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"You Mean That Was a Digital Camera?"

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Last fall, we wrapped our latest feature, Ruth & Alex, a romantic comedy directed by Richard Loncraine (Richard III, Firewall, Wimbledon), starring Diane Keaton, Morgan Freeman and Cynthia Nixon. We shot in New York City — an absolutely fantastic experience, despite its unique complications. We made one pre-production decision that resulted in a huge difference for the film: to shoot with relatively new cameras from Arri — the Alexa XT.

It’s common knowledge that the Alexa has become the quintessential workhorse for film and television productions. Working in such an intense, dynamic and cinematic city as New York, we needed the versatility, portability and overall quality that the Alexa is known for. So when Franz Wieser at Arri and Lynn “Gus” Gustafson at Arri CSC gave my line producer, Sam Hoffman, the choice to use their new XT technology, we jumped at the chance. We found that the XT all but negated the many challenges presented by the too-many Manhattan locations, tight spaces, quick changes in lighting and weather, not to mention working in and around the flow of the city itself. And when Produced by invited us to share a little about our experiences using the XT, we were only too happy to oblige. We were one of the early adopters of a previous Alexa model, using it to shoot Rob Reiner’s The Magic of Belle Isle, and now that we’re wrapping up post-production on Ruth & Alex, we’re excited to share the producers’ perspective on this camera with my fellow PGA members. In fact, it’s an honor. 


When it came to selecting the camera for Ruth & Alex, the Alexa was the only camera on DP Jonathan Freeman’s (Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Remember Me) short list. To say that the Alexa is the quintessential workhorse isn’t a sales pitch — the Alexa is everywhere. Our entire camera department had had extensive experience with this camera and was very happy with our choice. Furthermore, it’s post-friendly, a feature that producers take very seriously. Especially with the influx of production generated by the tax incentives, New York post houses work on Alexa projects daily. They’re very familiar and extremely facile with all the post options at their disposal. Under Jonathan’s leadership, we were able to flesh out our entire workflow process in prep, from image acquisition to DI to film-out, before we shot a single frame of our film. This in itself allowed us to work out any potential problems without the pressure of being in production and surely has saved us much time and money during our post process.                                                      

One of digital’s challenges (and a common argument against digital) is that it’s all but impossible to match the softness and richness of film. The most common complaints are either that the images are too sharp or that they scream “television.” As Jonathan explains, “Its highlights still don’t have the subtle curvature fall-off that film has, but it’s almost to the point where you can argue that it’s based on subjective taste, rather than a technical difference. Without a side-by-side comparison, it’s hard to know the difference, even to the trained eye.”

Our first assistant camera technician, Heather Norton, told us, “For an assistant, this camera was smartly designed for the accessories that we are accustomed to using in a traditional feature environment. It’s very intuitive in its menu structure and is ergonometric, which makes it great for Steadicam, handheld and studio use.” Familiarity like this greatly reduces the perceived learning curve, another argument commonly marshaled against digital. For our film, we were budget-constrained to capture the lower resolution ProRes format, but needed to capture our green screen shots in higher resolution ARRIRAW for vfx. Alexa XT was the perfect solution, as Heather noted that the new XT also has the ability to record ARRIRAW in-camera. “When the Alexa first came out,” she noted, “you had to attach an external recording device to capture uncompressed data.”


Advances in digital filmmaking have given us options that didn’t exist a few years ago. While in pre-production on Ruth & Alex, we were able to shoot multiple camera tests, run them through our data acquisition workflow, do color-grading tests and screen with a high-resolution projector, all within the space of a couple of days and with a very small test budget. Richard Loncraine had a very specific vision for the look and feel of Ruth & Alex and we were able to lock in this vision during prep by creating look up tables (LUTs). An LUT is like a filter that rests on top of the raw camera image, modifying the color, saturation and other parameters of the picture so it appears closer to the final product the DP is aiming for. “The visualization of the movie was almost immediate,” confirmed Jonathan Freeman. “Having LUTs allowed us to create the look of the movie pretty much on the set.” For a producer, what this means is that while we are shooting, we can see images that are very close to the images that the DP will finalize during the DI! It’s a time-saver: Your editor and director use the color-corrected images during editing and you can screen from the Avid with closer-to-color-corrected images than ever before.                                                              


From a production standpoint, there are two things we love about the XT. For one, it offers the ability to film in a variety of codecs with a quick in-camera menu change, from pristine ARRIRAW to the edit-ready ProRes. For shots where we needed the maximum latitude and zero compression (visual effects shots, background plates and green screen work), we went with the raw option. The rest we shot in ProRes. As Heather Norton explains, “The new larger sensor size [4:3] of the XT afforded us the ability to strategically switch in camera from shooting ProRes to ARRIRAW when we needed to give post the most latitude for green screen replacement.”                                                           

The second and, in my opinion, one of the most impressive aspects of the Alexa is its ability to capture a wide range of exposures in the same shot. “The camera needed to be able to capture a wide latitude of bright lights and extreme shadows under an elevated train in broad daylight, as well as intimate silhouettes of the actors in a romantic scene with the sun setting and sparkling over the East River,” Heather recalls. This latitude played a key role in our production given the dynamic nature of lighting in New York City. Jonathan Freeman adds, “We had to shoot on locations where we had only a minimal amount of control. We were shooting probably 10 stories up, and it’s hard to maintain consistency and balance for the inside and outside as the light changes, especially in Manhattan where the light in the canyons changes every 15 minutes.” ‘A’ camera operator Tom Lappin likewise testifies to the value of this feature. “Richard would always shoot the rehearsal,” he notes. “With the DIT watching and the HD monitors for Richard and Jonathan, we were always confident that Heather and I had gotten the take. There is a great sense of progress when you know you have the scene on the first take.”                                                                     


We discovered another surprising and welcome feature of the Alexa XT when an errant boom ended up in the frame of a take we absolutely loved. This could have ended up as an additional visual effects shot. But the XT has a 4:3 Super 35 Sensor that allowed us to shoot 4:3 at 2K resolution. It’s a feature that was developed for anamorphic lenses, but we used it to gather more pixels, which then allowed us to reposition and re-frame shots vertically and do seamless digital tilts in post. We saved our beloved shot simply by repositioning the frame, and it didn’t degrade our image quality.

