I’m quoted in this recent NYT piece by Farhad Manjoo.
If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you know that the notes process is generally one of my least favorite things about working in television.
a) Because some execs enjoy creatively thumbprinting the clay rather than just correcting / clarifying / asking for alterations that satisfy network quality standards, marketing, and the interests they are overseeing the show for, making superficial changes that are different, but not better, and often have massive repercussions when it comes to story in the works on anything with a season arc.
b) Because some EPs and Supervising Producers routinely dismiss fantastic notes from the really great executives in some sort of “how dare they” creative pissing match. I’ll say it for the record, I’ve had my ass saved on more than one occasion by a great idea at the network level.
c) Because both sides of the equation often feel absolutely right about their takes on the notes process and empowered to enforce the execution of their requests, you, the story producers and editing teams, are sometime stuck in the unpleasant middle, trying to satisfy one master while basically digging your own grave with the other.
In the interest of self-preservation, might I suggest actually having an opinion and making real choices in your early cuts? A take on the material? A genuine giving-a-f*ck-about-what-you’re-making investing of your creative energy? Sure, there’s a tone and a spirit for every show that you need to follow, but if you don’t feel anything for it, how can you expect it to go over well?
Early on in a career, it’s easy to make basic, rote decisions that essentially compress time and accomplish little else. Imagine how I feel whenever someone on staff shows me a 27-minute stringout of a single act that should be maybe 8-11 minutes. Everything of interest that happened over a certain time period is in there, but if you hand it over to an editor in that condition, the editor’s going to have to make a lot of story choices to make it fit.
Now, some editors are great with story. Others aren’t. I favor something tighter… a stringout that’s maybe twenty-five to fifty percent longer than it needs to be, maximum, accompanied by a discussion or written directive of how the scene is supposed to fit into the bigger picture of the episode instead of just peeking into the bay and telling the editor where the new scene lives in the system.
Stringing too tightly can yield other results, as most editors will agree with me that their first reaction to a too-lean stringout is to match in and start reviewing material. Now everyone’s back to that weird place where the intent of the scene is diluted again because something noisier or flashier or not necessarily on-point finds its way back into the edit, the story team sometimes admonished by the editor with a “you sure missed a lot of gold in there.”
Sometimes they’re right, and sometimes they’re not. But everyone could save a lot of time if the outline for the show is shared with the editor and the intent of the entire episode is clear even when working on one-twelfth of it at a time. This sets up that, that leads to the other, and by the end of the show, the payoff or cliffhanger is the other thing. You’re not stringing twelve to fifteen vignettes, you’re putting together parts of a clock.
I suppose that what I’m rattling on about is that your EPs and execs really want to see a show that makes sense. And you can’t give them one if everyone’s metaphorically pounding on different instruments without sheet music. If the show doesn’t make sense, people who generally don’t deal with or understand story mechanics are going to lose their minds and just start firing arrows in the dark while they try to figure out what’s not working… which makes everyone miserable.
Have an opinion about the work and the direction you’re taking it in. Work together with the editors to make sure it makes sense. NEVER pass anything on until it makes sense to you, because your team is probably more familiar with the story than anyone else… and if the insider’s view doesn’t make sense, what hope does anyone else have of deciphering and actually enjoying your content?
- Update your outlines and be sure the editors are as aware of what must be accomplished as you are. Don’t just dump loose scenes on them.
- Make sure that your take on the material jives with that of your EPs and network. Don’t “wing” the feel of the show.
- Make sure that the progression of action and evolution of cast is consistent.
- If you don’t feel good about a story in progress, speak to your EP sooner than later. And ALWAYS have an alternate plan/take ready when you do.
- Never allow yourself to just compress time. It’s the difference between finger painting and creating great work.
I’m proud to be an incoming member of the recently formed Entertainment Industry Association of Consultants and Educators.
From the eiACE website:
“We are a non-profit organization supporting professionals of the highest caliber in fields relating to story development, analysis and education. This alliance was formed by a group of professional colleagues who share a great respect for each other’s work and a commitment to elevating the art and craft of storytelling.
Not all consultants and educators in the entertainment industry are created equal because their background, proficiency, experience and reputation vary greatly. It is the goal of our organization to promote through our membership those individuals who meet only the highest standards of professionalism. Therefore, writers, directors or producers looking to hire a consultant or take classes in story related fields may utilize our website to enlist such services with ease and confidence. People looking for instruction or consultation can trust that they will be getting an experienced teacher or consultant who is a recognized authority and an accomplished professional.
Another of our primary goals is to advance and promote a greater understanding and appreciation of story in all media. Many of our members have authored some of the bestselling books in this field worldwide. Through eiACE, we will continually be offering workshops, lectures and seminars that promote some of the most cutting edge work being done today. We aspire to be a laboratory for the creative work that is continually developing the field of narrative.”
Here’s the trailer for FIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: PARADISE CALLS, which I had the pleasure of leading the writing and post teams on over the last 26 weeks or so. It’s making its debut on YouTube on 10/31. Scary, silly fun, and one of the best examples I can give of how reality producers (in this case, led by the great Alpine Labs team) can create an outrageous world that allows participants to experience it without having to be led by the nose.
Check it out just in time for Halloween.
Hi, all. Gee whiz, it’s been a while… I feel like a ghost on my own blog.
Thought I’d pop by with a grab bag of pro tips that aren’t long enough for their own features, but that have been hard-won lessons along the way. Enjoy.
