By Jason A. Rzucidlo
On Thursday, The Television Academy hosted a Zoom meeting with executives and crew members titled “Shooting Remotely while Waiting for the New Normal.” Television networks still had timeslots to fill during the COVID-19 quarantine.
As of Friday, June 12, Hollywood was given the green light to resume in-person productions by California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Movies and television shows can once again shoot with strict guidelines to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.
Kris Eber moderated the online discussion which was held on the evening of Thursday, June 11. He line produced half-hour sitcoms such as “The Muppets,” “The Kids are All Right” and “Sunnyside.” He recently worked on a half-hour pilot for ABC television.
“When we embarked on that show, we had no idea how or what we were going to do to execute this great creative,”Eber said.
“And then, less than two weeks later, we turned a cut into the studio. There were tech challenges to overcome, the sensitivity of creating comedy in the midst of a pandemic, and our own health and safety to protect. It was challenging. We had a lot of fun. We definitely made some mistakes. But in the end, we created something I’m really proud of.”
The online discussion was divided into four segments: virtual productions, producing web specials, scripted episodic shows, and a question-and-answer session.
EXECUTIVES AND VIRTUAL PRODUCTIONS
Andrina Davis is Vice President of Production at Westbrook Studios, producers of “Red Table Talk” and “Will from Home.”
She was asked to comment on ‘Red Table Talk’: “The show is actually shot at the private residence of Jada Pinkett Smith. So what we had to—we had to consult with the county and public health officials. And, also, we just had to rely on the comfortability of the talent. So Jada, her mom, and her daughter, are the talent in the show. And once they felt comfortable, then we moved to the next step to see if this was possible, if we could shoot the show. I talked to our COO and she was consulting with our legal. And we felt that we could proceed safely and in compliance to do that show. We’re a special case because we shoot at a private residence but the crew is over 60 people. So we could not do that. And the new rule was 10 or less. So we had to figure out how we could shoot the show and not lose production value. And the awesome EIC who’s on the show, she was able to scale it back and figure out how we could do this. So we use Polycom systems, which have to be sent individually to all the guests because we can no longer have guests that come to the table. And if we had a guest that came, we had to seat them six feet apart from the talent, which is hard when you already have three people there. And scaling back on our crew meant camera operators had to man multiple cameras. We had sanitizing, we had masks, everybody was considerate and followed the instructions.”
Tiffany Faigus is the Vice President of Alternative Series and Specials at ABC Television.
“Well, I think were were sort of two schools of thought. There was dealing with the shows that you already had that are either gearing up in production, in post or about to shoot. And then, simultaneously, from an ABC and also Disney perspective, there was just this sort of corporate desire as a brand to try to deliver some content from a specials perspective, which is sort of where the two Singalongs came from. But I think a lot of us were just forced to—’American Idol‘ is a perfect example of you’re in the midst of a season. Were there conversations of, well, the season’s over? Sure. You have to ask those questions. But as cliche as it sounds, the show really does need to go on. And I think we, specifically as a broadcaster, where our time slots are going to be there no matter what, you have to figure out ways to pivot. And I think our producers and the executives overseeing that show did just that. And I think the entire industry has had to do that, basically, just pivot and figure out, OK, what do we need to do? What do we need to get done? And how do we get things on the air?”
Luke Wahl is the Vice President of Viacom Digital Studios
“Well, the first thing we did virtually was the town hall with Kristen Bell. And so that directly was about Coronavirus. Right? And we had really no idea what we were going to do or how we were going to get into it. So, I mean, our content was directly related to what was happening. So that was a valuable thing for us at the time. We needed to make something for Nickelodeon that was impactful for kids, right, and that was something that would suit them and teach them during that time. So, yeah, it was pretty cool. The tech was a nightmare. We didn’t have a SAN and everyone’s editing in all different environments. It was pretty hectic. We needed to record isos, right? So you can’t do it here. So we had to find a platform that did that. We used this thing called Social Live. We like hacked it in a weird way. But there’s been better ways to do it that we discovered since then. But it was hack that worked for us on that production.”
PRODUCING WEB SPECIALS
Raj Kapoor is the Executive Producer and Creative director of “Disney Family Sing-Alongs” and “2020 Graduate Together.”
