A Conversation with Tom Houghton, ASC

Pictured: Tom Houghton, ASC on the set of “Elementary”. Photo by Elizabeth Fisher.

Tom Houghton, ASC shares his insights and talks about working on the set of CBS Studio’s “Elementary.”


Interview conducted by Jody Michelle Solis

Tom Houghton, ASC is an Emmy nominated director of photography (“Rescue Me,” 2008), whose body of work includes the episodic television series, “American Horror Story: Coven,” starring Angela Bassett, Jessica Lang and Kathy Bates, “Love Monkey,” starring Tom Cavanagh, “Canterbury’s Law,” starring Julianna Margulies, and “30 Rock,” starring Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin. His feature film work includes “They Came Together,” starring Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd and directed by David Wain, and “Finding Amanda,” written and directed by “Rescue Me” co-creator Peter Tolan and starring Matthew Broderick, Brittany Snow, Maura Tierney and Steve Coogan. Houghton’s other DP feature work includes “Fire Down Below” starring Steven Seagal, Marg Helgenberger, Stephen Lange, Kris Kristofferson and Harry Dean Stanton, directed by Félix Enríquez Alcalá; “The Cookout,” starring Danny Glover, Meagan Good, Jenifer Lewis, JaRule and Queen Latifah; and “State Property 2,” directed by Damon Dash, starring Beanie Siegel, Young Gunz, Freeway and Noreaga. Houghton’s second unit and F/X unit DP work includes “Spider-Man,” “Spider-Man 2,” “Godsend,” starring Robert De Niro, “STAY,” “Stuart Little 2,” “Deeds,” and “Path to War,” directed by John Frankenheimer. Houghton has photographed a number of independent features and shorts including “By Courier,” directed by Peter Riegert, which was nominated for an Academy Award®, and “Jazz Night,” directed by Wallis Nicita, starring Beverly D’Angelo and John Heard, which was presented as part of Lifetime Television’s Third Annual Women’s Film Festival.

Pictured: Tom Houghton, ASC on the set of “Elementary”. Photo by Elizabeth Fisher.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

Tom Houghton, ASC: I enjoy being with good, hardworking creative people. I also enjoy the process of breaking down a script and figuring out how to execute and light/shoot a scene. The planning you do in prep and with the crew is very important for bigger complicated scenes.

How do you see technology affecting workflows?

Tom Houghton, ASC: Technology is always changing. Film stocks and lights change, and these days with digital, the cameras are varied as can be. Now LED lights are changing some of our approaches to lighting, but good dramatic lighting will always be good lighting.

What do you like about lighting “Elementary”?

Tom Houghton, ASC: We have a beautiful brownstone set which is based on a real building in Harlem: In the story, Sherlock and Watson – Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller – live in this older brownstone in Harlem. Coincidentally, I also live in a Harlem brownstone. It’s a well-made set and it has evolved over the seasons to be more friendly to shooting: Now walls can open up and go away, and lights can float in and out, which means it can be set up faster than real locations, which are often cumbersome, tricky, or delicate. I also enjoy having the opportunity to watch a rehearsal, since it’s the actor’s rehearsal, which indicates to me the best way to light a scene. Right after we have a marking rehearsal, then it’s my turn to work out a lighting and camera plan to shoot what the director had in mind. At that point, it goes rather quickly, since we’ve been there before. Still, every scene is different, so while you may approach it with similar ideas, the blocking will change how you choreograph the lights and camera. The other part of doing a TV show is the schedule, and you don’t have the time or the ability or the privilege of going back another day if the weather’s not right. You have to carefully plan how you’re going to prepare a location with lights and rigging; I have the good fortune to have a great rigging crew. We plan the basic rigging and basic lights, which will be set up before I get there on the day of the shoot. It’s something you don’t get on some projects, but we’re able to do it since it creates efficiency on the shoot days. Also, with technology like LED lights we’re finding ways to use them cleverly and subtlety, putting them places that we couldn’t put larger lights before.

Pictured: Tom Houghton, ASC on the set of “Elementary”. Photo by Elizabeth Fisher.

Can you tell us about the cameras that you’re shooting with and your camera workflow?

Tom Houghton, ASC: We use Alexas, basically zoom lenses, a variety of Angenieux zoom lenses and the occasional prime lens. The workflow is on cards, it’s 2k, and it goes out for dailies, to post, and then I come back and do a color correction review from New York with our colorist, Tony D’Amore, who is at Encore Hollywood.

Additional thoughts about “Elementary”?

Tom Houghton, ASC: Well, it’s interesting to just take every day as a fresh start. My idea is to keep things as simple as possible, because the more stuff you mess with, the longer it takes. Too much embroidery can get you into trouble. You have to realize that shots are being cut together, and the idea is to use the best parts of the shots, if that’s in agreement with the director and the editor. Hopefully, you’re all on the same page. So, I discuss the meat of the shot and the moves with the director, and I might say, let’s concentrate on this because we know there will be coverage. We tend not to overshoot: This show is not cutty, so we don’t do a lot of coverage. We get the essential coverage, and we move on. Our viewers like to watch the actors act.

If you could share your insights or a piece of advice with aspiring filmmakers around the world, what would it be?

Tom Houghton, ASC: I would say, shoot as much as you can, and pick your best material to show people, since you only get one chance to make a first impression. You also can’t make excuses for something that was out of your control because that becomes a negative force in a presentation. It’s simple to make a reel of pretty shots, but I would strive to cut dialogue scenes together because people need to see your storytelling ability. So, as soon as you can get some story and dialogue onto your reel do it. You’ll get a good response to it.

Pictured: Tom Houghton, ASC on the set of “Elementary”. Photo by Elizabeth Fisher.


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