Sunday, February 03, 2008

Planes, Trains, and Auto-TV Directors

When you're a TV director for hire, you're constantly getting parachuted in to work with a crew of 50-60 people who've been grinding it out together for months, sometimes even years.

They're tight. You're the outsider.

They're a family. You're the...boarder.

And like every family, most get along well. But some, not so much.

Director Ron Oliver has a lovely post up about the completion of his latest movie and dealing with the family factor of crews and fact he relates a similar tale about sound recordists to the one I'm about to recount...

It was a West Coast production and the first day of filming. I'd met some of the crew, but only briefly. When you're prepping, you spend most of your time with the Writers and 1st Assistant Director and Locations and Casting and the Line Producer --- while the bulk of rest of the crew are off somewhere shooting the present episode.

But then your episode starts to film, and you have to hit the floor running. And pretty much every show I've directed, the crew will call you 'Boss'.

"You want to use the blue cell phone or the red cell phone, boss?"

"Camera looking this way, boss? Or that way?"

It makes sense. One word says it all...'boss'. Except on TV series, it doesn't really say it all. I mean, you may be 'a' boss, but you're not 'the boss'. And once you get over the little inner glow you feel from being called "boss", it sinks in that what it really means they don't have to learn your name. Shows how interchangeable you really are (as the TV episodic director).

Anyway, my first day filming and we were out in a nice residential neighbourhood, but there seemed to be an inordinate amount of train and plane noise. And as afternoon raced toward evening, the Director of Photography (DOP) was constantly having to add lights and flags to try to maintain a consistency to the scene we were filming. And he was getting more and more agitated....especially each time the Sound Recordist called out: "No good for sound."

The DOP started to pace. Finally he voiced his concerns to me: "This scene is going to look like shit." I thought he was doing a fine job and told him so, but he still shook his head: "No way, the lights changing too fast and the shadows are creeping in...shit shit shit. And all these retakes for sound aren't helping."

Now I didn't want to get on the DOP's bad side on the first day, but I also understood the importance of getting good clean sound. On the other hand, the scene wasn't a dealbreaker scene, so I went over to the Sound Recordist and quietly asked if we could relax a bit on the 'perfect sound' expectations because you know, we were losing the light and there were other more meaty scenes that night that I wanted to spend more time on.

Pick your battles, know your priorities.

But Sound Recordist crossed his arms and said no way...he wasn't going to be getting the gears from the producers later if they had to bring in a bunch of actors to rerecord their dialogue (ADR).


So I walked back to my 1st AD and quietly asked if he had a solution for this pseudo-standoff between departments. He just laughed and shook his head: "Get used it. These two are just getting started."

Turns out I'd walked into an ongoing feud between this particular DOP and the finicky Sound Recordist. That's where your 1st AD can be your friend: inform you ahead of time where the strengths and weaknesses and 'issues' of the crew and the cast are. This AD didn't. Grrrr.

Sidebar: besides the actors and the 1st AD and DOP, I tend to try to bond quickly with the Camera Operator. He/she can be a with your blocking and framing...figure out your coverage...not to mention make your shots appealing to the eye.

Lurve a good camera operator.

But I digress...

So I said we were going again. Sound Recordist smiled. DOP glowered.

We ran the scene and right near the end of the take, another plane flew overhead. And as I called 'Cut', Sound Recordist yelled "Sound needs another!" before I'd even finished my sentence.

DOP slowly stands up from his chair. Speaks very loudly.

DOP: "Why the hell do we keep waiting on sound? I'm being hurried to light every friggin' shot but I'm telling you right now...there'll be a hell of a lot more deaf people watching this show than blind people!

Then he looks directly at me: "So what's it gonna be...BOSS?"

Um. Yeah.

What do you say? How should you respond? Because as politically incorrect as it was to say, in many ways, he had a valid point.

So I made an executive decision and told Sound Recordist we were moving on. Something or someone had to win out...and I went with Picture. But not before explaining to Lead Actor we had all the pieces from different takes and he was brilliant.

Not to negate the invaluable contributions of the sound department or all the rest of crew and cast, but when you're a TV director dropped into a series....keep your enemies close, but keep your Lead Actor, 1st AD, DOP, and Camera Operator closer.


Kelly J. Crawford said...

Great story, Will.

KJC (who thinks she knows the series of which you speak)

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