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An Unsurpassed Lesson in Television Directing

March 18, 2011

I am about to save you thousands of dollars.  The best way to understand the role of a television director is to rent Season 2 Disk 4 of “The Shield.”  You don’t have to be a fan of the gritty drama.  (Though if you aren’t, I question your true love of the craft.) What makes this DVD different from most is that it doesn’t focus on inside jokes.  Whether or not, as the saying goes, what you really want to do is direct, you’ll hear a very clear description of the production process complete with illustrative clips. And you’ll learn some important names to run through IMDB if you’re looking for recommendations for other series to watch.

The time involved in shooting television drama makes it physically impossible for an entire season to be directed by a single person.  They’d probably die.  So series such as “The Shield” depend on episodic directors.  It’s a difficult position because they must balance personal creative technique with what has already been established. This can be especially challenging if someone is stepping into a series in the third or forth season.  They aren’t building the look, characters and storylines from scratch.  They’re taking cues from the cast and crew and combining this with their vision.

The process begins by becoming familiar with the show and noting the technical framework as well as character development.  “The Shield: The Directors’ Roundtable” —  a discussion between series creator, Shawn Ryan, and directors Scott Brazil, Peter Horton, and Paris Barclay — is a great way for viewers to understand how episodic directors go about this. In addition to directing several pivotal episodes, Brazil doubled as the production supervisor overseeing all of the visiting directors.  Horton’s experience as an actor in the ensemble drama “thirtysomething” gave him a different perspective.  And if you’ve watched “NYPD Blue”, “ER”, “Glee” or just about any other quality drama, you’ve likely seen the work of the talented, generous, and articulate multi-award-winning Barclay.  <Additional praise, adoration, and a touch of hyperbole cut for time>.  In the case of “The Shield,” the framework was quite loose, but grasping how to capture the trademark natural performances and documentary camera style was critical for each director. In addition to their approach, their personalities came into play as they found ways to capitalize on opportunities and turned compromises into creative decisions.

The panel frequently refers to their 7 day shooting schedule.  This is one day shorter than a typical drama.  Shooting on location in Los Angeles was critical to the authenticity of the series, but it also must have been expensive.  Shaving a day here and there can make the budget work. The accelerated pace created challenges, but also added to the energy of the show.  Sometimes a particular scene required a little extra TLC.  My favorite story involves a 58 second scene which, because of the complexity of elements involved, took more than 20% of the production preparation time for that week.

If you want to learn more after “Directors’ Roundtable,” you’ll gain a deeper understanding of how all the players and elements come together by next watching the extras: “Sound Surgery,” “The Editing Room,” and “Raising the Barn”.  End your lesson with “Wrap Day”: a featurette about the last day of shooting for the season.  It is more casual than the other pieces, but it’s a good way to see some of the support people discussed in the “Roundtable” in action.  There is a clock displayed in the lower right hand corner that will give you a sense of how long it took to block, rehearse, and film a single scene.  For the price of a DVD rental, you’ll have a new appreciation for what has to happen to bring a quality show to a screen near you.

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