Saturday, August 24, 2013

Technical advisers

A lot of shows use technical advisers. It’s hard enough to write a good autopsy scene without also having to know anatomy. Sure, writers spent a lot of their high school nights at home alone, but we didn’t spend the time learning forensics. While others were taking pre-med courses in college we were taking Sitcom 101 and playing poker. 

So when we’re asked to write lawyer/cop/doctor/dance shows we need a little help. On MASH we had three technical advisers. Dr. Walt Dishell who was our medical expert. We also had a trained nurse on the set to make sure the actors weren’t picking up scalpels from the wrong end. (The extras who played the patients in the operating scenes used their own organs, by the way. There were no guts-doubles.)

Additionally, we had a military adviser. When you hear Radar rattle off a list of incomprehensible army directives some are actually legit. And who needs to make up insane military procedures when all you have to do is use the real thing?

A Colonel from the Public Information Office of the army was assigned to us. When we first spoke to him he was very by-the-book, very wary of what we show business personnel were going to do with the information he was asked to provide. He also was new to the assignment, having only recently been transferred to Los Angeles. He had been overseas for two years.

We would ask him a simple question. He would call back with a long excruciatingly detailed answer that would include no less than five directives, four regulations, and seven procedures.

Now flash forward a year.

We call him for clarification on where death certificates were sent and he says, “Yeah yeah, sweetie, I’ll get to that. But first, I’ve got a great idea for a pilot. Okay, now picture this: establishing shot…” And he goes on to describe this stupefying idea. And all the while I'm thinking:

Sweetie? Establishing shot??

From then on we called him very rarely. Making stuff up was better than hearing his latest movie/pilot/mini series idea. And how do you complain to his superiors that we wanted a different adviser because this highly decorated war hero Colonel had gone too Hollywood?

So the next time you see a TV doctor or lawyer spouting authentic dialog just know there is a technical adviser somewhere, who spent years in law school or medical school, making an appointment for a Botox treatment.


Murray said...

I always suspected that the turnover/alcoholism/anger management percentages among Technical Advisors must be thru the roof. In many a show, even to a layperson like myself, the factual technical details are so fantasy-land, flat out, wrong. I'm shocked when someone is listed as a Technical Advisor in the credits.

Either this TA is in show business because he was kicked out of his profession for being a boob, or he's sobbing in his office because nobody on the set will listen to him.

Richard Y said...

The last part of your last sentence is more often the case. Having talked with several technical advisors on a few fire and EMS TV programs (who are proficient in their field) – Directors rarely listen to them. “Its drama- no one will care” – “no one will notice” – or one stated, “it may be correct but that does not look good” – and the excuses go on in regards to technical accuracy on the set.

Hamid said...

Just going back to The Butler, this article perfectly sums up my antipathy towards Oprah. I'll probably get pilloried for it but it bears mentioning the deleterious effects of her influence over the sheep who worship at her altar, most of whom are now determined to see her win an Oscar.

I don't advocate "hating" her, the title of the piece notwithstanding, but amidst all the manufactured hysteria about her Oscar bait performance, I can't help but remember all the contemptible things she stands for. As the author of the article says, she's promoted retail therapy to a stomach turning degree, endorsed garbage like The Secret, which devalues the real problems people endure, and contributed to an extant deepseated sexual repression in the collective psyche of her mostly evangelically oriented audience by coining infantile phrases like vajayjay because the word vagina is still just too shocking for people who are probably the kind to issue a lawsuit, as one Superbowl viewer did, over Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction on the basis that her exposed nipple "injured the American people". No, I'm not making that up.

Returning to The Butler, as the article says, the entire performance is about her desperate need to win an Oscar. The campaign by her fanbase has begun. She's probably written her 6 minute acceptance speech, complete with annotated pauses for applause, already.

Tyler said...

Makes me wonder how they get through all the science mumbo jumbo on The Big Bang Theory. Or how the actors manage to remember it. And seriously, Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock? I can't imagine how many takes it took him to get that right.

Wayne said...

Give Oprah Lee Daniels' The Oscar.

Great Big Radio Guy said...

Amen, Tyler. I'm a geek among geeks, but Jim Parsons' ability to recall and believably say what the writers hand him is remarkable to watch.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

One of the more interesting technical advisor relationships seems to me to be the UCLA physics prof who provides science lines and whiteboard writings for THE BIG BANG THEORY. It sounds from the interviews I've seen as though he's gone through the suggesting comedy ideas bit and come out the other side, recognizing that he can't do what the writers do any more than they can do what he does.

I was also impressed to learn that the first thing they did when they thought of sending Howard into space was to call NASA and ask if it was realistic. I thought the scenes on the space station were brilliantly realized.


Paul Duca said...

A woman appearing on ANTIQUES ROADSHOW had an interesting collection of items given to her father, who was approached with the idea of being a technical adviser for STAR TREK...including the only other known copy of Gene Roddenberry's original pitch script to Desilu Productions, and the shooting script for "The Cage"--which had Captain April piloting the S.S. YORKTOWN. The man didn't become an adviser on the series, though.

Lee said...

