Sunday, October 28, 2018

The day NBC thought I had gone insane.

Just because I was directing my very first episode didn’t mean I couldn’t take time out to punk NBC.

My first episode was WINGS. There was a steep learning curve to be sure, especially in terms of the technical aspects of the job. WINGS was a multi-camera show so it was shot like a play in front of a studio audience. As the actors move about the set performing a scene I had four cameras all in motion, capturing the action from different angles. At any one moment I would have some assigned for close ups, or two-shots, or wide masters. And if someone in the cast crossed from point A to point B that would necessitate a change in all four cameras.

As a result, every moment, every movement is carefully choreographed. Add to that my inexperience. I had a crew of a hundred people waiting around for me to assign them shot for shot.  No pressure there.

To assist me, I had a “quad split.” This is a bank of four monitors displaying what each camera was showing. I would stare at the quad split and after each blocking move I would assign everyone’s new camera mark. This can be time consuming and tricky even when you do know what you’re doing (which I of course did not). I can camera block a half-hour sitcom in four or five hours these days. For WINGS I think it took me twelve. Maybe thirteen. I lost all sense of time and the use of my limbs after maybe nine hours. 

The routine for filming day is that the cast and crew assembles at noon. I have three hours to fine tune the shots and rehearse with the cast. A dress rehearsal follows at 3:00 with full cameras. The producers give final performance notes to the actors then generally go back to the room to tweak four or five jokes or make little trims. Everyone eats, the cast gets into hair and makeup and costumes, the studio audience is let in at 6:30 and at 7:00 it’s showtime.

On this particular episode I get the new pages after the dress rehearsal. And I almost plotz.

They’ve added a new scene.

It’s now 6:30 and the audience is already streaming in. No time to block the scene, much less camera block it. The set is in full view of the audience.

I go backstage, round up the actors who will be in this scene, and say, “Okay, after the audience leaves we’ll block and shoot this correctly, but now, for their sake, just go out there, move wherever you want to move, but don’t worry about it. We’ll do it once then come back to it later tonight.” They were fine with that.

I went to the camera operators, gave them a rough idea of where people might be moving and said, just get what you get. We probably won’t use any of it anyway.

I also told my plan to the showrunners, Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angel.

So we’re filming the show. Huddled around the quad split are me, my script supervisor (also in on the plan), the showrunners, and the executive from NBC assigned to cover the show.

We get to that new scene. I say "Action!" The actors glide around the set, and the audience enjoys it. Meanwhile, what’s on the quad split is utter chaos – cameras swishing around looking for actors, people being out of focus, actors heads cropped off, moments where none of the four cameras have the actor who is speaking, etc.

Out of the corner of my eye I see that the NBC exec is completely gobsmacked. I realize I never told him what we were doing. So I decided to have some fun.

When the scene was over I yelled, “Cut!” then turned to Peter, David, and David and said, “I got what I needed. You guys good?” They instantly picked up on what I was doing and said, “Yes, we’re fine.” I yelled “Moving on!” and the cameras and crew rolled into position for the next scene.

The NBC exec was in a panic. “Whoa, whoa!” he said. “Don’t worry,” I said, cutting him off. “This is by design. I’m doing something stylistic here. It’ll look really cool when it’s cut together.” He then turned to the three showrunners who confirmed they were on board with this.

For the rest of the night the NBC exec was scratching his head. I’m sure he was thinking, “What am I going to say to my bosses when the rough cut comes in and there’s this bizarre Felliniesque scene in the middle of a WINGS episode?”

Once the audience left and we were about to do pick ups I spilled the beans so he wouldn’t have to stay an extra two hours while we re-shot stuff and did that scene for real. I had known him for ten years and he took the prank in good spirits. But curiously, every other NBC show I ever directed I noticed that the network exec watched me like a hawk.

I never saw the gag reel that year. I’d be shocked if that scene wasn’t in it.  I'm only sorry I don't have a copy.  How great to have that start off my demo reel! 


VP81955 said...

Hilarious -- and you just explained why this screenwriter wants absolutely nothing to do with directing. (BTW, on my second visit to Los Angeles in September 1996 I took the Paramount studio tour and saw part of an early run-through of a scene on "Wings" -- the actors were not in costume. You may have been there, for all I know.)

DyHrdMET said...

I'm sure you've answered this already, but why did you want to get into directing TV sitcoms?

Cowboy Surfer said...

WINGS is solid comfort TV. Cool setting for a show with a great cast.

The early theme song was good but I liked it when they switched to the cold open.

Ken you're a maniac on the floor...

MikeKPa. said...

I was watching an episode of WINGS that introduced Budd Bronski as Lowell's replacement as airplane mechanic. It was obvious from the get-go that he was too over the top and worse, not funny. He only lasted eight episodes before he was cut, which makes the many successful cast changes on MASH all the more amazing. My question is what goes into the writing room thought process of making the replacement character different, but not so much that he/she doesn't jell with the existing cast? When it doesn't work, is it poor character development, bad acting or a combo of each?

Mike Bloodworth said...

Even though there are no cameras to deal with, I'm guessing that directing a play has it's own unique problems. Any stories about that?

Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve) said...

Great story. I learned from my experience at Lakewood public access television, live-to-tape multi-camera direction is tricky, even when all you're producing is a talk show where everyone is SITTING AND NOT MOVING.

And right on cue, now I'm hungry for buffalo wings. Thanks a ton Ken! ;-)

Peter said...

Friday Question:

What's your reaction to the producers of The Simpsons caving in to politically correct social justice warriors by announcing they're removing the character of Apu?

Although the quality of The Simpsons has declined in the last 18 years and I no longer watch it, just on principle I think it's appalling that they've bowed to the latest whining and complaining by the PC brigade.

Xmastime said...

“Wings” is the definition of “comfort” tv but then again that sounds insulting. - the show was LOL funny, and was the rare show in which EVERY character was funny. Even Joe, the “straight men” had a million great lines. I’ve screamed for years and years this is an overlooked, underrated show.

Myles said...

"The PC Brigade" didn't want Apu to vanish. The creator of the doc that sparked this has stated many times as recent as a couple of days ago that this is not what he wants. This was the lazy/easy way out that pleases nobody but allows them to be the "victims of PC culture." Everyone should watch the doc before they comment on this as well as read the entire article from Deadline and not just the headline.

Coram_Loci said...

"This was the lazy/easy way out that pleases NOBODY {capitalization mine} but allows them to be the "victims of PC culture."

Except that it does please some people: the most stridently PC, the most woke, the people who are happy to know that they can push and shove characters (not to mention ideas) out of the box. Those people are happy because they know it only takes a little shove, a little cry, for others to fall down and offer them a pacifier.

AAllen said...

I watched the scene in question just after reading a version of the story above, and I noticed one or two cuts that didn't match. Maybe part of the first filmed version was used.