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From Porschia Lewis:
From a planning aspect, how does everyone get together and decide what the actual direction of a season will be? How much does the outline change from the teams’ original vision based on outside influence from the network, etc?
This is more of a question for one of the writers than it is for me, but I will give you my perspective on it.
Using the pre-existing pilot as a launching point, Tim Kring and the writers began to meet last May and planned extensively the key beats of the whole season. They knew full well that the serialized storytelling would require a lot of long range planning. Because some of the writers (like Jesse Alexander and Jeph Loeb) had done serialized shows like LOST and ALIAS, and because of Tim Kring’s unique relationship to Damon Lindelof, co-creator of LOST, I get the feeling that the staff were already aware of many upsides and pitfalls of a serialized show... I think key goals and story targets were conceived from the very start – but not necessarily the details of how they would be gotten to. Remember, one of the beauties of TV is that it is an organic evolving thing. When we see what works, we go more into it. When something, which we thought would work, doesn’t, we begin to steer away. For instance, the Claire/HRG/Bennet family story became more prevalent when we saw the amazing chemistry that was occurring in those storylines.
Rightfully so, there was a lot of early discussion and many opinions from the network, as everyone tried to conceive of what the show should be. All of it was very positive, and many positive debates and tussles took place. The network has a lot of input, but has always been very supportive of the series. As the early episodes began to air, it became clear what was working and how the stories could be told and the process of giving notes and overseeing the episodes became less about “What should the show be?” to “Let’s make sure this is working.”
My perspective, which is somewhat outside the writer’s room, is that the overall writing/planning/network-involvement experience, has been extraordinarily collaborative and supportive on this show. Much more so than many situations I’ve seen in the past.
As a director, do you have a trademark screen shot or camera angle just like the Asian directors (Wong Kar-wai and Nagisa Oshima) where they swiftly and smoothly show the power struggle and emotions of their characters in their screen shots?
This is a question for which a couple of answers are possible. First of all, trademark styles work if you are always working in the same genre. Even a director like Scorcese who has a consistent, dynamic and unique visual style, which suits his gangster movies, will change up his style for a movie like THE AGE OF INNOCENCE or KUNDUN. A style that suits a horror film will probably not suit a light comedy. A TV director needs to be a chameleon, as he or she will tend to work on many types of shows. Having said that, the average TV style, which is bland, eye-level coverage and master/over/over type of coverage is anathema to me. There is, frequently, in television an assumption that one must, mathematically march through a series of sizes on every moment of every scene. In my opinion this creates a lack of directorial design that deadens a show.
I do have many preferences though, and I do think some of the filmic things I personally like have stayed as ongoing aspects on the shows I’ve produced and directed. (a) I love moving the camera, and try to design sequences where there is lyrical camera movement that flows cut to cut (b) Because I studied Orson Welles in film school, and because my student film was a homage/parody of Welles' THE TRIAL I developed a taste for long masters with no coverage. (c) I also have a simple philosophy I call “See the spaces, see the faces.”’ I push and encourage the art departments to find and build unique spaces with interesting architecture and built-in sources of light and I try to shoot the sets so that we see them. I also love big tight close ups (a la Sergio Leone!) Ultimately there is nothing more interesting than emotions playing across the human face. I like big giant wide shots and huge close-ups where the eyebrows and chin are just in frame. (d) Because of my original love of comic books and comic book angles I love super low angles and super high angles.
However, on HEROES, the challenge is to have many varied styles that are each appropriate for the different types of stories we tell. I find myself able to use my usual moving-camera, low angle/high angle, super wide shots, and super tight close-ups. But there are also many other styles that are different than what I usually do and kind of hard for me to adapt to. Sometimes we attempt a long lens/off-centered composition/Michael Mann style. Sometimes a hand held/edgy/”Babel”/”Constant Gardener” approach is appropriate. The key on HEROES is in designing transitions between the scenes. If good designed transitions scene-to-scene occur, the varying styles seem to flow together.
From Jae Moreland:
My question is regarding a more technical aspect of the show’s workflow. After reading your blog, I’m assuming that the show is still shot in a traditional manner, on film. Once the shots are done, what happens from there? Is the film scanned into cineon? What type of setup do the editors use? Avid? Final Cut? What about compositing and visual fx?
