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HBO’s ‘Room 104’: How to Shoot an Ultra Low-Budget Indie TV Show

Cinematographer and director Doug Emmett breaks down the challenges and possibilities of shooting an TV show like a low-budget indie film.

Room 104 HBO Dendrie Taylor, Sarah Hay

“Room 104”

Jordin Althaus/HBO

Editor’s Note: Cinematographer Doug Emmett shot 11 of the 12 episodes  and made his directorial debut (Episode Five) — on HBO’s new series “Room 104,” created by Mark and Jay Duplass. The anthology series is radically different than other HBO shows, which often feature big budgets and have a high production value. For “Room 104,” the creative team followed a road map that was far more akin to the Duplass brothers’ ultra-low budget indie films — confining themselves to one room, small crews, and other cost-saving limitations — than how they made their previous HBO show “Togetherness.”

IndieWire recently asked Emmett — who has worked with the Duplass Brothers on a number of their films, as well as “Togetherness” — how exactly do you make an ultra-low budget TV show for HBO?

We often joked that the craft services budget of “Game of Thrones” was bigger than the entire budget of “Room 104.” There was no way to confirm this, but I’ve never shot a TV episode in three days and the idea freaked me out. We were on very strict orders not to shoot past 11.5 hours. There was no money for overtime.

Scripts were written so we never placed the camera outside of the one hotel room. That was mainly a budgetary issue for us, since the stage was so small and it wouldn’t have been affordable to dress multiple exterior angles. The belief was that we could eke out an episode in three days since we weren’t moving locations, there were no trucks to load and unload, no rigging to install or remove, etc. We managed to shoot most the episodes in three days but only by the skin of our teeth.

Mark Duplass has built a career on producing terrific content that can be shot in one location and for little money — “Bag Head,” “Your Sister’s Sister,” “The Overnight,” “Creep,” and many more. It’s in that sense the experience of shooting “Room 104” was far more similar to shooting a $100K-budgeted indie like “The One I Love” than the Duplass’ previous HBO show “Togetherness.”

The Savings

“Room 104”

Jordin Althaus/HBO

Do you know how much Teamsters cost? The guys that drive all the equipment trucks, honeywagons, trailers, and talent? I don’t have exact numbers, but it’s a lot. I’ve been told so many times on low budget feature films that the Teamster sitting in the crew van is making triple what I am making as a DP. So while I’m freezing my ass off in the middle of a brutal Detroit winter, the Teamster’s got the AC going in his van because his heater works too damn well. I’m not jealous, I just question my career choice time to time.

The rental trucks they drive to haul equipment and talent are also very expensive, while locations department needs to expand manpower to securing them parking. Travel from location to location is also a signficant cost – as that is time the crew is being paid and we aren’t shooting.

On “Room 104,” because we were only one location, we were able to save tremendously on all of this. We still hired teamsters and rented a few vehicles, but significantly less than would be require for a traditional show.

We also had to be very specific about what lighting we were using — not just because our budget was tight, but because we didn’t have the room to keep unnecessary gear laying around on the stage floor. So aside from the dimmer board, a couple pars cans, a 5k, an Arri Skypanel, and a few china balls the lighting was rigged up and out of the way.

The other obvious savings is if you only have one set and that set is a static hotel room, there isn’t much to set dress after the main concept has been flushed out and built. It’s not like we were going into new locations everyday and having an art department redressing everything in view of the camera. That saves money.

Self-Imposed Limitations

Room 104 HBO

“Room 104”

Jordin Althaus/HBO

There are the physical and literal challenges to working in hotel room. We built the room a bit larger than your standard hotel room just to accommodate crew and equipment. It was an 18×22 sized bedroom with a small-ish bathroom area. The aesthetic challenges are far more foreboding.

As a team, we obsessed over the color of paint and the design of the wallpaper. Initially production designer Jonah Markowitz and I wanted to go with some elaborate designs and textures to break up the monotony of the room, but Mark was rightfully steadfast in his determination that the room shouldn’t feel any different than the typical non-descript three-star hotel bedroom you’d find in anywhere USA. Demographically speaking we needed the room to be affordable to a wide range of characters. And the room couldn’t be kitchy or too slick.

It took me a minute to overcome my fear of shooting in a bland hotel room for two months, but ultimately I think we found a nice middle ground where the room has subtle textures without being too show-y. I respected Mark’s adherence to his self-imposed ultimatum that we couldn’t stray too far from the mundane.

