This is a scene from the pilot Eric Ledgin and I shot in Sweden. It’s nearly impossible to choose one scene from a project I love so much, but I this one has Josephine Bornebusch, and Eric Ledgin.
1. It is never appropriate to yell or speak brusquely to people on set. We all lose our cool sometimes, but it’s never okay.
2. As a guest director, you are not there to make it your own. You are there to help.
3. As long as the audience understands the geography of the actors in a room, you can “cross the line” as much as you want.
4. Unless you are on a soundstage all day, always have your foul weather gear in your backpack.
5. Line producers always win, but if you make them a little uncomfortable with the scope or cost of what you are trying to do, then you are doing your job properly.
6. You will only get 1 good take with two-year-olds before they melt down. Don’t let anyone tell you differently, even if the kids were a dream to work with last season when they were one-year-olds.
7. Departments tend to eat lunch together. Any one of them will be happy if you join. Pick a different department every day.
8. Terrible pilots can turn into amazing shows. Always say yes if you like the people.
9. Finishing on time is your job, not the A.D.’s.
10. The difference between a single-camera tv show and a feature film is about 5 less setups per scene.
11. Private rehearsals are way better than rehearsals where 80 crew members are watching in stony silence while you try to figure something out that you’ve been struggling to visualize all week.
12. Control your set. Step in respectfully and make a decision everyone can live with when producers and actors are bogged down in a brainstorming session.
13. Don’t sit at video village. Stay close to camera. They’ll get you your own monitors, or you can lurk behind the focus pullers.
14. Go back to video village before moving on from every setup, and when you do go back there you should run. It reminds everyone that we are always in a hurry.
15. Everything that happens behind the camera is theater, so be aware of what kind of performance you are giving.
16. Always have a plan, and always be willing to throw it in the garbage.
17. Every single person on set thinks they could do your job. About twenty-five percent of them are right. (percentage varies in either direction)
18. Never give actors notes until after take two. If the writers don’t know about this, they will understand it when you explain it to them.
19. The costume department chicks are always the most interesting.
20. Showrunners have an enormous amount of pressure on them, and they just want to know that you’ll get at least one perfect take the way they pictured it. If you do that, then you’ll have a little room to experiment. If you were the showrunner, that’s how you’d feel.
21. TV stars don’t like to do a lot of takes. Day players just want to get it right.
22. Bring a camera on every location scout, and if the scene is complicated, shoot it with p.a.’s, the person who owns the property, the location manager, or anyone standing around who can read the lines. (This is most useful on commercials where every second needs to time out.)
23. When a large corporation says that they’d love to pay you more but they simply can’t afford it, they are lying. It’s the inverse that is true. They would hate to pay your more, and they can definitely afford it.
24. Directors sometimes hire food trucks as gifts to the crew. I’ve looked into it and it really is a custom. Figure out how you feel about this and don’t spend the money if you don’t want to. On some shows the writer will split it with you.
25. Agents really can help you, but your agent is not responsible for your career, you are. Jill Soloway once said to me “I try to think of my showbiz agent more like a travel agent. I’d never call my travel agent and ask, ‘So what’s the deal, are you getting me a vacation this year?’ I’d call and say ‘Here is where I’m going, please find me the best rate.'”
26. Be nice to absolutely everyone. It’s your set, and you set the tone.
27. Tone is everything.
Eric Ledgin and I wrote a pilot for IFC which we shot in Stockholm three months ago. I’m definitely post euphoria, going through the comedown phase, back to reading science fiction books at the coffee shop, and beginning to await word on the series. The good news is that there are abs classes every single day at Equinox. So it’s not like I’m wasting time entirely.
I’ve long since accepted that any big project, especially if it goes really well, is followed by a long and excruciatingly mellow denouement. I don’t know if Eric is going through the same thing. Funny because I could ask him. We talk several times a day.
In May of 2011, around the time I was leaving Late Night, I was telling my friend Dan Pasternack about how fucked up my penis looked after spine surgery. Pasternak asked me if I’d ever thought of writing a sitcom based on my own life (there was more than just the penis story fyi). It was nothing I had the inclination or confidence to try until Eric and I started traveling together.
