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.
- 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.