Tag Archives: Scandal

Digital magic

James David Hattin, founder, creative director and senior visual effects supervisor of LA-based VFX Legion, discusses the company’s television work and reveals his pride over the hundreds of visual effects that go unnoticed by viewers of ABC political drama Scandal.

James David Hattin

While visual effects tend to be thought of as the digital magic behind TV shows and films featuring futuristic worlds and alien invaders, in truth you’d be hard-pressed to find any dramatic series or movie that doesn’t rely on computer-generated imagery to create a seamless real-world environment.

If you’ve watched episodic television shows, such as Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Madam Secretary, Suits, El Chapo, The Catch or any one of dozens of dramatic TV series and movies, then you haven’t seen VFX Legion’s work – which we consider a testament to our LA studio’s mastery of its craft.

Digital effects play an essential role in the production of visual stories for every genre. Practical footage inherently presents numerous issues that only creative digital solutions can address, such as matching lighting, eliminating reflections and shadows, retouching, and removing rigs.

Dramas that unfold in the real world also go way beyond using visual effects for clean-ups and continuity, augmenting real-world footage with computer-generated photorealistic environments, set extensions, explosions, digitally populated scenes and other effects that would be impossible, impractical or too expensive to shoot on a set or on location.

The amount of photorealistic digital effects that stand in for practical footage has steadily increased over the years. Episodic television shows and films are tapping their potential to provide cost-effective alternatives to location shoots and ‘dynamic’ shots, as well as an economical means of expanding the physical boundaries of storylines.

Studios with the ability to create computer-generated imagery that’s indistinguishable from practical footage, and the experience needed to meet the challenge of short deadlines while optimising budgets, are seeing an uptick in the quantity and complexity of work for content that is rooted in reality.

ABC’s Scandal, a political thriller created by Shonda Rhimes that recently concluded after seven seasons, is one example of a dramatic show that evolved the role of digital effects in its production. Filmed in LA but set in Washington DC, the series was an ideal candidate for the meticulously detailed environments that our studio specialises in producing.

Rhimes’ production company Shondaland contacted us during the fifth season when it was clear that the weekly episodic television show’s tight production schedule demanded more visual effects. Legion had earned a reputation as a company with a cost-effective approach to creating complex, quality effects for high-profile TV series, handling large shot counts and dealing with last-minute revisions and tight budgets, while hitting daunting deadlines with time to spare.

Legion handled every facet of the visual effects process for Scandal’s last 50 episodes. As creative director and senior VFX supervisor, I worked closely with our management team, guiding our end-to-end process from pre-production meetings, establishing shot lists, developing concepts, scheduling and budgeting to shot design, on-set supervision and supervising our artists through each stage of the production process.

In this shot, everything is CGI but the actors and the steps

One of the most challenging computer-generated sequences created for Scandal was the replication of the White House’s Truman Balcony. We were provided with some existing assets, which we saw for the first time, and tasked with delivering 60 shots a week later, along with elevating the quality of the show’s visual effects.

It’s not unusual for us to receive upwards of 100 shots in a week and turn them around in five to seven days. We customised a sophisticated pipeline tailored to Scandal’s production and broke down our collective of artists into teams based on their areas of expertise, creating the efficient workforce and fluid workflow needed to keep up with the show’s fast-paced schedule.

The initial shots of this second-floor portico faced the East Lawn and Washington Monument. The rest of the set was built on a stage and didn’t require any visual effects. However, after we developed our 3D model of the White House, cameras were moved into new angles to capture a wide shot of the iconic building and reveal the never-before-seen first-floor portico. Legion expanded on the original effects with new shots of views created digitally from various vantage points that provided the director of photography with the assets he required.

By season six, we had established a close working relationship with Scandal’s production team and were given access to the full scope of information needed to contain the budget. This ‘big picture’ perspective enabled us to apply a broader range of technical solutions and suggest alternatives, such as limiting practical shots of views that might be prohibitively expensive, or proposing digital effects that could provide a more cost-effective approach to achieving their end.

