Lessons from The Wiz – PT2

We in the church tech community can learn a lot from the pros. So let’s jump back into the Q&A as we continue our “Lessons from the Wiz” series.

Wait? You didn’t know that you were joining this conversation in the middle of a series? In that case, be sure to check out “Lessons from The Wiz – PT1”.

[Mark]: Since our previous installment, I’ve seen more positive reviews of the show. What’s the deal with The Wiz, Live as compared to NBC’s previous live musicals?

[Tom]: I think all of the NBC Holiday specials in this genre, Sound of Music, Live!, Peter Pan, Live! and now The Wiz, Live! have all brought their own unique challenges.

Sound of Music, Live! was the first experiment for the network into ‘live Broadway on TV’ at least in over forty years! So there was a lot of (self-imposed) pressure to make sure everything was done just as good as possible. The last thing you want to be known for is being the tech guy that cannot do today what our technical forefathers managed to accomplish quite well in 1962. That would be embarrassing.

Now, some critics were especially tough on SoM because they were comparing it to other recently televised plays which have aired on TV coinciding with the production’s closing on Broadway. It’s a totally unfair comparison because those telecasts took a show that already existed on Broadway, for in some cases decades, that is already tight, where all the talent knew the play, the songs, the script, the staging, all like the back of their hands and then someone just added a non-live TV layer on-top. That’s totally different than creating a musical theater production that the cast and crew will only perform on ONE night, ONE performance, for an audience of twenty million! To use a church analogy, what they were doing was essentially comparing a week-in, week-out church service that has the advantage of editing before posting to YouTube, to a live-live large-scale Christmas Eve or Easter service.

It is also an unfair criticism because what has been done before SoM has always been in a proscenium context with a distinct and fixed-position 4th wall.  What SoM and Peter Pan did uniquely was to stage these Broadway plays on feature-film style 360 degree sets, allowing the actors and the cameras to move in, out and around these art-designed worlds, combining in some cases the script from the Broadway play with the script from movie adaptations, for an end product that was totally new and fresh.

I think for the most part we succeeded on SoM. There were some acoustical audio noise issues, and I also heard some lighting related criticism, but on a whole everyone was happy and the ratings were very strong.

Peter Pan, Live! added its own set of technical challenges. Firstly, flying multiple actors live on TV. Secondly, we had a virtual electronic cast member, Tinkerbell, which needed to not only to be created but given a voice and emotions. Third, a dog was part of the cast.  So there were challenges there.  And fourth, the Director very much wanted to give the Neverland scenes a different aesthetic than the London scenes. So, we switched camera frame rates during commercial breaks from one scene to the next scene. I think that’s one for the record books.

The Wiz, Live! was completely different than SoM or PP in so far as this was now year-three, The Wiz did not rely on any camera based or electronic tricks but rather on practical theatrical effects, video wall and theatrical scenery to allow the production to carry on – on Broadway after the live telecast.

So I would say the real accomplishment on The Wiz, Live! was, first having a technically clean show, meaning there were few noticeable mistakes, something all audience members might appreciate; and two; that everything that was done was translatable into a future Broadway iteration, something the audience might not be even aware of.

[Mark]:  So let’s get into the making of a show like this. In my church tech role I’ve noticed that Sundays come just about every 7 days. As I hear from other churches, I find they are very different places when it comes to planning for these “regularly scheduled events”. What was the planning like for The Wiz, Live?

[Tom]: The Wiz, Live is probably not typical of most broadcast entertainment specials, say like a concert. For the average televised concert I usually start getting involved four-to-eight weeks before shooting begins. Budgets are made. Logistics like generators, parking, camera positions, lens choices, camera support types are planned and the booking of crew is done. Sometimes site surveys are necessary as well as coordination with the venue. CAD drawings are done and a “tech spec” document is created.

An average concert will have us actually on-site only one or two days including all set-up, rehearsals, shoot and strike. An average award show is about a week on-site.

For Wiz, Live! Tech facilities were on-site almost four weeks and I started prep on the project back in August.  But that does not mean we were working on The Wiz, Live! for a month continuously.  We were all working on other shows simultaneous to the Wiz’s schedule.  Out of a month’s total duration we actually had fifteen days on-site to build, test, rehearse and strike the TV portion of the show.

