Thursday, June 25, 2009

Never Discussed New Magnum Topic......... SCRIPTS!

Thanks to another excellent email question from Alexandre of Normandy who always has good questions even if I can't always understand his English!  I've never really talked about Magnum scripts before--or any scripts for that matter.

Of all the creative areas such as music, painting, architecture, etc. writing / scripts are probably the most abused art form!  A lot of people don't realize that when a person creates a story in a script, it's not "chiseled in stone."  Is there such a thing as written on water?  Basically once a script is sold to a company, it becomes the property of that company and the scriptwriter is paid like when you pay Home Depot for a sheet of plywood.  Home Depot doesn't have any say in what you do to their former property.  You take the plywood home and cut it up into pieces to make it work for you.  Well, they do the same thing with a script--only there are lots of carpenters doing the cutting:  The director cuts, changes, rewrites according to his/her "vision," the producer changes the script for image, liability or just because they can, and finally the actor changes the script because "My character would never say that line!"  The script could even be changed because the right location couldn't be found, the weather changed, or the time of day changed.  So you have a creative work that has many hands molding it.  Most people wouldn't think of adding another palm tree to a painting or tell a composer to change the key to B-flat, but scripts seem to be fair game for a lot of input.  That said, you can't do without them!

In episodic TV (like Magnum), right about the time you start filming an episode, a new script arrives in your box.  Given that you are up to your neck with the current show, there is a real temptation to just leave the script where it is for awhile.  However, it's not going to go away so it's in your best interest to read it asap for any possible "Are they out of their minds??!!"  problems waiting and to give a heads up if you see an advance problem for your department.  On Magnum there were some directors where I automatically doubled my budget regardless of the script requirements! 

  Before you even finish the new script, colored pages will appear in your box again--these are revisions.  I forget the color sequence they have for 1st revision, 2nd revision, 3rd, 4th, etc. but it's something like blue pages, pink pages, green pages, yellow pages--whatever.  Sometimes they will just say "Pinks are out" (which means they're in!) and that means more revisions.  Sometimes these revisions are dialogue and they have changed "I can't go now." to "I can't go there now."  This generates a new script cover sheet, contents sheet, and then the actual page with the dialogue change--and another tree gives its life for this valuable contribution to society.  Of course they don't tell you what the actual changes are (you have to read them), but 95% of the time, it didn't affect me.  In the pre-cell phone (pager only dark ages), I was once stuck in rush hour traffic on a freeway in L.A.  My pager went off with the production office number and the dreaded "911" following.  Fearing an emergency, I got off the freeway in a not so good area, found a pay phone, realized I was standing in a puddle of urine, called the production office only to find out that they had put "green pages" in my box!  I needed to know this NOW???  This is why P.A.'s (production assistants) are sometimes found wearing concrete shoes and not on land.  So as each new color comes out, you dutifully take your old pages out and put your new pages in your 3 ring binder.  Then they will issue a new, revised entire script and you start all over again with more revisions.  I think we're up to losing a forest by now!   It's very embarrassing to be at  production meeting where we PAINFULLY go through the entire script page by page (while your entire crew is waiting for you to dress a set at a distant location) and discover while everyone else has turned to their blue page, you are still have the old pink page and obviously not with the program.  Wow, I am getting pretty detailed with all this!  Moving on...........

On most shows, the scripts arrive mysteriously from a mainland production office--by mail or eventually fax on Magnum--by the internet now.  However, Magnum was blessed with having a resident writer / story editor / eternally nice person named Chris Abbott-Fish.  (I think the Fish name has since swum away).  She wrote several scripts and rewrote others in residence at the studio. If there was ever a problem with a script, it could be handled (usually) quickly in house.  I always enjoyed our infrequent meetings, but if anyone ever had a smile on their face at that studio it was her.

While I have no script writer inclinations or experience--there is a sort of template they stick to.  God knows I could never stick to any formula the way I go on and on.  There are things like "conflict" and "resolution" and other standard items that need to happen between commercial breaks.  This is nothing new.  I remember in college studying Greek drama and the professor used "Bonanza" as an example of Greek tragedy.  When he broke it down into protagonist and antagonist and the other aspects of Greek theatre that I have since forgotten, there is a formula that is followed to some degree.  Obviously you have to be a good writer to make it original, unique and interesting.  Of course a few "f-words" and a couple of car explosions with really loud dialogue seems to help.  Yeah, I know.........