The Lincoln Memorial statue has been added into the background for this scene

Our on-set team, Matt Lynn, Legion’s VFX supervisor, and on-set coordinator Matt Noren, were at the shoot communicating with the camera crew, scenic department, the DOP and the director, ensuring that we had all of the data needed to produce visual effects that aligned with the production specs and seamlessly matched the live-action footage.

Visual effects sequences were created both on sets and at the studio. Some exteriors, such as the Lafayette Park set extension, were shot at a local college where we set up huge green screens, which we later replaced with computer-generated images.

While Scandal isn’t set in a radical dystopian future, Legion’s crafting of digital environments with the accuracy and realism of live footage presented its own set of complex challenges. Any variations from the real world are so subtle that viewers assume the show was shot entirely in DC and the surrounding area. Actually, the LA-based cast of Scandal made only a handful of outings to film in the nation’s capital over the three seasons when VFX Legion handled the show’s visual effects, which was a significant reduction over previous years. The majority of the series relied on digital effects that transported the live action to virtual DC environments.

Although we don’t always want to reveal the magic behind the scenes, sometimes it’s fun for the Great Oz to poke his head out from behind the curtain and say hello.

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A stroll through Shondaland

Showrunner extraordinaire Shonda Rhimes walks back through her career, from her start in films to launching Grey’s Anatomy and bringing through new writers at her production label Shondaland.

With four series currently on air, it’s no wonder Shonda Rhimes is regarded as one of the most powerful women in television.

The showrunner is most famous for Grey’s Anatomy, the ABC medical drama now in its 13th season, while political thriller Scandal, starring Kerry Washington, recently returned to the same network for its sixth outing.

Through her production company Shondaland, Rhimes (pictured above) is also an executive producer on other ABC dramas such as How to Get Away With Murder, The Catch and the forthcoming series Still Star-Crossed (working title).

Her other credits include Grey’s spin-off Private Practice, which ran for six seasons to 2013, Gilded Lilys, Off the Map, The Princess Diaries 2 and Britney Spears film Crossroads.

Named Mipcom’s Personality of the Year 2016, Rhimes walks DQ back through her career, from her beginning as a film screenwriter to her current home in television, revealing how she works with actors and what she has learned running her own production company.

Halle Berry in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, Rhimes’ first produced project

There wasn’t a time when she didn’t consider herself a storyteller…
I was always a storyteller. I don’t think there was a time I thought of myself as anything but. I really was making up stories into a tape recorder and trying to get my mum to type them up before I could write myself. That’s sort of how we spent our time as kids, my sister and I.

She started off with aspirations to work in film…
Back then, I got out of film school and, at that point in time, film really was what was happening. Television wasn’t as big. Sitcoms were big – it was the Seinfeld era – but dramas weren’t, so movies really did feel like where it was at. I thought I would write movies, so I started out doing that. I sold spec scripts and things but my first produced project was Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which starred Halle Berry, for HBO.

But series such as 24 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer demonstrated the possibilities of television…
I started writing teen girl movies – Crossroads and The Princess Diaries 2. I enjoyed it, it was a living and it was great but there wasn’t a lot of character development going on in those movies. Things were more blockbustery. Then I had a baby – I adopted a baby – and I was at home a lot. What you realise when you’re at home that much is there’s a lot of television to be watched, and I started really watching it. I watched an entire season of 24 in 24 hours and I loved it. I thought, ‘Wow, this is where all the character development is happening, this is really interesting.’ I watched three seasons of Buffy in four days – babies never sleep,so you’re always awake and you’re watching. It was genius to me because that’s where you could really develop characters. I remember calling my agent saying I wanted to do TV. He sent me over to ABC Studios, which was then called Touchstone, and I had a meeting. They said, ‘You want to write TV, that sounds great, let’s try it out’ – and we tried it out.

Medical drama Grey’s Anatomy is now in its 13th season

Her first pilot didn’t get made – but her second was Grey’s Anatomy…
The first year I wrote a pilot about war correspondents. I wrote the script and I was really proud of it, it was a really great experience. It didn’t get made because it was about war correspondents and they were having a lot of fun, drinking and having a lot of sex while covering the war. We were at war so that did not feel very appropriate. The next year I remember asking very clearly what [then Disney president] Bob Iger wanted to see. They said he wanted a medical show – so I wrote a medical show about people who were very competitive and had a lot of sex and really enjoyed doing these things while doing surgery, and that was Grey’s Anatomy.