HEROES is shot on 35mm film. It is then transferred to a digital format through a process called Telecine – this happens at another company called Complete Post. We have 3 editors and three assistant editors who cut on Avid’s (5 Avid systems total) They cut using the Avid Adrenaline Program. The visual effects are produced by Stargate digital. The main system for 2D compositing is AfterEffects that runs on Windows XP machines. They also use in 3D: Maya, Lightwave, Massive for crowd simulations, Realflow for water simulation and BouJou for 3D tracking. All of the rendering is done through a render farm and tracked using a system called Smedge. They track all of the shots, data, stock footage etc. through a proprietary intranet based program called VOS. VOS is the nerve center that allows every artist, supervisor, producer, and coordinator to be incredibly efficient and it ensures that we get all of the shots done and delivered on time as promised. Stargate handles a bunch of shows. The output in dailies each morning is anywhere from 50 to 120 High Definition shots a day depending upon how many shows have material being produced.
The reveal that Mrs. Petrelli was the one The Haitian was working for was just brilliant. I’ve loved the character since the pilot: Great combination of a great actor and a character you just want to know more about. Much like Nathan, she’s complex. Any thoughts on doing a “Company Man” like episode for Mrs. Petrelli? And can you give any hints as to what her story is? Also, was it just me or when Mrs. Petrelli was talking in English did one of her words tilt to a little bit of a French accent? Was that a clue? Whatever you do, don’t let Cristine Rose go, she’s just wonderful. We need more great strong female characters (of all ages).
I agree she’s a great character, and Cristine Rose, the actress, continually impresses and surprises us with the choices she makes. While her character is evolving and expanding, there are no plans this season for an episode that singles her out. As for hints – no I am not allowed by binding contract – to give any. I suspect that, if our heroes can stop NYC from ka-boooming, her story will continue to expand.
From Nick Basile:
First off, I love the show, I watch constantly and I cannot wait for it to return and to get it on DVD to see what great extras get packed along with the episodes.
We have big, fan-satisfying plans for the DVD
As for my questions, I have two which are about two of the powers shown in the series thus far. Did Peter absorb all of the powers Sylar had at the time of their first encounter or was it only the power that Sylar was using? This question has caused a lot of debate on the message boards I frequent and there doesn’t seem to be a real clear-cut answer. He did gain the healing ability that Claire has from their encounter but I assumed that her ability was something that is constantly active and not something she could ever turn off or on. Sylar on the other hand has a multitude of abilities and can turn them on and off at will, from what we’ve been shown so far, so the encounter with Claire was a unique one for Peter at the time.
Guess what? I don’t know. Obviously, though, Peter only absorbed the telekinesis – which Sylar was actively using. And he did not absorb freeze-o power, super memory or the incredible pot-melting ability.
Speaking of Claire, another question about her powers came up as well. It’s been shown that a stick lodged in her brain seemed to halt her regeneration, so I assume that her abilities are controlled by some aspect of her brain. Some people have speculated that even if Sylar was to kill Claire and remove her brain, she would still recover. I personally don’t think that is the case since her brain seems so important in what she can do.
The writers tried to clearly show that if Claire’s brain is cut off from her spinal column she is in fact dead. In Ep 3 -the stick in her neck severed her spinal cord, and she was dead. When it was removed she was able too regenerate. But if Sylar takes Claire’s brain she would be dead dead dead – with no capacity to regenerate.
From Jonathan Schell:
Is the source and/or meaning of the symbol that the Haitian wears and Jessica’s tattoo going to be revealed this season? Especially why seemingly unconnected people all connect to it?
I’m not sure about this one either … but I have theories… First of all the symbol is a half-helix, half of a normal DNA strand. That I know. Secondly, I’m beginning to think it’s a purposeful secret symbol that is symbolically important to some group. (A group which probably includes Linderman, Mr. Deveaux and Hiro’s father,) The placement of the symbol could (a) signify an officially sanctioned location. (b) could mark a “special” to the group or (c) Could function as a warning tag that opposing groups have thrown up.
But, be clear, these theories of mine are no more valid than any other chatroom speculation. All I know is Tim Kring told us that the symbol was important he tells us when he wants to see it in specific locations… He never revealed why.
I’ve been a fan of yours since SMALLVILLE. I visit your blog often and the information you provide concerning directing is indispensable. Thank you for offering up your thoughts and behind the scenes knowledge…now to the questions: What did you do to get yourself noticed and land your first directing job?