An interesting byproduct of shooting digital in general is that the production design of sets tends to be less “staged” and more realistic, as the cameras (unlike film cameras) capture pretty much what you see with your naked eye. As an example, our brilliant production designer, Brian Morris, built a wonderful restaurant façade in a Brooklyn neighborhood. The day of our shoot, our clearance person called in a panic, informing us that an Internet search revealed that a “Rahim’s Sahara Café” already existed... right in Brooklyn, no less. We scrambled to find a replacement name, only to learn that this hot new eatery was, in fact, our set. As it turned out, Brian’s design was so convincing that a local resident, after walking by the set the night before, ran home and blogged about the “new restaurant” in the neighborhood. We were able to get back to work, but it reminded us that sometimes technology can have unintended consequences.

ON-SET DAILIES (OR, SHHHHHH!... SKIPPING THE LAB!)                                                    

One of the coolest tools we had was from our on-set dailies vendor, Light Iron: a new iPad app called TODAILIES (get it?), which wirelessly synced our dailies to iPads soon after we changed data cards (or as we used to say, “changed mags”). This means that whomever we gave access to (HODs, vfx, exec producers) could view HD dailies minutes after they were shot. This cuts both ways, so be careful to whom you grant access!                                                                      

Our talented on-set DIT, Keith Putnam, was our go-to technician on set for data wrangling, testing, LUT application and all dailies-related questions. He and the Alexa workflow complemented each other perfectly. Light Iron set Keith up with a turnkey system complete with high-definition monitors, waveform, vectorscope and on-set dailies processing capabilities. This system allowed us to monitor the ARRIRAW and ProRes footage straight out of the Alexa and make on-the-fly adjustments. “The video output of the camera is there for monitoring,” Keith explains, “and I use it to live-color the signal, putting a look on the image and sending it to the VTR person for monitoring on set.”

Creating our dailies while we were filming saved an immense amount of time and manpower and allowed editorial to get their hands on the footage much more quickly. “After downloading the media,” Keith continues, “I would bring it into Express Dailies, which allowed me to sync the sound, apply the look and generate dailies that look like what people saw on set. The live-coloring process is non-destructive. It maintains a consistency all the way to editorial and provides the final colorist an indication of what the original basic intent was,” said Keith.


With our original camera files transcoded into 2K DNxHD 36, a high-quality HD file for offline editing, we were ready to cut the film using an Avid system. Our editor, Andy Marcus (Step Up 3D, Can a Song Save Your Life?, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood), and post-production supervisor Alexis Wiscomb set up shop first at Post Factory and then later at Harbor Picture Company, where we were also doing our online and color.                                                          

Offlining the film with the 2K DNxHD 36 files provided a good balance of picture quality, while also minimizing costs and maximizing efficiency when it came to working with the huge quantity of footage. It was a great help to be able to toggle on the LUTs that Keith had created during production. “Everything came into the Avid with essentially a first-color pass,” says assistant editor Gordon Holmes.

The codec maintained a level of image quality that allowed us to output directly from the Avid and onto an HDCAM SR tape for test screening in a theater. Once we lock picture, we will conform the film using the original raw files and finish it in 2K. One of the great things about the Alexa’s file options is that they are compatible with most online platforms. We selected the Avid Nitris for our conform and Autodesk Lustre for color-grading.

WE NEED TO FUTURE-PROOF DIGITAL                                                     

Shooting digital still leaves producers with unanswered questions about archiving and accessing our films in years to come. How will our 2K films look on the new 16K projectors? With film, we addressed that problem by inventing higher resolution film scanners to get better resolution for our projectors. But digital pretty much remains the resolution at which you capture it. It is a problem yet to be solved by our industry, although many smart people are attacking it. We encourage all producers to get into the conversation — this is as much our problem as anyone else’s in the industry!                                                         

Still, for our team, the overall ease of digital technology outweighed any downsides. As Richard Loncraine put it, “You mean that was a digital camera? It just did what it was supposed to do, every time, all the time.” Though ultimately, we all agree with Tom Lappin when he states, “Digital capture is only as good as the team that makes the settings.”



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:55 Seconds of Comedy

Posted By Ali LeRoi, Monday, June 2, 2014
Updated: Monday, June 2, 2014

When I first realized Ice Cube was coming into The Arsenio Hall Show, I thought it would be a great opportunity to do something funny with him. When guests come on a show and “like to play” (show talk for they don’t take themselves too seriously), the staff will try to write something funny for them to do. Usually something simple. That’s what I thought I was doing.

I remembered Jesse Jackson being on Saturday Night Live reading Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham as one of the most genius and inspired pieces of comedy I’ve ever seen on that show and thought that if we could do something like that with Cube, it would be cool.

I pitched an idea: What if Ice Cube were to read a children’s book, but as a rap? The book Goodnight Moon came to mind. My EP said yes, and off I went.

First step, I searched the Internet and found an instrumental version of NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton.” I set to the task of re-writing the words to the book, and sprinkling in the word “motherfucker” wherever it fit.

