Monday, December 11, 2006

Keeping TV Time...And The 80% Solution

"Doing a movie or a play is like running a marathon. Doing a television show is like running until you die." -- David Mamet
I get what Mamet is saying here, but don’t agree with him a hundred percent. Doing a TV series can also be like running a marathon...if you adopt the 80% Solution.

As stated ad nauseam, story department on a TV series is one long monster grind of writing, rewriting, troubleshooting, and crisis management. For example, I came in last week to find the execs scrambling to try to replace an actor who'd suddenly become unavailable. They were having frantic calls with casting directors and agents. Absolute chaos. The other thing I was told that one of the episodes that was presently filming was coming in short. And how did they know? The timings.

A timing is the estimated length of the episode after the script is 'timed' by the script supervisor (who also does continuity). Simply put, he/she acts out each scene in the script with a stop watch - marks that time down beside each scene - and adds them all up to get the estimated length of that script.

In the case of a television half hour, there's one important number and that is the content time. In Canada and US it usually comes in at around 21:40 (a one hour episode content-wise is around 41:30). Content is the actual story. What makes up the rest of the half hour when it goes to air are titles, credits, bumpers, and commercials. So as a writer/producer, the number you are most concerned with is that content time.

In a half hour, ideally the script supervisors timing comes in around 25 minutes. That gives your producers and editors some flexibility to tighten scenes or take some scenes right out if they didn't work or are deemed unnecessary. Timings that come in much longer than that start to cause you grief of having to edit out too much from the show to get it down to time. Coming in under with your timings is a fairly self-evident problem - the episode won't be long enough.

Then, as the episode shoots, you constantly ask for updates on the timings. That means taking what the script supervisor estimated (say 45 seconds for a scene) and the actual time it took to shoot the scene (say the actors read it faster and it comes in at 30 seconds), and comparing these times to see if you are over or under. So when a call comes in that episode has been losing time and is now adding up to 21:00 - it's short.

That’s what I walked into - with just 4 scenes left to shoot in the episode, two later that day.

So it became my job to basically write a minute or so worth of new material into each remaining scene but not make it seem like filler. I couldn’t add new scenes because the shooting schedule was already packed full. It wasn’t that difficult, kinda fun actually. When the parameters are fixed and there’s little room to maneuver, I find it easier to address a problem and solve it. But first I talked to the production designer to find out how much more of a location was dressed and what we’d be able to see. And talked to props to make sure they had a cell phone I’d added to a scene was standing by. And I talked to wardrobe to make sure if actors took off their coats (as I had them doing) in one scene, they were wearing something underneath.

So I rewrote the scenes, and we published new pages (yes, coloured pages) for those scenes and got them quickly to set so the actors could learn the new lines and director could see what he now had to shoot. All before lunch! And they did shoot them. And by the middle of the next day, the episode's timing was up to 23:40 - two minutes over.

Not the best case scenario, but the 80% solution.

80% is a great target to aim for under those kinds of circumstances - a nice manageable target of accomplishment. If your goal is always a hundred percent perfection, you'll kill yourself, or kill the series, or both. And you'll always be unhappy or unsatisfied if you expect that much of yourself or your crew. Maybe you can expect more on a movie, because it's a one time deal, but a series isn't one's a season of many shows. The series is king, not an episode.

Most series in Canada shoot 13 episodes a season (in the U.S. anywhere from 20-24 eps). If a half hour series, you usually have 8 days to shoot 2 episodes...and the total time commitment is around 50-55 days. If a one hour series, 6-7 days per episode is the going rate, and so the time commitment is usually around 80-90 days. And that's just when you're shooting. If you are on staff, you usually start six to eight weeks prior to shooting commencing. That will add another 50 days or so. So depending on what kind of series you're on, you'll be buried for 100-140 days (at least double that if a 22 episode season).


And I've worked on shows where execs did treat every episode as if it were the only show. And maybe that first episode turned out good (though usually it was a disappointment because expectations were too high or it was over-worked or over-written or over-produced), but it always came at a price. Other episodes suffered because everyone's attention and energy was being focused on that one episode. There needs to be a point in the development of or writing of or shooting of each episode when it is decided that it's good enough. Or as good as it will be under the circumstances. And move on.

Not that I'm suggesting you should settle for crap. Or to phone it in. But like a marathon, you can and should pace yourself. And rather than a single 100% episode and then three 50% episodes, you and your series will be better off to make them all 80% good.

Oh, and the execs replaced the actor. The replacement did a great job.

Crisis? What crisis?

SONG&ARTIST? - "Jackboots, hi-jacks
Ray guns and spray guns
We got them all for free
Look to the stars for consolation
It could be there lookin' at me
It could be there lookin' at me
Send me down a simple solution
Send me down a simple solution now."


blueglow said...