Creative Solutions

Room 104 HBO Sarah Hay

“Room 104”

Jordin Althaus/HBO

The creative solutions for me dealt mainly with keeping to a strict three-day schedule. How would I make the day? What type of lighting and camera equipment must I use to work as efficiently as possible? I credit the terrific crew. My gaffer Tony Varoula designed a lighting grid entirely out of Arri Skypanels and rigged every light and practical into a dimmer board so we could quickly change looks. It wasn’t unusual to go from a day scene, to a night scene, and then to an early pre-dawn look all before lunch. Without a pro board op and knowledgeable gaffer, I would have been dead in the water. We got to play with infinitely tunable color and create mood all within the drop of a hat. The Skypanel is fully dimmable and can change colors in a cue. Before this technology existed you would have to drag a ladder over to manually swap out prohibitively expensive gels.

I have always felt that a limitation forces you into crafting alternative solutions that lead to far more creative images than had you stuck to the “right” way of doing things. Recently, I was shooting two actors against a highly reflective glass doorway. In order to shoot a two-shot and not see myself in the reflection I had to place the camera much lower than I would have instinctively thought to do so and the final product is this dramatic low angle that is photographically way more interesting to look at. I was pleased with the image and only later did I realize that the end result was less instinct and more solution — but either way I’ll get credit for making a nice shot.

The production design team, led by Jonah, did have to make some incredible low-budget magic. Normally a TV show that shoots on a stage would have a wood shop and construction foreman. We didn’t have that. The wood shop shared the set space during construction and then had to vacate for grip-and-electric and set dressing. Tasked with designing the main set, plus two change overs — one for an episode that takes place in 1970 and another that lives in 1997, Jonah had to pre-build all the additional sets and store them. And in the middle of the night Jonah and his crew of Christmas elves transformed our present-day room into a hotel room plucked out of the ’70s — literally no discernible features remained from the original set. It was all done for next to no money and you’d never know.

Although our crew size was small, it didn’t feel small because the stage space was so tiny that we kept piling up on top of each other. It was an exercise in extreme politeness and proper hygiene. We were so tight on space. You were either standing in the middle of the set or swimming your way through grip gear, a haphazardly arranged video village, or a camera cart quagmire. The set filled 80-percent of the available floor space.

Anthology vs. Serialized

Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris and Orlando Jones starring in Ep. 3 of "Room 104"

Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris and Orlando Jones starring in Ep. 3 of “Room 104”

Jordin Althaus

When Mark called me to pitch the job, we had a long conversation about what kind of creative control I would have in the look of the show. In traditional television the style of the photography is determined during the pilot episode and becomes the visual rulebook for consequent directors and DPs to follow. My fear was that this show would be super boring to look at if we shot each episode the same way, with the same style of camerawork and lighting.

Mark was very generous in allowing me to craft the look of each individual episode and pre-plan the episodes so that no two episodes would ever look the same.

My approach was somewhat antithetical to traditional director-cinematographer relationships in that I had loosely conceived looks of the episodes before the directors were assigned. I found all of our directors to be super collaborative and appreciative that I had done so much work to pre-plan the look as they were all very busy in their own right and weren’t given much pre-production time. Once we started shooting I didn’t have any time to sit with the directors and discuss their episodes, so we would dedicate lunch breaks to having creative discussion about the upcoming scenes.

My experience shooting television has taught me that episodic directors generally avoid repeating “cool” or complex shots that other directors may have done throughout the season before them. I borrowed that notion and made an effort to avoid repeating noticeably stylistic shots. I didn’t want angles to feel stale.

Davie-Blue and James Van Der Beek in Ep. 2 of "Room 104"

Davie-Blue and James Van Der Beek in Ep. 2 of “Room 104”

Jordin Althaus

“Room 104” being an anthology also helped us attract amazing actors. The short time commitment and opportunity to play an entirely new character and experiment is very attractive to an actor. In many ways this felt a little like our own black box theater and I’m sure that appealed to the thespians we hired. I think the fact that Mark was personally calling a lot of the talent to explain the project really helped. There was no “actory” behavior on set, instead just a general excitement for the project and a dedication to the craft.

There’s a benefit to being an anthology series in the sense we can re-imagine the show for every new episode and nothing ever feels stale. However, there’s the inherent risk that we are meeting new characters with each new episode and that without familiarity perhaps there’s the chance audiences won’t feel as connected to the story. Familiarity breeds contentment and in this series we are walking a hire-wire without a safety net. I think some characters are more vaguely defined than others and it just depends on the individual viewer as to whether or not that is a good thing.

Ultimately, I think the show works. To me, it feels like a collection of great short films that take place in the comfort of a familiar space.

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