Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Directing sitcoms Part 2

Yesterday, I began a two-day examination into what it takes to direct multi-camera shows -- some of the facets you might not have been aware about.   Here are some more tips:

Whenever possible you try to get angles where you can see both eyes.

Don’t play scenes in back corners of a set. Cameras can’t cover the actors and neither can the boom (sound) operators. Studio audiences can't see them either.

If your scene takes place in a a public setting (a la a bar),  it’s often good to have extras cross by. They can even cross in front of you. That adds depth. But beware. Extras have an uncanny knack of crossing in front of your actor just as he’s delivering a punch line. Extras have to be choreographed. A good second assistant director will do that for you. But keep an eye out.

Also make sure that extras react.  You've seen this.  There's a big food fight at a table in a restaurant.  And six extras are at a back table just oblivious of the skirmish.  Directors tend to concentrate on the performances and camera angles and sometimes don't pay attention to the background activity.  It can kill you.  

When someone enters a room, have a single shot of them. Why? Because shows tend to run long and need to be edited. You can often edit out a few lines before someone’s entrance. But if you’re in a master when they enter then you’re stuck with actors frozen in those exact positions. It’s harder or impossible to make edits as a result.

When showrunners get into editing they like choices.  Have different angles and sizes for him to choose from.  

If you have a good show you’re going to get a decent laugh spread from the audience. But you won’t know much beforehand. It’s not like you can time it. So shows tend to run long, which is usually a good thing. You can pull up the action, cut jokes that don’t work, etc. But as a director I try to assume what lines might be possible lifts. I then find ways to cover the scene that would allow the editor to lift those lines. In other words, I’ll have close ups and reactions the editor can cut to so the lifts won’t be noticeable. I also won’t have an actor cross on a line I think might get cut. You’re obligated to keep that line or he now pops across the stage.

You have to allow the camera operators sufficient time to get the shot you want. You can’t have him getting a close up and then one line later expect him to be in position way up into the set to get a three shot of other actors. It takes time to move the cameras, time to frame the shots. If you want a camera to go up into the set you have to free him for several lines to get up there.

Try not to overload a camera operator with too many moves in any one scene. If you have him changing shots every line you’re just asking for Murphy’s Law to rear its ugly head. The crews in Hollywood are the best in the world, but they’re human. It’s not fair to ask one guy to get 25 different shots in a two-minute scene and expect him to be perfect. Or not kill you.

Actors have to hit marks on the floor as they move through the scene. If an actor is off his mark it alters the shot. Good camera operators can adjust. Lots of directors are sticklers about actors hitting their marks so their shots look perfect. I’m not one of them. I’m in the Jim Burrows camp. The most important thing I want out of my actors is their performance. I don’t want their performance to suffer because they’re so preoccupied with hitting their marks exactly. So if an actor hits a joke out of the park and is a little blocked or the shot is not lined exactly, I don’t care. But that’s me. Other directors will tell you something different.

When you see a finished show on the air, if it’s produced well, you don’t see the many moving parts that all have to come together. The acting, writing, directing, sound, make up, props, set decoration, costumes, lighting, camera operators flying around the stage, editing, post production, color correction, music cues, effects, graphics. It’s an honor to be working alongside these people. Thank you for making me look good. Because all of these director tips I’ve outlined over the last two days – I've screwed up most of them at one time or another along the way. They saved my ass.


Michael said...

Any reaction to Anne Sweeney resigning as Disney-ABC Television Group president to become a TV director? Seems like completely different skill set required.

unkystan said...

I was watching a (unnamed) show last week. Two couples having dinner and talk in the home of one of them. At the end of the evening the visiting couple leave and say "we'll see ourselves out" and just walk off camera! All I could think of is...who does that? That's just lazy staging.

Scooter Schechtman said...

"We'll see ourselves out" might also be lazy writing, like the Now A Cliché of telling a flat joke and saying "I'll be all week, folks."
I'll show myself out.

Lisa said...

Read recently that when Tommy Smothers appeared on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, the sketch they wrote for him had him in a hospital bed the whole time. Seems some CAROL BURNETT staffers had worked on the show Tommy had with his brother and were aware that Tommy never hit his marks. Made no effort to hit his marks. The BURNETT writers decided to save their own director the aggravation by pinning Tommy down in one spot during the sketch so that he couldn't wander.

Brian O. said...