I always love writing those filler scenes. TV often doesn't allow many killing time moments so these little filler scenes can be the ones where the characters take a break and talk about life for a second -- it always gives you an opportunity to rift on whatever's pissing you off at the moment.

And more often than not this little scene becomes the episode's most memorable moment because it ends up being the one element of the script that was unexpected. It can often propel you to looking at the character a different way and in some instances become a jumping off point to go in a who new direction with the character.

Like say you're short, you're shooting in a hospital and you do a couple page walk and talk to eat up some page count and stop the timing person from barking up your ass and all of a sudden your characters pass a maternity ward. Now your character is female, thirty five and childless, the male parter is married got a couple kids. They rift on it for a while -- the whole choices one makes for one's life thing -- and then split. But the female character lingers behind, looks at some adorable newborn.

The next day you're watching dailies and you see that look in the actresses eyes as she's looking at the baby and you start to think -- hey what if and why not and why has never been talked about in the series ...

wcdixon said...

Thanks for that Blueglow...very well stated (it's almost like you've done this once or twice

You're right about it being nice to explore the space/scene. So often in tv the tendancy is to rocket through the scenes and just do/say what is absolutely necessary.

Bill Cunningham said...

Spot on!

DMc said...

Will, will, will....blueglow just gave you the next post. Awesome. Seriously.

I just came through a where where there wasn't the firm hand to tell me how much to add -- just a bunch of timings that were short (because we cut for production reasons) and couldn't build back. So I wrote. And I never got a straight answer about what worked and how much was too much, and there was n sure hand at the till to say, "this. yes. this. no."

It is splendoriffic to have that moment -- a moment to riff -- especially in the current climate of forty minute and that's it kind of calvinism, it's interesting to tell nuggets that you might be in a position one day where you need to come up with 30 intelligent seconds in an afternoon for your lead to say.

I mean, where do you get to do that? That's the coolest job in the world.

More. More. Water! Water!

wcdixon said...

What's my next post? Help!

This was sort of a mish mash of three going nowhere posts. Trying to make something out of nothing. Not sure I succeeded.

'The Art of Filler Scenes'?

'What Constitutes A Sure Hand On The Till'?

'Riffing When You've Got Nothing To Lose'?

Whatever the post is, I'll be sure to leave room for P..I mean Blueglow, to make it better.

Heart Of Darkness said...

Loved the post - wish my job was half as interesting as yours... *sigh*

I loved that you talked to the wardrobe to see if the actors had something underneath the coats that you made them take off. From a viewers standpoint (if it's a cute guy/girl), the "not wearing anything underneath" would have been more interesting... or maybe it's just my hormones! :)

Mef said...

that's my favourite on Corner Gas too, when we have to add little tops and tails to scenes that are already scheduled. By their nature they are not connected to the story but they have to be funny and not, as Will writes, look like filler.

A lot of Davis' sci-fi speculations were a result of thinking we were going to be short, then ending up long, but keeping the new stuff because it was better.

there is always this weird over-reaction to timings: it looks like we're really short so we start writing 35 page scripts (on both made in canada and cg we use(d) movie format) and then we're six minutes over and we drop down to 32 and we're short so we over-write and by the time we get to the last wheel we get it right. But for some reason, the knowledge is never passed on to the next season.


wcdixon said...

Timings...such an industry insider thread. People outside the circle must be going, huh?

Thanks is fun isn't it? The pressure is on because set usually needs them right away, but for some reason the pressure is off because you just need to focus on specific spots and make more of them. Cool.

blueglow said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
blueglow said...

thanks for the kind words etc... one of the things about timings is that they are a cruel sword wielded by production managers, directors etc who don't want to shoot anymore than they have to. for these folks "getting their day" is the most important thing and for TV directors it can often be the key to them being hired again so it makes sense.

the damn thing is that sometimes they are right and, as shooting schedules get shrunk, it is ridiculous to shoot scenes that are going to never see the light of day because a writer is too stubborn to cut their material.

there is a very slim financial margin of error in most productions so one needs to heed timings so the problems I have with them are largely questions of "what to cut" as opposed to "what to add". Adding shit is easy, cutting stuff is a little harder because the non linear nature of shooting means you can really easily fuck up plot.

The thing about timings is that you have to live with a show for a while to know if there is any accuracy to the data you are getting from your script supervisor. Where does she (never worked with a male in my life) start timing the scene, where does she end it? Is she aware of how tight the show cuts in the editing room? How does her estimates compare with her actuals? Are GIC's better than Bonds?

You know what I'm geting at.

The thing is "timings" are one of the few things that throw everyone into a tizzy -- it's too long, it's too short -- and everyone runs down to the floor to correct the problem instead of going where they should go -- the editing room. Because it is my belief that every beat that seems to play "just right" on the floor is way too long and pregnant when you're watching it in the editing room.