Ledgin was on the monologue staff at Late Night, and shared an office across the hall from me with 2 other mono writers Morgan Murphy and Justin Shanes. I used to hear them analyzing jokes together, and loved to hear the way they focused on language. Crafting a monologue joke has a weird, almost equation-like elegance. Writing a monologue joke is something that I never successfully did in my entire time at Late Night. My brain does not work that way. The monologue writers were writing about 60 jokes a day, and I was fascinated by their process, and the intellectual rigor that they applied to it. I was just beginning the divorce process and Eric was in a relationship which had some ups and downs, so we had a few “deep talks” at work then started hanging out outside of work. One night I was doing karaoke in Manhattan with Eric and his girlfriend (they’ve since split up and Eric is now married to someone else…more on that later…or not…I mean this isn’t Eric’s blog) when I realized that when I was in his presence I felt like a winner. Which is the best thing you can say about a friend. I told him that when I was in my 20’s someone once told me that all the girls in Stockholm were hot and that I was planning to go. I asked the two of them if they wanted to come to Sweden and be my wing couple. She couldn’t get the time off of work, but Eric and I were on hiatus at the same time from Late Night, so he took a risk and said yes.
On April 18th, 2011 we landed in Stockholm for our vacation, still very much getting to know each other as friends. It was those long, meandering conversations that Eric and I had which became the basis of our show, but finding the structure would come later. In the moment there was simply a “Let’s work together!” vibe. On the plane home we wrote down every detail of our trip, diary style, just so we wouldn’t forget. Eric was still at Late Night in NY and I was in LA, so over the next 9 months we took those memories and crafted them into a larger idea, which we pitched to Pasternack (who incidentally is VP of Development at IFC) and the rest of the IFC development team.
After getting the official script order, we sat down one summer day in 2012 at a restaurant in Los Feliz and starting actually writing the pilot. We had put a year of time and energy into developing the idea, but had never actually written anything scripted, per se. I called Eric that night after our first session and said “I love writing with you!!” He was like “I was just thinking about how well our first day went!” It was adorable you guys.
The pilot was finished in August and approved in November with a plan to shoot in Sweden in the Spring.
We finished filming on April 19th of 2013, 2 years and one day after we first landed in Sweden for our vacation.
Now at this point you are probably asking, “What lenses did you guys shoot with?” Okay, I’ll get to that. We shot on Kowa anamorphic lenses.
Jonas Alarik, our DP, is a native Swede. He works mostly with the Alexa, and I have a bias for the Epic. He was open to both platforms so we decided to test both when I got to Stockholm. But as for lenses, I started floating the idea of shooting anamorphic to other people months earlier, and I got zero enthusiasm for the idea. Finally one night, a few weeks ahead of the shoot, I had the temerity to broach the idea in an email with Jonas. Here is our exchange:
|Michael Blieden||Wed, Mar 27, 2013 at 11:38 AM|
|To: Jonas Alarik|
|Jonas Alarik||Wed, Mar 27, 2013 at 12:51 PM|
|To: Michael Blieden|
|Michael Blieden||Wed, Mar 27, 2013 at 12:57 PM|
|To: Jonas Alarik|
|Jonas Alarik||Thu, Mar 28, 2013 at 3:37 AM|
|To: Michael Blieden|
We tested anamorphics and spherical lenses on Red and Alexa and it’s funny what happens to two camera geeks in a rental house. We both walked over the cameras we preferred and started playing with them. Me to my Red and Jonas to his Alexa. Occasionally we’d wander over to the other person’s station, but basically we were both absorbed in our own exploration for the better part of an hour. Then I had to come to terms with the fact that I was acting, directing, and with Ledgin, still writing. In a production as fast paced and small as ours, I wanted Jonas to work with the tool he naturally gravitates to. His brilliant work with the Alexa speaks for itself. I needed to let go of the camera, literally. So we chose Alexa and it worked out amazingly well. Jonas did exquisite work on this shoot. I will risk saying that even though it’s vaguely self-congratulatory but I cannot help but fawn over this man’s work. He pulled images that were straight out of my dreams. And for the record, the anamorphics we used are as fast, or close to as fast as any other lenses we could have used, from an aperture standpoint. Given the amount of low light shooting we had to do, this made it possible.
Also, at this point I have to give a very special thanks to @Radical.media who produced this pilot. They rep me for commercials so I knew that they had expertise shooting all over the world. Frank Sherma and Donna Portaro went way out of their way, for months and months, to bring all the pieces together for this shoot. They showed extreme care for the material. They are our partners and guides, and when it came to making decisions, whether it was lenses, wardrobe, locations, or 2 million other things you encounter shooting overseas, they were always helped us find the best creative choice, and made sure it was doable.
