The television director, who sits atop the chain of command of the crew during the actual filming or taping of the show, is responsible for the visualization of the TV program, selecting the different camera angles and compositions that will used. Beyond this most general definition, however, the nature of the director's job, and the relative importance of the director's creative contribution to the finished product, varies greatly among different forms and genres of television.

One basic distinction in TV production exists between single-camera (film-style) and multi-camera work. In single-camera production each shot is staged individually, allowing precise camera positioning and lighting. Repeated "takes" are shot until the director is satisfied with the results. The action is filmed or taped out-of-sequence based on a logic of set-ups for camera and lighting. Actors must break their performance into non-continuous bits that still appear coherent when assembled later in the editing room. In this type of production, then, performance is adjusted to fit the visual scheme. Virtually all prime-time television dramas, programs generally one hour or longer, are produced in this manner. Common genres include action-adventure, crime, medical, courtroom, melodrama, and "prime-time soap opera." The television drama is the format in which the TV director has the most control and the most creative input--operating most like a feature film director. Yet, even here the director's role is more limited than a film director's. The series nature of television necessitates an exceptionally demanding production schedule and a rigid organization of labor, giving the director certain responsibilities, removing or restricting others.

In the production of films for theatrical exhibition directors frequently devise and initiate their own projects. Many film directors, such as Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarrantino, write their own screenplays. Even in cases where the director is hired after a producer has initiated a project, and a script has already been commissioned, the director has great leeway to interpret the material in her or his own way. In addition to controlling visual style, the director may also develop the themes, work with actors on characterizations, even participate in the rewriting of the script.

Television directors, however, work on a per-episode basis. Because of the highly compressed production schedule, any series will employ several different directors during a season. When the director arrives on the scene, the characterizations, themes and basic style of the show have already been established by previous episodes. In fact, such creative decisions were often made by the show's producer in the development of the series, and they remain the province of the producer during the run of the show. The director, then, takes an existing, basic aesthetic set-up and works out the details for the episode at hand. When film directors--Steven Speilberg, Michael Mann, David Lynch--work in television, they generally act as producers because that from that position the more important creative choices are made.

Nevertheless, the direction of TV drama episodes still offers excellent opportunities for creative expression. A number of TV drama directors, including Spielberg, have gone on to become film directors. This was even more the case in the 1950s and 1960s when television served as a training ground for some of the most prominent directors to work in the American film industry. Arthur Penn, Sidney Lumet, Sam Peckinpah, Delbert Mann, Robert Altman and other directors moved from television to the big screen. More recently, some television directors, such as Thomas Carter, noted for directing outstanding pilots for Miami Vice and other shows, have become producers of their own television series. And in some cases prominent film directors--Lynch, Barry Levinson--have chosen to direct episodes in the series they produce. In the spring of 1995 Quentin Tarrantino elected to direct the concluding episode of the first year of the NBC series E.R. because he found the show compelling.

In contrast to single-camera style, multi-camera television production requires that the visual scheme be adjusted around the performance. The on-camera talent deliver their performances in real-time, and the visualization is created by switching among a series of cameras trained on the unfolding event (and, in many cases, among several channels of electronically stored graphics). All "live" programs, including news and sports broadcasts, are produced this way. So, too, are talk, discussion and game shows which are shot "live-to-tape," then later broadcast with minimal editing. Directing in these genres offers less opportunity for creativity. Multi-camera style in itself introduces great technical limitations, but these are often less restricting than the constraints defined by the forms themselves--how much visual flair is desirable in a shot of Peter Jennings reading a report of the latest Mid-East conflict? Usually, then, the visual elements in presentational "event" programs such as news, talk and sports generally follow a rigid pre-set pattern. This is a necessity given that the production needs to be created almost instantaneously, with little or no time to prepare for the specifics of the particular episode. (Indeed, much of the visual excitement in "live" events such as sports derives from technical features such as instant replay.)

