By Mary Ann Skweres
“Early on there was no MTV-style. It’s fascinating to think that a small cable network, now grown into a giant, coined an entire look. I don’t remember anybody ever telling me to go shoot a segment in the NBC-style,” mused Scott Palazzo, MTV producer/director and cinematographer.
He was speaking on Oct. 30 at a panel sponsored by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences called “The Normal Rules Do Not Apply: The Evolution of MTV’s Editing Style and Its Impact on Society.” Produced by Alexandra Komisaruk and Michael Ornstein, A.C.E., and moderated by UCLA Department of Film and Television professor John Caldwell, the session brought together nine industry professionals involved in television production.
If one compares early television series with current shows like 24 and The Shield the influence of MTV-style is undeniable. Using everything from hand-held cameras, to flash pans, quick cuts and split screens, today’s shows rely on any number of camera and editing techniques to capture and keep the attention of the average multitasking viewer. It is a style that has shaped the way we receive information.
Twenty years ago Glenn Morgan had never done a music video when he edited Borderline for then largely unknown artist Madonna. He and director Mary Lambert weren’t interested in breaking rules. They wanted to do something “cool.” By showing the visual story in little pieces, with each viewing the audience would see things that they hadn’t seen before. Every form of continuity – time, action, performance, movement – went out the window.
In the 1980’s, MTV was a whole different animal from dramatic television. Series editing was far more traditional according to 24 editor Chris Willingham. “You were breaking a rule if you didn’t start every scene in a master.” Also, series relied on heavy dialog. The audience was told everything.
24 editor Scott Powell began his career working on TV series where the goal was to “make it seamless.” As he moved up, he started working on low-budget documentaries. He had to scrape and scrounge to make things work. “Because of that you try a lot of wild things. The rules go out the window.”
The tightness of budgets and time in the early days of MTV- influenced Palazzo’s shooting style. “It was hard to do something wrong and more than half the time you did something right that was creative and fun.” No preproduction, no scripting and no blocking, using camera movement, crossing the line and not shooting traditionally was a way to get the work done, he said.
The stylistic approach to The Shield also came from the “no money, no time” school. The show uses 16mm film and hand-held cameras that never sit on a moment. Producer/director Scott Brazil reveals the series’ approach to storytelling: “Try and make it feel like we’re on a police raid.”
Producer/director Jon Cassas agrees that it’s the same on 24. “The energy you get from desperate filmmaking is completely creative.” To get all the shots on a short schedule, the show rolls two cameras all the time. If that means crossing the line, so be it. The result of breaking rules – hand-held camera, being behind things, feeling like you’re always watching – may make 24 uncomfortable to watch but involves the audience.
The Shield actress Catherine Dent knows the camerawork is astounding. In one scene, running full speed down a narrow passage, the cameraman ran backward ahead of her, jumping over obstacles, all while carrying a 58-lb. camera. Dent believes the shooting process keeps the actors real. There’s no thinking, “Is the camera on me?” It’s impossible to know what the camera is doing when it’s constantly moving. Much like in the theater, MTV-style actually pulls out performance nuances because scenes are shot in one take from the beginning to the end, playing out in real time instead of cut-by-cut, forcing the actors to “be on” the whole time.
Traditional shooting style consists of a number of setups – close-ups, medium shots, wide shots. With the current quasi-documentary style, crews light and shoot quickly. The shot list is thrown out. What’s happening in the scene drives the shots. The camera finds a natural place to cover it. One lighting setup can cover numerous shots as the camera moves, constantly changing framing.
The result is more footage, pressure and creative choices for the editors. With almost everything being printed, it’s not unusual to receive 25 hours of dailies per episode. Each take can be totally different even if they have the same slate. The editor has to sort through all that coverage and find the gems, ultimately playing a bigger part in putting the show together.
MTV not only sparked a new style but also helped create a channel-surfing viewer satiated with mass media. Cassas admits he can’t watch CNN without reading the news scroll. Originally considered eye-candy only preoccupied with image, the MTV-style has infiltrated prime time dramatic television. By telling stories with just pictures, television has now caught up to MTV. Producer/director, Spike Jones, Jr., sums it up, “All bets are off.”
By Mary Ann Skweres