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Archive for the ‘television’ Category

PBS is currently running a “Like Drive,” offering exclusive videos for every so many ‘likes’ their Facebook page receives. One of the latest to be unlocked offers a behind-the-scenes look at “The National Parks.” The video is a bit of a cheat on PBS’ part, since what it shows probably happened three or four years ago–could they find nothing from “Prohibition” or even “The Tenth Inning”?

I like this video though because it offers a brief but accurate feel of a screening with Ken*. Most videos like this, whether they’re focusing on a PBS documentary or a Hollywood blockbuster, tend to be overproduced in an attempt to make it more entertaining.  The ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach favors authenticity (of some form) over entertainment, and appeals to a different curiosity.

*Yes I call him Ken and no he would not remember my name, though he reportedly said I was a ‘good guy’ after I left the room once. 

During my half-year with Florentine, three films were in various stages of production at the edit house. “Prohibition” was I believe technically wrapped but some work on it was still going on; meanwhile editors were piecing together the first visual versions of “Dust Bowl”(2012) and “The Roosevelts” (2014). During that time three screenings were held at the edit house: two for the two-episode “Dust Bowl” and one for the first four episodes of “The Roosevelts.”

Screening Room Alpha

Florentine doesn’t have a proper screening room at its edit house on account of it being an honest to God house. Instead, everyone crams into the office with the biggest TV, which is a 10′ x 20′ room on the first floor where a producer and two of the editors usually work. Since these are the first visual cuts of the episode, each episode will run maybe thirty minutes longer than the final version–often over two hours. Finding a comfortable chair is therefore crucial, and those with lumbar support are hotly contested. More than a dozen people–including Ken and co-director Lynn Novick, the writer, editors, etc–will find a space in here, and often another half-dozen will have to trudge upstairs to another impromptu overflow screening room directly overhead. When this is the case, an additional logistical difficulty is presented: the screenings must be started simultaneously, otherwise one screening will always be subjected to the echoes of the other*. As Florentine is always on the cutting edge of media technology, this obstacle is surmounted by connecting the two rooms via the office phone telecom. On the count of three or some such prompt, the person manning the station in each room will press the space bar and set the episode into motion.

* Echoes were expected and tolerated if you were in the overflow, but Screening Room Alpha was always to be slightly ahead if a perfect synch was not achieved.

Screening Room Bravo

At the end of these uninterrupted two-hour sessions, many rush to the two bathrooms the edit house generously affords its occupants. After a short break, everyone (even those banished to the overflow) then gathers back in the main screening room to share their impressions. This is Florentine at its most egalitarian: while the key players always give their impressions first, eventually everyone down to the lowliest intern is invited to opine, even if by that point there may be nothing left to add. The resulting discussion sounds something like what you hear in the PBS video, and it’s fun to witness.

That all of this goes on in some unmarked house* on the corner of a village street has tickled me since I first started there. Early on I asked some of the younger staff why no one seemed interested in highlighting that part of the Ken Burns production. They shrugged and said that the edit house ethos was to stay well and truly behind the scenes. I suggested that there were ways to accommodate that–my tweets didn’t betray anyone’s privacy–but I didn’t push it any further. I still think plenty of Ken Burns fans would like to see more of what goes on in Walpole, but for now this blogpost will have to do.

*I’m pretty sure there’s not even a house number–oh, and you enter through the back. New England can be cold.

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Readers may have noticed that in my TV viewing history, I didn’t list any multi-camera sitcoms. This is for the remarkable reason that, well, I don’t watch any and haven’t since long-ago lazy days watching the odd rerun in syndication. Nowadays sitcoms in that style feel anachronistic to me, and even the commercially and (sometimes) critically well-regarded ones like How I Met Your Mother just don’t do it for me. I find that I’m actually predisposed not to laugh at them, which is clearly not the intended audience response.

I’m not alone in this. For the distinguishing television viewer, sitcoms are overwhelmingly considered passé and even low-culture, even if many of those viewers loved the multi-camera Seinfeld back in the day. This article sums it up:

I saw an episode of The Big Bang Theory last weekend. This was not by design. I was on an airplane and my Kindle screen was frozen. I panicked. I’d already exhausted Sky Mall, there were four hours left on the flight and I needed a diversion. People seem to enjoy that show. It’s nominated for five Emmy awards this year. It’s about nerds. I like nerds. I gave it a shot.

You guys. That show is not good. Please stop telling innocent people like me that it is.

Here’s the thing about The Big Bang Theory. There were a few funny jokes and the performances aren’t bad, but I could just barely discern any of that through its slavish adherence to the old guard of formulaic television. It’s got the multi-camera setup, the excruciating laugh track, the lingering close-ups of over-exaggerated facial expressions responding to lame jokes. It feels so dated, so tired, that even if the writing were scintillating, I’d hate it. And the writing, my friends, is not scintillating.

Despite my agreement with this, I find myself wanting to defend the beleaguered the multi-camera setup, for much the same reasons outlined this excellent piece:

Multi-camera sitcom is a strange format that’s unique to television, because unlike single-camera, which is basically a little movie, multi-camera is a combination of different formats: a bit of film, a bit of radio, and a great big heaping helping of theatre. A multi-camera sitcom episode is a play, a performance.

Yep, and this does have its tradeoffs. I don’t like multi-camera sitcoms because the artifice of the production is so hard for me to ignore: sets look like sets (heaven forfend anything happen outdoors), lighting is white bright, and studio audience laughter–even when genuine–often sucks me right out. On the other hand, these theatrical aspects allow for stories to unfold in a different way, and lets a relationship and rhythm to develop between actor and audience that’s particularly important for comedy.

What’s odd to me is that theater is hardly considered lowest common denominator entertainment, but that sensibility applied to TV is. For that reason I wonder whether detractors of multi-camera are applying the wrong set of standards, and maybe even being a bit too distracted by the prettier single-camera aesthetic. Would the writer of the first piece have reacted so distastefully if she had watched the performance of Big Bang Theory live on stage rather than an airplane TV monitor? That’s not a apples-to-apples comparison I realize, but single- and multi-camera shows aren’t the same kind of fruit either. In terms of production, multi-camera sitcoms have much more in common with Saturday Night Live than they do with a single-camera comedy. The show is filmed in the course of single night, there’s usually a live studio audience, and jokes are rewritten on the fly in response to the audience. Does SNL represent such a dated format?

In the first article, the author claims that Arrested Development, a single-camera sitcom, “put the nail in the coffin of the traditional sitcom” for her. Interestingly, that show was created explicitly with the intent to mimic the joke-writing process in traditional sitcoms:

…Ron Howard had this idea to do a single-camera comedy that was as funny as a multi-camera comedy, which sounds sarcastic, actually.

(…)

[W]e often think of those kinds of sitcoms as being jokier, but really, there are more jokes per second, per page, than there are on a show like Sports Night, where there wasn’t an audience, and there was no compelling reason to rewrite. His question was, “What if we shot a show in digital video, so we could go very fast and didn’t have to spend an hour and a half lighting for each shot, we could just go out there and start shooting, like Cops or Blind Date? Could we spend that time sharpening the jokes and making a more ambitious production? What would happen if we applied the sensibility of multi-camera to single-camera?

I may disapprove of most traditional sitcoms, but I will defend to the death their right to more than a single camera.

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