Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Getting started as a director

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became a full post.  Once I start writing about myself I just seem to go on and on and on and on...

The question is from Rick Wiedmayer: 

and on and on and on...

In a previous post you said that you wanted to become a director while David wanted to remain just a writer. How did you make the transition to director? What hoops did you have to go through to become a director?

There are numerous factors to TV directing; some I knew better than others going in.

I had spent many years going down to run-throughs, working with actors, shaping performances, and at times re-blocking. So the dealing-with-actors part of the job I felt somewhat secure with. That said, I got waaaaaay better at it. I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.

My years as a writer taught me how to evaluate whether a scene or a story was working.  This was invaluable.  At the end of the day, if the script works you could just shoot the entire episode in one wide shot and you’d still have a good show.  Yet, all the fancy camera angles in the world won't help a show with a sub-par teleplay. 

I also had spent years in editing bays so I had a familiarity with that aspect of the job. I can’t tell you how many times I’d say to the editor, “Give me a reaction shot here,” he’d say “We don’t have one,” and I’d go, “How can that possibly be? The whole joke depends on her reaction.” “ 

Shit! I can do this job as good as this idiot” is the motivation for most jobs in Hollywood.

What I knew nothing about was the technical stuff. Especially in multi-camera comedy it’s very complicated. You have four cameras all moving at once. Their assignments change every time even one actor moves. Plus, you have to set for reactions, entrances, and you need different sizes and angles of the same scene so you have a choice in editing. And you have to have yourself covered if you want to lift portions of a scene that didn’t work for the audience or just make trims if the show is too long. People compare it to a Rubik’s Cube and I say it’s worse. When you’re figuring you a Rubik’s Cube you don’t have a hundred crew people staring at you and a producer reminding you that you’re on the clock and every wasted minute costs money.

So I spent about two years auditing Jimmy Burrows, Andy Ackerman, David Lee, and Jeff Melman. I’d sit behind them at the quad-split (four monitors) and watch how they camera blocked the show. Honestly, for the first year I didn’t know what the fuck I was looking at. Especially with Jimmy Burrows. He moved so fast. I was completely lost. He’d block an entire wedding scene in three minutes. Then you’d look at it on the monitors and it was perfect. Talk about intimidating. Eventually I started to get the hang of it.

Then I would test myself. I stopped sitting behind the director. I showed up for the runthrough following camera blocking, jotted down the stage blocking, and went home and tried to camera block myself.

My daughter, Annie made me some little clay men. I would recreate every scene with them and slowly figure which camera would cover who or what.

The next day I would compare what I did to what the director actually did. The trouble is, if you make one changes. Let’s say you decide to use Camera A for the close up instead of Camera B that changes every assignment for every camera from that point in the scene.

So not only do you have to prepare, you have to be able to adjust when things change (and they ALWAYS do).

That was about another year, doing that exercise.

Finally, I felt I was ready. Here is where I am forever in debt to Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angell. You have to find someone who will take a chance on a new director and hire you.  Not easy to find.  Sometimes impossible.  They gave me that chance to direct an episode of WINGS.

I had consulted and written on WINGS since the pilot so I had a long relationship with the actors going in and that helped enormously. They were extremely patient and supportive. I’m forever in debted to them too.  Especially Crystal Bernard who called me at home when the episode was wrapped and I was home in a fetal position to say what a good job she thought I had done. 

Before camera blocking day I went up to David Lee’s house with my clay men and he helped guide me through the camera assignments. Of course, they all changed once I got on the floor but at least I knew exactly what I needed. It was just a matter of figuring out which camera to get it. That figuring took hours and hours though.

Eventually it all came together and I was on my way. The next hurdle was developing confidence so I could fool my cast and crew into thinking I knew what the hell I was doing. That just takes time and experience.

Ironically, now my favorite part of the process is camera blocking. It’s puzzle solving, it’s hanging with great crews, and it’s just fun. Jimmy still does it ten times faster though. How the fuck does he do that?!

Being a good TV director takes time, luck, experience, luck, patience, luck, psychology, luck, talent, and did I mention luck? Thanks again to everyone who helped me on my way.


