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Filming the sausage being made is very, very expensive, my friends.

[ 29 ] March 28, 2012 |

UPDATE: This is not what I do.

My promised follow up post about Peter’s sad descent into the trappings of Draper’s life is nearly half-complete, but I wanted to address something that’s come up in the comments first, because I encounter variations of it every time I teach. Uncle Ebeneezer wrote

On a tangent–a friend of mine read your post and remarked that they doubt that THAT much thought really goes into it. I disagree, but I’m sure you must hear that sort of sentiment all the time and I’m just curious how you usually respond.

He’s correct in that I encounter this all the time–frequently as a back-handed compliment about me putting more thought into the show than the people who made it–but it’s usually the person doing the slapping that has no clue what they’re talking example. For example, in an interview I can’t relocate, Christopher Nolan was discussing the logistics of using an IMAX camera to capture Christian Bale hanging off of a skyscraper in Hong Kong. The joke of it was that between the helicopter, its pilot, safety equipment, those equipped to use it, Nolan and Bale’s salaries, the insurance policy on Bale, the rental cost of the IMAX camera and its crew, every single syllable was costing Warner Brothers $300,000, “so if everyone would quit fucking cursing they could fucking film this fucking shot for under three million dollars.”

And that’s pre-production. So do I occasionally hazard into a situation in which I over-read some last minute practicality? No doubt. But should the wizards with the duct tape see my analysis and note that I missed their wizardry, don’t you think they’d be proud that they’d done their job so well I couldn’t imagine it having been done differently? But if your friends are still unconvinced–and if my students are any indication, many of them will be, send them to the “full credits” listing of a show like Mad Men. John Rogers—friend of the blog and showrunner of Leverage—can add to any of the many things I’ve forgotten, but keep in mind that all of the following people must be paid, eat, have their equipment plugged in and powered up, etc., and remember as your friend’s scrolling down that very, very long list, there are a number of unusual positions, such as:

  1. hair stylist/background hair stylist
  2. hair stylist/key hair stylist
  3. hair department head
  4. special effects makup artist
  5. on-set dresser
  6. art department coordinator
  7. greensman
  8. set decoration buyer
  9. second assistant camera “a” cameria/ second assistant camera “b” camera
  10. best boy rigging electrician
  11. genny operator
  12. post-post production assistant coordinator
  13. colorist dailies
  14. final colorist

I’ve chosen that list a little randomly, but it’s also a little representative of the collaborate work involved in any significant production. Odd as it may seem, the burden of proof that something isn’t in a particular scene should fall to the casual viewer, who thinks television is magic and all you need is a camera, some costumes, and a few pretty pictures to make it work. Granted, that’s true of some reality television — it wear its cheap production for all to see — but for quality, scripted television, each minute of which costs thousands to film, there’s a reason why certain mediocre actors are come to be called “character actors” as they age. It’s not that Benjamin Bratt — and I’m not picking on him — is a good actor, but there’s a reason why people want to work with him. To my knowledge, he’s polite, shows up on time, knows his lines, and is forgo having a potentially short or taller stand-in sit for him in the rehearsals and run-throughs. (That’s anecdotal evidence, but I trust the source, and if I’m wrong, there are a million others I could substitute for him.) Point being:

Shooting quality film/television is very expensive, so it’s all planned out in advance, then modified, script-color-change-by-script-color-change, then ideally handed to actors who behave professionally. In short, the implicit answer to why there aren’t more great television shows is sort of the same as why they aren’t more perfect storms.

Comments (29)

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  1. Dave says:

    Shooting quality film/television is very expensive

    Blogging, on the other hand…

  2. Fritz says:

    For a couple of years I lived in Echo Park, a neighborhood in Los Angeles that served as a stand-in for everything from Compton to Pennsylvania, and I can attest to the sheer massiveness of the operations behind the filming of a television show. What an operation: half-a-dozen trucks, scores of people with radios, headsets, and harried expressions. But my favorite was the artificial sun, a glowing globe suspended from a several-stories tall crane that kept the wife and I up one night. Of course, these were just location shoots, and, as such, unusually specialized, lean operations. I can only imagine what the actual set is like.

    • Stag Party Palin says:

      TV show? They do the same for advertisements. Down the street from me is a house where they filmed Dish (satellite TV) ads. They only used the roof. Same logistical overkill though. You’d think it was Gone With The Wind.

    • marijane says:

      I got to see this once when I lived in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of SF; a pilot was filmed in one of my neighbor’s homes. It was a truly massive operation. I took pictures of what I could see from the house:
      http://www.flickr.com/photos/marijane/sets/72157616643474641/

    • I’d be curious to know what area of Pennsylvania can possibly be visually represented by Echo Park? Philly?

      I used to live in Montgomery County, PA and currently live in Los Angeles, and making Echo Park look like PA (or vice versa) seems like some industrial-grade movie magic.

      • Fritz says:

        That’s what the state police cars said on their side. Echo Park is architecturally varied, so if you hold your shot real tight, it can be almost anywhere.