It was a big change going from movie writer to TV showrunner…
It’s a really interesting job. You go from being a movie writer where you’re at home in your pyjamas by yourself and you type one script a year – literally I would spend 300 days doing nothing, 40 days thinking, 15 days writing and one day celebrating the fact I’d written something – to suddenly you have to churn out a script every eight to nine days, you have 300 people working for you and you have to run a writers room and know what you’re doing. It was zero to 3,000 in an instant. And if you’re a very introverted person, if you’ve never held any other TV job before apart from possibly being an assistant, it’s pretty intense, so I learned a lot. I learned pretty much everything you could possibly learn as fast as possible.

Every season of Grey’s Anatomy is treated as a different show…
I always think of the fact that [lead character] Meredith Grey has been on a journey now for 13 seasons. It’s not the same show every year and even though there’s a procedural element every week, it is a character journey. I feel like I’ve been writing a novel for 13 years and Ellen Pompeo, who plays Meredith, and I have been locked together in this very interesting journey for a long time. I try to look at each season as if it’s a completely different show, not as if we’re going to tell the same story we told last season or we’re going to try to repeat the feeling we got the last season. Instead, we question where Meredith is now, how we make that story feel interesting and how we are going to tell it. On Grey’s, I know how each season is going to end. We start with that last episode in mind and try to get there.

Grey’s spin-off Private Practice

Life and death experiences are at the heart of any hospital drama…
On a bad day [in the medical profession], you actually kill someone. That is the point of the job and, on a good day, you save someone’s life. When you have a creative thought in that job, you are inventing a new medical procedure that’s going to change the way someone lives or dies, or breathes or moves. In our job, when I have a creative thought, it just changes the story. So there’s something really visceral about that job that I love. I also loved, especially in the beginning, the cut-throat nature of it for women. There really were about six women out of 20 for every medical class, which is what they say in the pilot. That was interesting to me, to be in a place where you were so overwhelmed by the men in the programme and thought to be less. That’s no longer true – there are a lot more women surgeons now – but at the time, that felt like a fascinating world to enter.

Private Practice was born when ABC wanted a Grey’s spin-off…
Private Practice came along because the president of the network at the time, Steve McPherson, said he wanted a spin-off – and I am nothing if not obliging. I’m a very straight-A student and I thought, ‘Well, OK, let’s make a spin-off.’ I started thinking about it and I really loved the character of Addison, who had come on to be just a guest star and ended up staying. It was something about that character and who she was and what she could be that felt interesting to me, and I wondered how we could make that into a show. What was great about Private Practice was it was very different to Grey’s. Grey’s was about these surgeons and how they felt about their patients. Private Practice was about the moral and ethical dilemmas of medicine, which is very different.

Rhimes initially didn’t want to take the meeting that led to Scandal…
When Scandal came about, I had two shows going at the time. I was exhausted and [Shondaland exec producer] Betsy Beers kept saying there was this woman I should meet – Washington fixer Judy Smith. I kept saying I’m not writing any more shows but that I would see her for 15 minutes. So Judy came in. She’d done everything from representing Monica Lewinsky to getting [Associate Justice of the Supreme Court] Clarence Thomas through his [confirmation] hearings. We sat down and started to talk. About four hours later, I looked up and thought, ‘I’m hungry.’ That’s the only reason I looked up. And I realised there was a show in there – there were hundreds of episodes in what this woman did for a living. It was fascinating. I was stuck because suddenly I had all these stories in my head and that was a show. It took about a year for me to write it and then I went away for four or five days and wrote the script, came back and turned it in. It’s been a lot of fun.

