Lessons from The Wiz – PT6

We’ve had a great conversation about the NBC production of “The Wiz, Live!”  So today we are going to wrap things up. If you haven’t been with us for the whole journey – be sure and rewind to Part 1 and get caught up!


[Mark]: Tom, in this series was really we focused on learning from “The Wiz, Live!”  Hopefully, we sparked some interest where people will take a closer look at these big, TV events. If you were to talk to someone who says “I’m a church tech guy, not a Broadway fan”, what would you say to inspire him or her to take a closer look at this kind of production?

[Tom]: Video production boils down to communication, communication that can be done effectively, or ineffectively. I see myself as a student, a student of artistic or technical technique and a student of culture. I hope those reading this blog entry feel the same way.

I think there are two types of performing and technical artists in the world. One, those who are interested only in information that fits within their particular genre, or which does not challenge their presuppositions regarding how things can be done. And two, those performing and technical artists who search out other genres because they want to be challenged and grow through that process.

The facts are that over eleven million people watched The Wiz, Live! That means that a significant number of people in our culture are interested in what NBC offered December 3rd. I’ve yet to meet a church that limited itself (intentionally) only to NFL football fans, or Duck Dynasty fans, or America’s Got Talent fans. That does not mean I am suggesting a church replace the cross with a goal-post, wear camouflage on stage and host a singing competition. Can you imagine all three at the same time? Anyway… It is important to understand who the people are who are attracted by these programs and why they are attracted. I think a wise student then uses that information accordingly.

Looking at a show like The Wiz, Live! allows us to not only learn about our culture but also be challenged by artistic and technical techniques outside of our normal genre. And that should be a good thing.

[Mark]: That’s a great reason. But, what the specific, perhaps even technical, things can we look for and learn from? Can you give us a bit of a list of “Look at _____”, “Look for ____”?

[Tom]: Being an audience member allows us to formulate opinions regarding what works and what doesn’t work. What was effective and what wasn’t. When I am an audience member I look for those “arm hair stands up and tingle sensation” moments in a program and then I try to dissect what just occurred. What clues did I pick-up on from the performer that made me feel this was an honest, authentic, really heart-felt performance? How did the technical elements, set, lighting, sound design, projection, support that?

Then drilling deeper specifically into video Direction, I am constantly looking at shot selection, tempo, framing and transitions. I look for how camera direction compliments a musical performance.

Music has a melody line, sometimes a harmony line, a chordal progression, a rhythm. Each instrument and vocalist have their own part to play. Now any church tech audio engineer can tell you if you add another member to the worship team, let’s say a guitarist and he gets onstage with the rest of the band and plays exactly the same melody, exactly the same harmony, exactly the same chordal progression in the same octave, and exactly the same rhythm as everyone else, he is adding nothing positive. In fact, the mix will suffer because of his addition to the mix.

Video direction should have its own voice in a musical number just as the drummer, keyboardist, bass player and guitarist have a voice. As such, I look for visual cadences, progressions, rhythm, resolution, etc. Sometimes a Director’s use of these tools compliments a song, sometimes it doesn’t, but I think looking at camera direction as another musical layer in a musical performance is often helpful.

[Mark]: Hmm. I’m not going to be able to watch a big TV production the same way again. OK. It’s lightning round time. 30 seconds on the clock please…

Tom, what do you prefer working on – big studio productions like The Wiz or big outdoor events like Nick Wallenda at the Grand Canyon?

[Tom]: The venue and genre of the show are less preferential to me than the opportunity to have some minor (or major) input into the show’s success. Sometimes that’s as minor as just a specialty lens which produces an unforgettable shot seen only for two seconds.

[Mark]: How about awards shows versus more “scripted” productions like The Wiz, Live?

[Tom]: No preference. Award shows are great because there tends to be many moving parts without the benefit of having many pre-taped packages which would take some of the pressure off. Live musical theater shows like the The Wiz, Live! are great because they harken back to the golden age of television and shows like Playhouse 90. Both award shows and these live musical theater productions are “appointment” type television events which can draw people together in their living rooms, or for that matter on Twitter, to experience the show together. That’s something special in this day and age as we all tend to become more isolated using technology.

[Mark]: Without naming the production, what the biggest budget you’ve ever dealt with?

[Tom]: Video alone? It would be in the seven figure range.

[Mark]: What’s the one thing that a producer can do to make your life miserable?

[Tom]: My life is pretty great, so I guess I haven’t come across that yet.

[Mark]: What’s the one thing that a producer can do to make your life wonderful?

[Tom]: Show the crew they appreciate their hard work. It could be as simple as shaking everyone’s hand. Or sending a thank you note after a show.

[Mark]: What’s the most fun you’ve ever had on a project?

[Tom]: Placing a hidden camera above a snack table backstage at a beauty pageant so we (in the truck) could see which of the contestants went for the Snickers bars.

[Mark]: Why was it fun?

[Tom]: I won $20. The crew takes bets.

[Mark]: OK, it looks like you’ve won the Lightning Round! (Sorry, but it turns out that we don’t have any prizes.) So in closing… we’ve been calling this discussion “Lessons from the Wiz”. Can you give us the top three things that church tech people can learn from The Wiz, Live!

[Tom]: I think three take-aways for me are: (1) excellence in all we do is just as important in a three camera church service as a twelve camera network TV special. It’s not about the number of cameras. (2) the value of crew/team members and allowing them to contribute to the creative process and grow. And (3) working with leadership, understanding their goals and being able to offer alternatives if what they want to do is not financially possible.

[Mark]: Tom, thanks again for sharing your insights from “The Wiz, Live”. It was a great show and I’ve had a great time talking with you about it.

[Tom]: Mark, thank you for taking the helm and the interviewer responsibilities on. I hope there were some things of encouragement to the readers found in these blog posts. Thanks again.