Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Directing sitcoms

Directing multi-camera shows can be a challenge. You have four cameras going simultaneously trying to cover all the action as a scene is played out in front of a studio audience. You figure, well just have a camera assigned to everybody. But what if there are more than four people in a scene? And what if they move around? And wouldn’t it be great to have some wide shots so the viewer would have some sense of geography? And if there are more than four people and some of them aren’t talking, wouldn’t it be nice to have close-ups of them too to capture their reactions? How about variety so every close up is not the same size? And how close should the close-ups be?

These are just a few of the elements a director must consider when camera blocking a multi-camera show. Every time someone moves in a scene the cameras need to change assignments. Needless to say, it takes time to learn how to do that. Today and tomorrow I’m going to share some behind-the-scenes aspect of directing multi-camera sitcoms.

Directors sit behind four monitors, one for each camera.  This is called the quad-split.  He can see what every camera sees.  

Fortunately, every show comes with a camera coordinator. He’s your go-between. And if you struggle in camera blocking he can generally save your ass. But often times they’re concerned with making sure everyone who speaks is covered. He’s less concerned with reaction shots, sizes of shots, etc. Sometimes a character takes off a coat revealing a funny costume. Your shot of that character has to be wide enough to see the costume. You’d think that was a given, but I can’t tell you how many times in editing I’d ask for a wider shot to feature the sight gag and there wouldn’t be one.

First and foremost, a director has to decide the best way to show a joke. Is it via a close up? Wide shot? Two shot?   Quite frequently, reaction shots are where the big laughs are. You must prepare for those.

When an actor moves it’s generally a good idea to have him deliver a line while crossing. Why? Because if other characters are talking and the cameras are covering their dialogue, the actor may suddenly pop across the room. Same with bringing someone into a room. Let them enter on a line or piece of business that focuses on them. Otherwise, it’s disorienting. Either the actor just pops into the room or the shot widens out to include his entrance. but the shot is not motivated by anything. Two people are having an intimate conversation and then for no reason the shot goes wide to allow someone to enter. It’s jarring and unnatural. I saw this recently on a show. Even if the person entering just says “hi” and is acknowledged you’re okay. He doesn’t necessarily have to enter with a joke. But he can’t just slip in.

In staging and blocking, remember that if your show takes place during the winter you need to allow time for people putting on and taking off coats. Writers don’t generally think of that, but good actors sure do. It can be unwieldy and time consuming, but you've got to work around it.  (By the way, that’s why you generally don’t see episodes that take pace in the winter. But good luck on Christmas episodes.)  If you have a large set and an actor has to cross it to get something, that’s going to take time. How do you fill the cross? How do you cover the cross? Is there a way to block the scene so they’re on the other side of the set? That way there’s no real crossing issue. But you have to motivate a way to get them to that side of the set in the first place. How do you do that? Let’s say it’s a kitchen. When the actors enter maybe set up the coffee machine on the side you want them to be on. So they talk on their way to the coffee machine but you understand why they’re heading in that direction. Every show has seven or eight little issues like that. When you see the scene on TV it looks seamless, but that’s because it was carefully worked out ahead of time.

I know. It sounds daunting. But it’s also fun to solve these problems. At least for me.

As for the coverage issues, remember – you have two passes. So you don’t just have four cameras, you essentially have eight. In one pass a camera can give you a master, and in the second pass he can give you a close up. In one pass he can get a close up of an actor, in the other he can get a two-shot. He can do close-ups in one pass, and over-the-shoulder shots in the second (that’s where you see part of the back of the person he’s talking to – it helps tie in the two characters). But the key here is that the two shots match. The sizes have to the same or it’s disconcerting.

How close should a close-up be? In comedy shows it generally means from the shoulders up. Much closer and somehow the jokes don’t work. It’s like the actors are invading your space.

And even after eight cameras, if there are still shots you need, you can do planned pick-ups after the audience leaves. What you need to do though is be fully prepared going in. You need to know what shots you’re going to want. So whether it’s B camera or C camera or the first take or second or a pick up, you’ll know you’ve got it.

Tomorrow: Some more aspects of sitcom directing you might not have known.


Jim S said...

This brings up an interesting question. How do you capture lightning in a bottle? By that I mean are there instances in the first take where an actor does something original or spontaneous that catches everyone by surprise but is appropriate for the scene and gets great laughs.

Is doing that same thing in the second take easier? Harder because everyone is expecting it?

Anyway, thanks for the tutorial. Quite enlightening.

Carol said...

I assume the actors are still just acting away while the director is doing all this stuff, yes? I've only ever been a theatre actor, so I've often wondered how hard it is to maintain an emotion or a character when you have to stop every two minutes to reset a shot or whatever.

As an aside, this post made me think of this. One thing that always sort of amused me, even as I totally get why it has to happen, is when there are two doors into someone's 'house' and people, even strangers, would just happen to go to, for example, the kitchen door because that's where the scene is, even if logically they'd be knocking on the front door. Happened on Family Ties all the time.

Bill said...

There's a fascinating video on Youtube (may or not still be there--it may or may not be a copyright infringement) showing how a "Friends" episode was created, with a lot of emphasis on shooting days. Knowing nothing about the production of multi-cam sitcoms, I found it engrossing, and learned tons from it.

Terry said...

Slightly off topic here, but is it just me or does the kitchen set in the first picture at the top look almost identical to the kitchen set from Everybody Loves Raymond? I thought it was Raymond until I enlarged the picture.