Prepping for Singalongs: “The Singalongs were a very quick process. By the time we had a little preproduction meeting, over the weekend, and Monday morning, April 6, was green light. By the end of the day, we probably had 50 to 60 people engaged on our teams because we knew how fast we had to make this. And we delivered to ABC on the 16th. So from green light to broadcast was 10 days with us kind of delivering on the 10th day in the morning. It was fast and furious like the format didn’t exist. The talent didn’t exist. It was all just go. Monday morning, it was go and start making it. And we were literally shooting four day later with certain segments. It was all a learning process. And it’s like, you get a bunch of people together, you come up with creative ideas, and there’s no time to backtrack. You keep moving the train forward. You’re making stuff constantly, and you’re working really hard, and your days are long. And it’s a really amazing creative process, but you’re doing it all remotely.”
Noam Dromi is the Executive Producer and Creator of “Dispatches from Quarantine” and EP of “Saturday Night Seder”
About non-profit Reboot: “When quarantine sort of happened, one of our executive leaderships sort of immediate mandate was we want to support artists, people who stopped touring if they were musicians or had live theater shows or they were comedians, other creative practitioners. And they were able to coalesce from their funders some money immediately to do that. I’d like to say, just taking bragging rights, I think we beat Singalong by five days. We were up April 11. This is one of those things where we have to be cautious of course, of we weren’t drop shipping equipment to people. We had to be mindful of very limited time to sort of not have a tech rehearsal and a dress rehearsal. And then, more significantly, also be cognizant of the inefficiencies of different connection speeds and other variables that I know everyone is dealing with.”
Benj Pasek is the Songwriter and producer of “Saturday Night Seder”
“It was a crazy project. I come from the world of theater. I’ve done some TV as well. But when Broadway shut down and everybody in New York got corona, including me, we were all kind of thinking like, what can we do in this time, especially with the Passover holiday? The Passover holiday is really about going from confinement to freedom, going from winter to spring, going from a place of slavery to a place of freedom. It felt like everybody was literally trapped inside their apartments. We wanted to create some content that was about this metaphoric moment that we were all going through, and try to create something that felt communal. We had to figure out a lot of technical components to it. We did everything from figuring out how to Zoom while a star was using their iPhone to record stuff. Or if people were having back and forths, we used this thing called StreamYard. I’m primarily a writer so I’ve never produced anything in this vain before. So discovering all of these mediums was completely new to me. We also wrote original music for it as well.”
Aaron Bleyaert is the Producer of “Conan” and Team Coco Podcasts.
“I think the late night format is interesting because you’re doing a show everyday. So for the most part, you’re moving very fast and things are fluid anyway. I think we’re extremely fortunate because Conan since the beginning in ’93 has done remotes, a lot of remote shooting. And then these past few years we’ve been doing these Conan Without Borders shows and going around the world and figuring out. I’m with Conan in Ghana and having to figure out how to shoot 19 things at once with my fellow producer, Ruthie Wyatt. I think we’re really fortunate in the way that our team is full of very motivated, intelligent, creative, tech savvy people to begin with. And so when the quarantine hit and we had to kind of figure out how to do that Conan was—he wanted to shoot it by himself at his house. Honestly, one of the biggest challenges was teaching Conan how to do that. But he’s smart. You know, the guy went to Harvard, so he picked it up. But that was a big challenge. Our editors have home rigs and these things. And that was the scramble to get it going. A lot of us took up that challenge with a lot of gusto.”
SCRIPTED EPISODIC SHOWS
Rob McElhenney is the Creator, Director and star of “Mythic Quest.”
About the quarantine episode: “It was born out of the same reasons that everybody’s been mentioning. We just really wanted to get the crew paid, honestly. Apple, of course, agreed to that right away. We had been down for months by that point. We thought, well, we’re seeing SNL do it. We’re seeing a couple other shows try to figure it out. Maybe we’ll do the same. But just because of the nature of certain people’s jobs, they weren’t going to necessarily be needed on our sets. We wanted to figure it out in which we could make the episode without anybody ever coming into anybody’s home. Nobody ever left their house except for there’s one scene at the end where I leave and I’m walking on my street. But then I walk in, and I walk into my own garage. And we make sort of a special effect/digital effect to make it seem like there’s somebody else on the B side of that scene. You mentioned this earlier, sending the actors an iPhone and saying good luck. Good luck came in the form of four hour tutorials over Zoom or FaceTime or various phone calls, where the DP would walk each actor through all the video settings. The sound department would talk the actor through all of the audio settings.”
