Jul
2010

The Drama of It All

Many “Doctor Who” fans have embraced the title of “cult” TV show, but former “Doctor Who” executive producer Russell T. Davies says in his book, “The Writer’s Tale,” the show is more than just a science fiction show. I agree, and would argue that the newer series of “Doctor Who” should be considered a drama that’s based in sci-fi.

Strip away the outer sci-fi shell and here’s what you have: a very smart man, who travels around and helps people in need. He never carries a gun, but fights evil with his intelligence. From time to time he gets himself, and his friends, in tough situations, but they always seem to find a way out. He inspires the people around him to live better lives and appreciate life. At its core, that‘s “Doctor Who.”

The writers use the device of science fiction to weave their tales of drama. Add back in the sci-fi: The Doctor is from the planet Gallifrey, and he travels through time and space in a ship that’s bigger on the inside. The Doctor is the last of his kind. His home has been lost to a long and bitter war, what could be more real then that?

In an interview with the BBC’s radio 4 show “Front Row” former executive producer, Russell T. Davies, explained how they approach the series in modern times.

“It’s treated as real, every time you come to a great big science fiction moment you say what would you really be feeling, what really happens.”

Russell’s past TV credits have only been drama. “Doctor Who” was his first science fiction type show, but in his book “The Writers Tale,” he says he sees “Doctor Who” as drama that uses the setting of science fiction. Which he approached as a drama, not a sci-fi show, his other most notable TV credits include, “Queer as Folk” and “Bob and Rose.” Both focus on the lives of gay men living in England. It was his life long love of “Doctor Who” that helped bring the show back from the dead in 2005.

“Doctor Who” first aired in England on November 22, 1963. Due to the assassination of President Kennedy, the show flew under the radar. The BBC tried it again a week later. It was presented as a “tea time” children’s show, “but not being produced by the children’s department, which caused a certain amount of aggravation within the BBC.” Verity Lambert, the show’s very first producer, talked about how the show came to be in the documentary “Doctor Who at The BBC.” Verity goes on to say the BBC wanted the show to have an element of education. When the characters would travel back in time, there was a little history lesson buried in the background of the plot.

The show lasted 26 seasons and was cancelled in 1989. BBC One, the BBC’s drama department, brought the show back in 2005. Under new direction and a polished “feature film” look. Russell T. Davies and Julie Gardner served as executive producers and show runners.

Some would argue the special effects in the show would detract from my reasoning. Neil Harris of “Doctor Who Magazine” recently wrote an article called “Special? Effective?”

He asks the question “are special effects such a crucial part of Doctor Who?” Neil cites a recent poll the magazine did where the top favorites were episodes featuring little to no special effects. The highest ranked story was called “Blink.” The plot involves stone angles called “The Weeping Angels,” they are motionless stone when you are looking at them, but if you turn away, or even blink, they attack. They are gentle killers, in the blink of an eye, you are randomly sent back in time where you live out your days. Only one special effect was used in the entire episode. Neil goes on to cite many of “Doctor Who’s” emotional scenes, or dramatic moments, built around the tension of the plot. Will our hero die? Will his friends survive the situation they have gotten into?

It’s that tension that keeps us coming back for more. It’s the drama of having to say goodbye to the woman The Doctor loves. She lived through their latest adventure, but became trapped in a parallel world. Unable to get to her, The Doctor does find a way to communicate with her one last time. As Rose stands on a beach, crying out her love for him, he can’t even bring himself to tell Rose how much he loves her.

The Writer's Tale by Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook

In “The Writer’s Tale,” Russell said of that scene: “(if your emotional) if you’re, empathizing, you’re feeling it, there’s an echo of every loss you’ve ever had in that. If it’s successful then it’s saying something about you, about the world.”

Yes, we can scoff at things like “parallel worlds” or “Weeping Angels,” but it’s great fun and even better dramatic television. As head writer, we would see The Doctor through Russell’s eyes. That often meant loads of fun, but also the effect of one man’s actions. Running from his past, never standing still long enough to reflect. Davies wrote The Doctor as a lonely man, who had no place to call home. He would have friend’s come and go, but in the end he was alone.

The character has an ability to regenerate when he is near death. Even within that, Russell’s writing shows us just how devastating this ability can be. In the episode “The End of Time: Part 1” The Doctor knows he is to regenerate soon and says: “it feels like dying. Everything I am, dies. Some new man goes sauntering away, and I’m dead.” Sure enough the time came and the regeneration occurred. As the tenth incarnation of “The Doctor” turned into the 11th, his final words were “I don’t want to go.” It was a very emotional scene, a death scene. For fans of the show, it really was like a close friend had died.