Directing this type of production is more a craft than an art. Though it requires great skill, the demands are mostly technical. Directors of multi-camera television productions generally sit in a control room, viewing a bank of monitors on which the images from each camera and graphics source are displayed. They do not operate any studio controls--they must keep their eyes glued to the monitors. They should not even look away to check notes or a script, but must simply know how the program should unfold and be able to keep their mind ahead of the developing action. The director of an American football game must be ready for the cut to the downfield camera before the quarterback throws the pass, for example, or the talk show director should anticipate an outburst of audience response. And this intensity must be maintained for long periods, with commercials serving as brief breaks from the action. In some ways multi-camera direction is a verbal art form. The director literally "talks" the show into existence, calling out cues for edits, camera movements, effects and audio transitions, while different specialized crew persons, listening via headset, execute these commands.

During the 1950s, television drama specials and anthology series were shot in this multi-camera style, and often broadcast live. Directing in this context was especially challenging, requiring the dramatic skill of a stage director, the visual skills of a film director and the technical skills of a live TV director. These programs were often intimate psychological dramas. They called for relatively exacting visuals, which necessitated complicated camera and actor blocking schemes. For example, a primary camera and the lead actor had to be precisely positioned in order to get the required close-up without obstructing a second camera's view of the lead actress for the next shot. All these movements, of both cameras and actors, had to be executed perfectly in real time. It is easy to understand why, once the major film studios opened their facilities for TV productions, prime-time narrative shows quickly turned to film-style production. The producers were then able to establish considerably more control over the production process.


Daytime drama, soap opera in the United States, is a different story. Because multi-camera production can be completed much more quickly and is therefore much less expensive than film-style, soaps are still shot live-to-tape using multiple cameras. With little time for pre-production or rehearsal, the director must establish a visual sequence that can be executed essentially in real-time. Yet that visual design must also serve the dramatic needs of the show. This task is made somewhat easier by the formulaic nature of the genre, but the combination of technical and aesthetic challenges makes directing soap opera one of television's more difficult and under-appreciated tasks. This technique has been adopted for the production of prime time serials throughout Europe, for the teleroman in Quebec, and for telenovelas throughout Latin America.

The one other contemporary TV genre that employs multi-camera technique is the situation comedy. Until the 1960s and early 1970s most sitcoms were shot in single camera film-style, with the laugh track dubbed in later. Beginning with All in the Family, however, comedy producers adopted multi-camera production techniques. This enabled actors to perform complete scenes before a live audience, generating natural laughter. In some cases it also allowed the producer to schedule two performances of the same script, which enabled the selection of the "biggest" laughs for use in the soundtrack.

Sitcom production is actually a hybrid form, more likely to be shot with film cameras than video cameras. When this is the case, instead of cutting between cameras in real time with a switcher, all the cameras record the entire scene from different angles and edits are made in post-production, as in film-style work. Generally the shows are not performed from beginning to end in real time, but scene by scene, with breaks and retakes as needed. (The live audiences are apparently willing to laugh at the same joke more than once.) Still, this type of production is more a version of filmed theater than pure moving picture work, and a sitcom director operates more like a stage director. Sitcom visualization is usually very simple--lots of long shots to catch the physical nature of the comedy are intercut with a few close-up reaction shots. More extensive use of close-ups would be out of place since the actors usually employ broad gestures and strong vocal projection to communicate the performance to the back row of the live audience. The overall effect of this form is the creation of a "proscenium style," as in the theatre. The camera serves as the surrogate audience and establishes a "fourth wall" which is rarely crossed.

In this production style, the director concentrates on working with the actors on timing and execution, and successful sitcom directors are known primarily for their ability to communicate with the stars of their shows. In many cases these directors work with a single show for its entire run, directing almost all the episodes. Jay Sandrich, for example, is noted for his work on the Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Cosby Show, and James Burrows is equally acclaimed for his direction of Cheers.

In many countries other than the United States the television director is afforded a role of greater prominence, much more akin to that of the film director. In most cases this situation holds because television productions have been limited to one or two episodes or to the miniseries. This role may change, however, as more and more television systems come to rely on regular schedules built around series production, with its attendant demand for tight production schedules and minimal pre-production opportunities. It is this industrial organization, itself the result of particular economic imperatives, that has defined the present role of the American television director, a role in which participation in the creative process is often secondary to that of the produce

-David Tetzlaff


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See also Allen, Debbie; Almond, Paul; Cartier, Rudolph; Mann, Delbert; Producer in Television; Schaffner, Franklin