Every creative team is a bit like “The A-Team.” We’re all specialists who try to be great at what we do. And in a perfect world, our whole team comes together to win the day. While Hannibal may be the team’s leader and signal-caller, everyone has something to add to the equation, and ultimate success wouldn’t be possible without everyone’s contribution. So how can we pitch in and take our shows to the next level? Here are some ways to use your skills to put your mark on a great show while still keeping a cohesive vision.
Understand the strengths and weaknesses of your show’s production pipeline.
The shooting patterns and ways personnel are assigned vary a bit from show to show. And each organizational structure has its strengths and weaknesses. Some shows shoot their episodes individually in the order they will air. Others may produce episodes in blocks, with the same team assigned to all of the episodes in that block.
Each method has its strengths and weaknesses. Producing one episode at a time means that the director can focus completely on that episode, and all of the footage and elements needed will be finished within a fairly narrow window. This can help streamline production and keep things on schedule. It can also allow a director to really put a significant imprint on a particular episode, making it possible to choose a director with the perfect skill set for that episode’s themes and style.
On the other hand, shooting in blocks can give the production team more continuity, with a single director influencing and being exposed to more of the season’s ongoing story. Shooting in blocks also offers some obvious production efficiencies since those episodes can basically be shot like one feature over a period of several weeks. This means that locations that repeatedly appear throughout the block can be scheduled together, and shooting itself can be much more efficient. Editors can also start to assemble the entire story arc that is set to unfold over multiple episodes and make sure that it’s working.
However, shooting in blocks also has its drawbacks. In some cases, an editor may have to wait for critical elements of the episode that airs first because they haven’t yet shot critical scenes that will be done at a later location. Members of the creative team may also be unavailable for specific sessions because the various episodes they’re working on may be at different stages of completion at the same time.
Having a plan that takes advantage of the benefits of your production pipeline while minimizing the potential logistical challenges is really important in keeping things running smoothly and creating the best show you can. A smart production plan can help you avoid potential issues of availability while also maximizing creative continuity.
Use your resources.
With so many people working together to create one final creative product, there are a host of resources to take advantage of. Whether the show is brand new or has been on air for years, there are tools at your disposal that can be used as references. Some of those things are objects or files, show bibles, visual references, notes from tone meetings, and even past episodes.
But there are also human resources that can add a whole layer to the creative process. One important one is the script supervisor. If your first involvement with a project is during post-production, you probably won’t know everything that was discussed on set or everything that happened during the shoot. But you can gain a lot of that knowledge by talking to the script supervisor and reviewing the script notes. There is often a knowledge gap between those who were present at the shoot and those who are using the footage that was captured. The script supervisor and notes are one of the ways to create greater overlap, as mentioned earlier, between two phases of production that may not be well connected.
Script notes contain valuable information about each take, as well as call attention to differences between setups and takes that might not be immediately apparent. They also can provide insights into what each setup is trying to achieve. And those insights can be useful to essentially every department in the process, from edit to sound to visual effects and color correction. They can make the difference between capturing necessary subtleties in the finished episode and missing out on some of the layers of the show (or creating inconsistencies that you’re unaware of).
Another important resource can be the editors of the show. Not only are editors potentially useful to producers, writers, or directors because of their familiarity with footage and past episodes of the show, but they also can be a great resource for each other. Multiple editors will often be working on separate blocks of a larger show, and the sharing of insights about footage, existing assets and show themes can often help each of them do their jobs better.
Always think of the big story.
When creating an episode of a show, it is normal to get very focused on the specific moments and details of that particular episode, or even a particular scene or moment. And because episodic television has isolated creative aspects in each installment, it’s sometimes helpful to take a step back and look at the big picture. This is obviously most important in serialized shows where there is a bigger story arc going on, but can also be helpful in procedural or installment-based shows. Keeping in mind how the details fit in with the overall direction of the series and what the show might look like in upcoming episodes and seasons can be a helpful approach. It also provides opportunities to create anticipation or hide fun clues between the lines. Always remember that you’re telling a big story as well as the small one.
Be consistent, but also don’t be afraid to take chances.
Every show has its stylistic signatures and patterns. But for a show to have longevity with an audience, it also has to evolve and even surprise once in a while, or it can lose its excitement. While it’s important not to depart from important aspects that give the show its identity, it’s also helpful to take some chances now and then that help keep things fresh and surprise the viewer. You create rules to set expectations. But you can break them to make a point and create a powerful moment. However, when you break rules, always do it for a reason that serves the bigger purpose of the character, story, or plot development. That bigger-picture view is what gives the show internal consistency even when you change things up a bit.
Be yourself. Let other people be themselves.
