Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Television is all about faffing around

I did a filmed interview for TV the other day. It's good to be reminded every now and again that TV is a visual medium.

The interview set-up was in a small office with a door that led into a larger outer office. The previous interviewee had been filmed in a different room in the same building. Obviously I couldn't be shot in the same place in the same way because TV grammar being what it is the viewer would have concluded I was in some way associated with the previous speaker.

To move even the simplest camera, sound recording equipment and lights from one room and set it up in another never takes less than an hour. The cameraman finally got me lined up. These were the early shots in a documentary for a proper TV channel and so they had to decide on a style. I was leaning forward. They liked that and so they composed the shot that allowed me to do that. The background was the outer office, carefully lit and artfully unfocussed so that it apparently looked like nowhere in particular. They spent a lot of time looking through the lens at the things behind me.

If you'd been doing the interview for any other medium the very first thing you would have done is shut the door to ensure that you weren't disturbed and the interviewee was not in any way inhibited by the thought of being overheard. But TV abhors a wooden door, particularly when it can have an arty blur. So the door remained open and the production assistant was sent into the outer office to shush anyone whose work might be picked up by the microphone.

There were lots of similar faffing around. When they had me lined up they decided it might be better to have the questions coming from off-camera left rather than right. So they moved everything - sofa, camera, microphone, me - and tried it from that angle. Then they worried about a straight line somewhere in the distance. Then they worried about whether you could see the lights properly. Finally we started.

The time spent filming was maybe a fifth of the time spent faffing. This delay wasn't because the people were in any way incompetent. It's just that TV is one long faff. It has to be. One of the most curious aspects was that later in the interview the cameraman kept jerking the lens away from me, as if he was having trouble with the tripod. I wasn't sure whether to keep talking or not. It turns out he was just providing some of that jerky quality that they now put into interviews to give the impression of looseness.

Over the years my slight exposure to TV has left me wondering how anybody could have the patience to do it for a living. More profoundly it's also left me with the firm conviction that nothing that you see on television "just happened". TV is more planned than Bach. If anything had "just happened" the camera would undoubtedly have been looking the other way. And they would have done it again, this time with better lighting.


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  2. As someone who does TV as a director it's not about patience. The whole creative process is a huge amount of fun. But unfortunately, as the subject you are waiting for me. Sorry about that.

    And things do just happen, but within the confines of the shot you have created. Shooting a documentary whole events take place in front of you, people remember terribly sad things, struggle to get it out, and so on. The secret is having a sense of what is about to happen, what moments have potential, and having the whole thing in your head so that when something surprising happens it can be incorporated into your greater argument. And of course waggling the lens around helps.

  3. Like anything in this world, there's more than one way of doing things.

    If you want a different perspective I'd recommend reading Digital Film-Making by Mike Figgis, he directed the movie Leaving Las Vegas, and his book is a short, illuminating read.

    He's got more of a f/8 and be there attitude, one example is an interview he did with Van Morrison, where in the pre-chat he realises than Van is opening up and he'll probably never be this candid if he has to wait around for a crew to set up, so he films there and then with crap lighting and all.

  4. Ha ha, very funny account of an all too familiar setup. Quite agree - the tedium can be mind numbing. However, luckily, there are people who understand the virtues of working quickly, not keeping your interviewee waiting endlessly and focussing on the conversation, not the frigging fingerprint on the window behind you. I once worked with people who took a couple of hours to set up, then decided the room was wrong, so took another two hours to set up in the next room. Ridiculous.
    I might cut and paste this, as a guide what not to do, for self-important directors and crews (which is most of them). How common to neglect the person who is providing their time and goodwill for you. A refreshing view from the other side of the lens.

  5. This all sounds about right for an interview especially one early on in production, though it would be more usual for a pa or other (un)lucky person to sit in while most of the set up is done , then tweak it for the actual subject.

    another thing to rember is the "Production Triangle"

    Good, Fast, Cheap - pick any 2.

  6. I once provided some technical expertise for a TV drama, and spent seven hours in a specially rented house in North London as one scene was filmed in its entirety.

    The scene, when broadcast, lasted for 47 seconds.

  7. Oh God. Those quick pulls out of focus andbacktofocus. Those jiggly camera moves; as if it's being done on the hoof by some undiscovered genius with a Sony from Sainsburys. All that grainy face-not-quite-in-frame stuff. Those angles. That glitchy soundtrack. Where did these people study how to make films? We should burn the place to the ground.