My first day on set as medical adviser for "Becker," I showed Ted Danson some physical exam moves. He wanted to look like a real doctor as he interacted with actor patients. I teach this stuff to medical students at USC.

I showed him the flashlight in the eyes thing, the feeling around the neck for lymph nodes thing, and which end of the stethoscope to put where. As I got to my fifth or sixth physical exam skill Ted stopped me and said, "Just how me your best three moves, doc. We got jokes to fit in here."

I was so caught up in teaching, I forgot Ted wasn't actually planning to take the National Medical Certification exam.

LouOCNY said...

The one exception to the 'not following the TA's advice' trope, is any of Jack Webb's shows.

All except Kent McCord and Marty Milner's haircuts

Cap'n Bob said...

I loved the Oprah rant, Hamid. Chalk me up as another person who finds no value in her show or her life.

The one thing I wish the military TA on MASH had done was teach people to salute proeprly. Maybe not Hawkeye or Trapper, but the regular army guys.

Larry said...

The interesting thing about The Big Bang Theory is they've got both physics and geek culture to deal with. It seems to me the physics stuff is very complex, but their geekiness, about comics and Star Trek and so on, is fairly basic. Of course, I might feel that way because I know a lot more about the geek world than quantum mechanics.

Hamid said...

My favourite technical adviser story is from Back to the Future, which co-writer/producer Bob Gale explained in the DVD commentary regarding jigowatt/gigawatt:

"The proper pronunciation is, of course, gigawatts [with a hard g sound], and when Bob [Zemeckis] and I were doing research, we talked to somebody who mispronounced it jigowatts. And we were actually completely unfamiliar with the term, and we thought that was how it was supposed to be said. It does come from the Greek root gigas [that Greek root is pronounced with a j sound, not a g sound], for gigantic, so I suppose it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. But never having heard of it, we actually spelled it in the script jigowatt. So a jigowatt is actually supposed to be a gigawatt, a million watts. So the mystery of the gigawatts is now solved."

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Larry: I think that might actually be true. The UCLA prof says on one of the DVDs that one year he put the answers to the final exam in one of his classes on one of the whiteboards, as an in-joke. Whereas, a lot of their geek culture stuff can be had by looking through That said, some of it has been brilliantly done - the tease where they hook up the apartment appliances to the Internet and do the gorillas to Also Sprach Zarathustra when it works is just fabulous.


Dan Wolfe said...

Back in the 90's, I was the Commander of the 222nd Public Affairs Detachment, an Army Broadcasting unit in Los Angeles about which you may know. I got to know some of the folks at the LA office and "going Hollywood" was a big temptation that some couldn't resist. Fortunately, I had already done that as an actor and had gone back the Army Reserve as a long term solution to my retirement problem.

Fast forward some years later, and I filled in for a months or so as a military tech advisor on "Transformers" while the regular guy was taking care of a family illness.

I had been a SAG member for 15 years or so, but I resisted the urge to bring that up. I wore my Army uniform every day even though I could have worn civilian attire. Someone eventually figured out I was in the Guild, and asked me if the director knew that. I told them no and not to tell him. I couldn't serve two masters faithfully if I "went Hollywood" myself.

Ken Levine said...


I know the 222nd well. I was in it for six years.


sp4 Levine

Dan Wolfe said...

That unit's come a long way since you were in it. :) They've been deployed oodles of times.

Did you know Jim Overman? I worked with Jim at AFRTS many moons ago.


Ken Levine said...

I do know Jim Overman. He was in the unit with me. Named a character after him in our first MASH episode.

ODJennings said...

To be fair, sometimes those technical advisors do make good in Hollywood.

Let's not forget that George Kennedy started as the technical advisor for Sgt. Bilko, and a decade later won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Cool Hand Luke.

Another would be Lee Emery who was hired as an adviser and wound up stealing the movie in Full Metal Jacket.

Mike said...

@Hamid: A GigaWatt is a billion Watts.

Dan Ball said...

Who would win in a fight: Star Trek's TAs or Big Bang Theory's TA?

I'd say Star Trek's because their tech stuff is so hardcore, they wrote a tech manual and published it. (Yes, I read it as a teenager, understood it, and could probably explain a lot of it to this day.)

Then again, BBT doesn't have to write a tech manual because it already exists: a physics textbook.

But the Star Trek guys not only read those textbooks, but ran with some of the ideas.

Okay, I'm done. Now it's time for someone else to chime in.

emily said...

Oodles? Is that official military jargon? Who knew?

Dan Wolfe said...


That's very cool! I have a photo that I took at Jim's house one day of four of the past 222 commanders of which Jim and I were two.


Steve Mc said...

Here's a Friday Question: I just finished reading Brett Martin's book "Difficult Men: Behind The Scenes of A Creative Revolution" (and in the interest of equal time...equally as interesting as "The Me Generation by Me"). It looks at the creators of shows that have defined the change in TV drama over the past couple of decades. One section discussed how Matthew Weiner ('Mad Men') changed the custom that the first-draft writer's name would remain alone atop a script, no matter how much work the showrunner had done, by adopting a rule that if more than 20 percent of a writer's script remained, he or she would retain sole credit. If not, Weiner added his name. Other than it being a tradition (and, yes, royalties are involved) but shouldn't a majority writer on a rewrite also get credit?

