Monday, September 15, 2014

10 feet from stardom

Last Thursday night was one of the highlights of my career. I got to direct a show my daughter Annie co-wrote along with her terrific partner, Jonathan Emerson. I’ll spare you seven paragraphs of sentimentality that would make IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE seem hard-edged (that’s what Facebook is for), but suffice it to say it was a very special occasion and I’m still kvelling (Jewish expression for bursting with pride).  I'll just sprinkle a couple of photos in this post. 

Instead, I want to focus on some unsung heroes of multi-camera television production – the camera operators. Have you seen the documentary, 20 FEET FROM STARDOM? If not, WHY? It’s great and even won an Academy Award. The subject was backup singers. You learned how utterly amazing these background invisible performers are. Such is the case with TV camera operators. If their names even appear in the closing credits (and I’m not sure they do) they go by so fast and there are so many names on the same card that you can’t even hit pause fast enough on your remote to freeze their names to where they’re legible.
Me and the kid taking a curtain call
But here’s what they do on multi-camera shows. The actors are performing live before a studio audience, a la a stage play. During their scenes the cameras are constantly moving, getting different shots. It is all carefully choreographed so that anytime any actor moves all the action is covered in masters, group shots, and close ups. Let’s say you have a scene with six people in it. Six people/four cameras – do the math.

The director has to figure out who goes where when, but that’s for another post.

For many years each camera was a three-man operation. Shows were shot on 35 mm film and you needed a trio to schlep around those large camera mounts. As each camera was given a mark a piece of tape was set on the floor. After a half hour show had been blocked the floor looked like the remnants of a ticker-tape parade. But now, with HD cameras that are way lighter and Hollywood always looking to save money, that three-man crew has been reduced to one. No more marks. The camera operator has no time to glance down at the floor. So now he must swing the camera around himself and get all of his shots, guided only by some quick notes he’s jotted down.

Here's the process:  The camera operator sees a scene once, then is given his shot list, then does it once, maybe twice with the stand ins, and once maybe twice with the cast (the “reallys” as they are called). Some fine tuning then the show is shot. Not a lot of rehearsal time for a super complicated process. 

And yet, by show night, he (or she) is ready to go and damn near flawless.

Here are the kinds of assignments they’re given:

“When Tia crosses left, let her out, drop down and give me Michael over Trey.”

“Set for Sydney’s entrance. Bring her to a master. Land her, give me a beat then get a two-shot right.”

“When Sheryl says ‘did anyone see my shoe’ kick right and give me a single of Tia. And then when Michael says ‘I’ve had enough of this’ swing right back and give me Trey. It’ll be a quick move.”

“When the Coco Puffs start flying go to the door.” (Yes, I gave a Coco Puff cue this week.)

Depending on the shot the operator might have to move to his next precise mark or change lens, or both. And sometimes there may be three or four scenes that take place in the same location (like the kitchen). Different blocking, different cast members, and yet they still have to keep everything straight.

One of the camera operators on INSTANT MOM this week didn’t even take notes. He just kept it in his head. I was confused and I was giving him the notes, which were carefully written out on my script.

And during the actual taping, actors might be off their marks from time to time. A good camera operator will adjust to get the shot he wants and not wind up with the back of a head blocking the person who’s speaking.

When taping night comes, if you ever attend one, it looks like a well-oiled machine. Cameras are gliding around, every shot is falling effortlessly into place. Anytime you need a reaction shot it’s there. The scene is never interrupted by two cameras crashing into each other. You’d think everyone had two weeks to rehearse this. The camera operators had maybe twenty minutes a scene.

A quick shout-out to the actors too. At the last minute we will often ask them to turn a little one way or another (to “cheat out”) or step back a half a step to allow us a better shot. They have to incorporate these tiny technical instructions in with their performances. I don’t know how they do it. I’d be glancing down every two seconds for my mark.

So the next time you watch a multi-camera episode, take note of all the camera angles, and just try to imagine what’s going on down on the floor as these four guys are constantly scrambling – swinging cameras around, setting sizes, adjusting shots. It’s truly amazing to watch. These ladies and gentlemen have my undying respect and gratitude.

