Friday, December 27, 2013

Friday Questions

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.

Thomas wonders:

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.

A big factor is how well the set is laid out. One set that gave me trouble was the diner on BECKER. It was a nice big set and looked great, but all the action was at the counter pushed against one side. So you’d have five characters huddled around a counter while 70% of the set would be unused. When I directed BECKER I always found ways to move people to booths or have Terry Ferrell waiting on tables so she wasn’t pinned behind the counter. I did anything to create movement and use the entire set.

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.


Chris said...

friday question: know anything about this documentary on showrunners?

RG said...

Here is a fun and creative exercise question for you if you wish to indulge: Which character on a comedy show today would you like to spin-off and create a show around (like Frasier from Cheers) and why?

Liggie said...

On one of the "Big Bang Theory" DVDs, the actors playing Raj and Howard give a tour of the set, and on a recent "Conan" Jim Parsons took a fan on it too. I think the set for the cafeteria or the Cheesecake Factory is actually *behind* the main set, which is Sheldon and Leonard's apartment.

F.Q. What's the business/payment model for a movie or show that's available for Netflix? Is it a lump-sum or per-view model?

Ralph C said...

Ken, I was watching the fourth season episode 19 of Cheers where Sam decides to go "skiing" right after he beat Woody in a game of racquetball. He tells Woody that if he needs help behind the bar to call Bob. Who's Bob? Did Bob has a last name and/or history? Thanks.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I have been to stage plays, so I know that actors project their voices, but I wondered if they did that on TV, or just talked in their normal conversational voices? What I mean is,I used to attend tapings of Canadian talk shows in the 80's ( The Allan Thicke show was one of the shows), and the audience members had to strain to hear the host and his guests, while watching it on TV, the hosts and guests were quite loud. I sometimes wonder if the audience doesn't laugh, because they can't hear the actor. I heard that was the case on WKRP, with Jan Smithers, who played Bailey Quarters.

Hamid said...

My Friday Question:

I've not seen Mannequin 1 or 2 but I just read your hilarious post from a few years back about you and David doing rewrites on both (the bit about the 'swell guys' wanting to pay you in TVs was priceless). My question is how much of your writing ended up on screen? Thanks!

By the way, weirdest bit of synchronicity/ coincidence etc the other day. I watched Lethal Weapon, an old favorite of mine, which co-starred Darlene Love. I then read your post about her on Christmas Day, which reminded me I was gonna look up on IMDB the cute actress who played the girl who leaps to her death at the start of Lethal Weapon, as she looked awfully familiar. So I went on IMDB and found Jackie Swanson and the first thing I see is a photo of her with you at a Cheers reunion party! And of course I then remembered she was lovable Kelly.

Kieran said...

I was watching the 'Big Bang Theory' pilot (the one that aired, not the disaster that didn't) the other day, and was struck by the fact that although Sheldon in particular was neeeearly the finished article, there were certain aspects - not least, his initial willingness to donate to a sperm bank - that he would never do even a few episodes later.

With the obvious caveat that many characters grow and evolve over time, in a show as in real life (Hawkeye and Hot Lips being prime examples that come to mind), generally speaking do you look back and feel that most of your characters have arrived fully formed? Or how many episodes do you feel it takes them to fill out fully? Or does it vary widely?

KG said...

Ken, for Friday questions: Why do some shows fail?

It seems to me that good ingredients would have to make a good soup. If you have great actors, great writers, great producers, a great premise etc. Why do some shows still fail?

Greetings, Kaan

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I forget if I've asked this before, but exactly do networks make such a big deal out of guest stars nowadays? It seems like anymore, promos for upcoming episodes of shows aren't so much about what the characters are going to be up to, and more, "So-and-so's dropping by on an all-new episode this week!" I can understand if said guest star was someone of notoriety, such as Bob Newhart on a recent episode of THE BIG BANG THEORY (he must have owed someone money), or if the guest spot is something of a gimmick (like Ray Romano on Patricia Heaton's current show), but anymore, it seems like every single guest appearance on any show anymore is regarded as such a monumental occasion... are networks getting more and more desperate to get viewers to watch their shows, or are guest stars' agents going on some serious P.R. field days or something?

Johnny Walker said...

What's your favorite movie of 2014?

Mark in Auburn (NY) said...

Not so much a question as seeking your advice:

I live in a small city where local radio is pretty much gone. There are still two AM stations but both are programmed from out of town. The FM side has a campus station and a Catholic outlet. We had a commercial FM until three years ago when is was relocated.

I'm wondering if, with the proper promotion and programming, an internet station has any chance of success as either an underwriter supported operation or as an advertising business. What about the risk of it turning into a money pit?

Having read your posts about the state of radio and your past experiences I would really like your take.

Internet radio has really caught my interest in the past couple of years. There's a lot of experimentation going on; vanity stations (what I call "legal pirates"), tribute stations modeled after legends like KFRC, WABC and others and "community" stations, some of which are seeking a Low-Power-FM license.

I've been putting feelers out to local businesses and the area arts and theater community. Most of the response has been "yeah - it would be nice". Not exactly the enthusiasm I was hoping for but I wonder how that might change if I did get a station online.

So...what do you think?

ed.j. said...

Hah! finally, I remember a question I've wanted to bounce off you while I'm actually on your page.
Happy New Year by the way. I'm catching up from wreaking weather havoc across the US & Caribbean.
I've watched the gang on Big Bang Theory walk up and down those stairs for years wondering how they'd block that on the day.
How do they block that on the day?