Anonymous said...

Your sentence got cut off by the blogging software.

"except Suits, which just makes up whatever legal scenario it wants or needs with no concern for actual law whatsoever."

DBenson said...

"The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars" by Anthony Boucher is, in effect, a novel about technical advisors. A bunch of prominent Sherlock Holmes buffs are invited to Hollywood to quell bad publicity about a new Holmes movie.

The chief villain is an all-powerful . . . screenwriter! It seems he filed away a lot of local dirt in his previous career as a PI, so when he expressed a desire to write, studio execs humbly bowed to his will.

Nice look at late-30s Hollywood, although it never really touches on the moviemaking process.

Hamid said...

Mike - Sorry, I just copy and pasted the quote re gigawatts/jigowatts and missed the error.

Johnny Walker said...

I think technical mistakes were a common complaint in the comments of your "pet peeves" post, Ken, and I know that sometimes when I've seen completely avoidable mistakes in films/TV that I've wondered: Who the hell is advising on this thing?

Then I imagine a scenario like you describe, or equally troubling situations where the advisor is too difficult to work with or worse: They're just too eager to please. All result in unnecessary mistakes that damage the integrity of your show by taking a certain portion of your audience out of the moment -- and you can bet some of those people will then go online and ruin it for everyone else, too.

It was disappointing watching the BREAKING BAD MYTHBUSTERS episode. Vince Gilligan had wanted to his show to be featured on it, presumably because he's a fan of MB, but also because he apparently had faith in his technical advisors. Sadly, whatever faith he had was completely misplaced: The show failed miserably. Even on a rudimentary level, the science tested was wrong, and it kind of broke this viewer's heart.

What's frustrating is that there's talented experts who could give a writer just what they need... but they don't seem to be able to find their way into Hollywood. (Maybe they're too busy being experts in their field.)

It makes me wonder, though: Is there a market for a firm that specializes in providing experts on any given subject -- who can explain concepts clearly, who understand the writing process, and who will remain completely professional?

It feels like a rudimentary understanding of certain issues would open the door to more stories for writers, too.

I know I've seen many occasions when (at least when it comes to the computers and the Internet) shows/films have made mistakes that could easily be corrected, maintaining the integrity of the show, without remotely altering the narrative.

*sigh* Maybe one day.

Johnny Walker said...

Wow, some great comments here! I love it when the comments are as interesting as the post itself.

Alan C said...

I work in fingerprints for a police agency, and when I see people's prints being taken in movies/TV I never see it done right. The most recent example was on Broadchurch, an otherwise excellent BBC production. But then everyone probably notices mistakes when their own profession is being portrayed.

Storm said...

@Alan C: THANK YOU. I'm enjoying "Broadchurch", but that was the worst example of fingerprinting someone I've ever seen, on film or IRL. It seemed like they covered the person's entire upper finger with ink; they weren't even proper fingerprints, showing lines and whorls and such, just big, smudgy black blobs.

And speaking of British TV and TA's; the TA's on "Call the Midwife" are AMAZING. This is the ONLY show or movie I have EVER seen that tells you the honest truth about the act of giving birth; chances are you WILL poop, profusely, unless you have an enema first. "High, hot, and a hell of a lot!" But wow, they depth of detail they go into on that show is crazy, both in the way midwifery is shown (every episode renews my happiness with my decision not to breed), and the excellent costumes/hair and sets that are straight out of the late 50's. And the faux silicone infants they use (when not doing close-ups and such) are SO real, they're kinda creepy, with translucent skin and weighted heads (so they flop a bit).

@Dan Ball: Trek TA's would win handily, no question. To paraphrase Little Richard, they are the Originators of Insane Nerd Detail, and the Big Bang kids are merely Perpetrators.

Cheers, thanks a lot,


Mike said...

Seriously, why would you say you couldn't write for Suits for lack of legal knowledge, given that you have all these technical advisors?

Raymond M. said...


Two other TA's who made good are Chuck Adamson and Dennis Farina, both of whom were police consultants on Michael Mann's Thief.

Chuck Adamson co-created Crime Story and inspired Heat.

Dennis Farina (RIP), liked his cameo role in Thief so much, he became a very successful actor.

ODJennings said...

@Raymond M

That's right, but the one that's been bothering me since I made my original post is a WWI flyer hired as a consultant for an early aviation picture, I think maybe Howard Hughes' WINGS, who went on to be a very successful Hollywood Director.

Granted, that was probably based more on his ability to drink and chase women with Howard Hughes than anything he brought to the picture, but he still qualifies.

Anyone remember who I'm talking about?

RCP said...


Sounds like William Wellman.

John Bertalan said...

Probably one of the most famous "Technical Advisors" was Col. Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager. I believe he is mentioned in nearly all of Elvis' 33 films as such. Having read considerably on the subject, though, I believe about the only thing the good Colonel ever advised upon was whether Elvis & himself were being paid enough....