When a TV show can make you feel that much emotion, how can it just be classified as science fiction? As William Zinsser points out in “On Writing Well,” some of the best writing is found in science. Then it can be argued that some of the best drama is found in science fiction. “Doctor Who” is simply the best there is. When you strip away all the science, its just good drama.

Jul
2010

Tweet With Care

I love Twitter, but the other day I forgot just how public my tweets are. Last week I was assigned a large amount of reading for my “User Centered Design” class. While I tried to plow through it, I just couldn’t. I had to finish it though, there was going to be a quiz.

As I kept pushing myself to read on, I would fall drowsy and drift away. The book I was reading was “Communicating Design,” by Daniel Brown. The book is geared towards people who design websites, in other words, not me. It is a very technical book, and one that I could only just understand.

I heard William Zinsser’s voice in my head as I read the book. In his book, “On Writing Well,” he devotes a chapter to writing about science and technology. He argues that some of the best writing has come from scientists and not English departments. He highlights a few rules that are key to writing about technology: “You can’t assume a reader knows what you assume everybody knows.” He goes on to say: “write like a person and not like a scientist.”

As I sat and read Daniel Brown’s book, I didn’t feel like he was writing like a person. I felt like he was writing as a web designer to another web designer. So in my frustration I tweeted: “Having a bad ‘user experience’ on communicating design by Daniel brown, bad writing for such technical matters.” I was angry and the required reading is all about the “user experience” and how to understand it and make it better.

Feeling justified, I went back to the reading. A day later I get this tweet back to me:

”Hoping to clean up much of the writing in the 2nd ed. anything bothering you in particular?”

I was a bit shocked. My original tweet was not directed to him, nor was it really meant for him. I am glad he saw it though. I tweeted back more about the writing.

It was a good reminder that Twitter is a public place and I need to choose my words carefully. Dan’s writing did put me to sleep. Since it is required reading, it should flow better and be more engaging. His information was very technical, but it only played to a crowd who “gets” it. If he is going to write a “how-to” anyone should be able to pick it up and run with it.

The same rule applies to how I produce my show. When someone tunes in to see my show, they should be able to pick up where we are. If they are too confused, they will change the channel. Same with the book, if its too confusing, someone else will come along and write it better.

Jun
2010

It’s the Producer’s Fault

Spinning plates on Ed Sullivan

Producing television really isn’t as hard as it sounds. You’re like the guys spinning plates on The Ed Sullivan show. The plates are what everyone is looking at; it’s your job to keep them spinning. Making TV is the same thing. You have a lot of things going on at the same time; you need to make sure they all happen when they’re meant to.

I was taught there are two rules to producing. One: start and end on time. Two: everything is the producer’s fault. The last one is a non-debatable issue. If you rely on someone else to make something happen, then you really can’t call yourself the producer.

Different newsrooms use different programs to organize and time out a show, but the basics are the same. Lead the show with your best story, and don’t loose them in the commercial break. Organizing which story goes where is called “stacking the show.” Some newsrooms might tell you “if it bleeds it leads.” That is not always the case. The top story is the biggest story; it’s up to you, and your newsroom, to decide which one gets the priority. It’s your show, so be prepared to fight for what you believe in.

Once the lead has been decided, it’s time to move on to the rest of the show.  When you take out the commercial breaks, you have about 20 minutes of content to fill. How will you do that? If it’s a standard newscast, you have an assignment desk to help you figure it out. Decide what the second most important story is, and then the third, and so on. Commercials break up the segments of your show. Usually the first segment is called your “A” block. After the first break, the second segment is your “B” block and so on. The number of commercial breaks you have in a show will dictate how many “blocks” you will produce.

Weather is a reliable staple in any newscast. Depending on your show, you may have a quick weather hit towards the end of the “A” block; a full weather segment in either the “C” or “D” block would follow this. The amount of time you give to weather changes every day. If it’s a slow weather day then maybe no more than 3 minutes, be sure to check in with your meteorologist. If you have a “light” newscast you may need to fill time by using more weather. If it’s a “heavy” weather day, then more time will be needed during the show for weather, which means less time for other stories.

It’s all about timing and talking with people. You need to know what everyone else knows. They need to know what you require of them. Talk with the people involved in your show. Make sure you are clear with them and leave nothing to chance. If you’re unsure, get clarity. Always have a backup plan. If a live-shot goes down in the middle of a report, where will you go next?

As you get closer to show time (and even during a show) you will either be heavy or light. Being heavy means you have too much content and something has to go. If a show is light, then you need to fill time. Each story has a run time.