The rule of thumb is… a writer writes, an actor acts and a director directs. A writer can easily write a spec script and an actor can, with a bit more difficulty, act in local theatre or student films… For a director it’s harder because you have to make a film that people can see to believe you can do it. You must direct something by hook or by crook.
I went to USC film school and my 16-millimeter, 18-minute student film was noticed by the industry and launched my career. Nowadays with Hi-def video and final-cut available so readily, it is much less expensive to make a short film than it was in my day…. But, if you endeavor to make a film or music video to get yourself into the industry, you should strive to make the writing, acting, lighting, and production design as first rate as you can.
Also, how do you maintain the show’s consistent look and feel between episode directors but still let them interpret the story in their own way?
First you have to hire the right directors. Secondly you must have a specific look and feel that you are going for that can be clearly communicated and understood. Thirdly, you have to train the crew as to what the standards are, so that they can help the directors work towards the norm. Fourthly, once you’ve hired the director, taught the vision and trained the crew, you have to let all that go and let the individual directors be additive in whatever way their unique strengths lend them to be.
How do you guys get such a movie quality feel to every episode? I end up feeling like I’ve watched the best movie of all time every Monday night – a feeling that has been severely lacking from prime-time TV since I was ten. Further, I’m wondering how you can possibly afford the effects that go into this show. I may not be in the business but I know that turning a man invisible can’t POSSIBLY be that cheap – and that’s one of your minor effects. You’ve had atomic bombs blowing up, whole houses turned to radioactive ash, the sun being blotted out for heavens sake! How can you pull such apocalyptic special effects out of a weekly one-hour drama budget? Seeing as how this is probably the only chance I’m going to have to communicate with someone of your stature, sir, I’ve just got to say that HEROES is one of the best programs I’ve ever seen on TV – or for that matter on the Silver Screen. It’s cleverly written, produced, managed and marketed by all involved. This is one of those Karmic Moments, rare and powerful conversions of power that lead to great things. I hope to see HEROES on for a very long time to come. I’m overjoyed at the news of a second season and while you’ll probably never even see this E-Mail, I wanted to thank you for saving us from another season of – with limited exception – mostly mediocre TV.
A key rule, in all aspects of life, is that you will never achieve a higher goal than the one you set for yourself.
I think one of the reason’s the show looks and feels the way it does is because we set the bar very high. Starting at the top – with Tim’s writing – the standard is set very high. As the filmmakers we continue to set very lofty goals – goals which, frankly, are unreasonable to expect to achieve on a TV level. We expect great scripts, great acting, brilliant sets, beautiful lighting and a highly unique cinematic style. We have hired great people in every department who are all willing and able to do more than the norm. An expectation is placed upon every member of the crew that we will achieve these goals, and there is zero expectation of failure.
I remember an ESPN special I saw years ago, about the superbowl when the 49’ers were against the Bengles. The 49’ers were down by, like 9 points with two and a half minutes to go. They interviewed some of the offensive players, and they were saying how, in the huddle, Joe Montana was incredibly calm. He wasn’t clapping his hands and pumping them up. He was just calmly calling plays. And in that moment they all knew, with certainty that they were going to win the game. That’s how I try to be. And that’s how I feel the management style of HEROES is, from the top down. We don’t have to push and cheerlead to achieve our standards. We just have the right team in place and we expect to win.
Then, to be fair, we shoot for more days than the average TV show – at least the average network TV show (I think HBO and Showtime shows, like THE SOPRANOS, DEADWOOD and ROME might film for a similar number of days.)
As far as the Visual effects – yes they are expensive, but not as high as you might think. We don’t finish on film, and computer effects have advanced so far and so fast in the last few years that I don’t, personally, experience that as one of the difficult areas of our show.
To get all the sets built and to film the complex sequences that have been written in the allotted time is a much more stressful aspect of getting the show out.
What happened to Hana/Wireless?
She is around and will recur. Her character is especially active in the on-line comic book and the 360 experience. In ep 16, Matt asked if she was coming to Odessa and she said “Not this time.”
You will see her again this season.
I have a question about the use of the “HRG-Cam.” When you do those over-the-shoulder POV shots through Bennet’s glasses, do they symbolize or represent something? Is it just for a cool effect? Are there hidden clues in those shots? What makes you choose to use that perspective in a particular scene?
Truthfully, it’s just a fun shot that occurred in the pilot and we try to have fun with in the episodes. The director’s try to out “HRG” each other.