Here was the opening of the first version…


In the great green room there was a telephone
and a red balloon and a picture of
The cow jumping over the motherfucking moon
Three motherfucking bears, sitting on chairs
and two punk ass kittens and some motherfucking mittens
and a little bitty house and a bitch ass mouse
and a comb and a brush and some motherfucking mush
and a old ass lady who was whispering “hush”

 It’s hard to pitch this type of bit to people; so if at all possible, you want to make some kind of demo. Inside a small editing room, with my computer sitting on top of a monitor, we recorded the rough vocal track with me doing my best “Ice Cube.”

We finished. We laughed. It sounded funny. I figured this would surely sell the bit. A couple of hours later, my EP got back to me. He loved it, but he thought I sounded like Eazy-E. No matter. Once you tell me something is funny, I’m good.

I knew Cube personally, and agreed to pitch the whole bit. Cube would do the vocal, and we would shoot him on a green screen, so he would appear “in the book.”

In the meantime, he would set out to see if we could get the rights to “Straight Outta Compton.” It’s one of those tricky songs that has several composers and split rights. Getting the rights to use a master to a piece of music can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the popularity of the song. This is a popular song.

If it was cost-prohibitive, we could get a composer to do “a fake,” a song that sounds like a hit song but is different enough so no one gets sued. I sent the email to Cube with the video that I had done attached. The next day, Cube got back to me. He was in. But he said we had to use the “Straight Outta Compton” track. He said that’s what made it funny. I showed his response to the EP, who simply said, “I guess we have to buy a song.”

This is one of those great moments when something you thought was a good idea begins to get real.

Now as far as I knew, there was no official release of the instrumental version of “Straight Outta Compton,” so we had to see if there was one available to buy. The price came back relatively low, so it was an immediate yes. Then things started to get tricky again.

In my pitch to Ice Cube, not only did I pull the music from the Internet, but I also found a video of the book online, complete with simple animations. I had my editor take those images and put them into the video and it was now floating around the different departments.

The literary clearances department had seen it. I could probably clear the usage of the words of Goodnight Moon, but would likely run into problems because we were sprinkling the word “motherfucker” all over the thing. The author might not like that. So in the landscape of legal, it’s better not to ask.

I was also told that we could not use the artwork, because that was yet another set of clearances. All of these discussions were being held on a Friday about to go into a holiday weekend. So no legal questions would be resolved until Tuesday, when Ice Cube was slated to appear.

Fortunately, we tape two shows on Tuesdays, and this was to be in the second show, which would air on Wednesday. So if we could get the clearances, we might have a day to get the rest of the piece together.

Replacing the graphics would require extensive work from the show graphic artist, and he wasn’t even available to start on it until Tuesday. But the EP had decided we would do what we had to do to get the piece on, even if we had to hire a second editor. These are the moments when you pray that your bit is funny, because they were pulling out all the stops.

Tuesday rolls around and now we have to get Cube into the building in enough time to record vocals, shoot him in front of a green screen performing the song, and cut a temp of the bit into the show, knowing that what the audience would see on Tuesday would not be what the home-viewing audience would see on Wednesday night. But we need something to show to the crowd, and we needed to get Cube on the couch talking to Arsenio about it, and throwing to the piece.

Enter legal. To satisfy parody requirements, we can’t be pretending we came up with this on our own. They want the lyrics close enough to the book so it’s clear I’m making fun of it, but we need it different enough so we’re not damaging the author. Hmmm… does that mean more “motherfuckers,” or less?

That brought us to this: 

In a big bedroom there was a telephone
and a big balloon
and a picture of
The cow jumping over the motherfucking moon
Three motherfucking bears, sitting on chairs
two punk ass kittens and some motherfucking mittens
and a little crack house and a bitch ass mouse
and a comb and a brush and some hot ass mush
a ugly old lady who was whispering “hush”

                   I didn’t want Cube coming in blind, so I send him a new version of the lyrics. I waited… I never heard back. That made me nervous. Did he know we were changing the lyrics? Did he not like what he was seeing and change his mind? This was off the radar of his team. Usually publicists or front people agree to bits like this. But I had gone directly to Cube, so if there were problems, I would have no recourse if I couldn’t get him to respond. But I had heard from the talent department (the people who handle guests once they agree to do the show) that

he was good to get to the studio in time enough to shoot the piece, so that made me think I was probably still in the clear.

                  Meanwhile, our graphics guy was saying there was no way he could even get the work done for Wednesday. In truth, he hadn’t even seen the demo, so he didn’t even know what he was saying no to; he was saying no “just in case.” I discussed it with him and he decided it was possible, but wouldn’t make any promises.

As of late Monday, I had a fail-safe plan. At the very least, I could try to get Arsenio and Cube to do an intro to the piece in a pickup, even if none of the material could be ready in time for the Tuesday-night taping. What I didn’t want was for the piece to be held for another night when Cube wasn’t there and to be played as a standalone. This had happened to me with a piece I had written that was supposed to run when Tyler Perry had been a guest. We held the piece for another night. When it ran, it fell flat. Not this time. Ice Cube being there to introduce the piece would make it clear that we were making fun with him and not of him. So I had a plan. Now all it had to do was work.

Tuesday was calm for the most part.

The lawyer seemed to be happy, but now the EP came back to me on my lyrics. His concern was that since I had so liberally sprinkled “motherfucker” in the body of the lyrics, too much of it would have to be bleeped, and the home audience might not enjoy it as much. (The studio audience hears the uncensored version and the bleeps are added later.) Could I do another pass and remove some of the motherfuckers?


And then the lawyer comes back. “Can you write something in your script that makes it clear that we know we’re making fun of this piece, so that on camera they’re saying it’s a joke and that we don’t claim that this is original?”

Sure. I could do that too.

