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‘Silicon Valley’: Shooting Mike Judge’s Satirical HBO Series

No “valley” on the planet has proven more instrumental in shaping the daily habits of 21st century humans as Silicon Valley. Now an HBO series is mining television’s latest group of geeky social misfits for laughs and, hopefully, an audience. Silicon Valley is currently airing weekly in an eight-episode season (through May 25) on HBO.

Thomas Middleditch and Josh Brener. Photo by Jaimie Trueblood/HBO.

The show’s concept and a bit of its irreverent humor are the creation of Mike Judge (Office Space, King of the Hill), who was an engineer in Silicon Valley during the caffeinated, go-go 1980s. Adding some considerable sitcom credentials to the project is collaborator Alec Berg (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm).

Judge and Berg directed most of the episodes, which center on a foursome of tech workers. Richard (Thomas Middleditch), an introverted computer programmer, lives in the “hacker hostel” startup incubator with his best friend, Big Head (Josh Brener), pompous Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and dry-witted Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani). The hacker hostel is actually a private home owned by narcissistic dot-com millionaire Erlich (T.J. Miller), who asks nothing in return–except a 10 percent stake in any profitable projects the guys happen to stumble on while living under his roof.

The pilot was shot entirely on location, although sets were built for later episodes at Culver Studios in Culver City, Calif.—a move that had the blessing of Jim Denault, ASC (Boys Don’t Cry), the show’s director of photography. “I’m not the person who chooses the production facility, but I can say that working on an actual purpose-built soundstage like the ones at Culver has great advantages over working in a warehouse or a disused factory. Overhead beams built to take the loads of rigging lights and set pieces, and large areas free of columns that restrict set and camera placements are probably among the reasons the producers chose a soundstage.”

Denault says there’s also the more obvious advantage of soundproofing and sound dampening—the latter being “equally important when you have 50 crew in the room. In a large uninsulated warehouse or factory, every little cough and shuffle gets echoed around the space, which is very distracting to the actors. It’s amazing what sound dampening material on the walls can do.”

Director of photography Jim Denault, ASC.

Set design was led by production designer Richard Toyon (American Pie 2). Sets include the main standing sets of the hacker hostel and a venture capitalist’s office (Culver Stage 12), as well as a doctor and lawyer’s offices and large-scale set-piece events (Culver Stage 11). “One big advantage to having these swing sets on the neighboring stage is that I was able to visit them with gaffer Lou DiCesare and key grip Sean Crowell during breaks in the shooting from our standing sets and have lighting prepared before the shoot day,” says Denault.

DP Denault’s shooting package included ARRI Alexas with Leica Summilux-C PL mount prime lenses and Thales Angenieux Optimo 24-290 zooms (rented from Otto Nemenz of Los Angeles). “I’m a big fan of the way the Alexa looks, especially how deeply and richly it renders color,” Denault says. “I generally like how other cameras look as well, but I think ARRI has also managed the user experience—’UX,’ as the Silicon Valley kids would say—better. It’s a really ergonomic camera from both physical and electronic standpoints, which is important when you’re trying to create high-quality images on an episodic schedule.”

Zach Woods. Photo by Jaimie Trueblood/HBO.

Denault’s go-to lighting fixture was the Kino Flo Image 85 DMX, which he hung in place of spacelights for illuminating the sets’ backings and exteriors, as well as on stands as soft key lights. “We lamped them with half 3,200° K tubes and half 5,500° K tubes, which let dimmer operator Elton James shift the color balance from warm to cool just by switching tubes on and off, which gave a very convincing ‘skylight’ effect. With regular tungsten lights, 90 percent of the wattage goes to generating heat and only ten percent generates light. Fluorescent fixtures are much more efficient, so the stage stayed much cooler. People were usually complaining that it was too cold!” Denault adds.

The veteran DP says the crew made extensive use of LED lighting for some of its more theatrical sets—the Kid Rock concert in the pilot episode, for example. “The fact that there are so many reasonably priced fixtures available now, like the Coemar PARs we used for the backing grid of the Kid Rock show, means you can do events that look really impressive and modern and still not completely blow the budget. Only partially,” Denault concludes.