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long vs short form coverage


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#1 Glen Alexander

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Posted 15 November 2008 - 03:41 PM

interesting story, FYI

from what i've seen from being around the periphery of productions, the directors who work with short forms and then go to TV have much more defined style.

example canceled TV show Shark, initally "standard" directors with coverage upon coverage with shoots that lasted 18+ hour days. j. woods, makes some changes, brings in director(s) with music video background who comes in cuts down days dramatically to ~9-10hour days.

after a scene, he says, to crew "did you get that?" if answer was yes, they moved on. the ratings still were good, top ten show.
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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 15 November 2008 - 04:06 PM

Sometimes that "standard" coverage is dictated by the producers and the studios, not the weekly visiting director.

I've done two TV shows now, one for HBO and the other for Showtime, where there was no mandate for standard coverage, luckily -- though we occasionally had long days due to the high page count on the call sheet, at least we had the option of shooting a scene in a minimal number of shots without necessarily getting close-ups on everyone. We ended the day last night on a scene where we covered it in one set-up running two cameras and were done quickly.

Both "Big Love" and now "United States of Tara" (premiering in January) rely mainly on moving medium masters, not too many cuts nor too many close-ups. I think with the advent of HD broadcasting and larger TV sets in homes, a medium shot seems to work dramatically without needing to punch in tight as often in the past TV shows.

Also, in HD broadcast, a tight close-up isn't always flattering...

As far as director's backgrounds, I've seen all sorts on these shows -- right now, I'm working with John Dahl and Craig Gillespie. John came out of music videos for Propaganda back in the 80's, and Craig comes out of commercials. Some of the other directors have come from indie feature backgrounds (like Tommy O'Haver, who I worked with two weeks ago) and others from theater, screenwriting, acting. Some are TV veterens, but more from the HBO / Showtime line-up of people who have directed shows like "Weeds", "The L-Word", "Deadwood", etc.

I have worked with a few directors in the past on features who came from standard TV backgrounds, and their excessive need for coverage got very tiring. A simple one-page scene can end up with a ridiculous number of angles, more than you could ever cut to in one minute of screen time.
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#3 K Borowski

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Posted 15 November 2008 - 10:53 PM

Forgive me for butting my head in here, as I've never even been on a sound stage, but I am relieved to know that the cliche TV photography is changing to be more like that we see in the theatre.

It's not that I dislike the close-up inserts, but, especially within the last ten years, I've seen crosscutting, over-the-shoulder, and talking-head shots that almost made me motion sick! It just seems so "safe" and unmotivated, that it is frustrating to watch this stuff, and is hard to understand how anyone would actually want to shoot it all day.

One thing that scares me about the prospects of entering this field is getting trapped doing the most unmotivated, conventional talking head shots on a TV show, so it is good to know that there appears to be a little bit of change going on.

But getting back to conventions and television, I had thought that another trend, the trend towards making it so that anyone with an IQ of 75 or less understand perfectly what is going on in anything that airs, had been ended since X-Files first came on the air.

Yet now, not just narratively, but visually, we seem to be regressing backwards to very safe, easy-to-understand stories and photography. Also queue loud, dramatic music sequence to let viewers know that a dramatic montage is going on :rolleyes: To me, not having at least a couple of shots to shoot with some visual irony, unorthodox or slow focus-pulling, or some harsh scene contrast takes all the fun out of doing this. What about a long shot?

I'd be interested in hearing your takes on these phenomena, gentlemen.
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#4 Glen Alexander

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Posted 15 November 2008 - 11:42 PM

I thought the jumping head shots came from japanese cinema followed up with Leone like in good, bad, ugly the final scene, jumping through tight close ups on eyes, hands, guns, mouths, faces, etc. i seem to remember some shots from early 50's japanese movies that were dizzing, jump, smash, zoom shots all in one.


it amazes me how one page of script drags on for a day, that ping ponging... ugh
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#5 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 15 November 2008 - 11:47 PM

A typical medium-budget show shoots roughly five pages a day, but one 5-page day isn't like another.

You can get a call sheet listing 12 scenes, some of which are only 1/8 of a page, but each scene needs to be staged and lit differently sometimes. Some may be day scenes followed by night scenes, and then followed by a day scene again.

Another day, you may just one 5-page scene on the call sheet - but maybe it's a scene with seven speaking parts and complex blocking, or maybe it's just two people sitting at a table talking. Or maybe you get scenes involving stunts, special rigs, make-up efx, and other time-consuming elements.

Or the dreaded "montage" scene... you know, the vague sentence in a script that says "we see him build a car over the course of a week" or "Atlanta burns" or "the war begins".