In any process that has layers of approval, it’s always tempting to try to guess what the next people in the pipeline are going to think about what you’ve created or helped create. But it’s important to resist the temptation to incorporate those guesses into your work. Each layer of approval is there for a different reason and serves an important purpose, including yours. Trying to anticipate and “correct” things that you find valuable but worry others might find problematic can become an unfortunate trap for a number of reasons.
The first problem with trying to anticipate feedback is that you’re simply guessing what other people might think. But people are subjective and surprise each other all the time. If you’ve guessed wrong, you may have compromised or changed the episode to compensate for a problem that never existed. The only person whose view you can represent accurately is your own. By replacing that with what you think someone else might think, you misrepresent their interests and potentially deprive the project of your own.
You were chosen for your job because of what you can add to the process. So make sure you’re giving the team that. Otherwise, you may end up with a double emphasis on the input of whomever you’re trying to anticipate and no real input from you. Others will happily provide their own suggestions and critiques when it’s their turn. In the meantime, be yourself, and recognize the value people are counting on you to add.
How much time do you have, and what matters most?
Television is usually created with a faster workflow than other forms of filmed entertainment. As a creator and artisan, you’ll be faced with seemingly impossible deadlines at times, and the need to make important choices on the fly. It can be very helpful to take a step back and assess what you can accomplish in the time you have, and then take stock of what matters most. Television episodes are riddled with flaws, but a strong production team usually manages to avoid the really problematic ones. A large part of that is being able to prioritize what really matters to the finished product and what only annoys the makers.
To make production and post-production run smoothly, it’s often useful to divide input or revisions into three categories: “must have,” “nice to have,” and “if there’s time.” Even if something is a major task, it would be an error to ignore the “must have” changes that are critical to the story and characters. Once those are complete, it’s time to move on to the “nice to have” list. Each of those will make the finished product better, so if you can get through them, you’ll end up feeling pretty darn good about the finished product. But don’t fall into the trap of making a number of easy-to-address “nice to have” fixes before the “must haves” are all sorted. Last, you can start to pick off the “if there’s time” items, comfortable in the knowledge that if you don’t get to all of them, it won’t be a disaster. That kind of process will help keep important things from slipping through the cracks during the hectic episodic television creation process.
How can you make the piece the best it can be?
Most importantly, keep in mind that the final goal is to create something that’s as exciting and entertaining as possible. Your ultimate goal is to make each episode the best piece it can be. Before you sign off on your work or give your approval, it’s always worth asking whether the elements you’re charged with are as good as they can reasonably be, and think about whether there are any obvious ways to make them better (within reason, of course).
In the end, you’re creating entertainment. And the ultimate goal is to capture your viewers’ minds and attention. Have you done everything you can to do that?
Make sure nothing slips through the cracks.
When the episode is finally finished and ready to go, it’s always useful to have extra sets of eyes look at everything. Each person in the process tends to look at things in a different way and with differing priorities. While the showrunner is most likely to catch problems with overall storyline and consistency, they may be less attuned to details on the audio track. And the editor is more likely than the colorist to notice oddities in scene transitions. So giving everyone the chance for a final once-over is always good practice.
Another good practice is to have people watch the final product on a variety of different setups. Something might sound great on a theatrical mix stage in Dolby Atmos but not work the same way when played on a laptop or older television. Or a critical plot element might be visually obvious on a giant theatrical screen but not read properly on a phone. Yet there will be audience members watching on all of those platforms. It’s always good practice to not only view your finished piece on the best possible equipment but also on the most common lesser equipment that your viewers are likely to use. See your show as they will see it, and you’ll be sure you know what their experience is like.
Part 3 Recap:
- Understand and take advantage of the distinct strengths of block shooting or individual episode production.
- Use all available references and resources to keep things cohesive, including show bibles, story meeting notes, visual and stylistic references, and even past episodes to keep the whole team on the same page.
- Script notes and editor insights on the footage can solve a lot of unforeseen problems.
- Always take a step back and consider the largest arc of the show. Consider whether your choices fit with the big picture.
- Be consistent with the show’s voice, but don’t be afraid to take chances. This is the only way to keep a show fresh and engaging.
- Make the creative choices you think work best for the show. Don’t try to preemptively overcorrect for what you think other stakeholders might say about a cut. Other team members can be their own advocates. Your job is to be you.
- TV moves fast. Be realistic about what you can accomplish. Prioritize your battles and do the things that will have the greatest importance and impact for the viewer first.
- Don’t forget final checks. Yours may be the last eyes that catch a slip-up.
- Always watch the finished piece on a variety of formats and equipment. The home audience won’t always have the perfect studio you do, and you need to make sure the show works on mobile or a laptop. Critical picture elements need to work on a small screen, and the mix should be intelligible on any speakers.
Read the entire 3-part guide to Making Memorable Television now.
For other tips on post-production, check out MediaSilo’s guide to Post Production Workflows.
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