Morgan Sackett is the Producer and Director of “Parks and Recreation,” “Veep” and “The Good Place.”
About Quarantine episode of Parks and Rec: “It was really NBC or Pearlena from Universal calling us and saying, do you guys want to do something? Do you want to do a table read of an old episode? And we thought about it Mike Schur emailed the cast, and everybody got back to him within a few minutes. Mike said originally, it’s got to be something for charity. And they were all in, in a few minutes. And I think Mike thought about it, and I thought about it overnight. If we have an opportunity to get this group back, we should do something besides read an old show. I think NBC and everybody—because, you know, the network execs earlier can—they needed things to air that were new and fresh.”
Michael M. Robin is the Executive producer and Director of “All Rise” and “The Closer.”
About All Rise: “We had shot episodes 19 and 20 in post production. They had airdates. And I was on day three of shooting episode 121 when we and Warner Bros. said, you know what? We need to all go home. And then the NBA canceled their season at lunchtime. And everybody looked at me and went, we need to go home. That’s indeed what occurred. For the first little while, we were at home just kind of stunned, like what are we going to do here? We did have a couple days in advance, we could smell this was coming. I send all of the editors home with Avids. They were all at home and we got that sort of worked out. We could do post remotely. And so we were in the middle of cutting these shows and having this sort of check-in with our editors. And the first 15 minutes of each one of these kinds of editorial calls were like, how are you doing? And you could feel the human connection that was sort of coming over this platform. Because we had started to all this stuff on Zoom. I wonder what we might be able to do with this?
I got a phone call from Tom Sherman at CBS and said, hey, those three days you shot of episode 21, any chance you could stretch that into an episode? I had literally been working with Len Goldstein, one of our other executive producers and the editor on that show, and said, let’s see what we can do. Our editor came back and said, well, you guys shot 18 minutes. So I said to Tom, I said, I got 18 minutes. Too bad, because we could have really used an episode 21. When he said that, it was like, I felt bad that I let him down. And so after a couple of days of working in Zoom and really feeling the human connection, Len and I started going, I wonder if we could tell a story, like literally our characters are going through this exact thing. One of our consulting producers on the show is Gil Garcetti, who was the District Attorney of the County of Los Angeles. We reached out to Gil and said, what’s going on in the court system? And he was like, it is a mess. Basically, any lawyer or any judge who’s over 50 years old has asked for a continuance and they are gone. And so everything’s getting stuck. And that became, ah, we have a professional story that we could tell inside of this. That sort of became the tent pole of which to tell a professional story. We could go find all of our characters and see what they were going through this system that we were all getting used to learning about and tell the personal side of it and commingle it, and make it literally kind of—you know, we use realism in our world.”
Oz Rodriguez is the Executive Producer and Director of “Saturday Night Live.”
“It actually was surprisingly not—it went pretty well and fast. The whole show sort of got put together really quickly. The first week of April, the producers and Lorne and NBC started talking about doing something. Maybe it’s a message from the cast that could—basically, we’re doing repeats, obviously. So the conversation was to maybe do a little message from the cast. And that became, then, a maybe we do a Weekend Update from at home. Once word got out, I think everybody got really excited, especially the younger cast members and new customers, like Chloe and Heidi, who have done so many things on Instagram and are more comfortable with the YouTube language. And they did the videos right away. And basically, the next week on Monday, Lorne and the producers said let’s do this. There was more submissions than they thought. It was very informal there wasn’t a table read or rewrite table. Everybody just started submitting stuff on their own. The IT department did send a bunch of iPhones. Like you said, that’s exactly what happened because everybody was all over the country. They designed a workflow around the iPhone. That worked for all kinds of sort of tech knowledge.”
Once again, Hollywood can resume in-person production. But there were definitely a few months of completely rethinking the way a show could be put together. It will be interesting to see how many crews continue to work from home.
For more information about the Television Academy, visit www.emmys.com.