Channel surfing recently I came upon the first episode of television I ever directed – a WINGS. It was also one of my toughest. Complicated crowd scenes, a stunt, dream sequence, a difficult actor, and that was nothing compared to the “new scene”.
For a neophyte multi-camera director, camera blocking is a nightmare. The show is performed like a play in front of a live audience. Four cameras are going simultaneously, recording all the action. You have to make sure everything is covered, you have all your close ups and reactions. This requires methodical instructions to each cameraman for every little move or change in the scene. You must also anticipate action, like having a camera already in place for a character’s entrance. It’s a complicated maddening process when you’re new and don’t know shit.
I’ve now directed 50 episodes. I can camera block a show now in about 4 or 5 hours. Back then it took 12 – and I was jamming! Jimmy Burrows can do it in like eleven minutes.
So getting back to my WINGS. On show night we had our standard dress rehearsal at 3. The actors broke for dinner and make-up at 5. The writers went back to the room to do their customary polish – a new line here or there.
At 6:30 the audience began filing in. At 6:35 I received the revised pages. And to my horror discovered…they added a whole new scene!! I can’t rehearse it or block it because the audience has already arrived. I came very close to wetting myself.
What I decided to do was go backstage, gather the actors in the scene, and roughly block it out in the wardrobe room. Then I went to the cameramen and told them basically what was going to happen and asked them to just get what they could. After the show when the audience had left I’d go back and stage and block it properly.
So the filming began. I was sitting in front of the quad split – a bank of four monitors that show what each camera is shooting. Next to me was the NBC executive assigned to the show.
Things were moving along. There was a big mishap in the first scene when Crystal Bernard accidentally flipped a whole birthday cake over but we had another one and the clip was shown for years on blooper shows so I’ve made some royalties.
And then we came to the “new scene”. It basically played well for the audience but you should have seen the quad split. Cameras were swishing around, only getting the top of heads, framing shots in bizarre positions, weird tilts, missing the actors completely, changing sizes on the fly. It was utter madness. Not having been briefed, the NBC exec almost flew out of his chair. When the scene was over he was so apoplectic he couldn’t speak. Sensing this, I decided to have a little fun.
I called out, “Okay, moving on. I got what I need. I’m happy.” As the cameras rolled to their next scene marks the NBC guy almost had a heart attack. I told him I was going for something stylistic and when it was all put together it would look great. What’s the point of directing if you can’t leave your mark? The show runners and writing staff picked up on what I was doing and all chimed in their support. For the rest of the show this network guy just paced.
He was very relieved when we finally let him in on the joke. So relieved that he didn’t even bother to stick around for the re-blocking and shooting of the scene. I think his exact words were, “Anything’s gotta be better than that crap you shot before”.
What director wouldn’t be over-the-moon THRILLED with that vote of confidence?