Gregg B said...

Friday Question: What went wrong with AfterMASH? What do you think went right with it, but just didn't come out the way you had hoped?

Jason said...

Carol: That's one of the few things that bugs me about EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. Family and friends making their frequent entrances just "know" whether to use the front door or the kitchen door.

Liggie said...

Do TV directors use storyboards like film directors do, or is there just not enough time?

The weather-and-coats thing brings up one of my pet irks of "The Big Bang Theory". If the show is set in sunny Southern California, why is Leonard always wearing a jacket and hoodie, even indoors?

Lou H. said...

Do any shows that aren't filmed in front of an audience use multiple cameras? Seems like it might be a lot faster, particularly for scenes that just include two people facing each other and talking without moving at all.

Lou H. said...

Why do most sitcoms set in houses have a swinging door between the kitchen and the dining or living room? Although I'm sure such doors exist in real life, I've never seen one.

DBenson said...

Something I see a lot in TV and movies (but not so much in multicamera sitcoms):

Establishing shot of a busy space, like a party or a restaurant. Camera follows a waiter or butler across most of the room, then follows another non-speaking character back. Then we see somebody who actually says or does something.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more.

Kris said...

Lou:ALL IN THE FAMILY continued to tape with three cameras as if the audience was present even after they abandoned the live audiemce.

James said...

William Asher, who directed the last I LOVE LUCY episodes -- those involving the Ricardos and the Mertzes moving to Connecticut -- said he hated that set Desi insisted on for Lucy and Ricky's new home. From his point of view as director, it was huge, unwieldy and lacked a focal point. One of the show's writers said the set was so big that they tried to avoid ever having an actor cross the length of it because it took them so long that all action ground to a halt while the journey was being made. Likewise, Asher complained that the way the stairs were configured made it impossible for anyone to make a quick entrance or exit on them. He said they were only useful if you needed to "milk" an entrance or an exit.

All of which makes me wonder if writers or directors are ever consulted about set design. If they ever have the opportunity to offer their input about what does or doesn't work from their point of view.

One concession Arnaz made to Asher and the writers on that Connecticut set was to add a "back door" near where the dining table and the kitchen door were. They found that saved a lot of time from people having to make long entrances via the front door.

Rob said...

In live-audience shows when the scene is in one room (with Archie and Edith for instance) what are the actors in the next room doing offscreen (but in front of the audience) while they're waiting for their dialogue?

DBA said...

Rob, the actors will be off-stage, not sitting on the set in the "other room" even if the characters are actually in the other room at the moment. Unless part of the scene is a walk-and-talk and they'll go from say hallway to the other room with people in it shortly. The actors don't wait around on the set while they do two, perhaps three takes of another scene. At least not at the tapings I've been to.

Lee said...

That Connecticut house on those last LUCY shows looks like it was designed for Cinemascope. Very wide, with the front door at the far left, the kitchen door at the far right, and lots and lots of space in between. I can see why Bill Asher and the show's writers would have disliked it. And the stairs, yeah. Poor design choice. There's a scene in one of those shows where Little Ricky exits up them, and the show literally stops while this small child hikes up those oversized things.

But then, when the guy who said "this is what I want this set to look like" is also the executive producer of the series, who's going to win the argument about set design?

Well-designed sitcom sets always seem to have an intimacy to them, even when they're on the large side.

A note about pick-up shots and I LOVE LUCY. It's easy to spot the pick-up shots in early episodes of I LOVE LUCY because they're differently lighted. Karl Freund, who designed the flat lighting system which is that still basically used in three-camera sitcoms today, was proud of his technical achievement, but hated the way that flat lighting looked, so when they did the pick-ups after the audience left, Freund was at first fiddling with the lights to get more dramatic, artistic effecs, particularly on close-ups. The inserts tended not to match the footage around them and Freund was quickly made to stop, much to his annoyance.

Anonymous said...


I lived in Pasadena. It's usually sunny, but usually not too hot (70s or 80s tops). There's plenty of people who are uncomfortable with their body and like to cover up more. It's quite common to see people in hoodies/pants chatting with shorts/tank-tops.

Also, it tends to get chilly in the evening; while it may be 85 in the day time, after sundown it'll be in the 60s. SoCal has more variation in temperature between noon and midnight than between winter and summer.

Finally, Leonard's mother problem told him as a kid to always bring a coat, and that lesson just really sunk in. ;-)

cadavra said...

Lou: Swinging doors for kitchens are quite common. They allow whoever's making dinner to carry with both hands large trays or dishes without having to struggle with a doorknob. You see this in virtually all restaurants as well, both real and show biz (e.g., 2 BROKE GIRLS, MOM).

Johnny Walker said...

Wow. This is fascinating stuff. I've never really thought about the logistics of having a character enter on a line, but it makes perfect sense. Just having someone appear in the background, and the shot changing to have them in the scene, would be weird.

It's amazing that even with "eight" cameras that you know you might have to do planned pick-ups.

(Speaking of which, does that mean you always can plan for two takes of every scene?)

"Sometimes a character takes off a coat revealing a funny costume. Your shot of that character has to be wide enough to see the costume. You'd think that was a given, but I can't tell you how many times in editing I’d ask for a wider shot to feature the sight gag and there wouldn't be one."

Has there ever been a case where you've had to go back and shoot something to fill in a gap from the previous week's show before it aired?