A young boy sat on the floor of his living room playing with a cardboard box. But this was not any ordinary cardboard box. On the back of the box facing the boy at eye level was a scene drawn onto an imaginary viewfinder. His mom’s only broom handle (now cut equally in half) was taped to either side of the box serving as pan-handles. A paper towel-roll insert, affixed to the front of the box served as his cameras’ lens. The world will experience its arts, news and entertainment transmitted through his invention. He is playing “TV cameraman.”
Now he is no longer a young boy. And if you’ve seen a televised entertainment special anytime in the last four decades, chances are you’ve seen his work. His name, Don Mischer – television director.
Directorial credits you may ask? How about the Oscars, the Academy Awards, Fashion Rocks, Great Performances, multiple Superbowl halftime shows, multiple Olympic opening ceremonies, specials with Eddie Murphy and Taylor Swift, DNC conventions and President Obama’s Inaugural Celebration to name a few.
Of his High School years Don recalls “I was very active in church.” He also loved experimenting with time-lapse and made home movies staring his family members.
He was accepted at Texas Lutheran College (now Texas Lutheran University) and found a support system among his college friends and faculty as Don’s mother was treated for bilateral breast cancer to which she tragically succumbed.
His academic proficiency was in math and science however his passions were centered in sociology and political science. While in college he played steel guitar in a band and worked at the college radio station. Sunday mornings at 6:00AM he would arrive at the station, get it powered up, take transmission readings, go out back behind the studio and check the temperature, wind direction and barometric readings. He would then read the station’s teletype machine for interesting Associated Press stories. Don would read the news on-air, play music and report on the weather. It was strictly a one-man operation. Don loved it, he loved the responsibility.
Whenever Don attended an event that was being televised; parades, football games and the like he couldn’t help himself but look behind the scenes. He considered maybe one day becoming a television cameraman, however his father discouraged such untested, unpredictable, unstable career paths. Eventually Don transferred to University of Texas, earned his Masters degree in sociology (with a minor in political science) and was on his way to pursuing a PhD when an event changed his life and career choice forever.
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Vice President Johnson (who was as you may know, a Texan) was now President of the United States and the national news media descended on Austin to broadcast stories about the new President’s background. News producers contacted the University for help and Don, with a minor in political science and interest in the media combined with an above average understanding of Texas politics was chosen to go help the New York television folks visiting Austin. This mostly meant running errands, driving TV crews around the city, etc., but as the nation mourned their fallen President, as images of three-year-old John Jr. – the late President’s son, saluting his father’s casket aired on the news – young Don Mischer saw how cathartic the medium of television could be to a grieving nation. Within two hours of President Kennedy’s assassination 173 million Americans learned of the horrible act via television and radio, representing 91% of the nation’s total population.
Fast forward a few years, some of Don’s earliest professional work in television was at a local PBS affiliate. He describes those years as invaluable as it gave him the opportunity to serve in nearly every technical and managerial capacity. On one show he operated a camera while a friend directed. On the next show Don AD’d while someone else ran camera. The next show Don directed while others filled his previously occupied shoes. And so they rotated through the slots show by show.
When asked what advice he would give to students or people starting out in the business Don responded,
“… the first thing I would say is ask yourself ‘do I have the desire that it really takes to make it in this profession.’ And when I say that I’m talking about attitude. Attitude is much more important than skill in the beginning. You have to have an attitude of ‘I will do anything to learn.'”
“I have had people who come to work with us when we sometimes hire hundreds of people on shows and they’ll come on as a production assistant and they’ll ask you on Thursday morning what time can I leave on Friday night! ‘Can I get out of here by 6:30 or 7:00PM?’ You can’t have that attitude. You have to be ready to work night and day if it’s necessary.”
“A lot of people look at us who work in this business and say, ‘why do you put yourself through this? Why don’t you get a job where you can work nine-to-five? You can go bowling every Tuesday night and you can play tennis every Saturday morning! Why are you putting yourself through this?'”
“Well, we love it, we get something out of it, but I can I completely respect other people who say, ‘man, I could … I would never want to do that.’ You really have to commit to these things.”
“I think then getting yourself into a situation where you can learn, watch people who have been successful in this business and you will learn what they do right and you will learn what they do wrong. If you have to sweep the floors of a television studio in order to get in there and watch them rehearsing and shooting a show… all right do that, and then ‘its persistence.’ You know a lot of doors will be shut in your face and a lot of times you’re going to say, ‘I’d like to give up,’ you know, you’ve got to be persistent.”
“I also feel that knowing where you want to end up is half the battle in getting there. If you want to work in talent where your booking major stars for television shows or you want to work in makeup or you want to be a cameraman or you want to be a stage manager; if you know where you want to go you can then plan to get there and that’s half the battle of getting there. If you just say ‘I don’t know, I just want to work in TV,’ it’s harder.”
Sometimes starting with humble beginnings offers more creative opportunities than the higher profile projects would. Smaller budgets and smaller anticipated audiences carry with them less risk. In these “below the radar” projects special moments find fertile ground.
“In the early days you do anything you can to pay the rent, buy groceries and I did a lot of inexpensive things for PBS. I did a lot of late-night television for the networks. You know, things that would air late at night. I started this “IN CONCERT” rock and roll series that used to air on ABC. We were the first attempt at broadcasting rock and roll (on TV) in stereo. It was technically far from perfect but it was sure fun. So I worked kind of around the periphery and did things for the State of New York, you know, and I kept working, and very slowly was able to build up my reputation and ultimately got better opportunities. So the way it goes for most people.”
When asked “have there been any events that really stand out as sort of milestones,” Don responded:
“It’s hard to pick them because whatever event you currently find yourself working on is always the most important thing you’ve ever done in your life. But one for me was a show I did in 1983, the 25th anniversary of Motown called Motown 25. That’s where Michael Jackson first did Billie Jean. It’s where he first did the moonwalk, he first wore the glove had the pants pulled up with the sox and the hat. We were celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Motown recording label and all the Motown artists, the Temptations, the (Four) Tops, Marvin Gaye, Lionel Richie, the Supremes and Smokey Robinson … they all came back and all performed and it was a very tough show to do.”
Here is a clip from YouTube of Michael Jackson from Motown 25. Note Mischer’s decisions regarding when to use wide shots (allowing the audience to see Jackson exhibit his dancing abilities) versus when Don decided to go close. Note also the use of audience shots to not only show reaction but to build energy. The cut during the bridge is especially good.
Those who direct know how difficult it can be when you have a group of people singing. Here, again from Motown 25 there are two groups on stage at the same time, the Temptations and the Four Tops.
What is Don doing currently? Here is Tori Kelly singing “Colors of the Wind” from Mickey’s 90th Spectacular on ABC. Note the use of the wireless Steadicam, low angle reverse shots and a simple, tasteful cut.