Last Friday Questions of the Year. Is one of them yours?
Allan V gets us started:
When the cast does a reading prior to rehearsals, how does that work? Who's at the reading besides the actors, and who's in charge? How long does it usually run? Do actors often try to tell the others how to play their roles, resulting in friction?
For a regular episode the cast generally reads around a conference table. The director sits at the head and reads the stage directions. Producers, writers, and other staff members ring the table along with studio and network executives. Occasionally you’ll have casting people there.
For our table readings we try to keep the number of people down.
Now for a pilot things have gotten completely out of hand. There are so many network and studio people there along with other support staff, agents, managers, friends, additional writers, and God knows who that instead of reading around a table the cast will all sit at one long table (like a dais) and face rows and rows of audience members. It’s the Last Supper but less fun.
When filming the episode do the studio audience have to hustle along the bleachers from set to set?
No. The audience stays put. The main sets are in front of them and for scenes in swing sets that may be off to the side out of view there are monitors. The audience watches the show as its filming.
And complicated scenes are sometimes pre-filmed and just shown to the audience via the monitors.
These monitors have only been around for twenty years or so. Before that there was no video assist. So if a scene was out of the audience’s view they were out of luck.
Remember last week I mentioned that cavernous sound stage that Francis Ford Coppola used to erect the Las Vegas strip? I once helped out on a multi-camera pilot on that stage. It was like being on Mars. Usually studio audiences number about 200 in bleachers that have six or seven rows. For this pilot the bleachers sat 200. But it was two rows that stretched from one end of the stage to the other, which was in New Mexico. There were something like eight major sets and no monitors. So for any one scene maybe thirty people could see it. End result: No one saw anything. Everybody was totally confused. No one laughed. Would you believe the pilot didn’t get picked up? On a decent stage it might've had a chance.
If you’ve never been to a filming of a multi-camera show you should try to get tickets to see one at least once. So the next time you come to LA, put that on your Bucket List.
From Ger Apeldoorn:
Talking about a large set... as a director do you like the set smaller or bigger. I used to love large sets, people walking around all the time and shouting. I also liked the fact that two characters could have a believable moment alone (although it was always weird that sometimes in Cheers two characters could talk in private and sometimes they talked just as loud with someone at the other end). But our favorite director liked his sets small, easier to time as he liked it, no time lost with long walks. Do you have a preference or does it depend on the script?
It depends on so many factors, but generally I’d prefer larger sets because it’s easier to get cameras into positions to give me the best shots.
But large sets do present problems. One, as you mentioned, you sometimes have to cover long crosses. Intimate character scenes can seem hollow in wide open spaces.
On the other hand, small sets can be murder when you have a lot of people and not much room. I directed an episode of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND where the entire second act Ray is sick in bed and the room is filled with his friends and relatives. And at one point there’s a basketball game going on, and another time pizzas are delivered. It’s a hilarious scene and I’m thrilled with how it came out, but it was a bitch to block and shoot in front of a live audience. It seemed like someone's face was always blocked. But if the end result is good then it’s all worth it and then some.
Compare that to the CHEERS bar. It was positioned right in the middle of the set. Characters could sit at either end. You had almost unlimited access in filming.
I’ve said it before – the best set I’ve ever worked on was Frasier’s apartment. So many great angles and built-in portals to move cameras way up into the set and get amazing shots. And here’s the irony – the art director who created the Frasier living room also created the Becker diner.
One pet peeve I have is that art directors will create huge elaborate sets with staircases and giant bay windows. Very impressive to the studio audience, but you rarely see any of those things on camera. I’d never do a master so wide that includes the whole staircase or giant chandelier. So all of those niceties are never seen. Plus, when you have high walls it’s that much harder to light the set.
And then there was the reverse. A swing set for an episode of LATELINE I directed in New York. It was an office kitchen area, but only two walls were constructed (at a right angle). It was so small that unless my characters were practically wedged into the corner I couldn’t film them without shooting off the set. I still get nightmares thinking about that one.
And finally, Hesh has another set question. That seems to be the theme this week.
Was the back poolroom in Cheers a swing set as well? And in addition to that, would the bathrooms then be behind, like Sam's office, or were those separate entities? I remember in Season 1 there would be shots going all the way from the back room into the main room in one motion which was well done and made it all look seamless.
The poolroom was a standing set, but it could be removed for a swing set. Most of our swing sets were in that space. A good portion of the audience could see it. And these were in the days before monitors.
The bathroom was a separate set.
Sam’s office was tucked upstage and visible when the wall fanned out.
The first season of CHEERS we never left the bar. So swing sets were less of an issue.
What’s your question? I’m now taking them for 2014.