Friday, December 6, 2019

Roll Camera...Sound Speed...Action!

You’re laying there on your sofa ripping through episodes of whatever, consuming them like Ruffles potato chips, completely unaware that you’ve just watched thousands of hours of production. 

There’s a big difference between a live broadcast of a show, such as the CMA’s or the Oscars, and a scripted program in terms of production.  On a live broadcast, a lot of the work is done beforehand, obviously, because everything on stage has to occur in real time and, therefore, has to be ready.  That’s a different, very difficult animal in itself.  I have worked a few live productions, and the build up to the moment of the shoot is intense, and then it’s over, like cheap sex. 

But with scripted programming, as well as for a lot of reality television, there is huge preparation beforehand, during the shoot, and afterwards in the finessing of post-production. My comments today are focused on the shoot itself. 

What is really amazing is how much time most shoots take to get the half hour, the hour, or for features, the about ninety minutes of story that you watch.  I production managed a shoot recently at the world famous Burbank Bob’s Big Boy for a pitch that was being made for streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu.  I predominantly work in real estate now, but I still help out when asked on productions that can use my help.  This was a small shoot with a crew of about twenty people, and so much of my time was spent in the catering mode, getting people fed and sorted to the right areas and times of the set. 

But when a lot of people who don’t work in the industry simply don’t know is even with the most efficient of production crew, shooting takes a lot of time.  In my mind, and I’m sure it’s because I read it somewhere at some time, I think of a production shoot as a means to photograph a story.  If one thinks of it like that, one gets to the place of understanding what it means task-wise to get all of the pieces to fit into the right places during a shoot. 

There are costumes, make up, set decoration, camera positions, lighting, and order of shooting to make for the most economic of crew movements.  It’s a very difficult task at any level.  Just try shooting a short video story of something, two or three minutes long, and you’ll see how exponentially all of the variables pretzel up into a living Rubik’s cube. 

I will just pause here to explain that lighting is of the most crucial of functions on a production.  Again, thinking about photographing a story will get you there.  When you shoot a nice portrait of a friend or loved one with a still camera, like a Canon 5D Mar IV, or with a Nikon D850, two of the most popular cameras for mid-level to upper-level photographers as of this writing, you simply have to light for a static shot.  And when I say, “simple,”, it’s not so simple.  Eye-catching photographs take years of skill and a very special eye for what is captivating.  Some of my favorite portraits have been taken by the wedding photographer, Jerry Ghionis, and also by another photographer who goes by “TheWomanBook” in Instagram.  Both of these photographers’ skills are just “off the hook” as young people used to phrase it. 

But now, imagine that you have all of that lighting set up for a static shot, and then the subject (the model) moves, and you have to track him or her as they relocate through three dimensional space.  It’s fucking hard to do.  And the people who do it well, the lighters working in concert with a good lead cinematographer, or director of photography (D.P. for short), are when I consider genius level artists.  They have to do what they do often in a constrained environment; lots of location shoots don’t offer the ability to move walls and place lighting and cameras wherever one wants, and within a narrow time frame; namely, whatever time is allowed for the actors and crew to work before union rules say they have to stop.  Again, let me say, it’s tremendously hard to do.  And that's why production teams tend to stick together on future shoots if they can, because they start to work intuitively with one another, knowing what needs to be done and at the right times without a lot of unnecessary communicative "red tape."

During our recent Bob’s Big Boy shoot, we purchased the ability to shut down the restaurant from 7:00pm to 7:00am the next morning.  And when you shoot, you can assume that one page of script equals about one minute of screen time.  It’s not exact, but it’s a good rule of thumb.  But the shooting of a page of script can take anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour, depending on many factors.  Our pitch was a ten-minute piece.

We needed to shoot what we had in about seven and a half hours.  This is because there were two hours of prep time from the moment the restaurant was closed. This comprised getting props into the restaurant, setting up a wardrobe room, setting up a make up room, getting the lighting and camera equipment in, getting finalized contracts signed as people arrived and then sorted to the proper locations.  So we aimed to start the actual shoot at 9:00pm, which we did, and then to finish by 6:30am to allow us to load out all of the props and equipment.  There were multiple breaks plus an hour lunch, as required by union rules. 

With the help of a very skilled young 1st A.D. (Assistant Director), who calls the starting and stopping of shots, the production stayed very well on schedule with just a few camera shots removed.  Most of these shots were what are referred to as coverage; those taken from alternate angles, deleted because we felt that they could be omitted without harming the story.  The goal, which we met, was to get all of the script dialogue covered.  Getting actors back for coverage in that location again would be too costly. 

When I watch programs, I follow the story, but I also look at the scenes I see as successfully completed shoots.  I think about what might have gone into these scenes and how easy or difficult they were to shoot given the conditions that day.  I notice a lot of discontinuity and often call them out if someone is in the room watching with me.  It’s not to be nasty about it, like, “Oh look, you screwed up, people.”  But rather, it is for me a validation of how very difficult this craft of live-action shooting is.  Much of my career was spend working in animation.  Animated films aren’t without their own mistakes.  But there are so many screenings involved during the animation process that much of the inconsistencies are caught in time before release. 

With televisions and feature films, the pressure for getting them done is mind-boggling.  Release dates are mostly unchangeable because of what it would mean for other competitors getting an advantage, especially with the release dates of movies. And networks must have their product ready to put out there.  So there is the occasional shot that isn’t covered.  Someone has a phone in their hand, and then it’s gone in the next shot.  Or an actress’s body position is completely off between two shots sandwiched around a cutaway to a guy's facial expression. 

When these things happen, its usually because some time has gone by between the two shots.  Like, there was a lunch break, or the director realized she didn’t have a cut back that was needed, and so they had to go back and shoot it again.  Another way to tell that this has happened is because lots of times, they amorphously blur out the background as best as possible because they don’t actually have the same set available the second time.  So by using a very short depth of field (via an open aperture…low F Stop number), the D.P. can do the best he can to distract you from not seeing they the actor is now in a different physical place.  There are also digital replacements of backgrounds they can do as well if they don’t hide the fix within the camera. 

I tell you all of this because the majority of people who watch stuff, binge watch it.  They simply consume huge amounts of various shows and go onto the next with their minds totally focused on the stories.  And that’s how it’s meant to be.  Nothing wrong with that.  But I would say, next time you watch a older movie or a current show…”Coal Miner’s Daughter,” or “The Black List,” take a few moments to look at the photography.  How is it lit, does it look like it was an easy day or night to shoot, or were the conditions not optimal?  Is the camera moving, as on a dolly?  How could the have possibly lit the scene when you’re tracking the girl through part of the house into a couple of rooms? 

To me, looking at it from all of those other angles makes watching television and film productions even more pleasurable, mostly because I didn’t have to do any of it this time.