A 44-minute docusoap typically keeps its pace best at 12-15 scenes. Don’t overload it. More is not more. More is too much.
You can’t tell five stories in an episode with a cast of five people. People can participate in others’ stories, but it’s best to keep to an A,B,C and maybe single-scene D story. Yes, if you have a one-scene nonsequitur moment that you want to use (maybe because it’s funny), it probably belongs at the top of Act 2.
Get somebody in the room who hasn’t seen the edit to watch down your rough cut. You know the material and your brain fills in the gaps in logic and story based on that familiarity. Let fresh eyes that you don’t have to answer to get a look.
Stick up for the show, not just your ideas.
Check out this fun piece over at Racked.com in which I’m quoted about signature looks being helpful or harmful to reality participants, mostly pertaining to those kitchen-wiz kinders over at MasterChef Junior, which you really should be watching.
Just click on the image above to be whisked right over. Whisked. Oh, just go.
Well, here we are, not so deep into 2017. I’m wrapping up on season three of Vh1’s K Michelle:My Life and looking forward to some new shows and non-TV opportunities the year is already hinting at… including another book.
If you know me, you know what a fan of lists I am. I keep a list of goals to be accomplished in one year, five, and ten, and I’m also a big fan of making resolutions.
While I’ll be keeping mine to myself, as I usually do, here are a few that reality television viewers and producers might want to consider if they haven’t already filled up on “stop eating donuts” and “spend more time with Mom.”
In 2017, I will…
… try to remember that reality television, like scripted, depends on conflict as an element of story.
… be skeptical of anyone publicly ranting about how a show “made them look,” while watching shows with a critical eye just in case overly heavy-handed producing is in play.
… write or email networks in support of the shows I like.
… stop blaming reality television for Donald Trump in water cooler conversation. It’s not like the American Idol judges picked the president, the electoral college did.
… eat healthier snacks while watching The Voice.
In 2017, I will…
… remember the credo “Everything can be made better than it deserves to be,” while also accepting that you should just do the notes if you can.
… establish style guides and then give the editors a little room to execute. Don’t crowd ’em.
… think of the post team while in the field as more than the bank from which overdrafts are covered.
… think of the field team while in post, especially when writing massive amounts of pickup material or reviewing content that may not be perfect.
… establish what you expect before something is shot and cut. “I’ll know when I see it” isn’t leadership.
… spend at least as much time contemplating story as the overall look of the series. All beauty and no brains makes for a dull show.
Holy Earth, Wind and Fire… it’s already September? I can’t believe I haven’t posted since July. How’s everything with you?
On August 17, YouTube Red launched FIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: EXPERIMENT 88, an original series I served on as Supervising Producer earlier in the year.
Just last week, I started work on a new show for reality powerhouse ITV / Leftfield that I’ll discuss just as soon as it gels into a thing and they announce it.
Beyond that, I’ve also been making strides on biographical feature film you’ll hear more about as it moves forward. I absolutely love the subject of the film, and she’s been incredibly cooperative in helping me to tell the most realistic version of her story possible.
Finally, thanks to the folks at MWP and the University Film and Video Association for such a great time last month in Las Vegas. I’m grateful that so many educators are getting behind the book and that the new material in the second edition has proven helpful.
New posts in the works. See you again soon!
Since a good friend asked me for my thoughts on these today, I thought I’d share them with everyone.
Before you read on, just know that this is how I generally approach this stuff in a vacuum if I’m not given any sort of directive. Mileage and notes pass experience may vary.
SUPERTEASES and SUPERTRAILERS
You’ve culled the best moments from the series (so far) and need to cut a Supertease for the end of the first episode or a longer Supertrailer for web use. How do you put it together without it seeming like a lot of unrelated noise?
First, look for an opening bite that works as a thesis statement for the season, even if it’s as loose as “It’s about to get crazy up in here” or “Bad news, guys, we might be losing the business.” This frames the action as you burst into it from there.
I like to group the Supertease/Supertrailer action by moods, and make sure each section is clearly set apart from the one before and after by a shift in music and tone. Make the division clear.
Try this combo: Opening statement, scene selects that are happy, scene selects that are sad, scene selects that are loud/confrontational, then end on the loudest, biggest clip you’ve got. It’s nice if you can find a good closing statement that bookends the whole mess with a thought not unlike the one you opened with, but implying big risk/stakes.
For Act 2, I always end with a deeper tease letting you look ahead to something big in act 6 (or 5 if you have a 5 act structure). For all other teases, resist the urge to completely give away the biggest moment in the next act… I often look for a bold statement and end on an exaggerated version of the reaction shot. You want the moment that’s about to explode, not the whole explosion.
These should generally only contain material that sets up or reminds us of what’s being paid off or advanced heavily in the current episode. Nothing else matters, no matter how loud or visually attention-getting. The whole deal is about making sure viewers, especially new ones, understand where tonight’s action is coming from.
Don’t forget to use these as the foundation for your previously-ons and next-ons for the episodes before and after. Why do these completely from scratch?
Next ons should hint at further development of something already in motion as of the current episode OR tease something really big and new that’s coming down the pike. I usually limit myself to two or three beats of general action, loudest/most active last. If you’ve got big action, consider hiding the real physical action, covering it with big reaction shots. That way, revealing the real image/action in the next episode will feel like a surprise.
That’s all for this entry. Story pals, any favorite approaches to these? Leave ’em in the comments section.