Scandal emerged from Rhimes’ conversation with Washington fixer Judy Smith

She has a particular role on Shondaland series that aren’t her own…
On How to Get Away With Murder and The Catch, when we’re not in the first season of a show, I haven’t created it and I’m not running it, my job is really just ‘dragon in a cage.’ I’m the dragon that Pete [Nowalk, showrunner] can release on HTGAWM when he feels like he needs some extra power behind him to talk to the studio or the network about something. In the first season of Grey’s, I used to call Mark Gordon, who is our non-writing exec producer, my dragon because he was the most powerful person on our show. So I say to Pete, ‘I’m your dragon.’ It’s the same thing for Allan Heinberg on The Catch, I try to do that for him as well. Creatively I’m there if he needs me but generally these are people who really know what they’re doing.

There’s a contract between Rhimes and her actors…
My contract with all the actors is that they have to say the words as they are written. We’re not going to discuss the text or the words, that’s just the way they are. However, while I’m not going to change the words, I’m also not going to go down to the stage to tell the actors how to say them or interpret them. What I love about that is you then get these performances back that inform whatever’s going to happen next.

The best part about Shondaland is finding new talent…
Stacey McKee, who was an assistant on the Grey’s pilot, is now the head writer. It’s wonderful to have people who you can bring up and give these opportunities to learn how to tell story the way Shondaland tells story, which is really through character and about character. I always say story is best told by determining the worst possible thing that could happen in this moment to the character, then making that happen and getting them out of it. That sort of storytelling you learn really well while working in Shondaland, so we hire our assistants and we know they have the potential to be writers and from there on up. That’s how we promote our writers, that’s how we train them.

Rhimes acts as the ‘dragon in the cage’ for How to Get Away With Murder

Rhimes has trained herself to write anywhere…
I can write anywhere and I trained myself that way, simply because when you have small children and when you travel and when there are so many shows in so many different lots and locations, you really have to figure out a way to write anywhere. So basically my Pavlovian reflex is as long as I have headphones on and music in my ears, I can write wherever I am. I don’t have to be in a specific place, the headphones are what transport me.

But she often acts out her characters as she does so…
There was a time when I didn’t enjoy writing but I really enjoy the process now. I enjoy getting to go sit in the world of the hospital, I enjoy getting to be Meredith Grey for a while. I enjoy getting to be Fitz or Liv or any of those characters. It’s fun. My assistants will tell you I say all the dialogue aloud while I’m writing, very passionately, and I act it all out. I don’t hear it because I’m wearing headphones and there’s music playing, but I do it and Betsy [Beers] makes fun of me. It’s very important to me to make sure it feels alright and acts out well, and I think it’s a little bit of playacting. It’s a lot of fun for me.

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The politics of TV writing

To mark Donald Trump’s shock victory over Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election, we look at the writers behind some of the country’s political TV drama series.

westwingThe West Wing: NBC’s inside view of the White House ran from 1999 to 2006, crossing over with the tail end of Bill Clinton’s time in office and most of George W Bush’s two terms. The show starred Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet and was created by Aaron Sorkin. It won three Golden Globes, 26 Emmys and was ranked at number 10 in The Writers Guild Of America’s 101 Best-Written Series list. Sorkin wrote or co-wrote 85 of the first 88 episodes and then side-shifted into movies, with films including Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network and Moneyball. He came back to TV with The Newsroom and then wrote the movie screenplay for Steve Jobs.

“Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic monumental changes.”
-Sam Seaborn (played by Rob Lowe)

veepVeep: The Boston Globe calls HBO’s Veep “a show for our time, a portrait of the narcissism, malignant self-interest, banality, media self-pleasuring and congressional paralysis that seem to afflict American politics more than ever.” The show was brilliantly created by Armando Iannucci, who also blessed the world with British political satire The Thick of It. It is set in the office of Selina Meyer, a fictional VP who subsequently becomes president, played superbly by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The show has been nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards every year, winning a number of them in high-profile categories. The fifth season of Veep ended in June 2016 and a sixth has been ordered.

“If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at an ATM.”
-Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus)

kevin-spacey-house-of-cards-netflixHouse of Cards: This acclaimed Netflix series is a US reimagining of a British series of the same name, which was written by Andrew Davies and Michael Dobbs (the author of the novel on which both are based). The first four seasons of the US version were written by Beau Willimon, who then handed over the reins to Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese (who are writing season five). Originally a theatre writer, Willimon’s crossover into screenwriting came with the George Clooney movie Ides of March in 2011. There’s no news yet on Willimon’s plans after House of Cards.

