Made in a happy atmosphere, American Pie was one of the most memorable productions I’ve had the fortune to be part of. Director Paul Weitz (along with his brother and close collaborator Chris) had this unbroken shot in mind from our earliest discussions. Ostensibly meant to bring one of the main characters from the kitchen to the living room, there are a number of comedic stops along the way. There were many challenges involved; if it appears easy in its finished form, it’s only because everyone did their jobs so well.
First among them was the fact that we were shooting in a practical location – someone’s home, and a very nice one at that. This precluded any sort of rigging or drilling into the low ceilings so as to mount lights, flags or nets in the right spots. Pulling a wall was obviously out of the question as was repainting for more pleasing tones. Scheduling issues forced us to go day-for-night, so the porte cochere, patio and windows had to be wrapped in Duvetyne. There were fifty extras to be wrangled and on top of that, when we showed up for work the temperature outside was already creeping into the triple digits.
I was also using a relatively slow negative stock – Kodak 5293 – which, after testing, I chose to rate at EI 160. This called for lamps that packed some punch. Unlike many of today’s lightweight, compact and versatile LED’s, I used what in 1998 was considered state-of-the-art: Mole Richardson 5K, 2K and 1K Fresnels, Tweenies and Inkies. This’s no knock on those units; they’re still valuable tools that remain in our employ. But they’re undoubtedly big, heavy and generate lots of heat. Hiding them from a roaming camera in these confined spaces proved to be a bear for the grip and electric crew – as well as the Steadicam operator!
Ironically, if LED’s had been available at the time I probably wouldn’t have taken such an unadorned approach to the lighting. It was still relatively early in my career and I no doubt would’ve indulged the ease and freedom those fixtures offer by using too many of them. As an exercise in simplicity – more specifically, how much can be done with so little – shooting this scene imparted lessons that have stayed with me to this day.
The look I was going for wasn’t the usual up-key comedy-shine witnessed in most of the movie. Instead, I thought back to when I was a teenager and one of my pals threw their absent parents’ doors open on a Saturday night. Those parties were always low-key dens of iniquity, the better to camouflage (encourage?) the illicit moments that were bound to occur. Mechanically, this translated as one to three stops of underexposure at the lens, depending upon which room we were in. At the time there was no way to remotely control the iris on the mobile camera, so exposure was wholly dependent upon the lighting – and how precisely I interpreted my meter.
I took care to have the lights mounted toward the lens whenever possible. This would keep the shadow of the Steadicam off the actors and set; it would also help create the subdued, silhouette-y feeling I was after. When a shadow couldn’t be avoided, we used dimmers to fade the lamp out as the camera passed through the danger zone.
There was no pre-light; everything was assembled on the spot. Rehearsal was brief. The practical lamps seen in each shot had no substantive bearing on the exposure except to create bright spots in the shady areas.
Gerry O’Malley did a splendid job of executing the shot on Steadicam. Since then, I’ve been honored to have him perform his magic on more occasions than I can count. His work has always astonished me!
Find the complete shot at the link below:
Kitchen: at the start mark a small crease of hard light hits Stifler (courtesy of a 1K Baby – high up on a floor stand – off screen right) but the fill is essentially the key here; that came from a 5K bounce off a 4’x8′ sheet of foam core placed above and directly behind the camera at the start mark; the fact that it’s three stops underexposed helps sell the low-key effect, especially in consideration of the gleaming white cabinets lining the room; some practicals are also in play beneath those cabinets – they were original to the house and a sheet of minus green gel was used to bring the ugly fluorescent color more in line with my tungsten standard
Dining room: there was a huge, heavy table in the middle of the room that we weren’t permitted to move, hence the fake-left-go-right move to avoid it by the Steadicam; a 650W Tweenie placed up high off camera left lights the two people in the foreground; a China ball containing a 213 practical bulb was placed on the floor to light the girls at the door…a dimmer extinguishes that light as the camera moves through the doorway, thus eliminating the camera shadow threat; an Inky was also mounted on the staircase balustrade and pointed toward the doorway so as to provide some back rim light for the girls
Entrance Hallway: the slash of light on the door came courtesy of a 2K Baby Junior mounted at the top of the stairs; low-level fill was provided by a 1K Baby on a floor stand bounced into the ceiling in the far right corner of the room (look closely and you will see this unit as the camera pans through it); as the front door opens, the night effect is provided by the wrapping of the porte cochere in Duvetyne; rim light on the boys there came from a 1K Baby off screen right
Side Room: when Stifler encounters the two girls, this’s the only space lit to key exposure (T2.8); a booklight created by a 5K Baby Junior located off camera left creates the effect; no fill was used here but some spill from the 2K on the patio reaches the girls as well
Living Room: a 5K booklight was assembled in the far right corner as Stifler enters; it was netted down and attenuated so that only the correct amount got to where it needed to be; when the camera comes to rest, a 4-tube, 4′ Kino Flo unit was used from down low to illuminate the three actors, along with spill from the 5K; they were lit to a level 1 1\2 stops under key exposure (T2.8).
A moving camera, key and fill, judicious underexposure…all the basics were in play. Not a perfect shot by any means – but not a bad one, either. Today’s equipment and sensors would allow for a very different approach, but on a conceptual level and given the time and equipment available, what we did is solid. If I had the chance to shoot it again, the only thing I’d adjust would be to do it with even fewer lighting instruments!