I submitted one more set of lyrics. Everybody is happy now. I was feeling a bit anxious, hoping there were no last minute surprises. The audio track, a clean instrumental, had come in and was waiting with the audio engineer in the control room on the stage.

Recording there seemed like the easiest and quickest way to get a good clean vocal. While the control room was not an audio booth, I was told it was quiet enough. We could record there, marry the vocal to the rhythm track, and immediately output the sound to the monitors by the green screen so Cube could do his lip sync. We saved a step by doing all the work in one system as opposed to having to transfer the files to the main system. All good.

Ice Cube is a professional. You ask for him at 5:00, he shows up at 5:00. I didn’t want to rush Cube, but my concern was getting him in the booth and starting to record so we could turn the work around in time for the next taping, which was slated to begin about 7:00 pm. I went down to meet him when he arrived. We shared a laugh. He said he’d be ready shortly.  At about 5:15, he was still in his dressing room.

One of our talent coordinators knocked politely. She was told he would be ready in a few minutes. “A few minutes” in celebrity time can be anywhere from three minutes to three hours. I had no doubt Cube would come out and we would get the bit, but I was increasingly concerned that we would be in a serious time crunch.

So we waited. A food order was placed. A couple of people from his camp arrived and entered the dressing room. No one came out.

We double-checked to make sure all of the people on our end would be ready. As we sat waiting, there was a quiet understanding that when it was time, we would be moving with purpose.

There were a few more polite knocks. A few more reassurances that it would be a “few” minutes. Finally, somewhere around 6:20 pm, his publicist emerged and said he was ready. Cube came out about five minutes later. “Ali LeRoi!” Cube always says my whole name when he sees me. Like Charlie Brown. It always makes me feel very cool and very corny.

I had given Cube his new version of the lyrics, and as we walked toward the booth, the first thing he pointed out was that these lyrics weren’t the same as the ones he’d seen before. And while he had listened to the original demo, he said he would need a cadence for the new bits. Meaning: I have to rap for Ice Cube.

Fortunately, we’d worked together before, and he trusts me with comedy. So if I had to rap to get it across, that’s what I had to do.

We get into the booth; I dive in. He picks it up pretty fast. He’s been doing this a while.

When he takes his first shot at it, he’s a little subdued. But it’s already funny.

We start to record.

Cube gets through the first couple of stanzas before he stumbles. We’ll just play back the stuff he’s done and punch him in, like they do in studios. No problem.

Problem. This is not a studio, the engineer reminds me. It’s an audio room at a TV show. They only have two tracks. One with the music and one for the vocal. So he can’t listen back to what he’s done. He can record AGAIN, and pick up wherever he wants, but two tracks are all we have.

I repeat this back to the engineer several times. “All you have is two tracks?” I have more than that in Garageband. I’m embarrassed and worried. What the hell? Does Cube think this is all bullshit? Will he just say fuck it?

No. This is Ice Cube. He’s a pro. “I can get it.”

We start and stop. We listen and laugh as Cube gets a handle on the rhythm and the rhyme. It’s funny as hell.

Cube gets to a tricky word and stumbles. He figures out the nuances. We change a word here and there. We’re at about six partial takes.

“We can just cut it together…” I tell him. “If we just get the bottom half, we already have the top—”

“I’m a MC. I can do this.”

On number seven he nails it. Top to bottom. Audio down. Now the video. The cameras are in place. Good. Cube is about six feet from the prompter screen, which is about 5” x 7”. He complains softly about the small size, but all systems are go.

I tell the booth we will shoot two takes (with two cameras rolling simultaneously) of Cube doing the vocal all the way through, and two takes with him doing a combination of the lyrics and some mugging for the camera. That way, if he falls off sync or just doesn’t land part of the song, we can cover that with him doing something cool.

It’s amazing and fun to watch a legend at work. And watching Cube rhyme “punk ass kittens” and “motherfucking mittens” was a great moment. Wow.

Six minutes later, we’re done.

He’s off to his dressing room. He’s happy with the work. I rush off to the edit bay to make sure that we have the proper takes being cut in over the temp graphics I pulled from the Internet. The live-action green screen material won’t be cut in until Wednesday. Right now we need to get the temp ready for the top of his third segment in the show.

I sit in my office and watch the show from there. I’d like to go down, but I kind of enjoy watching on my own. I love having my ideas received well, but I still get uncomfortable standing around while people tell me I’m funny. I prefer just hearing the crowd respond.

The top of the third act of the show arrives and Arsenio leads Cube into the intro for the video. It’s not what I’ve written, but who cares? (I’ll tell you who in a second.)

The piece plays. It looks good on the small screen in my small office. I can hear the crowd laughing.

I get a note from writer Owen Smith, who wanted to be on the floor when it played:

“It CRUSHED” (his caps).

I decide to go down and catch Cube before he got out of the building, just to tell him thanks. My EP intercepts me. Fist bump. He’s happy. A lot went into this, and it worked. Always a good feeling.

I catch up to Cube, we speak briefly. He’s happy with the piece, and even offers himself up for more if we have a good idea. Cool.

Inside, I’m sailing, but outside, I’m still very subdued. One of the writers’ assistants tells me she thought the piece was great. I start babbling on with some sort of forced humility. She calls me an asshole and tells me to just say “thank you.” I say “thank you.”

Wait, who’s running toward me? It’s the lawyer. Not happy. What’s wrong? “They didn’t say that it was his ‘take’ on a children’s book!”

This lawyer has told me before he hates that this is his job. He will tell the EP. The EP will not care, and will not ask Arsenio to go back out and say some perfunctory stuff about how this thing that is obviously a joke, is, in fact, a joke. It’s out of my hands.