The screen grab below will illustrate the aspect ratio difference between Anamorphic 2.35 and 16×9. The frame on the left is how we shot it, and the frame on the right is what airs on every cable channel. Shooting anamorphic but planning for the 16×9 crop is an accepted practice, so we took that into account when shooting.
Anyone who’s kept up with me is not surprised that I’m spending this much time on cameras, lenses and the Red vs. Alexa debate. For the record, I still love my Epic, Alex Hanawalt and I are going ahead with the Dragon sensor upgrade, and my penis did completely recover from surgery.
I’ll have much more to say about this project as time goes on.
In August I got a call from NBC’s “Up All Night” EP’s Erin David and Andrew Singer.
“Up All Night” is a Broadway Video show and so is Fallon, so they knew me from my work there. They were looking for ideas for Up All Night’s main titles.
Their goal was to create a 30 second open to play at the top of every episode which would showcase their stars, Christina Applegate, Maya Rudolph, and Will Arnett. And yes I realized that I just described what “main titles” are so cut me some slack if you are in tv and just got super bored for a second. There had been some discussion of wanting to evoke the idea that we were looking through a scrapbook of the characters’ lives from the time before they had a kid, back when they were young and wild.
I got on the phone with Erin, Andrew, and Lorne Michaels the next afternoon and pitched them a 6 beat story about the three main characters, Reagan (Christina), Chris (Will), and Ava (Maya) all told with still photos. The beats were:
1 Leaving A Club
2 Being Drunk On The Street
3 Going To Another Club
5 Pregnancy Test
6 Passed Out With A Baby
Showing a sequence of stills is a technique that has been around forever and something I’ve used when appropriate. It certainly fit in with the scrapbook theme, especially if constantly wasted people kept scrapbooks of all the times they were wasted.
I shot a segment for Late Night called “Head Swap” and shot it entirely with stills. I’d typically shoot around 3,000 stills for every episode of Head Swap, then dump them onto editor Chris Tartaro’s computer and say “deal with this, jerk.” Then he’d laboriously, painstakingly edit a 4 minute video one still picture at at time.
Directing for stills is way different and for me much easier than directing for live action. Actors know that if I’m trying to catch a tiny slice of time, then they can act larger than life, and there is no pressure to carry a scene, say words, or give their emotions any context. They can bascially pose their way through the moods we want to capture in the photo. It’s a fun way to continuously get big performances from actors who normally prefer to be subtle and real.
Lorne, Erin and Andrew approved the stills approach and the story, with Lorne adding a beat where the Chris and Reagan are trying to put a baby crib together. I then spent a few days looking for reference photos on the internet. I scoured tons and tons of stock photos of people at nightclubs, people partying on the street, people being pregnant, and people passed out in their bed with children. That is literally a sentence made entirely of search terms I used in google for the 3 nights as I stayed up surfing for reference material.
At first I had a really hard time finding some legitimately cool photos of people dancing in nightclubs. They were either too plastic looking or too posed or not exciting. Then I found Caesar Sebastian’s photostream on Flickr. You can also see AMAZING images on his blog. The images of his that captivated me the most, like the one in the link above, were wild and colorful pictures of people dancing, where lights were trailing across the photo as if it were a time lapse, but in the center of all these swirling colors was a crisp and sharply exposed human form, with no trailing or blurring. I was amazed at the technical aspect of these pictures, because on the one hand there is clearly an open shutter involved, and camera movement which is what creates the streaking. But then how did he get the subjects to expose so crisply and with no trails? The answer is a setting called 2nd Curtain Sync, wherein the camera tells it’s flash to go off at the very end of the shutter cycle. So even if you have the shutter set to be open for a full second, the flash still pops at the end of that second. And digital flashes are so fast these days that film cameras like the Red can’t even register and entire flash in a single frame. The bayer pattern of the sensor doesn’t scan the pixels fast enough. I know this because I recently shot a scene with characters being hit with mutiple flashes at once (using 5 Canon 580EX type 2 flashes). And if you take a single frame of the Red footage where the flashes went off, there is clearly a large horizontal area in the image where there is simply no flash. It’s as if the flash was set off behind a shelf or a horizontal bar, which is then casting a shadow onto the subject. But what you are seeing is that area of the sensor, a millisecond or so later in time than the part of the frame which is illuminated by the light from the flash.