        For what it’s worth, it can be Boston too. My wife and I were walking back from the Dodgers game one night and we stopped and talked with Detectives Woody Hoyt and Garret Macy about the convenience of the neighborhood to an appreciation of baseball and how Hoyt didn’t get out to as many games as he would have liked, before a P.A. came up and told them they were ready to shoot.

  3. Jeremy says:

    I’ll admit to being guilty of having the same thoughts at times.

    But I recently started watching Leverage. After watching The Van Gogh Job, I felt I understood a lot more and found myself watching other episodes a little more closely.

  4. British comedian Charlie Brooker devoted an entire episode of his show to exploring all the costs associated with producing his own show. It worked out to about £44,000 per episode, and it’s a low-budget one-man comedy show.

  5. HP says:

    With regard to your analyses of visual rhetoric:

    It seems to me that with any form of expertise, there’s a difference between pre-verbal knowledge and the ability to describe what’s going on.

    For example, I studied music at a major conservatory when I was younger, and I’ve always been drawn to music theory. So, when I play music today, I can usually tell you what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. But I work with a lot of musicians who learned on the bandstand. They are often much better musicians than I am, and in fact know much more than I do, but don’t have the vocabulary to describe their intent.

    So, I can certainly imagine a filmmaker who sketches something for the storyboard artist, and then maybe looks through the viewfinder on the set, and can only say, “That looks about right.” But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have an actual intent in mind, nor that that intent can’t be read and described.

    But then, most filmmakers today are film school graduates, so maybe that’s not the case anymore. And in any case, part of mastery lies in the immediacy of esthetic decisions.

    • Jeremy says:

      I think this sort of thing was talked about in whatever Doctor Who(?) post where John Rogers popped up.

      Very interesting insights, and applicable to a lot of professions. I’m finding that as a language instructor I’m always expected to be able to explain why people say something a certain way in English, even if it’s not my particular English.

    • HP says:

      Having written that, now I would really like to see what SEK would do with a pop-culture grunt like Dario Argento or Steve Ditko.

  6. Chasm says:

    Oooh! I know this one!

    Is a television show thought out to detail for every frame, the way a big budget feature film is? The answer… sorta sometimes.

    Be sure: when Chris Nolan shoots “Batman,” yes, pretty much every shot and every cut is planned ahead of time. A feature director will first go through every big action sequence with a story board artist and plan every shot. Department heads – Director of Photography, Visual Effects Supervisors, Editors, Post Production heads, Costumes, Assistant Directors, etc etc – sit though dozens of meetings planning for every contingency so as to waste as little time on the day of shooting as possible. Time is money, and pre-planning saves time. Fincher, Nolan and Tarrentino know exactly how to present an image to get the effect they want, and they plan ahead to get it.

    On a TV show, not so much – but the expertise is built-in to the structure of the crew. Meaning, did Jennifer Getzinger storyboard out the entire episode? Probably not. Did she have a written shot list, and enough confidence in the DP and the other production principles to know that the techniques SEK notices would coalesce into a finely polished finished product? Absolutely yes.

    A TV show like “Mad Men” will have what we call a ‘tone meeting.’ This is a sit down with the writer of the episode, the executive producer of the show, the DP, the editor and the director where they discuss the meaning of every scene in the structure of the story and what – and what not – the producers are hoping to convey.

    So, was every front-on 2-shot composed with an exact moment in mind? Did the director really frame the shot so that a door-frame will bisect two characters’ space, dramatizing their estrangement? Maybe. Certainly, those kinds of things are in the back of everyone’s minds as they quickly plow through the shot list. And those kinds of spatial ideas are definitely on the mind of the editor cutting those angles together.

    A good editor is always mindful of the energy of the space, and how best to utilize even unintended architecture into the realization of the scene. It’s a group project, and every professional involved brings expertise to the scene.

    Listen to the teacher. SEK knows of what he speaks.

    • Thanks. You and HP just answered much of my follow-up question, as I was typing it. Timing is everything.

    • ajay says:

      So, was every front-on 2-shot composed with an exact moment in mind? Did the director really frame the shot so that a door-frame will bisect two characters’ space, dramatizing their estrangement? Maybe. Certainly, those kinds of things are in the back of everyone’s minds as they quickly plow through the shot list. And those kinds of spatial ideas are definitely on the mind of the editor cutting those angles together.

      This sounds familiar – a lot of these shots may not be intended in advance, but at the editing stage (EDITORS: NEGLECTED HEROES OF CINEMA!) they’ll be noticed and included.

  7. Scott, Thanks for the response. That makes alot of sense. A quick follow-up/clarification/analogy as to why I don’t think it’s a terrible question.