I head to edit and the graphics look good. We can take Ice Cube and place him where we need him on the screen. That’s the best part of shooting on green screen. It’s the home stretch. I’m feeling confident as I leave the studio.

The staff is still buzzing the next morning about the piece. Even though it hasn’t aired, everyone thinks it will be even funnier when we get our original graphics into it.

The lawyer is still concerned with the fact that Cube and Arsenio didn’t give it the proper wording to let everyone know that it’s a joke. Apparently, Arsenio thanked Cube at the end of the show for his “take” on the children’s book. It’s not exactly what the legal department wants, but it’s something. Although we can’t imagine any sane people thinking that we’re serious about this, who said it would be sane people making the argument?

The graphics guy is well down the path to finishing and it looks like we’ll be in good shape inside of a few hours. It’s just before noon and the lawyer is back. He’s been speaking to even more lawyers, who are even more skittish than he is.

Because Arsenio and Cube did not specifically set up that this was Ice Cube’s take on a children’s’ classic “for the hood,” we now need to include some sort of title card on the piece that states the title and includes something along the lines of “Children’s Story Remix” by Ice Cube.

Now, the shows are currently being edited, so I can’t add any time to the piece. It has to run in the exact same time that it ran last night, so any additional images have to fit in the space we’ve used. There may be a little space at the front, over the intro. I think we can do it. I send an email with additions to the editors and the lawyer and I wait.

It’s now late in the day and the post-production department is trying to wrap up all of the elements for tonight’s show. The graphics editor is finalizing the images for the book, while a second editor cuts the images that have already been created to the timeline of the music. He’s gotten the green screen selects of Cube, arranging the pieces on the timeline of the music.

I haven’t seen it all play down yet, but it looks good.

I ask my editor if he’s seen my email about the legalese we needed to insert. I sent it maybe three hours ago. He has no idea what I’m talking about. His suggestion is that the other editor do it.

My fingers are crossed, but the piece is starting to feel “snakebit.” That’s a term I first heard from my friend, producer/director Reginald Hudlin. It means your idea may not

be dead yet, but it will be.

I make my way back to the graphics editor to see if he’s read my email about the legalese. He has. But he hasn’t done anything yet.

“Why don’t we do it the way they do on music videos?” He suggests a lower third with all the pertinent information. It’s a brilliant idea. I’ve found, more often than not, when you let people do what they do best, they will come up with an idea better than yours, that makes your work shine.

So now at the top of the video, we’ll see as a lower third: 

Goodnight “June”
The Bedtime Story Remix
by Ice Cube

and then at the end:

Dedicated to the Junebugs
in Compton and everywhere

 Sounds like a plan.

I know that once it’s cut, there’s going to be something I’m going to not like. But I have to remember that it’s a great :55 seconds of comedy, and that it’s already more than I imagined.

No word from the lawyer. I take that as a good sign.

It’s almost 4:00. The graphics are done and now the editor is working as fast as he can to get everything in place.

My EP steps into the edit bay and asks, “How’s it going?”

“I don’t know,” I say.

I’m not lying. I know we’re making progress, but I haven’t asked. No one has shot up a flare. If the guys are not saying they have a problem, then they don’t have a problem. They know their timeline; they have experience with this. Any time they spend assuaging your fears is time better spent putting

the piece together.

“You don’t know?” he asks me. There’s a mix of concern

and incredulity there.

“Ask him.” I point to the editor.

“We’re going to make it,” he says.

The EP exits and we get back to work. I’ve been wandering around the office for most of the day, but now I stay in the edit bay. Decisions need to be made and they can’t spend time trying to find me.

Producer 101: Decisions are made by people in the room.

I’m not here to interfere. I’m not even pushing any new creative ideas. At this point, I want them to execute as best they can in the time they have. I’ll only stop them if something feels wrong.

The lawyer returns with a list of words we need to bleep.

The editor suggests that someone else do that job. That may or may not be happening. He still has to pixilate Cube’s mouth, because the FCC does not allow for the mouthing of profanity either.

It’s 10 after four. The show has to be delivered in acts. I think this piece is in the top of act four, so that means that even if the first portion of the show has been delivered, they still have time. Act one has to go at about 6:00 pm. Tick tock.

I wait. I have reached the place where it’s not funny to me anymore. I just want it done. I came up with this idea last Thursday. It’s now Wednesday. And we’re still in it.

My editor is looking for a creative way to cover Cube’s mouth when he curses. He doesn’t want to just use pixels. We decide to cross the barrels of two 9mm pistols and slap an “x” over his mouth. Funny. Good idea. This is why you stay in the room.

My EP is back.

“How’s it looking?”


“How you feeling?” he asks the editor.

“We’re gonna make it.”

“In time for act one?”

The editor deflects the question. Now my EP wants to see it. He’s got to know whether he’s in trouble or not.

He’s watching. He’s laughing. He’s satisfied. He leaves.

My editor has decided that instead of a bleep it would be cool to use the sound of a gun slide in place of the beep. It feels funny. And he wants to do it. I say fine. The vote of confidence makes him want to deliver. I need his enthusiasm right now.

Even though it’s “my” piece, everyone who works on it is vested. They all want their part to be good. Because when they tell people about it, it’ll be their piece. Everyone from Arsenio and Ice Cube down to the guy with the two-track audio.

We just picked the end frame — Ice Cube throwing up his “West Side” sign. Cube crushed that bit.

4:40 pm. TICK TOCK.

We have most of the elements in. It’s still not bleeped yet. The head of post comes in. Act one is ready to go. My editor may have some work he needs to do in another edit, but they may try to push it off to someone else. Everyone is very calm, but the pressure is on.

