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Hipsters, Handheld, Houghton: The Fluid Shooting Style for ‘I Just Want My Pants Back’

Director Doug Liman first gained industry notice in 1996 with his modestly budgeted indie comedy Swingers, based on Jon Favreau’s script about a couple of Hollywood hipsters (played by Favreau and Vince Vaughn in one of his first roles) trying to go through life playing it cooler than they really felt. Liman shot the film himself. It struck a chord with audiences and put Liman and its stars on the map. Liman went on to direct a number of studio features and TV shows, continuing to shoot as well, as he did on the Valerie Plame biopic Fair Game.

The cast of MTV’s I Just Want My Pants Back.
The show is based on the book of the same
name by David J. Rosen.

He returns to his roots in many ways for the scripted MTV comedy series I Just Want My Pants Back, which similarly features a group of 20-somethings (this time in New York) and which is shot with a lean production budget and ambitious three-day-per-episode schedule.

Liman shot the pilot last year using then-new RED EPIC cameras. When MTV picked up the series, he turned cinematography duties over to Tom Houghton, ASC (Rescue Me, 30 Rock).

Houghton is particularly pleased with the camera’s low-light capability. He generally works at its native speed of EI 800 and reports that he can go to 1600 in low light (or to get a little extra stop to increase depth of field) without paying a prohibitive price in noise or other forms of image degradation. This flexibility, as well as the camera’s size, helps him keep to the show’s overall fast-paced approach to production. “We can shoot under street lights or go into locations without having to bring in a lot of lights,” the cinematographer reports. “I do relatively little lighting for the show. Even when we shoot on a stage, I just want to bring the minimum number of lights.”

Much of the action takes place inside the characters’ apartments, which the production team built on stages in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The sets are rather small and cramped by design. They don’t offer the luxury of pulling out walls for lights or cameras. The rooms have canvas ceilings that can appear in some shots or be pulled away to sneak in a light or two for others, but the crew must otherwise approach the space as they would a real apartment. Again, a base speed of 800 helps.

One-night-stand Jane steals Jason’s heart, and his pants.

“The biggest unit we generally use is a 650 watt tungsten light,” Houghton says. “More often smaller-wattage Peppers are the major instruments. And then we’ll supplement with some Kino Flos or China balls and well placed Lekos for a shaft of light or some bounce where we can. We’re able to light the backings outside more traditionally, but inside rooms there are very few places you can put lights.”

Houghton frequently uses a 1’ x 1’ battery-powered LED unit as a last bit of lighting punctuation. “You really have to see how the rehearsals come together before you know the optimum place for a light,” Houghton explains. “Since there’s no time to stop and set a light, it’s great to be able to pop in this LED at the last moment. You don’t need a cable. Sometimes I’ll use it right on the camera or we’ll mount it on a wall. It’s certainly not going on the grid because there is no grid!”

A local deli serves as a common meeting place for the characters. The production made use of a real deli and shot all the scenes that take place there back to back for efficiency. “I did very little to light the space,” Houghton says. “We added maybe two lights. We could have done something to make it more green and garish, but we wanted it to look more natural, friendlier.”

Cinematographer Tom Houghton, ASC

The EPIC’s small footprint helps operators John Delgado and Chris Hall get into some tight spaces, although by the time it’s decked out with Angenieux zooms, ARRI remote follow-focus unit, battery, Modulus 5000 wireless transmitter and an assortment of brackets, it’s not exactly the tiny box it looks like on a trade show floor. “It starts out like a little Hasselblad,” he says, comparing the EPIC to the classic medium format SLR, “but we put a lot of stuff on it.”

The mandate for the show was no cables, no video village, DIT Eric Camp reports. He uses the wireless transmitter to convert the signal to standard def and deliver it to the episode director’s handheld monitor—sometimes to a couple of other SD displays, but that’s the extent of it. There is no high-def image sent to any monitor or scope until Camp plays back the material at his workstation.

Houghton uses a traditional incident meter to light and determine exposure, sometimes using his Canon EOS 5D to grab stills. Except for occasionally using the exposure tools on the EPIC, he relies on his years of shooting experience and his understanding of the EPIC sensor’s dynamic range to make sure his exposures are where they need to be.

Camp’s DIT workstation consists of a fast tower computer, a RED ROCKET card, a 32 TB RAID, an HD monitor and an assortment of additional drives. Camp uses REDCINE-X software to check footage and to apply a light grade (via non-destructive metadata) to the images for dailies. (Final grading is done by Milan Boncich at Offhollywood in New York’s SoHo.)

(From left) Stacey (Elisabeth Hower), Eric (Jordan Carlos),
Tina (Kim Shaw) and Jason (Peter Vack)

The EPIC sensors were really put to the test for an upcoming episode directed by Liman in which the city experiences a blackout. Houghton explains that the director brought a lot of his own ideas about cinematography to discussions about how to shoot at night when most of the light sources are eliminated.

“It’s tricky,” Houghton offers. “What is a blackout? What’s providing the light we need to see something on the screen? We had people lit by their iPhones or by headlights from cars and buses. It’s really a conceit that you can see as much as you can, but I think it worked well. And we needed some light even for areas that go into blackness. If you put some information onto the ‘negative,’ you can adjust it and make it a little lighter or completely black in post, but if there’s nothing there at all, you can’t do anything with it later.”

For Houghton, the key is to embrace the show’s work method and keep the cinematography as simple as possible without sacrificing his or Liman and the directors’ aesthetic expectations. Much of what he might do for a feature or a TV show with a more traditional shooting pace can be counterproductive on Pants. For location shoots, Houghton might normally bring in a lot of lights to maintain consistency throughout the day, “but at the speed we were shooting [Pants], you don’t really have to think about matching morning light to afternoon light because we’ll be long gone by the afternoon.”