So while we were shooting a current script, the next script would come out--it would be rare to have a 3rd one at the same time.  Sometimes if there was a really difficult one, there might be a partial script, but rarely.  Casting or production obviously had scripts before the worker bees got them.  We would be too busy prepping the next episode to be able to deal with more than one ahead anyway.  Each script had a cover sheet with all the usual info:  writer, producer, director, production company, name episode number, dates, warnings, etc.  Each script page would have the scene number on the left and ride side of the page and the page number at the top right corner.  Basic action comments HE HOLDS UP HIS HAT or camera CLOSE UP ON HAND or location / time EXT. SURF SHACK - LATER are indicated along with the actual dialogue. A MOW (movie of the week) script is about 100 pages.  An episodic TV script is around 60 pages.  You hear "page count" as a reference to how many pages are supposed to be shot that day.  If you have a 64 page, 1 hour script with an 8 day schedule, you better be shooting 8 pages a day.  That's a lot for a 12 hour day and you better not have any company moves within that day.  So you  might have a 6 page day or an 8 page day depending on what they are filming.  Some pages can go to 2nd unit.  That means an entirely different and smaller film crew will go out and film the Ferrari driving up to the Kamehameha Club with a stand-in driving.  Or a close-up of the bad guys shoes climbing the stairs (also a stand in) or the car crash, etc.  Basically any photography not involving principal actors--or at least it's not supposed to be (but often is).

Feature films might only do 2 or 3 pages a day and have a 150 page script.  And you wonder why you pay $10 to see a crappy movie?  It's not all going to Nicole.  A TV show with  lot of permanent sets can go faster--the lights may already be in place and it's a routine for the actors.  TV sitcoms with only 1 or 2 sets often do a taping in one night in front of a live audience--or at least they used to.  These are sometimes called "3 camera shows" where they might actually be using 3 cameras at the same time--a wide shot "master," a close up, and maybe a side shot or a "2 shot."  Obviously nothing is live / "one take" anymore so even if they mess up in front of an actual studio audience, they can always do another take or two and still finish on time more or less.

Ok, drifting off of scripts now so I guess it's time to close another time busting block buster of a blog post that sort of had something to do with "Magnum, P.I."!

Aloha,  Rick

P.S. Keep in mind that a "One Hour" script is really only about 50 minutes or even less for commercials.  As was once said to me, "TV shows are the filler between commercials."  That reminds of of a t-shirt I never wore to work:  "Theatre is Art.  Television is Furniture"  Well, that was before the digital era so I may have to draw you a picture to explain.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Stage Design and Production Design without Intermission (sorry. it's another 5 acts!)

Hey, just because there weren't any pictures to go with the Sharon Stone Shower Scene Posting.......well, never mind.  The second part of Susie's question involved set decorating and stage design.  I did cover some of this earlier in my blog, but I do have another take on it.

I knew I wanted to be a stage and lighting designer while I was still in high school.  I actually made my first prop when I was 12 and my older sister played the part of a maid in the senior class play.  Our school auditorium was built in 1920 with old lumber and mining money and rivaled any movie palace complete with 1425 seats, intricate plasterwork, huge chandeliers, and a large fly system.  I was always building things like a guillotine for Halloween that scared so many kids away my mom got mad at me.  I had little or no encouragement with these projects until my drama teacher encouraged me to leave for the University of Minnesota--which I did 12 hours after graduating from high school.  My joke was there wasn't an earlier bus.  Basically, there is a path for lighting and set design in the theatre through college.  Learning construction techniques, painting, sewing and even courses in make-up, fencing, history,theory and all sorts of background courses gives a basic and fundamental background for design.  Adding art and architectural history and college is a way to learn the basics.  However, there is no substitute for the actual DOING.

The same is true, of course, in film design.  While I've never actually had a film class, there are obviously film schools--but they are more devoted to the making of films, directing, editing and basic production techniques.  I doubt that there would be a degree in production design or set decorating or being a gaffer or grip.  Film and TV work is more based on "doing" than learning methodology, history, etc.  There is actually a hierarchy in most departments to begin in a lower capacity and work your way up.  I think you will find that most decorators or designers have had some sort of design background training either in the academic or professional world.
Ironically after putting myself through 7 years of college primarily by being an outside designer, no one has ever asked me if I'd graduated from high school.

Personally I think it would be very difficult for someone who hasn't been trained in stage design and certainly in lighting design to function on any higher level of design for the theatre.  Yes there are famous artists like David Hockney doing things like faxing thousands of sheets of paper that are then assembled into "art backdrops" for opera, but this isn't practical for most stage productions.  There is a certain "design vocabulary" that is involved with stage design that doesn't really exist in production design.  A VERY large percentage of film and TV design are based on duplicating a modern (or period) realistic set.  Yes, there is creativity, yes the set can say something about the character, but most of the looks you see are realistic and contemporary or sometimes realistic and period.  Yes, there are exceptions, but they are the minority by far. 