There’s a huddle in the hallway. The lawyer, the head of post and the show’s comedy producer.

The lawyer is back in. He wants to see the images. He thinks it looks great.

“Are you happy?”

“Yeah,” he says.

I’m not happy yet. I’ll be happy when I get home tonight and see it on the air. Then I’ll know it’s real. I guess I’ll be happy then. I’m still a comedian. We have problems with happiness.

And there goes the lawyer again. I’m sure he’ll be back.

My graphics editor has some last-minute tweaks for the editor. Even with the clock ticking, they don’t stop creating. At this point, I’ve decided to stand down. But I love that these guys know their limitations. They want it to be good. And they’re doing everything they can to make it that way.

5:03 pm

We’re very close. Bleeping still has to be done. I see a couple of things, but I’ll wait until he finishes fixing the problems he’s having before I put him on mine.

The EP is back.

“How’s it going?”


Now we have to make space to put “The Arsenio Hall Show” bug on the screen during the video. The hits just keep on coming. My EP and my post supervisor are both here now. Everyone is quiet. I’m always fascinated by editors and how comfortable they seem to be with people hanging behind them studying their every move. I think I would shoot someone.

But he’s focused. Fixing little things that will make it look a little better. Editor shit.

5:12 pm

My post supervisor is concerned. We have an hour, she says. The editor does not say “we’ll make it.” But we will. He’s bleeping now with the slide cock sound. He hasn’t put the guns in to cover the mouth yet. He’s chuckling.

The EP leaves. I don’t think I’ve left this room for the past two hours. And I won’t. Not until we’re done.

5:21 pm

The lawyer is back. He is concerned about the crisscrossed guns to cover the mouth for the curse words.

“Is that new?”

Lawyers don’t like new stuff.

He’s telling me this piece will have a lot of network eyes on it. The eyes of old guys. Nothing can go wrong. I guess that’s why the lawyer is back. 

5:27 pm

It feels like time is crawling by. The gun cock sound and the guns popping up on Cube’s face are funny.

I’ve just discovered that we air at 10:00 pm in Central and Mountain, and in some markets at 9:30 pm, so these times are not covered by “safe harbor” rules that relax standards for language and subject matter after 11:30 pm. And this piece airs in the first half hour of the show. So while “motherfucker” wouldn’t fly anywhere, even “punk ass kittens” could now be a problem.

The editor counts 10 “motherfuckers.”

“There should be nine ‘motherfuckers’ and one ‘fucking,’” says the lawyer.

“That’s right,” the editor confirms.

The lawyer is insisting on putting a little black circle backplate behind the guns, so absolutely zero profanity can be seen.

“You don’t realize the calls I get…” he moans. “They tell me, ‘I can read his cheeks!’”

5:36 pm

I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do for the staff. A lot of people went to the mat on this bit. I just want to say thanks. I’ll think of something.

5:44 pm

The lawyer is looking at pieces of mouth he wants covered. We’re talking millimeters.

My EP has just come in and said he’s uncomfortable with the guns and the gun cock sound. The lawyer was okay with that. Fuck.

“How about a moon and a cricket sound?”

Yes. And away they go. This could get more complicated, but I’m not sure how.

5:55 pm

The post supervisor and the comedy producer are back, just hovering.

Oddly enough, the moon and the crickets are kind of funny. Though I do love being on the edge, sometimes making things safer makes them funnier.

6:03 pm

I feel like a Wallenda walking across the Grand Canyon on a high wire, almost at the other side. My original editor on the piece has just poked his head into the room. He chuckles at what he sees, but he doesn’t

hang around. Now the graphics guy and the editor are on to finer details. Editor shit. I’m letting them work. The piece is pretty much done. I have nothing to add. 

6:10 pm

I can hear the Ice Cube segment playing in the other edit bay. This has to be done soon. The whole show is waiting on this piece.

I’m waiting for the EP to come in and tell us time’s up. Three-plus hours, I haven’t moved. My legs are getting numb.

I can hear the intro to the piece playing in the next room. The temp version is rolling, for whatever reason. I don’t know what’s going on. It was an hour ago we were told we had until 6:30. It’s now 6:17. No one is screaming, but I sense someone is going to take this piece from us soon. That’s the way it goes. You keep working until they say pencils down.

EP is here.


It’s time. If he’s happy with what he sees, he will pull the plug.

By putting in bleeps, they cut out music. They’re having a problem getting the music in sync. So now the music has to be patched.

“Worst-case scenario 6:45,” is the word from my post supervisor. “It airs at 6:54.”

If I’m not mistaken, this show is on the air somewhere right now and we’re still cutting the piece.

“Have you put in the Arsenio logo yet?” asks the EP.


Now he has to cut Arsenio’s bug into the piece in places where it doesn’t cover anything important. 

6:28 pm

My decision-making is done. But you gotta be in the room. There are a lot of people in this room now. The lawyer has slipped back in, quietly. Man.

The EP says, “Let’s see this opus.”

The music is good.

My EP applauds. Fist bump. He’s out.

6:37 pm

The editor is still tweaking. The lawyer is looking for something. He can still hear the “ing” at the end of a “motherfucking.” That’s some kind of ear he has.

6:40 pm

Someone pokes their head in. “We’re nearing the end of act two…”

It looks like we’re done. This will be fed into the pipeline. 6:43 pm. The show airs at 10:00 in some East Coast markets.

6:45 pm

Since this didn’t actually play in front of the studio audience, now they have to add laughs.

He’s cutting the piece into the show. They’re adding applause at the top and bottom.

The EP is back, not fist bumping.

The post supervisor and the editor want to fix something. I don’t know what. I don’t speak post.

“Just feed this. We can fix the second later!”

