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IKEA Heights Behind the Scenes: Going Guerrilla for Channel 101

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[show=ikeaheights size=large]As an occasional shopper of IKEA goods, I’ve noticed that the Burbank, Calif., branch’s vast floor plan means that it’s incredibly hard to get an employee’s assistance. This worked to the advantage of creator David Seger, though, who’s been using that particular Swedish furniture store’s wide variety of solutions for home and office life as the set for his own Channel 101 series.

The first four episodes of the guerrilla-shot melodrama IKEA Heights give cheating wives, amnesiac brothers and gangster murders a comic spin, riffing on not only the tropes of the genre being mocked, but the location in which they’re shot. In the first episode, for example, the non-operational faucet of a kitchen becomes the springboard for a married couple’s argument about money. For the location isn’t just one element of the series, but its entire world, the reasonably priced accessories to modern living providing Seger and co-writers Tom Kauffman, Paul Bartunek and Spencer Strauss with all the inspiration they’ll ever need.

There’s an inclination to compare IKEA Heights to other IKEA-set web series, but I’m going to avoid it, because the show’s fresh approach deserves to be judged on its own merits. Each scene is tightly paced and written, and if the acting is a bit awkward the actors can easily be forgiven; after all, it’s hard to make dramatic pronouncements when other shoppers are wandering into frame, shooting curious looks at the camera.

Seger, with whom I spoke via phone, initially got the idea for IKEA Heights two years ago while browsing through the store and observing how many well-lit options there were for sets. But he knew that it would be impossible to shoot using a large video camera like the Sony DX-1 because store security would notice. Then this year, Bartunek got a Canon EOS Rebel T1i, which looks like a digital SLR camera but shoots HD video, thus allowing his crew to remain incognito. The footage looks great, and thanks to wireless mikes the production sound is surprisingly good given the shooting conditions.

While Seger was “incredibly nervous” before starting production in an unsecured location, store personnel didn’t bother him or any of the actors while they were shooting the first two episodes. Thus, they dropped some of their previous caution for the third episode, prompting them to be noticed and subsequently asked to stop. While they were able to go back later to get the footage they needed, the incident changed their approach for episode No. 4 , the bulk of which was shot in one well-planned tracking shot, ensuring that they wouldn’t have to be in the store for more than 15 minutes. (It took three takes to nail it.)

Seger moved to Los Angeles three years ago, and thanks to shooting an episode of the Channel 101 classic Yacht Rock while he was still in Michigan, he was able to integrate himself into the community that’s built up around the comedy screening series. Volunteering at the monthly screenings soon led to a job as creator Dan Harmon’s assistant on VH1’s Acceptable.TV, Comedy Central’s The Sarah Silverman Program, and now NBC’s Community, where his duties have included writing and directing the Community web content we reviewed last week. And the drama at IKEA Heights isn’t over yet: Episode 5 will premiere at this month’s Los Angeles Channel 101 screening. Barring any acts of Swedish interference, of course.