“The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties.”
-Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey)

scandalScandal: This ABC drama, which debuted in 2012, sees Kerry Washington star as press aide Olivia Pope, a character reported to be based on George W Bush’s aide Judy Smith. Created by Shonda Rhimes, the show focuses on Pope’s crisis-management firm. A sixth season launches on January 19, 2017. Rhimes, of course, is a powerhouse who continues to enjoy success with series such as How To Get Away With Murder.

“You can’t change the choice you made. All you can do is not let it ruin you.”
-Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington)

madamsecretaryMadam Secretary: This CBS series sees Tea Leoni play Dr Elizabeth McCord, a secretary of state trying to balance her job with her family life. Launched in 2014, it is now up to three seasons and is rating fairly well (eight to nine million per episode). The show was created by Barbara Hall, whose previous credits include Judging Amy, Joan of Arcadia and Homeland (which she co-executive produced). She has also written a bunch of novels over the years. Apparently, Hillary Clinton is a fan and binge-watches with hubby Bill.

“I’m fully prepared to live with the consequences of my actions. What I couldn’t live with were the consequences of my inactions.”
-Dr Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni)

commander-in-chief-geena-davis-32520947-2291-1527Commander In Chief: This ABC show didn’t really take off but is worthy of a mention because it saw Geena Davis cast as the first female president of the US. Launched in 2005, it was created by Rod Lurie. However, he was replaced mid-run by Steven Bochco of NYPD Blue fame. This also didn’t work out, with Bochco replaced by Dee Johnson. Johnson wasn’t able to turn things round either – but it’s interesting to note she popped up as executive producer on The Good Wife and Boss, both of which feature below.

“So I say to the people of this nation: I am humbled by your greatness. I am humbled by the history being made here today, humbled by the notion that I am the first woman to hold this office. I’m humbled by the responsibilities that rest with me.”
-Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis).

desingatedDesignated Survivor: Kiefer Sutherland (24) stars as a low-ranking cabinet member who unexpectedly becomes US president after an attack wipes out the administration. The show is currently in season one and, after a strong start, is slipping in the ratings for ABC. Episode five attracted 5.9 million, compared to the 10 million who tuned in for launch. Distributed globally by Entertainment One International, the show was created by David Guggenheim (Safe House) and hails from The Mark Gordon Company (Grey’s Anatomy, Ray Donovan, Quantico, Criminal Minds).

“Capitol’s been attacked. Congress, cabinet… Eagle is gone. Sir, you are now the president of the United States. “
-Mike Ritter (LaMonica Garrett)

cbs_good_wife_702_clean_image_thumb_masterThe Good Wife: CBS’s hit show was a legal/political drama about a woman who returns to a career in law after her husband is involved in a political corruption scandal. Created by Robert and Michelle King, the show was a big awards winner, securing five Emmys during its run. The Kings also made political satire Braindead for CBS but the show was cancelled after one season.

“When the door you’ve been knocking at finally swings open, you don’t ask why. You run through.”
-Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski)

jack-bobbyJack & Bobby: This was a WB Network series that ran for one season in 2004/2005. The show’s interesting premise centred on two brothers – one of whom would grow up to be president from 2041 to 2049. So it was a way of looking at their formative years, encouraging the audience to guess which one would turn out to have presidential credentials. The show was created by Greg Berlanti, Vanessa Taylor, Stecen Cohen and Brad Metzler. Berlanti, of course, has gone on to have a number of DC Comics-based superhero hits with The CW network.

“Grace used to say Jack and Bobby were like two sides of a coin. Without Bobby, Jack might never have learned compassion. Without Jack, Bobby might never have gained strength.”
-Future Courtney McCallister (Brenda Wehle)

boss-kelsey-grammerBoss: This Starz series starred Kelsey Grammer as a Chicago mayor struggling with dementia. Although it generated a good response from critics, low ratings meant it only lasted two seasons. Starz chief Chris Albrecht told The Hollywood Reporter that Boss “didn’t resonate enough with the two constituents that are important to us: our subscribers and our distributors.” The show was created by Farhad Safinia, an Iranian-American screenwriter whose other credits include the movie Apocalyto (written with Mel Gibson).