                  “Jesus Christ!” 

6:48 pm

Defcon 1.

My EP can’t believe these guys. Are they actually thinking about trying to cut a second out? What the fuck?

They walk out of the room at 6:50 pm. The editor comes back at 6:51.

He wants to try to put laughs in. He doesn’t get 30 seconds into it before the post supervisor stops him. “You’re not going to make it.”

Hat tip to that guy. He was in it to the end. He never quit trying to get one more thing done. It’s important to know how far people will go for something they believe in.

I’m the only one left. I can get up now. I’ll see it at home later.

As I walk down the hallway, I see people gathered at the door of one of the other edit bays. It’s the one where the show is being fed out to wherever it gets fed out to.

“What’s going on?” I ask my EP.

They want to see the piece.

I look in the room and most of the writing staff is gathered there. I can only imagine that this is nowhere near as funny as it was six days ago, and certainly not as funny as it was last night when it played to a studio audience with Ice Cube introducing the piece.

I don’t want to stand around and hear people not laughing, thinking that maybe they were wrong. I don’t want to hear them say that it’s not as funny as it was the day before. I already know all of this. The magic moment has passed.

I really wanted for this to go on the air, so I cooked up a scenario where we could get it done. And I did it, with the help of a few crazy editors and a boatload of resources. It wasn’t expensive really, just time-consuming. Time is money, I guess.

I don’t know what the response was as everyone gathered to watch the feed. I only know it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be.

But the audience at home will be seeing it for the first time. They know nothing of this. So I have the element of surprise on my side.

And tonight, I imagine that when it plays, people will probably think it’s hilarious. A few people will tweet about it. Maybe when it goes up on the website, someone might pick it up. There were people on staff suggesting the video might go viral. Stuff like that is good for the show.

I was going to go home and watch it, but decided against it.

Six days ago, when I came up with this idea, it was magic. I laughed. My EP laughed. We wanted to get it done. Somewhere along the way you lose the spark, but you become married to the idea of seeing it through. You wonder if it was as good an idea as you thought it was. You hope you don’t mess it up. And eventually, you come out on the other side with a piece of comedy that bears a striking resemblance to the thing you thought was hilarious.

Close, but no cigar.

Fuck. I hate comedy.

All this for :55 seconds.

You gotta love it.

Ali LeRoi worked as a producer/director at The Arsenio Hall Show as they worked toward a second season pickup. They got it.

Editor's note: 
3 months after announcing the second season pickup, just before this article was published, The Arsenio Hall Show was cancelled.


Tags:  Ice Cube 

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Top 10 Reasons I Haven't Yet Registered For The Produced By Conference

Posted By Administration, Friday, May 30, 2014

The Top 10 Reasons I Haven't Yet Registered For The Produced By Conference

10.    I’ve been too busy rounding up my producing team for the PGA/Cadillac “Make Your Mark” short film contest.

9.    I’ve been preoccupied finalizing my deal to buy the L.A. Clippers.

8.    I’m worried that Francis Ford Coppola’s session might run several months over its allotted time.

7.    I’m never sure where to sit at those Mentoring Roundtables.

6.    The approaching close of Mark’s and Hawk’s term as PGA Presidents has reduced me to a state of apoplectic anxiety.

5.    Still pissed at David Fincher for that ambiguous ending to The Social Network; I mean, does she friend him back or not?

4.    Fingers still crossed that I’ll be invited as a speaker.

3.    I'm afraid the secondhand smoke at Seth Rogen’s panel will make me paranoid.

2.    I prefer to build my production knowledge from watching E! Entertainment.

And... the number  reason why I haven't yet registered?

1.    Doctor's orders; Produced By provides more networking than is 100% safe for someone of my height and weight.

Whatever your reasons might be, time is running out! Register today at!

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Make Your Mark Competition - Presented by PGA and Cadillac

Posted By Administration, Monday, May 19, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Producers Guild of America and Cadillac Launch MAKE YOUR MARK Short Film Competition.

Winning short and Producers name to be featured in Cadillac's :30 spot during the 2015 Oscars®

Kathy Bates, Danny DeVito, Michael Douglas, Hawk Koch, Gary Lucchesi, Lori McCreary, and Chris Moore to Serve as Judges for Make Your Mark

Make Your Mark Competition Spotlights the Role of the Film Producer 

How to participate in Make Your Mark:

  • Ø  Starting today until 11:59 p.m. EDT on June 25, 2014, contestants can enter the Make Your Mark competition at WithoutABox via the contest website:

  • Ø  Once accepted to the competition, entrants will be asked to create a three-to five minute-short film that draws upon the storytelling and work of Saul Zaentz.

  • Ø  Rules and creative specifications will be released on June 27, 2014 at 5:00 p.m.

    EDT and contestants will have 51 hours to complete their short film.

  • Ø  Ten semi-finalists will be announced on or around July 29, 2014, and three

    finalists will be announced on or around August 25, 2014.

  • Ø  The three finalists will collaborate with a distinguished PGA mentor to produce a

    further refined three-to-five-minute short film.

  • Ø  The winning short and producer will be announced on January 24, 2015 at the

    2015 Producers Guild Awards.

  • Ø  The winning short will be highlighted in a :30 second Cadillac spot that will

    appear during the ABC broadcast of the 2015 Academy Awards.


“The Producers Guild of America and Cadillac are both looking to enable and celebrate achievement,” said Uwe Ellinghaus, Global Cadillac CMO. “Through our collaboration with the PGA, we are designing a competition for the next generation of producers.”

