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Making a Sellable Pilot, Part 2: The Shoot

This week, we're talking about how to produce a TV pilot presentation that a production company or television channel would like to buy and turn into a series. Specifically, we're looking at the pilot for Talk Show the Game Show, which was just picked up by TruTV via Push It Productions

Yesterday, we talked about finding the project. Today we're going to talk about shooting it, tomorrow we'll cover post-production, and Friday will be about the business of it all. And at each step, I'll pass along some advice on how to make a project like this one better.

Chapter 2: Doing it Live

After I found out that Talk Show the Game Show was about to happen, and Guy Branum found out that I wanted to record it, I had about 36 hours to put together a crew and equipment. One zoomed-out camcorder in the back of a room isn't going to sell anything, so I ginned up a 4-camera shoot. So I guess your first tip is:

Tip 1: Have a network of connections and access to great equipment! 

Kidding. Sort of. I mean, it's a good trick if you can manage it. In my case, it was actually easier to put together a lot of gear on short notice than it was to get a lot of operators I trust to do good work at the last minute and on an uncertain budget, so here was my plan:

  • That's one camera in the back, shooting at 4k, which means it's both my wide shot, the all-purpose safety angle I should be able to cut to at almost any time, and it's usable as a punch-in without any loss in quality. This camera shouldn't ever move, so I didn't need a proper operator for it, I just needed a responsible person who could stop random audience members from standing right in front of it or pushing the tripod over. 

 

  • That's a second camera, with operator, for covering Guy Branum, the host. He talks and reacts and tells jokes and is the center of the show, so I need good clear coverage of him. (This also happens to be a viable angle on the scorekeeper.)
  • That's a third camera for the judges' table. This was intended to be unmanned as well, because the judges can chime in at almost any point in the show.
  • That's a fourth camera that I would operate myself that was intended for shooting the contestants.

 

  • The first audio recorder was plugged directly into the theater's sound system to record the voices of everyone speaking into microphones. 
  • The second audio recorder was in the room and recording directional mics aimed at the audience. If we want our buyers to think this show deserves to be broadcast, we want them to hear the jokes, and we really want them to hear the audience loving those jokes. 

Notice also that in almost all of our shots, you can see audience heads. I wanted to be sure our viewers never forgot that this show plays to packed, sold-out audiences.

Tip 2: Prepare for Success!

Almost all of the tips boil down to preparation, really. 

  • Going in, I'm familiar with the format of the show so I know what the viewer needs to see. TSGS is not a standup show, so trying to shoot it with just one or two cameras is like bringing a knife to a gun fight.
  • It's not enough to just set up some gear and hope for the best. Live multi-cam shoots need direction too. You need to tell your camera operators who or what to pay attention to, and to stick with that thing. This is your one chance to collect material for the edit, and what you never need in the edit is the exact same shot on every camera. It seems counter-intuitive to have one camera trained on someone who isn't doing anything, but it's worth the trouble if what you need is a shot of that person when they finally speak. 
    • You can shoot with really green camera operators in a pinch if you've got time to explain a few basics: the rule of thirds, shooting across the length of the stage so that you can see faces, choosing one closeup instead of a miserable wide shot with nobody in the frame, and staying on target.
Four-of-a-kind!

Four-of-a-kind!

 

  • This video is going to be edited. Shoot for the edit. Not every camera needs to act like it's live at all times.  It's fine to have a few frantic useless seconds of repositioning to get the useful stuff faster. Most people will cut that frantic messy part out.  
  • Make do: If we had more time or more equipment, we would have gladly used either one. A big fisheye gopro over the scorekeeper might have been a nice touch, and time to adjust or set up additional lighting would have been a real boon. As long as we're wishing, how about monitors for the director and headsets for talking to the crew? Not on this shoot. If we hadn't been able to pull together the gear that we had, I think I could have shot a good version of this on a bunch of phones. 

Tip 3: Prepare for Failure!

Since you know what the smooth sailing version of your shoot looks like, you've got more brains left over for dealing with problems when they occur!

  • A production with 6 recording devices is a production with at least 6 points of possible failure. But each device is also a failsafe for the others. And besides all of that, every one of these recorders is a backup plan for the others. Our cameras are recording scratch audio to help sync, but that could probably be a source for crowd laughs if needed. 
  • Remember, this video is going to be edited! Shoot coverage. Get inserts. Get whatever you can in between the moments, or even before and after the show. 
  • Our video production was almost like a separate show from the Talk Show the Game Show performance. We did not coordinate, they didn't check to make sure we were rolling, or getting good sound, or anything else. It was on us to be ready before they were, and to get as much as we could in one take.
  • Particularly if you're the producer (and shooting), you want to keep an eye on the details and the bigger picture all at the same time. At the last minute, one of our stationary cameras became a manned camera. At some point during the show that I noticed the operator had removed the lens from his camera for some reason, or was making some other kind of adjustment. Alarming! But because I noticed, I was able to try to cover his angle. During the judging sections, I changed camera positions to cover the judges' table, because I knew they weren't well represented in the other two shots. 