From Andrew, Philly, PA:
I have loved your work both on SMALLVILLE and now on HEROES. What are some of the major differences between the production processes of these two heroic shows?
There are many aspects that are similar. The nature of filming a scene, from a nuts and bolts level, is always pretty much the same. A script comes in. All aspects of it are planned and budgeted. Locations are chosen. A crew is in place to film the scenes. A scene is rehearsed and lit and shot. Etc.
The most notable similarity is that both shows are very, very big, as compared to regular TV. They both take more days to film than regular TV. (Almost every other network show on the air films in 8 days. SMALLVILLE, for non-season openers and closers is 10. HEROES averages 11.) They both have big scope. Special effects and visual effects, etc.
To be fair, I’d probably need to compare HEROES season 1 to SMALLVILLE season 1. SMALLLVILLE season 5 (my last season) was very different from HEROES in that we’d, kind of, tamed the beast. By season 5 of SMALLLVILLE there were many established standing sets that recur every episode. Scripts were written to the sets and scripts were written with a general eye towards how many special effects and visual effects we could do for the established budget. My experience on SMALLVILLE season 5 was one of sheparding an established entity and to maintain quality control, but it felt controllable.
SMALLVILLE season 1 was a different animal. I sometimes think I am the only one on HEROES that is having a kind of déjà vu, because the experiences of both first seasons are incredibly parallel. First of all, both had an amazing pilot and incredibly high expectations from the network. Both HAD to be hits, and luckily both were right out of the gate (which only keeps the pressure on to continue to be great.) As a filmmaker, on both, I felt both empowered and challenged to rise to the occasion and make something great. On both there was enormous struggle over the budget and scheduling. Neither seemed to want to be reigned in. Both were incredibly hard and exhausting, both for myself and the production crew. For instance, both had two full production units shooting simultaneously most of the time. There is relentlessness to both, a sense of “How can we keep pulling this off every week?” And ultimately a huge sense of pride.
From a visual design standpoint HEROES is challenging because of the many varied looks that are needed. On SMALLVILLE one of my biggest tasks was to create and craft the “look” of the show. I’m very proud of SMALLVILLE for what has ultimately become a very very consistent looking, and in my opinion, beautiful show. A year after my absence I still watch, with pride, that the physical production of SMALLVILLLE has maintained its integrity. The lighting, the set design and the camerawork are consistent week-to-week. But in the end it was just one look that we were going for.
On HEROES there is the very exciting job of creating numerous looks and finding a way to make them feel integrated. (In all these endeavors I want too be extremely clear I was not the sole inventor of anything - I am merely relating my personal experience and personal focus.)
In some ways HEROES is harder, because we have no real standing sets. The art department is designing and building vast numbers of BIG sets every week. From a purely logistical level, to shuffle these around on our limited stage space is a huge challenge.
HEROES is harder because of its seamless, serialized storytelling. SMALLVILLE, by design, attempted to have stand-alone episodes. This resulted in the “freak-of-the-week” situation some fans complained about, but if ever there was a gaffe, or miscasting or failure of an individual episode, you could recover the next week. HEROES isn’t like that. Every episode has to flow from the one that precedes it and into the one that follows it. The style and storytelling have to be more uniform on HEROES.
SMALLVILLE was harder in that it attempted more pyrotechnics and stunts, which are very planning-intensive. HEROES is more about character and performance, than stunts and visual effects and blowing things up. Also, the HEROES cast, by and large, are much more experienced actors than the SMALLVILLLE cast was in its first season. My job, at the beginning of SMALLLVILLE, was much more about performance crafting and coaching than it is on HEROES.
One of the biggest differences between HEROES and SMALLVILLE is the cast size. On HEROES, fortunately the cast gets top work intermittently and can rest and plan their performances on days off. On SMALLVILLE in the beginning, Tom Welling was in almost every scene of almost every show. I thought we would kill the poor guy. He was working 16 hour days, six days a week and frequently shuffling back and forth between two units. Tom’s job was incredibly brutal, and he rose to the occasion very well. It really wasn’t until season 3 or 4 that we started to diversify the storytelling and tell stories that didn’t ONLY involve Clark. It’s not so bad for Tom up there now, but in the beginning it was brutal.
OK that’s enough for this week.
Keep your questions coming in to firstname.lastname@example.org and, as my Grandmother used to say, “God willin’ and the crick don’t rise,” next week I’ll answer more.