[Mark]:  I imagine that not everybody is involved up front.  So when did the tech crew start working “full time” on The Wiz?

[Tom]: TV loaded in the second week of November.  Lighting about a week before that.  Scenery about a week before Lighting. But as mentioned, not everyone is on-site all the time.

[Mark]: That’s some serious planning for a show. But this is a live production; not pre-recorded, you can’t edit your way into perfection after shooting. How does the “live” aspect of this show make things different in terms of planning?

[Tom]: Well, for one thing you need to plan when you are going to use the port-a-potty. The last thing you want to do is run outside to the one-person port-a-potty during a three minute commercial break only to see six people already on line waiting. It’s not like being a radio DJ where you can just play a longer record.

[Mark]: (rolls on the floor laughing because potty humor cracks him up)

[Tom]: In all seriousness, all shows are either ‘live-live,’ meaning performed live and seen live by the audience; ‘live-to-tape’ meaning it’s shot as if it were live but there is a delay before the audience gets to see it. The delay may be an hour, or three, or a month. And then there are ‘taped’ shows, which means there is no ‘live’ component, the show is intended to be edited heavily and is typically shot with multiple starts and stops.

In a live-live project there are a few important factors.

First is the transmission check-in and test with the network. On a taped show the deliverable goes through a Q/C process at the network where video luminance and chrominance levels are checked, dead pixels are counted, time-code errors are noted; resulting in the possibility the show may be rejected. On a ‘live-live’ show all of these same checks, including now lip-sync because you are transmitting live, need to be gone through. Some networks like NBC are generally really good about doing exhaustive checks. Some others, unfortunately not so much. It always makes me nervous when the engineer at the network thinks a complete satellite test means, “yep, I can see you.”

[Mark]: Let me interject here. The “yep, I can see you” phrase in a transmission check sounds a lot like a sound check based on “yep, I can hear you”. Am I right?

[Tom]: Right. And as you can imagine, neither are adequate.

Another aspect of live-live shows is that we need to coordinate with the network constantly regarding when we are heading for commercial breaks and when the network is coming back to us. In general, commercials are rolled from the network’s headquarters, not from the origination site where we are. So, there is a lot of coordination regarding spots, when bugs are keyed in or out, their location including lower-thirds, etc.

[Mark]: Bugs?

[Tom]: A “bug” is the network logo in the corner of the screen.  There are also age-related warnings and other graphical content that plays at different times in different sections of the screen.  Coordination occurs to insure these do not conflict with each other.

[Mark]: OK. I thought we were talking about problems like software bugs.

[Tom]: Nope. These are good bugs.

The last thing we deal with, and perhaps the hardest to control, is the length of the show, which varies. On live-live entertainment shows, unlike sports, we need to be exactly a certain length. You don’t want to wind up being short, leaving the network in a lurch to fill time on the network; and you also don’t want to be long, cutting into ad revenue or another show’s time. The way we do that is to have a person dedicated to back-timing throughout the entire show so we know at each commercial break if we are long or short and can forecast where we’ll be at the required end time. On some shows you can make up time by cutting content or moving through some things quicker. On other shows it’s harder and we’ll need to adjust the speed of credits, or add “highlights content” to fill time.

[Mark]: Hmm, credits or highlights? I haven’t seen those in a live church setting yet… of course some churches have used Facebook and Vimeo pretty well in that regard. So Tom, are you ready to talk about the toys next time?

[Tom]: (Laughing) well on the credits issue you won’t likely see my name either. Our contracts request the name of our company in the credit roll (if a credit roll exists at all). We also “suggest” it would be nice to include the names of our staff or employees, but it is not a requirement. Sometimes an employee’s name is left off the credits due to many factors. I never want to be in a position where my name appeared in a credit roll but an employee or crew member’s name didn’t. That is unacceptable to me. So, as a result I have a rather unimpressive IMDB profile, but that is not what matters most.

[Mark]:  Well, if I start a database I’ll be sure to put you in it!  So, are you ready to talk about the tech-toys next time?

[Tom]: Sure!  I look forward to it.