I've never really liked the macho culture in Hollywood that likes to brag about number of set-ups done per day. To me, if 10 great set-ups in a day perfectly tell the story, then that's better than doing 50 mediocre set-ups, half of which are unnecessary. I understand the importance of good coverage, but I think being overly conventional and mechanical about it gets rather boring to shoot and boring to watch as a viewer. On the other hand, I also like over-the-shoulders myself - they have a lot of advantages: you see both eyes of the actor facing the camera (compared to a 50/50 profile two-shot) and you know where the other actor is physically in the scene (compared to a single.) Sometimes it's better to keep things simple and not get fancy with the movement, framing, and lighting. Just trust that the scene will be compelling enough due to the performances, dialogue, and story.
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#6 Glen Alexander

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Posted 16 November 2008 - 12:00 AM

it seems like long format coverage is a relic of the suits applying their formulamatic stamp to 'guarantee' success. it must be boring as hell for actors as well, do the line over and over again from every damn angle, react to every reaction.... this could be because most shows don't have a strong overall creative force driving it?

couple of months ago, i read a call sheet for sex, lies and money that called for a lesbian hot tub scene.
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#7 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 16 November 2008 - 12:55 AM

Well, for broadcast network TV shows, coverage is some sort of safety net because you can more easily trim scenes to fit within the exact time spans between commercials. Less true for an HBO or Showtime hour-long or half-hour show with no commercial interruptions.

But the main reason they like coverage is that TV is really run by the Show Creators (often also head writers) and the lead Producers and Show Runners -- not the directors. But these key people aren't there for every moment of shooting, so they exert their creative control over the director in the editing room. So they like having options rather than being locked into the narrow choices of the director-for-hire.

That said, these shows can also have a house style in terms of shooting, editing, etc. And sometimes that means a pattern of unconventional coverage rather than conventional coverage. Like I said, the two TV shows I worked on generally do not rely on a lot of cuts to close-ups, a design choice developed by the original show creators and the director of the pilot episode.

I recall talking to a DP on the CSI shows, and he said that they generally shoot a very wide-angle master and then cover with telephoto lenses. I thought that sounded a bit mechanical, but I understand that it's part of the look of the show. But to do any style over and over again, month after month, year after year, must get a bit tiring creatively.
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#8 Chris Keth

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Posted 16 November 2008 - 01:33 AM

On the other hand, I also like over-the-shoulders myself - they have a lot of advantages: you see both eyes of the actor facing the camera (compared to a 50/50 profile two-shot) and you know where the other actor is physically in the scene (compared to a single.) Sometimes it's better to keep things simple and not get fancy with the movement, framing, and lighting. Just trust that the scene will be compelling enough due to the performances, dialogue, and story.


I admire the maturity it takes to realize that and to execute it. It takes someone truly committed to the collaborative effort to do something relatively simple, mundane even, with his own part in order to let the other parts stand out brighter in comparison.
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#9 K Borowski

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Posted 16 November 2008 - 01:51 PM

I want to clarify that, I don't think over-the-shoulder coverage is a bad thing, just that it is unnecessary after throwing two or three of them in to keep cutting back and forth from the same position. I've seen editing that could have been done by a computer it was such a formulaic pattern: Master, closeup A, closeup B, OTS A, OTS B, master, closeup A, closeup B, OTS A, OTS B. . .

Reminds me of what I heard for why they had to throw in more and more shots of the viewscreen on the Enterprise, so some dumb viewers that they polled who didn't get where the viewscreen was on the bridge wouldn't get confused.

I understand that certain shows have certain styles, and that sometimes it is a good thing to be a "team player" and suffer for one's craft, but I also think that shooting in a manner not akin to pulling teeth would have an amazing impact on crew and actor morale, and thus produce better performances. I think it is amazing how an industry that is designed to generate such an exciting product can reduce the process to such monotony at times.
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#10 Tim Partridge

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Posted 16 November 2008 - 03:05 PM

David,

I'd love to know about the kind of take ratios you are dealing with on those TV shows, given the medium masters you seem to be allowed to play with.

BTW- FWIW, I cannot stand over the shoulders. Especially in the UK. Most of my "civilian" friends have at one point told me how they hate it "when the camera is focused over the shoulder and the person in the foreground clearly is not moving their lips when we hear them speak". :rolleyes: The only people I think who can get away with it are the Scott brothers, who shoot on such ridiculously long lenses, wide open for close ups that it totally blurs out all of the inevitable continuity problems when the edit needs to be "flexible". Just a taste thing.
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#11 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 16 November 2008 - 07:04 PM

David,

I'd love to know about the kind of take ratios you are dealing with on those TV shows, given the medium masters you seem to be allowed to play with.

BTW- FWIW, I cannot stand over the shoulders. Especially in the UK. Most of my "civilian" friends have at one point told me how they hate it "when the camera is focused over the shoulder and the person in the foreground clearly is not moving their lips when we hear them speak". :rolleyes: The only people I think who can get away with it are the Scott brothers, who shoot on such ridiculously long lenses, wide open for close ups that it totally blurs out all of the inevitable continuity problems when the edit needs to be "flexible". Just a taste thing.