I’d suggest making a documentary like 20 FEET FROM STARDOM but all these guys would rather be behind the camera shooting it.


Dan Ball said...

I wish I could've tried this kind of camera work at least once when I worked as a cameraman. In local news (that is, if you weren't a robotic camera mount controlled from the control room), we had the same camera movements everyday and I could do it in my sleep. (As a matter of fact, I still dream about it in my sleep occasionally.)

When I learned camera operating in school, I just assumed that you were always rushing around the studio, dragging the camera, with no time or error margin to spare. It was so terrifying that you had only seconds to get the right shot and the whole time, it was going out live to the whole area. When I actually made it to TV, it seemed bearable. Occasionally, there would be a few times when we'd have to improvise for breaking news or a director would lose their grasp of common sense and some fancy footwork was required.

LouOCNY said...

Congrats Ken! Was it hard not to water the inside of your glasses at the end?

Now let's see her direct one of YOUR scripts, and the circle of nepotism will be complete ;)

Katherine @ Grass Stains said...

This makes me so proud and so happy on your behalf! Thrilled for both of you. :-) And a wonderful tribute to camera operators everywhere ... one of my lifetime dreams is to attend a live taping of a sitcom. I vow to do it one day!

Mike Barer said...

It's your blog and you are certainly allowed to included your seven paragraphs of sentimentality!

Ben Scripps said...

Ken--this popped up on my Facebook feed yesterday and I thought you'd enjoy it. The great Harry Coyle directing a game at Fenway when they lose electrical power in the truck:

BTW, Friday question for you: Wondering if you had any thoughts/insights/brilliant observations/other on either writing or directing scenes that involve some catastrophic destruction of established set pieces. (e.g. Marie driving her car through the living room on "Raymond" or Rebecca burning down half of the bar in "Cheers"). One assumes it's a nightmare to direct but easy to write.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Congratulations to you and Annie. May you both get to work on many projects together. Maybe one day she'll be directing one of your works (a play or a script).

Mark said...

A relevant Friday question:

You will sometimes see gags that depend heavily on the director. Two of my favorite examples are the beautifully blocked Seinfeld scene in the Chicken Roaster (dir by Andy Ackerman) where Elaine pulls George's head into the frame and a Two and a Half Men scene (dir by Ted Wass) where Charlie and Alan are sitting on the couch while Alan calls the girl who dumped him in high school. In a perfect cut, we see Alan sitting alone on the couch having just learned that Charlie had stolen his girl.

Certain highly visual gags need good direction. Does knowing that an Ackerman or a Burrows is directing affect the way you write? Does not knowing who will be directing make you less likely to include a gag that requires just the right staging?

RG said...

As a parent of young kids I've seen many times the episode your daughter and partner wrote for "Good Luck Charlie." For a while there it was on so often I could do Tedy's southern accent better than her and get Charlie's wave to the kindergarten class down pretty good. I agree with you that Good Luck Charlie was a funny, well-written show regardless of it being on Disney. The middle child, Bradley Steven Perry, I think may go on to a solid career on a network and the show had some other well-written roles. Obviously a writer wants to work and write (preferably in that order?) and thus takes jobs where they can be found. How likely is it then for a writer from one of these children's show to get onto a quality network show? Is the fact that the audience for Disney is younger hold back the writer's career or will show runners understand and simply look at the quality of the writing in the context of the show itself? I would think the writer getting the showcase is what matters most (unless that show is Whitney, perhaps) but wonder if there is industry bias.

Bill Jones said...

Another relevant Friday question. You've written for sitcoms that are frequently referred to as having "sophisticated" humor. (MASH, Cheers, Frasier, etc.) Sitcoms aimed at children and tweens are, shall we say, not so sophisticated. Usually by necessity, the jokes and acting are generally more over-the-top, less subtle, etc. I'm not saying this as a knock on such shows (or your daughter, of course); what appeals to kids/tweens is different from what appeals to teens/adults. My question is, do you think you could ever write for a kids/tweens show, or is it such a completely different style that you'd have difficulty doing so? (Follow-up: are there any well-known writers who started out in kids' shows, or who cross back and forth?)