Judges for the Make Your Mark competition include Kathy Bates (“About Schmidt,” “At Play in the Fields of the Lord,” “Titanic”), Danny DeVito (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,” “Batman Returns,” Taxi), Michael Douglas (“Wall Street,” “Basic Instinct,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,”), Hawk Koch (“Source Code,” “Primal Fear,” “Wayne’s World”), Gary Lucchesi (“The Lincoln Lawyer,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Underworld”), Lori McCreary (Invictus,” “The Maiden Heist”), and Chris Moore (“Good Will Hunting,” “American Pie”).

The Make Your Mark film competition is presented by the Producers Guild of America and Cadillac through the Producers Guild of America Foundation. The competition enhances the annual PGA Weekend Shorts Challenge.

A $100 registration fee is required and is limited to 500 entries accepted. Proceeds from the entry fee goes to the Producers Guild Foundation, a 501 (c) (3) charity. For Official Rules visit 

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Sustaining A Golden Age?

Posted By Christopher Kaminski, Thursday, May 15, 2014

We are experiencing a golden age of television. At least, that is what the people working inside the television industry have proclaimed. And there might be grounds for such a bold statement. 

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) annual conference, known simply as The Cable Show, took place recently in Los Angeles. The industry confab brings together cable television providers and the programmers that supply them content. 

“In the earlier days, this show was really a showcase for the networks and the programmers to show off their new content, or it was a place for distributors to get a better understanding of what new networks were being developed.” said Matt Strauss, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Video Services for Comcast Cable. The event has evolved to include a greater emphasis on technology and innovation. 4k video and gigabit residential broadband were popular topics this year. 

Despite the shift, the show provided an excellent opportunity to take the pulse of an industry that is changing at a remarkable pace. 

The words of many industry executives suggested a fascinating internal conflict. On the surface speakers seemed generally positive about their recent performance and optimistic about the future. But a palpable sense of concern lingered just underneath their words. The pay television industry has stumbled a few times during an era of unprecedented competition. Initiatives like TV Everywhere are off to a rocky start, government regulators are knocking at the door, and customer satisfaction with cable providers remains very low. Meanwhile over-the-top services like Netflix and Amazon Prime are diverting precious time, attention, and money from the traditional players. 

But what does all of this mean for the working producer? Taking the optimistic view, there are more opportunities than ever to get a new project made. Each programmer is looking to fill their pipeline, increase their brand cache, and improve their offerings in a very competitive landscape. “There’s an arms race for programming,” said John Martin, CEO of Turner Broadcasting System. 

Kathleen Finch, President of the Home Category at Scripps Networks Interactive, said that HTGV and DIY Channel both set new viewership records this past year. House Hunters has six series that total more than 400 hours of programming per year. Yet Finch says she doesn’t have a hit-driven business; rather, the aim is to satisfy the core desires of their audience. Scripps takes an experimental approach to developing new series. Focus groups are eschewed in favor of running pilots in a variety of slots to see how they perform in the marketplace. Finch described a high tolerance for risk when she said, “if a 20 episode experiment fails, it’s okay.” 

Fox chose to buck the trend of creating hyper-focused regional sports networks with Fox Sports 1, a channel designed to appeal to every sports fan across the nation. David Nathanson, General Manager and COO of Fox Sports 1, said they are taking winning concepts and broadening the scope to appeal to a wide audience. For example America’s Pregame Show is a new show format based on Fox’s top-rated NFL Sunday. APS reports on all sports events happening that day regardless of the network that broadcasts the game. 

New music channel Revolt is looking to provide a home for legions of fans that founder Sean Combs says have been left out in the cold ever since Viacom evolved its music channels into more general lifestyle brands. Combs believes that the new channel will ultimately be successful because they are putting boots on the ground at the important music events. He ended his stage time imploring audience members to seek him out to do business together. 

A+E Networks president Nancy Dubuc admitted to feeling the pressure of competition from the internet, saying that the “next round of creators is opting to go to YouTube and Vine.” Discovery Networks is attempting to capture new talent and new audiences by launching digital networks such as the science-themed Test Tube and animal-focused Animist

On the scripted side, executives and showrunners continue to proclaim that cable distinguishes itself by the quality of the storytelling. Noah Hawley, writer and showrunner of Fargo on FX, proclaimed that “this is the place to write your novel.” He continued, “There are no limits on what your characters can do or say.” 

"The golden age of television is like the revolution in advertising," declared Matt Weiner, showrunner of AMC’s Mad Men. "It's a term that is coined by the television business. What really happened is that it was the lower cost for talent and special deals made by the WGA, DGA and SAG to encourage this part of the business." 

Hit shows often have humble beginnings. While Mad Men is currently considered one of the best shows of this generation, Weiner suggested that his series was initially produced in large part because of his previous writing job at HBO. He quipped, “The first poster might have said the words Sopranos larger than the words Mad Men.” 

Scripted shows are no longer disposable, gaining a profitable second life on VOD and streaming services.  Noah Hawley said he enjoys not having to build to a splashy ad break like on network shows, and he often checks his output to ensure each episode works when the ads are removed. Michelle Ashford, the showrunner of Masters of Sex on Showtime, says the longevity of shows also engenders greater scrutiny from viewers. “They’ll see things we didn’t intend or notice ourselves.” 

Ashford said that ultimately, she doesn’t worry too much about the technology of how the show gets to the consumer. She suggests that people creating the show stay focused on doing their best work. 

"I think when you write something because you're interested in it, and not for the market, you probably write it differently" said Josh Sapan, President of AMC Networks. "In a business environment, that sounds like a bad thing, but it's really a good thing." 

Sapan went on to explain that the golden age of television is best defined by comparing today’s series to those of his youth. In those days his parents would caution him, “Don’t watch it. You’ll get dumb.” By comparison he proposed, “If Dickens were alive today, he would be a showrunner.”

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