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We Shot Our Network Pilot Like a Web Series
We Shot Our Network Pilot Like a Web Series
By Tim Gibbons

I've just finished shooting a comedy pilot for a major network and major studio, and they are nervous. We shot it like a web series. What I mean by that is that we used a variety of formats to shoot on, with some shots involving up to 14 cameras, and none of the cameras are the "traditional" cameras one would use for a primetime comedy show. The basic premise of the show involves a show-within-a-show concept. It was created by Larry Charles ("Borat", "Religulous", "Seinfeld", etc.), whom I've known for years, from working together on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm". It was executive produced by Larry, McG (well-known director/producer, "Charlie's Angels", "Chuck"), Peter Johnson ("Supernatural", "Chuck", who is also the president of McG's Wonderland Sound and Vision company), and myself.

The show we see is the show the characters are making, which is shot by them, and the only video we ever see is material ostensibly shot by them. The idea is that anything we'd see would have been shot by one of the characters, so there could be no traditional camera "coverageā€, no studio three shots, no establishing shots, unless it was something one of the characters shot. The main source of the storytelling footage would be the "behind the scenes" documentary one of the characters is making, to document their production, plus the actual footage the characters had shot for their movie. It was shot all on location, no sets or stages.

In today's world of YouTube and Ustream, the video many of us watch all the time is shot with iPhones, Flip cameras, miniDV's and the like, all of which we used in our production.

The quality is not the same as shooting on any "professional" camera system, from the RED camera system to even old-school Sony digibeta, but we felt like we've come a long way in the expectation of what something to look like, especially in the world of fan films and user-generated material, so we decided to go for it and shoot on strictly "non professional" equipment (although, that being said, we did use some prosumer equipment, but that kind of walks the line, wouldn't you say?). And if the characters in our pilot's small town were to actually shoot their own show, to be posted on the Internet, what would it look like anyway? So we tried to match what a low-budget, non-professional team of filmmakers would and could do on a limited budget.

From the moment Larry Charles called me about this project, I was intrigued and excited. The idea of shooting an entire primetime network show with an "alternate" look, on a variety of different camera platforms, was exciting. Could we do it, and would this show fit in with other primetime shows that are shot with big, expensive cameras, full lighting packages and a giant crew? How would we shoot it? What cameras would we use? So we got to work on planning this show, keeping in mind that everything we'd see in the finished product would need to appear as if it were shot by one of the characters. We had to use "available light" (or at least make it look like that) for most of it, and then figure out how it would look and sound. So I got to work with our Director of Photography, Anthony Hardwick, and we came up with a shooting plan that included some really interesting hardware.

We ended up going with our main camera package of: 2 Sony EX3 HDCAM's, which shoot onto cards, not tape. To this we added a Sony EX1 HDCAM, for when we need a third camera. Then, for the main characters to hold (and shoot, with the cameras often seen in the shots), we added 3 Canon HV20 miniDV cameras and 6 Flip UltraHD camcorders. For additional looks (and a few additional characters), along the way we added a Canon 7D still/video SLR, several iPhones, my MacBook Pro laptop, 2 Flip SD camcorders, a Canon GL2 Digital Camcorder, a Motorola phone, and, for one scene, an InfraRed camera, the Sony HDR-HC5.

I should add that I approached Flip (owned by Cisco) about providing us with their cameras, since they'd be seen on screen, with our stars using them, but they declined. They said that we didn't fit in with their marketing strategy. Don't ask me, but it seems like we exactly fit in with their marketing strategy: people taking video into their own hands. And their cameras would be shown on a primetime network show.

Sound was shot both in-camera (on some) and through the more traditional method of wireless mics and a boom, mixed through either a portable field mixer or soundboard on a cart. We figured that an audience might forgive "rough" video (with many different looks), but that bad audio would not be tolerated. The show is an improv comedy show, with several scenes having multiple people talking all at once, so we wanted to have as much flexibility as possible when it came time to mixing the sound.

So, for the shoot, we had a total 19 cameras (and, for one long scene, we used 14 of them), many of which had different recording formats (SD cards/disc, miniDV tape, hard drive, flash memory, etc.), and different frame rates (23.98fps, 24p, 30fps), some of which were HD, some SD. To handle all the downloading of the cards on set, plus log the tapes and transfer iPhone and Macbook Pro material, I hired a data management tech, Jimmy An, whose sole job was to keep track of all the material, download the SD cards, and make sure we had adequate backups of all the material that had been transferred to hard drives. We ended up, on our five-day shoot, with 45 hours of raw material.

Post has been hectic and exhilarating. In addition to getting a plethora of great comedy (with some serious moments as well), we had the logistical challenge of conforming all the material from the different formats and frame rates into something our Final Cut Pro 7 editing system could ingest and work with. For the conversions, we turned to Digital Film Tree, an awesome post house, who had the massive job of making it all work together seamlessly. They did so with style and grace, cranking out "dailies" that we could use for our notes for post -- and that the edit system could actually handle. This all had to be done while keeping the "look" of the various formats, something that was important to us.

We haven't delivered the pilot yet, but to get down to pilot length has been a real challenge. With so many choices, so much footage, so many different looks, this show will be one thing most network primetime pilots are not: a show that looks, sounds, and feels completely different from everything else on network primetime. Can the network handle it? Will the mainstream TV audience (let alone the network!) accept something with so many looks? I'll let you know how it goes!

Article originally appeared on timgibbons.tv.