the industry might envy. “It’s rather unique. We do have time to get it all right. For example, we finished shooting our latest season last November [2010], and we didn’t finish the final cut of the last episode and deliver it to HBO until this spring, in early May.”

Megan Murphy Cross, the show’s longtime co-producer in post, edits on Avid. “Once we get the dailies, the editors will make a long cut; Larry [David] usually will start from that, and then go back and watch all the dailies for each scene. We work off of some very detailed script notes—far more helpful than script notes can be on other shows. These are notations that, for example, tell us which takes Larry likes the best. The editors just have so many choices through the whole edit process.” She says every word of dialogue spoken on camera for every take is transcribed and later used for reference by David and others in the edit bay.

Cross says the show’s two-camera setup has the ability to shoot 360 degrees in a room—”so anything can happen. An actor can exit or move off his mark and the cameras are ready for it. With improv, you have a lot of takes, but there’s usually only one that’s really natural and that really fits into the storyline. That’s the take we need.” She says the show now shoots in 1080p, although they deliver the air master to HBO in the network’s preferred HD format, 1080i. “That ‘p’ in 1080p is going to allow you to do a lot more internationally when it comes to dubs,” says Cross.

While the last half of the new season was filmed in New York City, whether Larry David remains in the Big Apple or returns to the West Coast for a possible ninth season is still anyone’s guess.