With the 2011 pilot season now completed (network pickup and schedule announcements will happen this week), it seems a fitting time to talk a bit about television pilot season, how it works, how it doesn’t work, how things have changed in the last few years, and how those of us who are involved get through it.
Although the networks have talked about changing the concept of how pilots are done for years, little has changed in the almost 30 years that I have been working in the television business. Each year, between the beginning of March and the beginning of May, each network produces many pilots, which because of the compressed time frame, means that there is a constant battle for the available talent, the available resources, and the available crews. And all of this is happening while regular series are still in production, and also while the industry’s largest convention (the NAB Convention, held each year in mid-April in Las Vegas) takes place. The nature of a pilot is unique. It’s a show that isn’t yet a show, because no episodes of it have yet been made. The creative control is usually in the hands of a writer and a director, but the creative decisions are closely scrutinized and controlled by both studio and network executives, who are constantly second guessing all decisions being made, be they story points, casting, selection of locations, or just about anything else. All are nervous because there is a lot at stake and no blueprint to use, as there is once the show becomes a series. Only a very few directors, usually the ones with very well proven track records, are given the true creative control they should get in order to bring their creative vision to the screen. For this reason, pilots are often staffed by creative talents who usually work in the feature world, and make themselves available to television only for pilots. This year, that was the case in at least two of the pilots I was involved with. The pilot for “Pan Am” (since picked up by ABC) was directed by Thomas Schlamme, a proven television director with a great series and pilot track record and an old friend. But it was shot by a feature based director of photography, John Lindley. Another pilot, “Rookies” (probable pickup by CBS) was directed by a feature director, James Mangold. This is fairly common practice, as the studios and networks want to put their best foot forward to make their pilot investments – which are considerable – pay off.
Pilot production is also unlike series production in the sense that the nervousness that permeates the production often results in voluminous amounts of footage, as well as some reshoots (usually done after the show is picked up) and, just as often, recasting of sometimes major roles. Since there are a lot of nervous executives waiting to see great footage each day, the sheer volume of what’s shot leads to very, very long hours on the part of the post facilities that have to put that footage together each night, make it look its best, make sure it’s in sync with the recorded sound, and get it to different places in different formats, all as early as possible. This year, the company I work for (Deluxe) committed to deploying mobile lab units in 5 different cities to handle pilots in those locations. We put two units into Deluxe New York that handled 4 different shows. We also deployed individual units in Dallas, Miami, San Juan (Puerto Rico), and a more permanent version in Deluxe Vancouver. The nature of pilots, as well as series, is that they are often shot in distant locations, but nearly all of them are post produced (finished) in Los Angeles. With rare exceptions, this means that all daily material must be delivered each morning to the editorial team, the studio executives, and the network programming executives, all of whom are in Los Angeles. Final finishing also takes place (for the most part) in L.A., with show conforms, color grading, sound editing, sound mixing, and creation of delivery elements all happening there. Needless to say, this also creates a burden for the facilities that are still working on regular season shows, but must still be available to perform the same tasks on pilots. For most of us who work in post production, pilot season basically amounts to about 6 weeks of giving up your life, working crazy hours, working weekends, and just about everything else that goes along with a compressed schedule in which everyone is expected to put in their very best effort.
An interesting wrinkle for me this year was that I was asked to do final color grading on a rather high profile pilot being directed by David Nutter, whom I’ve known for a number of years. David has a remarkable record as a pilot director in that going into this pilot season, he has directed 16 pilots – all of which were ordered to series. So he is one of those few that I mentioned who’s given a lot of creative control. He is also one of the most terrific people you’ll ever meet, so those of us who work with him put in our best effort and are happy to do it. The pilot he did this year also happened to be the only one shot on Red Epic cameras, so that made it especially interesting for me. So far it has not been picked up to series, but a final decision has not yet been made. This was also the first year in memory that not a single pilot (at least not to my knowledge) was shot on film, which itself is something of a defining moment. Although various cameras were used on pilots, one camera emerged as being very dominant, and that was the Arri Alexa. This was something of a surprise to me, in that I did expect Red to have a bit more of a presence, and I also expected to still see the last vestige of tape based systems such as the Sony F35. That was not the case. Red was a bit less of a player than it was a year ago, probably due in part to its concentration on features – particularly 3D features – with its new Epic line. But it was undoubtedly also due to the emergence of the Alexa as a television camera of choice, and this was due to many reasons. Clearly the Arri name plays into the minds of experienced shooters who trust Arri as a company, but it is also due to the product itself, and the images it produces. In television, dynamic range is greatly valued as production is always severely limited in time and must often shoot under less than ideal conditions. The Alexa’s dynamic range is its calling card, and that has very wide appeal. In addition, the Alexa records Quicktime ProRes files on solid state cards (it also can record RAW frames on a separate recorder, but that is not common or necessary for television series production), making for a simple workflow that does not require debayering or, in some cases, transcoding. The perceived simpler workflow when compared with Red is something that seems to appeal to some productions, especially when time is of the essence, as it is with pilots. All of this, combined with a hand held friendly form factor, led to a very wide acceptance of the Alexa for pilots this year.
Of course, it should also be mentioned that we seem to be living in a fast moving technical age in which each pilot season seems to herald the arrival of a new “camera of the year.” Two years ago, it was the Sony F35. Last year, it was Red (albeit to a smaller extent). This year, it was Alexa. Next year, who knows? Perhaps the Sony F65 will arrive and be friendly enough for television use as to be the practical choice. Perhaps a successor to the Alexa will make inroads. Perhaps Red will re-emerge as a consensus choice, with lower priced Epic X’s on the market. I’m not making any predictions, because if there’s anything to be learned from the last 3 years, it’s that things are, well, unpredictable. The only thing that is predictable is that next year we’ll go through another painful pilot season, in which a lot of money will be spent on shows that will not succeed, some great pilots will get made, a lot of mediocre ones will get made, and most of us who work in television will get very little sleep.
Welcome to my world…