In every newscast you will hear an anchor set up a reporter’s story. It might sound something like: “Joe Motion has the details.” The details, or the story,  is we what call a news package. A pre-produced story that an anchor will set up, or “toss,” to from the set. You will need to account for how much time is needed to setup the package, the package length time, and the tag, or wrapping up, the package. In a “tag” the viewer would see the anchors back on the news set, saying something like: “That was Joe Motion reporting.”This time needs to be accounted for. All that time will start to add up as more content is put in your show. The closer to air, the more decisions you will need to make. What if a story comes up short, what if it’s longer than you expected? Sometimes it’s best to have stories in the show you know you can drop. It’s also a good idea to have backup stories you can add in, should something fall through or a story comes up short.

You will need to include time for sports. In most newsrooms, the sports anchor will prepare his, or her, own sportscast. Just like weather, let them know how much time you can give them. If the local sports team has a lot going on, you may need to plan for that.

You should also be thinking about how to end the newscast. After reporting doom and gloom, most shows end with what’s called a kicker. The kicker is something good to end the show on. It can range from a package on free comic book day, to a story about fainting goats.

As the clock ticks closer to your broadcast, talk to your director. The director needs to know what you want to do with the show. He, or she, will tell you if it is possible or not. Always give the director enough time to plan for things like a live-shot, a live phone interview, on set guest, anything that might come up. Once again, have a backup plan if something should fail due to a technical problem.

The viewer relies on video; the anchors and crew need scripts and rundowns. The rundown is a lineup of what is in the show, where and at what time. This is the big picture. In one page you can see the story names, times, and when the commercial breaks will hit and for how long. You can see how much time weather and sports get. Everyone on the crew gets a rundown. Everyone looks for something different on it. The director will have assigned cameras positions and where each piece of video is coming from.

The anchors read off of teleprompters, but should the prompter fail or the anchor loose their place, a hard copy of the script is required. The director will have also marked the script with what he, or she, is doing. The scripts hold information, more than just the words to the story. Each script has the name of the anchor that is reading and to which camera. The script also calls for graphics and where they come in. The anchor needs to know as much as you know. Scripts go to the person running audio, the director, and the anchors.

You should have a copy of the scripts too. When you are in the control room, you will be timing out the show, usually with the same computer program you built the show with. As each story passes, you will see how much time is left in the show, how long you are spending on each story, and whether you are heavy or light.

The goal is to get out on time. The show needs to end at 6:28pm every night. Your worst-case scenario is to have the director fade out on time. Normally this is not the case. Once the show starts, the flow will feel natural. You will know what parts of the show work and don’t. The show takes on a life of it’s own. You just need to manage it.

Jun
2010

“On Writing Well”

"On Writing Well" by William Zinsser

My mind just couldn’t hone in on something to write about. I sat down to read William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well.” I usually love reading Zinsser, but my eyes were feeling heavy. Just before I put the book down, I read his words “Get their voice and their taste in your ear.” He was referring to finding your voice. It made me think about the writers I love. Garrison Keillor is probably my favorite author, but his work is fiction. Does that count? Then I thought about author Eric Poole. His first book is called “Where’s my wand?” It’s about growing up believing the show “Bewitched” was real, that might do. Something was missing though, and my body was getting weaker. So I let the nap take over and I drifted away.

Outside I heard tires grab at the loose gravel in the unpaved driveway. The neighbor’s dog started shouting out the window at whoever was here.  I was awake. I have been out for two hours. I sat up from the couch and took stock of the living room, I saw Zinssers book still sitting on my coffee table. I grabbed it and dove in where I left off.

My mind was blank, when these words were processed:

“This was a generation reared on television, where the picture is valued more than the words, in fact, is devalued, used as mere chatter and often misused and mispronounced. It was also a generation reared on music-songs and rhythms meant primarily to be heard and felt. With so much noise in the air, was any American child being trained to listen? Was anyone calling attention to the majesty of a well-constructed sentence?”

A feeling of guilt washed over me as I realized just how right he was. I grew up in the world Zinsser describes. Pictures always meant more than words. At college I developed as a news photographer, I focused on how to frame a picture. I worked hard to perfect the “natural sound piece.” A story told through the lens of the camera without the voice of a reporter. One of the tricks to good reporting was writing to the picture. In TV news you can’t write to something you can’t show.