I went to dinner one night here with the production designer of the Flintstone movie.  He had to design the silverware, housing, cars, and basically everything to fit the "prehistoric" look of the movie.  This concept is very rare and unique in the business and he was nominated for an Academy Award for his creativity.  So was "The Madness of King George" that year--and it won the award.  The joke was that all that the "George" designer had to do was take down the rest room signs at Windsor Castle and collect his award!  I'm sure he probably had to do a little more than that, but certainly nowhere near the creativity and uniqueness that went into the Flintstones--which brings me to a somewhat controversial topic.

In general, there is the feeling that theatre "stage sets" are more flimsy, phony, and "artistic" and somewhat looked down on by film/TV designers.  Stage sets are seen from a distance, look fake, are less detailed and are not really taken seriously.  In defense of that misconception, stage sets often have to last for years and certainly for months at a time.  Film/TV sets often only last a matter of hours and can be just as phony--but look "real" and have Will Smith or Jennifer Aniston in front of them. Personally, I always felt that this "competition" or attitude of superiority was ridiculous.  The two art forms are very different and no different than an apple looking down on an orange--yet it is still there and exists.  I referred earlier in a posting  to the "secret society" of theatre people who work within the film industry.  In my observation, a film/TV person would certainly boast of their "famous" background in that industry if working in a theatre environment, but a stage designer would not do the same in the film industry.  Obviously there are exceptions, but I know for a fact that one of the designers on "That Show I Can't Talk About" had his stage background held against him.  I certainly never mentioned mine.  So basically it would be much easier for a stage designer to become a set decorator or production designer than the reverse.  It is much easier for a well connected production designer with little talent to surround themselves with a team of talented art directors, set designers, and assistants along with a talented set decorator and become "famous" for their big features.  I know of this personally.  However, you better know what you are doing when working in the theatre 'cause it's just going to be you for the most part.

As a final note to this PhD thesis, the trend more and more in professional theatre design is toward "engineered design" than the more traditional design forms.  If you have seen any broadway shows or the larger touring productions, it's becoming more about turntables, lifts, cantilevers, mechanics, and special effects that will "wow" and justify your $120 ticket.

Even within my career as a stage designer you can see the range of design in that medium.  The 2nd show I did (and first musical) for the last theatre I worked for as resident designer was for "Follies."  It was a fantasy plot about some old vaudevillians who meet the night before their old theatre was about to be torn down and relive their past lives, loves, and performances.  It was a chance to create the crumbling theatre proscenium of an earlier time and use some traditional design forms like "drop and wings" in "Loveland"  If you look closely that the raised relief design around the proscenium you will notice some clothes hanger shapes.  That's because they ARE decorative clothes hangers that  literally fell off a truck on the freeway.  The truck kept going, but I stopped, risked my life, and picked them up--and there they are!

The last show I did before leaving the theatre to work on "Magnum, P.I." was "Deathtrap."  You can see the difference in design, realism, and details with all of the set pieces.  I personally carved the fireplace and most of the beams in styrofoam, did all of the scene painting, found all of the set dressing items, and was also the lighting designer (and set designer, of course).  To be honest, working on "Magnum" was a big step down in the creative design department, but a major increase in the paycheck department.  That's life.........

Aloha,  Rick

P.S.  The woman in the black pant suit lower right was Sue Gerben, the mother of Kevin McCollum who went on to produce rent and other Broadway hits.  She knew she had cancer and went off to Paris to die.  Kevin was 8 years old.  If I'd never met the guy next to her, Wally White assistant to Buck Henshaw, I would never have worked on Magnum. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Steamy Shower Scenes w/ Sharon Stone........

Pretty good headline!  This is actually a Susie from Canada question in the previous comment about filming shower scenes.  She also asked another good question and I will post some pictures with that answer soon.

Shower scenes are always tricky for various reasons:  It has to look like a real shower, there has to be room for a camera, the water has to be real, the actor(s) have to look like they are naked, the faucets, shower head, and sometimes even the drain all have to look like they work and last but not least in black and white the chocolate syrup has to look like blood!  Well, only in Hitchcock's "Psycho" for the chocolate sauce part.