    I am a musician and I write alot of songs. Solely for pleasure/hobby. I taught myself by ear and have very little knowledge of music theory from any trained perspective. yet through trial, error and ear, when I write songs they undoubtedly end up following alot of the rules that music theory teaches. But it is only because I write based on what sounds good (which of course is why the rules are the rules, because they are based on patterns that sound good) and not with any desire to follow musical prescriptions (at least not consciously.) And I know I’m not the only one out there who follows the more intuitive (ignorant) path to a similar end that conventional songwriter’s wisdom would lead.

    To carry your analogy over into my realm, obviously one would expect big hot-shot songwriters who take the latest obnoxious American Idol winners and are contracted by the record companies to pump out a hit, to follow such theory-driven (formulaic) approach. I know musicians who write for tv and commercials and film professionally and most of them are trained in theory. But I know that some, in fact many, hit songs in the popular realm are written by artists who don’t know shit about theory and just string together some chords to result in a finished product that may be just as advanced as the one crafted by an expert, but without purposefully trying to do so.

    So my question would be, does this sort of idiot-savantism occur in film? Are there renowned directors who do things based on “it looks cool” as their guiding principle, rather than a concerted effort to follow the cinematic rules that you highlight?

    Perhaps the more appropriate element of music to serve as an analogy would be the mix/production of the album, rather than the songwriting which would more aptly equate to the script.

    Thanks again for the response. I happily reblogged your post.

    • Chasm says:

      To elaborate, and yet be more concise: A film is like an Ellington or a Mingus orchestrating a masterpiece. A TV show is more like U2 hiring Eno to produce.

      A film director has months of pre-production to pre-visulize the movie. He or she approves drawings or models of every set, every costume, even every prop before shooting even begins. They build their team based on their ability to realize his one-time vision.

      A TV director gets 8 days of prep, and so can’t get into such detail, but has the collective knowledge of dozens of department heads who know the show, know the producers and know exactly what the intent of the writers is without being told. He or she may walk onto a set having never seen the costumes the actors will wear, or without even talking to the DP about specific compositions, but the end result will be close to the same: movie magic.

      A TV director is under tremendous time pressure to deliver a polished product, but has the benefit of a team of professionals who are already on the same page as a Matt Wiener. While a film director has to build a team and a vision from scratch, a TV director walks onto a set populated by a fully formed team already working within the vision of the show creator.

      Both

    • Chasm says:

      To answer: “Are there renowned directors who do things based on “it looks cool” as their guiding principle, rather than a concerted effort to follow the cinematic rules that you highlight?”

      Yes, but not very often.

      In my experience, there are directors who operate on the “it looks cool” principle, but even then, they are relying on a deep knowledge of film language.

      In my experience, the most frustrating directors to work with are those that “just want to try something” for the simple reason that they don’t know how to make a decision. And when they finally do decide, at least in the TV world, their ideas are so far outside the collective wisdom of film vocabulary, that the producers end up re-cutting their episode to make it more closely conform with what we all know.

      In other words, “because it looks cool” works to the extend that it looks cool and also works inside an accepted film vocabulary. Stray too far from an accepted idiom, and you will get re-cut by executive producers who know better than push audience boundaries on network television.

      • peorgietirebiter says:

        I

        n my experience, there are directors who operate on the “it looks cool” principle, but even then, they are relying on a deep knowledge of film language.

        In my experience, those are the directors that can actually afford to indulge themselves when they just want to try things Because they’d already spent years studying and perfecting the craft they had absolutely confidence in their ability to deliver, even on those inevitable days when their art fails them. A good producer knows it’s the best of both worlds if they when they have a little room for serendipity.

  8. Sharon says:

    I have avoid friend who does practical special effects for movies and television and yes, it’s a very people, time, equipment, logistical intense process. You may have seen his puddles in War of the Worlds or the misery in The Road, or even more impressive for me and the spouse, his snow in John Adams.

    Their crew won an Emmy for that work.

    What I’ve learned over the years talking to him about his work is that killing zombies is harder than you think.

  9. Eric says:

    You know, it’s true that a ton of thought goes into each shot of a film/TV episode, and you’re right to go into detail on just how much thought. But you can still read different things into a scene without it being the director or screenwriter’s intention and still be perfectly correct.

  10. Even filming a two bit internet video takes more work than these doubters give credit for. Actual scripted TV is a completely different league, like the NBA vs. high school basketball.

  11. Karla says:

    I suspect there is a substantial overlap between people who don’t understand how much thought goes into a well-done TV show and people who think professors don’t work much more than the hours they are in the classroom.

  12. SEK says:

    Just chiming in to appreciate the quality of the comments. Got delayed a little bit with the next post, but will incorporate a number of your comments, questions, and requests into my next post. Thanks all.

  13. Njorl says:

    I have a great idea for a TV show that takes place entirely within the confessional.

  14. peorgietirebiter says:

    I’d also suggest the medium, by necessity, devours it’s most talented at an unsustainable rate. I think the debilitating effects of the costs may be more apparent in the quality of the second tier stuff. The high stakes are likely responsible for the timidity of executives. It leads to shows made by committee and the “show me something I’ve seen before” mentality.

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