Then I thought about my distain for Lady Gaga. I don’t think she has any talent. She may have a nice voice, and I admit a great flair for showmanship, but she can’t write. Her lyrics are so heavily dampened by modern music no one hears the words. A few weeks ago I couldn’t avoid her. My favorite new show “Glee” was having a special Lady Gaga episode. While the performer herself was not featured, her music was. The show cemented my feelings. I saw a mother and daughter sing “Poker Face” as a duet. The song grew further lost on me. While I admit liking the songs more as performed by stronger singers, the words made less sense hearing them more clearly without the noise.  Here is a sample from the song “Poker Face”

I won’t tell you that I love you.

Kiss or hug you.

Cause I’m bluffin’ with my muffin.

I’m not lying I’m just stunnin’ with my love-glue-gunning.

Just like a chick in the casino.

Take your bank before I pay you out.

I promise this, promise this.

Check this hand cause I’m marvelous.”

I can’t see what inspired the makers of  “Glee” to use this as a mother-daughter duet. Hearing it sung with just a piano, and no other musical accompaniment, I found it to be funny. Something I would hear on “Saturday Night Live.”

You can’t blame Lady Gaga though. She was raised on the same pop culture I was. She was smart enough to understand it. We’re both guilty of the same thing though, not writing well. I can’t vouch for her, but William Zinsser is helping me.

I have been told for years that, writing for TV is very different then writing for other mediums. I don’t think so anymore. When I tried to write my very first news story a few months ago, I was terrified. One boss taught me to write in the folksy, breezy style, Zinsser warns against. Another boss just showed me how to strip it all away and keep it simple. I walked away thinking my script was too simple. I have been so intimidated by writing for news; I have avoided it for so long. I’m still apprehensive, but the picture is getting clearer. I still have clutter, but not as much as before. I can recognize where certain words aren’t needed. I am not where I need to be, but I’m more tuned in than I was.

Last weekend, my stepbrother got married. The bride’s aunt wanted to stand up and say a few words. She pulled out a speech she had crafted. Once she started to read, I thought; this must be the first time she is reading this out loud. It did not flow and there was too much clutter. It may have sounded loving in her mind, but it was coming through as insulting and rude. She read it in a sweet voice, but clearly this was the first time out loud. The wrong words left me distracted from the message she intended.

My writing isn’t where it should be yet, but Mr. Zinsser, I am listening. Tuned in to what I was missing before.

Jun
2010

An Old Family Friend

It’s not everyday an eight year old gets to see his grandmother with his hero. Back in 1988, Superman came to town. While on his trip to Ithaca, New York, he stopped by my grandmothers candy shop. He even brought along Wonder Woman to have a little time out.

My grandmother, Ruby Andrews, was an iconic part of downtown Ithaca. She ran a candy shop called “Andrews Confectionary.” Growing up, I was actually a kid in a candy shop. If this didn’t make my grandmother perfect enough in my mind, she even got to meet my hero.

Superman, issue number 700, was released today. It got me thinking about my life long history with The Man of Steel. I don’t remember exactly when I first was introduced to Superman, but I know he was always apart of my life.

I was born in 1980, and my earliest thoughts seem to revolve around Superman. I had Superman pajamas with a Velcro cape, action figures, watched his cartoons, and even had an overplayed Superman record. The record told the story of how Superman came to be on earth. It was accompanied by a picture book, my first Superman comic. Superman was there when I learned how to read. The Superman comics opened up a whole new world.

It was great to be a Superman fan in the 1980’s; Superman saw resurgence in popularity brought on by the Christopher Reeves movies. Then the old George Reeves Superman TV show was re-run all the time.

While I still have a classic poster of Superman hanging in my room from when I was five, in the last few years I have drifted away from Superman. From time to time, I will thumb through all the comics I saved when I was younger.

I re-discovered the image of my grandmother and Superman when the movie Superman Returns came out. I decided to go through all my Superman memorabilia. The version I have is from the publication in 1988. Someone in my family has the original. It hung in my grandmother’s home for years until she died. I tried tracking it down through the publisher, but with no luck.

1988 marked the 50th anniversary of Superman. John Byrne had taken over in 1986 and re-vamped it. He took on many Superman projects, including a cover for Time Magazine. He was visiting Ithaca for a comic book convention with a few other very noteworthy names in the comic book world, like Roger Stern who would eventually be the one to get Clark Kent and Lois Lane married. I don’t know what Byrnes connection to Ithaca was. This was the second cover he did for the “Art and Leisure” section for the Ithaca Journal. Other than my grandmother being a bit of an icon in the area, I am not sure how the drawing came to be?

For Byrnes, it may have just been another drawing, but for me it was a legendary moment. He not only brought my worlds together, he made everyone in the world see just how special my grandmother was.