So the actual construction can be of the masonite shower board, plastic tile or actual ceramic tile.  Unless it is a large shower or unless it's just an overhead shot, or something close enough that can be done with the shower door open, one (or more) of the walls have to be wild to see what's going on--or not as the case may be!  99.9% of the time the actor(s) are not really naked.  Sometimes uninhibited women will go topless.  Onetime on "Mighty Joe Young"  Charlene Theron lifted up her t-shirt at lunch, but that has nothing to do with shower scenes.  In the case of actual (or partial) nudity, all non-necessary people are cleared from the set.  That's called a "closed" set and only the actual cameraman, director, and sound people might be there.  I did the last season of "Dante's Cove" a couple of years ago and there were lots of "closed sets" even though everything was "simulated" and the actors were wearing socks that weren't on their

The running water, drainage, and steam are all controlled by special effects--even the heating of the water.  The actor might turn the faucet which may or not actually control the water flow depending on what the scene is.  The actual purchase of the faucets and shower head (as well as the other bathroom fixtures such as towel bars) are all set dressing.  Sometimes special effects or the art department construction might install them--sometimes set dressing will and special effects will then hook them up. There are fog / water filters for the camera--although sometimes the fog is desirable for concealment purposes!  Showers have to be built up unless the stage has a drain or pit for the water to drain.  It's similar when a sink is also used, but with obvious less complications.  So the next time you see an actor turn on the water on a set or take a shower, you'll know there is a lot more work involved.

Next week we'll continue our plumbing discussion with staged toilet simulations.  (no we won't!)
Aloha,  Rick 

Friday, June 12, 2009

Exterior Sets

Did you know that 95% of all blogs are abandoned ?  I just read that in the paper.  I'll try not to let that happen to this one!  Mike and Marco have asked about other shows and exterior sets so I can certainly ramble on about that subject.  I have been working a lot on my house again.  No, it's not San Simeon, but ever here of Mrs. Winchester?  Well, meet Mr, Winchester!

A lot of people don't realize that Set Decorators also deal with a lot of exterior items as well.  Greens still does plants, trees (real and fake).  Sometimes they will wrap "tree skins" around telephone poles or street / stop lights to cover them up if it is a period show and they would be inappropriate.  Set dressing might include mail boxes or even parking meters besides the obvious park benches or even magazine stands, newspaper boxes, and fire hydrants--noe working, of course.  Any signs are always the Art Department.  One time I called the Chicago police department to ask what color their street signs were because I was the designer on a show that was supposed to take place in Chicago and we had to cover up the Hawaiian names on the street signs downtown.  It is not uncommon for the director to order street signs cut off if they are in the way and be welded back later.  I don't know how much trouble they might get in for that or if anyone even notices the weld later.

Set dressing also covers garbage and dumpsters.  One time we were doing an alley set (I think it was Magnum) and we had bags and boxes of garbage all over.  Well, a trash company came along and picked up half our "set" before we noticed!  We were dressing the day before shooting so there was no reason not to think our garbage wasn't real--instead of "reel."  There was some actual dumpster diving that day.  We always had to have security on those kinds of sets all night.

One of the most amazing exterior stories popped into my head when I was thinking about this.  When we did the pilot for LOST, they shipped a real plane over on barges that had been cut up in one of those airplane graveyards they have out in some desert.  We did the main crash site on a beach with very little depth.  In fact, the actual road went right through the set and we covered it with sand.  They would have to hold traffic whenever we filmed.  Of course the cars would drive slowly because they thought it was a real plane crash.  No one had ever heard of LOST or knew anything about it so there weren't really many people that interested.  When the pilot ended, the entire plane and parts had to be taken off the beach as the permit only allowed them to leave it for filming the pilot.  It was stored at a nearby small airport.  When the show was picked up, they re-erected the plane a little further away with a little more depth to the beach and allowed the road to go through without covering it with sand.  The plane and the pieces were again set up.  The BIG no-no with the state and all the environmental people was that NO plane parts could wind up in the ocean.  We eliminated a lot of the insulation parts and other things that might blow in the water anyway.

So when the actual show started filming, the pilot still hadn't aired and no one knew anything (or cared) about the show.  The first season was fairly easy with the permanent sets being either the plane crash site or the "caves" which were built in an old warehouse right on Nimitz Highway.  Then the flashbacks were the only real sets we had to worry about.  Anyway, as we got closer to winter surf season, there were concerns about the plane crash site.  In the winter here (so-called winter!), the storm generated surf comes from the north and causes the northern facing short to have large waves.  Right now you could water ski in Waimea Bay and in the winter you would be killed by 30' waves.  So there was concern because the waves started actually coming closer and closer to the plane.  We had to move plane parts sometimes.  Of course the State had people watching us so we had to comply.  Given that they seemed to be making up the show as it went along, the writers actually put into the script that the characters were going to have to abandon the plane site and move before it washed into the ocean--which it was literally about to do.