For mucho $$$ there are two-day workshops that cover less than what you've done for us yesterday and today.
Thank you.
People, buy MUST KILL TV to show your love.

RockGolf said...

@unkystan: If that was Big Bang Theory, the "we'll see ourselves out" was a punchline, and a good one. Leonard was being a little passive-agressive with Penny, and said what some shows would treat as an innocent comment. But Howard and his wife recognized this was going to lead to an arguement and got outta Dodge. It was an elegant way to indicate that they (and therefore the audience) saw trouble on the horizon.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more.

Michael Cobb said...

Hi Ken - thought you might be amused to learn about this upcoming Frazier zine:

Anonymous said...

A talented script supervisor can actually time a show very well. They can anticipate not only a laugh spread, but stage blocking spread and camera spread (camera moves add time as well) They can also advise on how individual lifts will affect timing. Some script supervisors are uncannily good at timing, coming within seconds with their predictions.

un said...

Sorry RockGolf. I was actually referring to last week's "Switched At Birth" Not a multi-cam comedy so I figured it wasn't worth mentioning. I saw "Big Bang" and agree that it was used well in that case as a punchline but it wasn't on SAB, the director was just wanting to speed two characters out of the scene and to continue the conversation with the remaining characters.

Andy Ihnatko said...

Ken (possible Friday question) - when a show is being created, how early does the set design become part of the equation? Your post reminded me that "Frasier" had an unusually "layered" set: a couch area, then an elevated the piano layer behind it, then the balcony behind that...and then a separate kitchen area visible from the whole lot.

How deliberate are all of those choices? Are the creators actively thinking "We're going to be writing lots of group scenes, so we need a way to let a couple of people split off and have a private conversation"? Does the pilot director get some input?

It also made me think about the recent "Big Bang Theory" episode in which they swap out the desk and computer from the back of the set (which nobody ever used) for a dining table (which everybody clearly desperately needs). It makes me wonder if the show ever _had_ a plan for that area of a set and then (like the characters) found that they never liked sending someone over there.

Bill said...

Thanks for these posts, Ken--fascinating stuff. And they lead to 2 potential Friday questions from me:

1. In long-running shows where there isn't one constant director, does the look/feel/staging of the show change with each director? Or is the director's goal (or network directive) to conform his/her approach to match the ongoing look/feel of the show? For example, the Office (US) had some episodes directed by "famous" directors (Joss Whedon, Paul Feig, etc.), but I couldn't tell any differences between their episodes and other usual episodes.

2. Why don't TV directors get the same "prestige" that movie directors do? I mean, movie directors are usually the second-to-last Academy Award. I don't know if I've even seen the Emmy Award for best directing even televised, and it's certainly not on the level of acting awards, unlike the Academy Awards. Usually the non-acting accolades for TV shows go either to the creators or writers (or both), not the directors. Why is that?

Phillip B said...

Another potential Friday question as follow-up:

What is the director's role in post-production and editing?

Bob said...

Hi Ken,

I was watching Tim Allen's Last Man Standing and I noticed that there are a ton of Exec Producers and Consulting producers....what is that all about. Too many chiefs, not enough indians?

Albert Giesbrecht said...

When I watch the coffee shop scenes in reruns of Seinfeld, I pay close attention the to the background talent, and it's interesting to see how they interact with the waitress, or the dining companion, but you rarely see them react to the antics of Jerry et al

I always find et al to be the funniest of the group, BTW.

Hamid said...

When it comes to the subject of directing, there have been many interviews and statements, but few can match the profound remarks by McG, the director of Charlie's Angels and Charlie's Angels Full Throttle, who once said: "There's two elements that go into filmmaking. There's sound, and then there's the picture". If he'd said that on Oprah's show, she'd have turned to the camera and said "This man is a geeeeniuuuus!", the same way she announces "It's George Clooneeeeeey!" and her sheep, I mean audience, whoop. For about 5 minutes. Yes, I can't resist the occasional dig at the Queen of Dumbing Down.

Rick Wiedmayer said...

Thanks for this look behind the scenes.
You mentioned assistant directors. Who hires them and what is their job during the filming of a show?

VP81955 said...

Good news from CBS this morning -- "Mom" is renewed! (But if you're a fan of "The Crazy Ones," not so good news.)

Johnny Walker said...

A fascinating couple of posts. Thanks for sharing them, Ken!