 

That was the shoot. From there, all we had to do was break down the gear, back up the media, return all the equipment, edit the show, do some light finishing work, get it into the hands of the right execs, and spend a year making the deals to turn it into a TV series on deep cable! We'll skip a couple of the boring steps and pick it up tomorrow with post-production.

 


Rob Schultz is an editor, comedian, and really very helpful when it comes to making a thing. He's had a hand in bringing over 300 creative projects to life. If you'd like help creating your project, get in touch.

Making a Sellable Pilot, Part 1: Finding Your Subject

As I learned from this Deadline article the other day, a pilot presentation I produced last year was recently picked up by TruTV as a series for 2017.  Exciting times!  I can't tell you everything about how to make selling a show happen for you; it probably requires agents and managers and famous people and secret backroom deals that I don't know anything about. But I can tell you how to produce a pilot presentation that's good enough to get a production company to spend money on a studio pilot that's good enough to get TruTV to spend money on a season of your show.  

Today I'm going to talk about finding a subject for your show, which is mostly how I got involved with making this pilot. Tomorrow we'll talk about shooting, Thursday it'll be post-production, and Friday will be business.  The nuts and bolts stuff I'd probably like reading about will be on those middle days.

Chapter 1: Someone tell me what to make a TV show about!

Tip 1: Know what you do.

In college, I produced three seasons of a talk show about hockey.  I don't particularly care about hockey, but I don't need to. The presenters know plenty, and they're the ones having the discussion.  So they talk and I arrange cameras and lights and sound and graphics, and we meet in the middle on the gun battles and cliffhanger endings and other silly stuff that goes into me making a talk show.

Even though I like writing things, I already have experience building up the scaffolding of a video production around a core of an existing act.

I had seen Talk Show the Game Show on stage at least a dozen times, in various theaters, with various lineups of guests and judges and scorekeepers. Guy Branum and Casey Schreiner have refined their show over lots of performances, and they don't need me to tell them how to do it. The stage show was already honed and there was no reason it couldn't move to TV, at least in my opinion. Most importantly, for some crazy reason, nobody had already done this! 

The tip here is the same thing a lot of indie filmmakers say: figure out what you've already got access to for free production value. In my case, this seemed like a perfect pitch: I didn't need to develop or meddle with the content of the show, which the performers would be happy about.  I just needed to make a recording that shows someone('s assistant) in an office somewhere how much people like this thing, and how much everyone will like them if they put it on TV.

What I do is turn the crank on the video-making machinery.

Tip 2: Strategize, but don't delay.

Unfortunately, the next step is a little bit like Steve Martin's "First, get a million dollars." The legwork you need to do to get a project rolling is going to be different every time. Maybe you need to get writing, maybe you need to seek funding, or start casting rich housewives. 

In 2015, I performed at the Bridgetown Comedy Festival. So did Guy Branum. Even though I had already run into Guy a bunch of times in Los Angeles, and he'd performed on shows that I produced or hosted, it seemed like a great chance to chat with him as a peer. (I have this idea that you meet people as either a fan or a peer, and it's difficult for everyone if they get too muddled.)

The festival rented out a video arcade to entertain the comics one afternoon, and we walked there together from the hotel. I re-introduced myself (the less-famous comedian may as well get used to introducing and re-introducing themselves without taking it personally. We all look the same.) and we talked careers for a mile.  How do you get writing packets to submit to shows, what other festivals are worth doing, and oh, by the way, how come nobody has ever made a TV show out of your great stage show? Did you know I happen to have the resources to do a good job of that?

The number one thing I needed was for Guy to be interested. If it turned out he had a deal already or was happy with his other TV jobs and didn't want to adapt TSGS then the project would have been dead in the water for me. 

Tip 3: Talk to people. 

It's okay to tell people what you're up to. Nobody is going to steal your idea. Most people don't have enough passion or drive to make their own ideas, and those that do are too busy. Besides all that, you don't know who can help you, and neither do they unless they know you need help. After Bridgetown in May, I went home to Los Angeles and Guy went to New York to write shows for Billy Eichner. My plan to shoot a Talk Show the Game Show performance was useless without anyone in town doing one.

By September, Guy Branum forgot all about our conversation. When he ran into my comedy show producing partner, Jason Van Glass, and invited him to a Talk Show the Game Show happening that week, Jason was able to connect those dots and remind Guy that there was someone who wanted to shoot his show.

Probably, what would have happened is I would have gone to see the show and tried to make plans to shoot the next one. And then our schedules wouldn't've lined up and we'd delay, and then one of us would be out of town and missed the next one, on and on. Instead, we cut right to the chase and I had 36 hours to put a shoot together. Find out how that went down tomorrow!


Rob Schultz is an editor, animator, comedian, sometimes even producer. I know, everyone is like, a six-part hyphenate these days, but in almost 20 years of video production I've racked up somewhere around 300 projects. If you'd like help making your thing better, let's talk.