It's partly a focal length thing. If two people are facing each other and are only three feet apart, and you shoot their close-up on a long lens that is six feet away... then if you want the camera to directly face the actor speaking but don't want the foreground shoulder in the frame, the off-camera actor has to stand six feet away from the person on-camera in order to stay off-camera. Some actors find this disconcerting in an intimate scene, especially if the opposite actor has to lean in and kiss them or touch their face, etc.

Now at the other end, on a really short lens, getting a clean single is easy because the camera is physically within the distance between the two actors... but getting a tight eyeline gets harder without resorting to actors looking at the end of the mattebox instead of the opposing actor's eyes, again, disconcerting for the performer.

So I think on long lenses, over-the-shoulders are sort of inevitable, and this is compounded if you shoot 2.40 -- it can seem really odd for the close-ups to be clean unless they are very tight or the opposing actor is not standing too close.

Anyway, I prefer "dirty" shots where the actors, furniture, etc. are in the same frame to retain some sense of geography.

Of course you can stage a scene where the two actors are not facing each other when they talk, or if they are, shoot them in profile, but both approaches have their own issues. Sometimes in a scene where the actors are standing farther apart, you have the opposite issue, that even in a medium shot, one actor is clean of the other actor, so you end up with coverage where you are intercutting two people but never seeing them in the same shot unless you cut very wide.
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#12 Glen Alexander

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Posted 16 November 2008 - 08:27 PM

The only people I think who can get away with it are the Scott brothers, who shoot on such ridiculously long lenses, wide open for close ups that it totally blurs out all of the inevitable continuity problems when the edit needs to be "flexible". Just a taste thing.


do they use 600 f4? ha ha, i did.
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#13 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 16 November 2008 - 09:16 PM

I'd love to know about the kind of take ratios you are dealing with on those TV shows, given the medium masters you seem to be allowed to play with.


I've noticed a tendency for a lot of takes on the part of some of the directors, partly because we are covering less, so a take has to hold the scene longer, but also because this is an actor-driven dramatic show, not a show about action or lots of cuts. I noticed that on "Big Love" as well, we often did a lot of takes -- particularly the master when the creators, writers, and producers were there. I think they wanted to nail the performance down to their tastes in the master and then get to leave the set, feeling that the coverage would match the tone set in the master. And what I mean by nail down the performances is to make sure they fit with the story being told. Both shows, "Big Love" and now "United States of Tara" are comedy-dramas, so there are constant tonal issues to deal with in terms of how much humor should the scene have versus how much drama. It would be too easy to play a scene as a joke, but it is also too easy to play a scene too melodramatically, so you have to keep an eye on the tone because it is so subtle. And sometimes the dialogue is rather elliptical, so it helps to have the writer on the set to explain the intent of the scene.

I have the same issue with the cinematography, it has to be rather subtle and natural, not too dark but not "comedic" -- but the hard part is to not slip too far into blandness when playing between the two extremes.
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#14 K Borowski

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Posted 16 November 2008 - 09:47 PM

I have the same issue with the cinematography, it has to be rather subtle and natural, not too dark but not "comedic" -- but the hard part is to not slip too far into blandness when playing between the two extremes.


As the DOP, and obviously not wanting to hurt the look of the show for your own personal tastes, who double-checks your lighting suggestions? Do you ever get overruled on a shooting setup, "This is to moody." This is too dramatic of an angle."?
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#15 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 16 November 2008 - 11:25 PM

As the DOP, and obviously not wanting to hurt the look of the show for your own personal tastes, who double-checks your lighting suggestions? Do you ever get overruled on a shooting setup, "This is to moody." This is too dramatic of an angle."?


It's a collaborative process, but sometimes a director and I have set-up a dolly move and ended up making it a static shot because the move felt too stylish, too slick.

Lighting-wise, the only thing that's happened is that some directors have stuck their head inside my DIT tent to check to make sure a scene is dark enough on the big HD monitor, because what they get on their monitors is a LOG image downconverted to SD, so it's a bit washed-out & flat, not one through a LUT. So everything without the LUT looks rather overlit. It's a bit complicated to explain why I can't send a signal post-LUT (Panavision GDP box) to every set monitor, but I tried... and it would require multiple GDP boxes due to the number of possible inputs and outputs in the LUT box. Out of our budget.

Everyone seems to trust me in terms of lighting this show, I don't get questioned much. I get compliments though. I'm my own worst critic.
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#16 Glen Alexander

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Posted 16 November 2008 - 11:58 PM

i watched a crew shoot a "30-sec" scene and it took them 4 hours on HD. most treat digital with extreme laziness, just shoot everything from every angle, let the camera run, "fix it in post" bullshit.

if they actually had any common sense, they "production" would treat digital production like film, you have a limited amount of time, shoot only what you need, move on to next scene.

of course this doesn't apply to michael bay on transformers 2, they shoot shitloads of 65mm like there's no tomorrow.

Edited by Glen Alexander, 17 November 2008 - 12:00 AM.

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