Mef said...

We had a male timings person on Newsroom. I think that's what he did. I was just an actor then so I didn't pay much attention.

Our script supervisor on cg was and is great. She actually would go into the editing suite and try to get a sense of how the editors and directors were cutting it. Granted you have different directors (trying to get their day)but I appreciated the effort. So I didn't want to imply that she was bad. Just that timings are weird. And for some reason everyone on the production thinks they can weigh in on them.

and another thing about the floor: things that seem really funny on the floor, ususally aren't.

Dave said...

i don't have much to add. i don't remember that we had the "too short" trouble too much. if anything the problem was always "too long". looking back on our first season i think i might have been watching my "Sports Night" DVDs a little too often. i was imagining a lot of fast-paced dialogue with bon-mots being lightly tossed around... sometimes it worked... sometimes the director had a particular shot in mind... sometimes the actors wanted to take a moment... or two...

this season i was a little stricter with myself, tried to write a little leaner, because it was an occasional heart-break to see story-lines truncated, and moments lost.

that said, when it is time for what the french call "un peu extra" it feels like non-constipative stress, as opposed to that butt-clenching first draft stress. It's the "we need it now!" that allows you to connect to that special place accessed only on these occasions and the television specials of derren brown, the mind-control-guy, and maybe that's why it seems more spontaneous and full of life.

Fun thread, Dix.

English Dave said...

It depends on the contract the circumstances and the people.

I've worked on shows where I've sweated blood to get it right no matter what.

Who am I kidding. I do that on every show. But I'm more resentful on some than others.

Some I'll do for free. Some I'm like the flower in Little Shop of Horrors. PAY ME. PAY ME NOW.

jimhenshaw said...

We had the opposite problem on "Eerie, Indiana". The show aired simultaneously on Global and Fox, but because Canadian nets have an additional minute of commercials per half hour, the show we delivered to Fox had to be one minute longer than the Canadian version. That meant that a full minute of material would not appear in the Canadian version. Therefore it could not be a scene that advanced the plot or was at all integral to the story.

To complicate matters, there wasn't either the time or money to mix two final cuts. Therefore we had to create a unique one minute scene that could be shot on a set we were already using and dropped in at the top or bottom of a commercial break.

We usually got our two 11 year old leads to engage in some pointless kid-funny banter. They were often the funniest moments in the show and the Canadian audience never got to see them.

If the nets get their current request for extra commercial time on dramas past the CRTC, even more unrelated material may have to be created for our series to achieve a run time that will allow them to sell to foreign markets.

wcdixon said...

There's some water in those comments, thanks guys.

Piers said...

The Highlander TV series was also delivered in two cuts - 49 minutes for the European market and 45 minutes for the US.

I've never seen commentary from the writers/producers on what the differences were, but I seem to recall there were a *lot* of sequences of Adrian Paul doing his martial arts kata all oiled-up and without a shirt on.

So I have my suspicions.

blueglow said...

There's been a few shows I worked on that had a variance in delivery times. It was a pain in the ass in that you never wanted to have to rescore, respot or remix two seperate episodes.

What we did was to create either an elongated teaser or tag to deal with the problem. In the American version we shot a three or four minute teaser that was constructed so that it had a natural "new beginning" two minutes into the tease. The American version would have some initial "amusing banter" that would lead into the inciting incident that started the show. The Canadian version would start with the inciting incident.

Conversely if we decided to make the tag longer we would do the same thing. There would be two end points in the tag. In the shorter version the tag would end a minute in, in the longer version there would be more "amusing banter" that we could run out the show with.

At the end of the day it saved us gajillions of dollars in that we never had to repost the body of the show and everyone got some anusing banter practice.

Kelly J. Compeau said...

Hmmm...I like that idea, blueglow. I just might use that for my show.


Alex Epstein said...

On Naked Josh we were a minute longer for Showcase (Canada) than Oxygen (US), if I remember correctly. Fortunately Oxygen wanted us to keep a lid on the sex and Showcase wanted the show as sexy as possible. So we cut out some of the sex for Oxygen.

Canuck audiences are generally less alarmed by sex on TV than American audiences.

We had some issues with ep timings on CJ. The person doing the timing just wasn't that accurate. Maybe she didn't grasp the style of the show. We wound up with one ep five minutes over and some three minutes under. Fortunately we realized we could lift a scene from the C plot of the long show and move it to the short show and it would actually make MORE sense than the chronology in the scripts. So that worked out rather well.

And that's why you need the writing staff involved at all levels of the production...

wcdixon said...

Yes, Alex makes a good point about keeping everyone involved and up to speed. The script I jumped in on last week wasn't one of mine. But I knew the story, and knew what was happening in the scripts on either side of it, so was able to add material that jived with the big picture.

wcdixon said...

'Simple Solution' - Nazereth