Dan Ball said...

Great reading!

I feel like directing is like trying to solve two Rubik's cubes at once: the acting and the technical. Maybe not as impossible, but definitely worthy fuckin' adversaries (as puzzles go).

Ken, I'd be interested to know how you handled directing dramatic scenes. On a sitcom, it seems like you've got to stop a freight train of comic momentum to get a mood conducive to drama established. Is it really that tough or is it better when you're working with 'trained professionals'?

ODJennings said...

My favorite show to watch for the director is Jeopardy. Most of the contestants are (and I'm being kind) not what you might call photogenic. Sometimes they not only avoid close-ups, they practically put the camera in the third row of the audience.

One day about a year ago, they had on a gorgeous young lady who was blessed with simply enormous breasts and was wearing a sweater that made no secret of that fact.

That director invented so many new camera angles to keep her in the shot that was like watching a film noir version of Jeopardy.They should have given him the Daytime Gameshow Emmy right on the spot.

VincentS said...

Thanks for sharing the Crystal Bernard part, Ken. Now I've got an even BIGGER crush on her than I had before!

Nancy said...

Dear Ken,

Here's a possible Friday question for you? Have you written a recent review of Showtime's series, "Episodes"? If not, could you comment on its recent cast additions of network brass comedy characters? They include the fictional 'new' Network Boss, played by Chris Diamantopoulos along with other executive characters, "head of comedy" Myra, and the network "head of programming," Kathleen Rose Perkins as Carol. With lines like "It's like everything you gave me arrived pre-cancelled," there are some nuggets of funnier moments on this show now. I didn't really enjoy the series in its initial two seasons (not a particular fan of its marquee star, myself), but the addition of these network characters is ramping it up to a new level in the writing.

I'd be very curious about your take on it.

Nancy Beach

LouOCNY said...

Great article, Ken. It is interesting to watch the first season of I Love Lucy, and note how very crude the show was was the first few episodes, and how quickly it improves in terms of blocking and camera movement. for example, they had started out filming each episode straight through - the director that first year, Marc Daniels, had started out directing live drama shows like Ford Theater, and such - with four cameras. When they got a look at the those shows, is when they realized the four cameras were so bulky at the time, a lot of action got blocked from the filming audience, plus it was an editing nightmare. It then dawned on them that it would be more open with three cameras, and that they could actually stop for costume/makeup/set changes.

Have you ever heard of Daniels before, Ken?

Phil said...

Dear Ken,

that question form Nancy about the TV Series "Episodes" is really interesting. I'd really like to hear your take on it, too! Did you see it? If not, go watch it, it's really funny, especially if you have a showbiz background.


Jeff Hysen said...

Tell us about how you crafted Lt. Patty Haven. I've always loved her two scenes with Radar. When After-MASH was on, I was hoping that she would be Radar's wife. Was that considered?

Duncan Randall said...

One more for your Natalie Wood collection, from Sarah Shahi (worthy of her own collection, I say)

Sarah Shahi ‏@onlysarahshahi

“@HistoryInPics: Natalie Wood after filming a pie fight scene

”so wish this was me

Hamid said...

Duncan, totally agree about Sarah Shahi. What a babe!

Todd said...

Re: Marc Daniels. He was directing into his 70s. He worked on Lucille Ball's ill-fated LIFE WITH LUCY in 1986. And I know he was a regular director, at least while former I LOVE LUCY writers Madelyn Martin and Bob Carroll Jr. were producing it, on the Linda Lavin series ALICE.

He quit I LOVE LUCY after its first season to direct Joan Davis's similar series I MARRIED JOAN, a move he quickly regretted, commenting in later years that Davis was the meanest, most unpleasant person he had ever worked with.

Johnny Walker said...

Great post, thanks for sharing that Ken! I've always wondered how people learn the requisite skill to move from a writer to director (never seems to go the other way, does it?).

Now I know: The skill comes with painstaking research, the opportunity comes with luck.

Now... when you see actors directing episodes of show they're on, do they do the same amount of homework as you? :)