D. McEwan said...

Congratulations. How great.

A friend of mine once said: "The art of film [And this holds true for TV also] is the art of photography. If you can't see it, it isn't there." He was right. You can have a great script and the best cast ever assembled since Euripedes was writing, but if it isn't photographed well, you've got nothing. I have marveled at the camera operators on the floor at live TV shoots I've been to many times, as well as the camera crews I've worked on myself. (And my brother has been dp on several low-budget films fairly recently.) Amazing professionals indeed.

As opposed to my mom. My neice visited me last week, for the first time in many years, and I ran our old family 8mm home movies for her, covering 1940 to 1967. ("Here's your grandmother learning to walk... Here's your mom learning to walk... Here's me learning to walk... Here's you learning to walk" etc.)

There are a hell of a lot of super-close-ups of my mother's thumb. And why they never bought a light meter I'll never know. When they aren't seeming to be in a snowstorm white-out, they seem to be taken at midnight deep in an unlit cave.

Billy Riback said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mike said...

I want to focus on some unsung heroes of multi-camera television production
"It's not graffiti. I'm not writing graffiti on the toilet wall. It's my credit. For changing the loo roll. See? Toilet roll changed by Ken Levine. Every time, it's always me. Ever since we've lived here. And I'll tell you, it's always a professional job. None of that half-page out-of-step nonsense with me. I always fix that."

Dave Olden said...

Whoa... that joke is so not-for-here.

Dana Gabbard said...

I got a letter today from my youngest brother that includes a page from a coloring book colored by his daughter, my 4 year old niece. That made me smile. So I totally understand Ken's pride. I am posting the page on my refrigerator, and don't give a damn if that is a cliche!

Marianne said...

It has always amazed me how the actors just glide into their positions on set - it seems so effortless. It sounds like the camera crew have an equal, if not more, challenging task! I hadn't even thought how difficult their role must be until reading this post. Thanks for sharing this with us!

Johnny Walker said...

Congrats to Annie, Jon and you, Ken. (And to all unsung camera operators out there.)

Greg Ehrbar said...

Re: "Obviously a writer wants to work and write (preferably in that order?) and thus takes jobs where they can be found. How likely is it then for a writer from one of these children's show to get onto a quality network show? Is the fact that the audience for Disney is younger hold back the writer's career or will show runners understand and simply look at the quality of the writing in the context of the show itself? I would think the writer getting the showcase is what matters most (unless that show is Whitney, perhaps) but wonder if there is industry bias."

Some writers make a very nice living and find creative satisfaction in working in "children's shows."

Some go on to "bigger things," like Bob Brush, who wrote for Captain Kangaroo before he created "The Wonder Years."

Paul Dooley was the head writer for "The Electric Company" and creator of such cherished sketches as "Easy Reader," "Fargo North, Decoder" and the immortal "Love of Chair" and made a nice living as a character actor before he reached "big time" with Breaking Away.

Everybody yearns for their dreams and some get them, but others find that dreams not all they're cracked up to be. If you can enjoy your life and find some satisfaction in your creative work, especially a project that isn't micromanaged so you can add some of your own spin to it, that is not "settling."

Ken has written earlier that these cable tween comedies can provide useful experience and can be stepping stones to network sitcoms, but keep in mind that there are those who have made a substantial living from these shows, even if they are not the most prestigious.

And they make kids happy. These kids look back on these shows years later with fondness. That has some worth.

Brian said...

Congrats. Enjoyed the post.

RG said...

@Greg Ehbar, I think you misunderstood the basis for my question. I am not trying to demean children's shows or the writers of them. As a big fan of the classic Saturday morning cartoons to this day and now with young children I enjoy that the shows are well written and often, sometimes subversively, make references only the parents will get (like Phineas and Ferb). And for those who aspire to be a writer's on a children's show for an episode or for their career, I think that is great. My question was just for the writer who did aspire to go on to a big network show how difficult the transition might be.