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Don’t Move!

I have a hard time getting into the Emmys. Unlike, say, the Oscars, there are way too many nominees for me to have seen everything worth seeing, and to therefore have an informed opinion on who should or shouldn’t win.

I mean, I loved Peter Dinklage’s speech in the courtroom in Game of Thrones, and Aaron Paul did amazing things while saying almost nothing in the last season of Breaking Bad, but I’ve never seen a single episode of Ray Donovan. Maybe Jon Voight was better than both of them. Who knows?

Instead, I mostly watch in the hopes that the presenters will land a few good jokes, and to watch the pretty, pretty dresses. Sometimes both at the same time.

Also, can you imagine doing that in heels? She should get an extra Emmy just for that.
I get the joke they were going for, but still… this was awkward.

And, occasionally, I see someone I know win an Emmy. And by “know,” I mean “worked on the same show at the same time as her.” Gail Mancuso is one of those great TV directors I love.

But I’m a little disappointed that she won for a single camera show, rather than for her multicamera work. I honestly believe that multicamera is where real directing happens in television.

Settle in, this is going to be a long essay before I get back around to this point.1

Fifty years or so ago, some French dudes decided that the director is the author of the film. (I’m summarizing here.)

Before this, the director had two main jobs– choosing the shots, and staging the actors. Everything else was left up to the department head to decide. We actually trusted that, for instance, the costume designer would know what the appropriate costume would be, based on the scene, the character, the setting, and so on.

You could argue that choosing the shots would fall under the purview of the DP or camera operator, but their main goal is to create the best version of a given shot. The director has to make sure that all of the pieces are available for the editor to assemble later.

Once upon a time, movie directors had very little to do with editing. The producers and editors did all of that, while the director was on set on the next film coming down the studio pipeline. (Kinda like TV, now.)

Along with choosing the shots, the director dealt with the actors. Because actors are the only people on set who can’t observe their own work, they need someone to tell them if what they’re doing is good or bad.

More importantly, they need someone to give them context. Actors should live in the moment. They shouldn’t be worrying about where the lights are, or where they are in relation to the  rest of the cast from the perspective of the camera. Even the best actors in the world needs to be told, “Cheat a little to the left, so the camera can see your face better.”

But now that the director is the “auteur,” it logically follows that the author should be involved in every aspect of the film. Instead of just letting the prop master create the best business card for the character, the director insists on seeing samples first.

Does anyone really believe the movie will be improved by adding this layer of approval?

More gallingly, the director now believes he has made the decision on the correct prop (or costume or car or location). The fact is, the prop master still did all of the work. The director chooses from among three or five options. That’s no more “creative vision” than an SAT test.

I don’t deny that there are polymath directors out there who do really do the creative work. Steven Soderbergh acts as his own cinematographer; Kevin Smith edits all of his movies. By all accounts, Ridley Scott designs his films, much to the chagrin of his actual production designers.

But most directors just choose from among the options that others have created. As my predecessor said years ago:

Telling someone to do something is not the same as actually doing it.  If you’re going to conflate managing with creating, why stop at the director or producer?  What about the production executive who oversees the production and tells the director to make it edgier?  Or the studio head who greenlit the movie in the first place?  Or the CEO of the entertainment conglomerate who hired the studio head?

We’re now in a place where the director is considered the author of the film, so everyone does what she says, even if the film suffers for it.

At least that’s not the case in TV, right? There, the writer is king! Who cares about the director?

Not so fast. Even though we don’t consider the director to be the author, the directors still have their fingers in every pie of a given episode. When you work in a production office, you’ll see the prepping director (and her AD) go in and out of dozens of meetings over the course of a week– props, costumes, locations, make-up, visual effects, special effects, on and on and on.

What is the director not thinking about while all of this is happening? Shots and staging. Instead of creative angles and inventive blocking, we end up with is a bunch of tight singles of actors standing in place, reciting their lines.

Here’s a long quote from my favorite film theorist, David Bordwell (he’s talking about movies, but I think it’s doubly true of TV):

Breaking the scene up so much has interesting rhythmic implications. Paradoxically, our movies are cut very fast but they feel rather slow (and run very long). When we need a cut to see a character’s reaction, a scene plays out more slowly than if the characters were held in the same frame for a significant period. Then we might see one character’s reactions while the other is speaking, rather than having to wait for them afterward.

But my main point is that the actors are planted in one spot. [Directors] have felt no need to imagine the characters’ interaction through blocking. Indeed, when shooting a conversation, most of today’s filmmakers seem happiest if the actors stay riveted in place—standing, seated, riding in a car, typing at a computer terminal. Improvised cinema or storyboard cinema: Both camps are refusing the challenge of staging.

In some books and some web entries (most recently, here and here and here and here), I’ve tried to trace the rich tradition of ensemble staging. From almost the start of cinema, filmmakers have explored creative ways of moving actors around the set, aiming at both engaging storytelling and pictorial impact. Since the 1960s,2 on the whole, this tradition has been waning. Now, I fear, it has nearly disappeared.

It’s one of those things that once you see it, you can’t un-see it. From big budget action flicks to micro-budget dramadies, almost every scene is shot the same way– wide shot, two shot, close-up, close-up. This is what Tony Zhou called “lightly edited improv” in that Edgar Wright video that went viral a few months ago:

Honestly, this is why I say TV directors don’t matter. Any kid in film school can get basic coverage and obey the 180 degree rule. The department heads don’t need the director’s opinion, which is at best a lateral move from their idea, and at worst, more expensive, more time consuming, and less practical.

The director adds nothing in television…

Except in multicam.3

Multicamera sitcoms are shot like plays. Why does this matter? If you’ve been to the theater lately, and given any thought to staging, you’ll understand just how hard directing a play must be.

You get one angle– the front of the stage; you get one shot– the proscenium. Now, move the actors around for two to three hours in a way that’s visually interesting, conveys the story, and is consistent with the characters.

Hats off to stage directors.

Multi-camera directors get four set-ups at any one time,4 and the frame is whatever the hell the director and camera coordinator like. But still, there is a limit as to where they can place the camera. And just as importantly, the show must be entertaining for the live studio audience.

Because of the limited camera options, lighting is also less time consuming than on single-camera shows. Most sets have a “day” look and a “night” look, which are set from the pilot (or first regular-season episode). Minor adjustments have to be made every day, and there are swing sets every episode, but for the most part, the grips and electrics aren’t starting from scratch every single scene like they are on single camera shows.

This gives the director and actors (and writers and producers) time to actually rehearse the show. Over the course of a week, they’ll stage and re-stage every scene at least once a day; sometimes many, many more times than that. The director and actors regularly come up with new ways to move about the set, interact with each other, and generally act within the space.

Seriously, go back and watch The Dick Van Dyke Show. No one ever just stands still for an entire scene. People are always crossing from one side of the room to the other, getting in each others’ faces, pulling apart, and so on.

I had the privilege of watching Gail Mancuso direct a few episodes on the first show I ever worked on. She’s very funny, and helped the actors find the absolute best way to deliver their jokes on camera.

But she also helped them figure out how to exist in the space. Gail was never satisfied with a character just sitting on the couch while another talked at her. There was always funny business going on, and motion, and acting.

Gail is great, and totally deserves her Emmy for Modern Family. But I think she really shines as a multicamera director.

I hope you, too, can appreciate this dying art.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. Or rant.
  2. Right around the time auteur theory started to have an impact on American cinema. Hmmm…
  3. I told you I’d bring it back.
  4. We still call them three-camera shows, for… reasons.
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