So there was this script written about them about to pack up their belongings and leave their original camp.  There was nothing about what they were going to do when they got to wherever they were going.  So the time for the move came.  They had already shot them leaving the plane site with the water coming right up to the plane and gave the impression it was washing out to sea--which of course couldn't happen.  The new beach site was several miles away outside Haleiwa.  You cannot control beach access in Hawaii--no one can own the beach--but you can control access through the land.  So the new location was fairly protected from people trying to watch and was surrounded by land owned by the Bishop Estate and leased to the police.  So they had planned this shot with all the rag tag people carrying their worldly possessions struggling up the beach right at sunset.  It was really breathtaking with them in silhouette and the sun setting behind them.  All they needed was Moses and the Red Sea parting.

Because this was all we were expecting the scene to be, there was no one from the Art Department there.  Well, all of a sudden the director / producer announced he wanted to see the beginnings of their camp site!  This would normally have involved the production designer, art directors, much decision making with producers, etc.  Since this kind of thing happened on the show, my crew and I were scrambling for tarps, palm fronds, plane parts, and anything we could rig to start creating a camp site.  Did I forget to mention that the sun had gone down by now?  The topics have very short sunsets and we could barely see what we were doing.  And WHAT we were doing was creating permanent sets for the next 2 seasons in locating the various characters tents and the look of the camp--in near darkness, with almost no materials, and with absolutely NO discussion about the "look" we were creating!  Nor would it have been our responsibility to have done so.  Anyway, we pulled it off and the rest is history, as they say!

BTW, the production designer was furious but there was nothing he could do.  My department and I couldn't exactly stand there in front of the whole company and dozens of extras and refuse to do anything.  It's not like it was brain surgery, but they were already starting to obsess about things on the show and here I was pointing my finger arbitrarily and creating what was becoming one of the most important sets of the series.  Well, not to take all the credit, it was only the early beginnings of what later became much more developed and designed and planned and obsessed over just trying to make it look like it all wasn't.  Typical.

Ok, that's my story.  Back to my nail gun and paint brush............

Aloha,  Rick

Monday, June 1, 2009

Random Thoughts.......oh no, without any photos!

I'm going to have to write an occasional "non visual" post since my photo supply is nearing the end of its run.  That doesn't mean the blog will end, but original set photos of  mine will.....unless that rumored "lost treasure" of possible photos are ever found.  Garrison Keillor only posts photos of himself and he seems to do ok.  We're both from Minnesota, after all, but I'm better looking--I think that's supposed to be "average" according to his monologue.

Saturday was my last 2 performances of "Mama Mia" after 3 weeks of literally very close working relationships with mostly naked men and almost naked women--not as erotic as it might sound as I was so busy getting them out of or into their clothes as fast as possible.  When it all ended on Saturday night with goodbyes and cards and hugs, as the line from a song in "Chorus Line" goes, "I felt nothing."  Ultimately, I was only Dresser # 5 dressing #16, #17, #18, #19 and #20 in the show which opens tomorrow in Reno and then weekly in other towns across America for more years to come.  It seemed like I should have felt something more, but I didn't.

Saturday morning before work, I had breakfast with "the woman who temporarily replaced the woman who replaced me on 'LOST'."  We had spoken on the phone and dumped on each other about our experiences on the show a few times, but had never met.  Sitting under the same Hau tree that Robert Louis Stevenson sat under 100+ years ago, we had a great breakfast overlooking the ocean at the Hau Tree Lanai.  It almost seemed irreverent to talk about our "LOST" experiences in such a beautiful setting.  Well, SOME of them were actually good!  Mostly it was just nice to sit and talk with another set decorator which surprisingly doesn't happen more than once every few years.  I had to laugh at our different upcoming potential work projects:  She is deciding between which of 2 series she has been asked to do.  I have only a rumor of a low budget possible movie this fall about children who fight space aliens with the only weapon that works.....snot!  Well, she was very nice, extremely good looking and she paid for breakfast!  That was a good start to the day that ended after 11 hours backstage in a windowless, black box of a theatre.  Well, at least the air conditioning was a comfort.
Tomorrow I call unemployment and see if I qualify for another round.  My ship has run aground more than once, but there's a full moon and high tide coming!  OMG, that was really terrible!  There must be some more Magnum photos here somewhere............