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.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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