My point in going into all that is that if your subject is standing in front of you in darkness, then you can leave the shutter open for days and days, and sweep the sensor across the subject not get any blurriness or trailing because the subject is not emitting any light. But when the flash pops, even if you are in the middle of a fast pan, the dark subject in the foreground will show up crisp and in focus on the sensor because the subject is illuminated for such a short duration. And at the same time all the lights in the background continue to leave a trail across the sensor.
Jerry and I got on the phone together and clicked through Caesar’s Flickr photos, and Jerry could pick out which photos were shot with 2nd Curtain Sync, and which were shot with 1st Curtain Sync, where the flash is triggered at the beginning of the shutter cycle, as opposed to the end. Using 1st Curtain Sync, the trails of light seem to emanate away from, or out of the subject. With 2nd Curtain, the photos show lights trailing behind the subject, creating sense of forward motion.
Jerry also suggested some awesome ideas like zooming in while flashing with 2nd Curtian Sync, which creates a Star Wars hyperdrive effect.
Jerry Ward sent me a bunch of lenses, and another awesome Canon guy named Jung-Jin Ahn sent me a 5D mkII body, a 1D mkIV, and a whole case of lenses including Canon’s new 8-15mm L series fisheye lens.
Incidently, I didn’t use any cool effects on the pictures of Christina Applegate being pregnant, because the reference photos I found were hilariously boring, and so I kept those photos normal looking. There are some slobs out there on the internet who took unflattering, poorly lit pictures of their pregnant wives. They also inspired me.
To shoot most of the setups for our 6 beat story, I had to trail the Up All Night production for about 2 weeks and steal the actors for 10 minutes at a time between scenes. All of our nightclub shots, however, were done in one morning at Spot 5750 on Hollywood Blvd. This shoot was tightly choreographed because time with the actors was severely limited and we had a lot of setups to do. I went down to the club a day early and took reference photos of every setup we planned. Spot 5750 waitress Evelyn Stepp and camera assistant Zack Marchinsky were kind enough to serve as stand-ins. Below you can see an example of a test shot and a final shot.
While I was preparing for the nightclub shoot I was hanging out with composer Martyn Lenoble. Martyn wrote the music for the main titles and does a lot of other scoring for the show. He’s married to Applegate, used to be in Porno For Pyros, and has played with tons of bands you’ve heard of. I mentioned to Martyn that I wished I knew what music all the actors liked so that during the nightclub shoot I could surprise them with some favorite tunes and maybe photograph some genuine reactions. The dude instantly wrote me a list of Christina’s favorite songs! Cool husband alert. So then I had people email me playlist ideas for Will and Maya. I mean, obviously these guys are all great performers, so we would have gotten our shots either way. But I’d like to think this made their jobs easier, and they did have great expressions whenever their special songs came on.
As the season goes on you will see some of these photos change, as the producers want to keep updating the open. I’ve done one refresh already so if you watch the show this week you will see some new photos taken by me and some by NBC photographer Colleen Hayes.
All of these were taken by Jason Uhrmacher. You can Find Jason on twitter here.
4 or 5 months ago Mike Shoemaker came to me and said, “You know that vacation time we have in August? We don’t have it.” That was how I found out that Jimmy Fallon would be hosting the 2010 Emmys. That was how I got to direct the show open this year.
Some details as they come to mind. In no particular order.
- We shot the dialogue scenes in 4 hours on Friday 8/27.
- We shot the music sequences in 5 hours on Saturday 8/28.
- Charlie Haykel is an awesome guy who wears classy shirts.
- I think it’s my best steadicam work to date, and that’s a straight up boast. Deal with it.
- I love Chris Tartaro (the editor) and Amy Ozols (the writer) with all of my heart. In the past year I have pulled literally 9 thousand all nighters with those two clowns, and it’s basically like having a high school sleepover, only in an edit room.
- Thank you to Canon USA for loaning me two XF 305’s to shoot this. The cameras performed beautifully.
- I use autofocus when I’m on steadicam. It really works with the 305’s. They have face detection!
- Joel McHale scream-sings from the heart.
- Robin Antin and I share an awkwardness at parties which translates into dancing.
- Thank you Bruce Springsteen for doing most of the work for us.
- I bet there is a Jewish gentleman somewhere named Bruce Springstein, and he always has to correct people and say “It’s Spring-STINE”.
Here’s what happened. Deetch was softly playing ukulele at his desk and Bashir intoned “Ukulele music is annoying when you’re trying to get work done.” I told everyone to stay where they were and I got some gear, then we recreated the moment. It was like watching an instant replay in Midnight Club, LA only instead of a virtual racing environment it was my office.