“Spectators stand on the sidelines shaking their heads, lacking the balls. You know what I mean? When Truman nuked Japan, when Lincoln sent boys out to kill their cousins… you think they gave a shit about their approval ratings? Fuck the spectators.”
-Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer)

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A journey through ShondaLand

How to Get Away with Murder star Viola Davis
How to Get Away with Murder star Viola Davis, who spoke on the panel in Cannes

The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is something of a surprise package. While it’s aimed primarily at executives in the advertising business, its conference programme attracts some of the biggest names in film, TV and music.

This year, for example, it managed to reel in the likes of Pharrell Williams, David Guetta, Marilyn Manson, Richard Curtis, Kenneth Branagh, Freida Pinto, Norman Reedus and Chiwetel Ejiofor, to name just a few.

From a Writers Room perspective, one of the most interesting conference sessions was hosted by McCann Worldgroup and the Paley Centre for Media. Under the heading ‘Is creativity the only way to survive and thrive today?’ they brought together three top talents closely associated with ShondaLand, the Shonda Rhimes-led production company that makes hit shows Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM) – all for US network ABC.

It was also behind Private Practice, a Grey’s spin-off that ran for six years.

One of the three contributors was producer Betsy Beers, who has been on board the ShondaLand express train since its early days. Beers, who has exec produced all of the above shows, recalled how, back in the middle of the last decade, both she and Rhimes were in the movie business.

“When we met, we had never made TV,” she said. “Shonda was a successful movie writer but I sucked at making movies. Everything I did bombed. So when we started talking about making TV, I was really excited. I’d always been a closet TV fan, which was not something you could admit around movie people.”

Grey's Anatomy is poised for a 12th season
Grey’s Anatomy is poised for a 12th season

Finding they shared a similar sensibility, Rhimes and Beers decided to make a show about female war correspondents. “We created a pilot, but were thinking in movie budget terms,” said Beers. “So we came up with something that would have had a US$30m budget. Of course, that didn’t work out. But we still wanted to work together so we hit on the idea of a medical drama.”

‘Medical drama’ hardly sounds like the most original of premises, but in the hands of creative powerhouse Rhimes it became Grey’s Anatomy, one of the most travelled shows in the world.

Beers continued: “Back then, a lot of the female characters on TV didn’t look or sound like us. So what we set out to do was make a show about messy, confused, twisty women. In its first year it was the last show to get picked up as a pilot. And then it was the last show to go to series. But the audience liked the show so we survived.”

Beers said ABC became increasingly supportive of the show, which has now run for 11 seasons (with a 12th on the way). She admitted there were some people in the business that found it sexually aggressive and, therefore, offensive “but our response was ‘this is what the show is, so live with it.’”

ShondaLand’s shows all have the ballsy quality displayed by Grey’s Anatomy. Pete Nowalk, the creator of HTGAWM, came into the company as a writer on Grey’s Anatomy. Also at the Cannes Lions session with Beers, he said: “You can’t be generic anymore. There are so many TV shows out there that you have to really raise your game. With my work, I’m always looking at how to put ordinary people in extreme situations.”

Grey's Anatomy spin-off Private Practice
Grey’s Anatomy spin-off Private Practice

While this approach has built a big fanbase, it inevitably exposes ShondaLand shows to the risk of criticism. Nowalk, who has grown up in ShondaLand, working on Grey’s, Scandal and HTGAWM, said his way of dealing with this is to write “in a bubble. Constructive criticism makes you better and smarter, I think. But when I’m writing new episodes I keep it small — just me and my computer.”

Beers said her ability to cope with adverse criticism is helped by the fact “that I border on being a luddite. But we’ve also created a safe environment at work, where we can express our fears and passions. I also think you need to really love what you are doing (to deal with criticism). We really love the shows we make.”

One of the big successes of HTGAWM (which debuted in 2014 to strong audiences and positive reviews) was the casting of actress Viola Davis in the lead role as Annalise Keating. Nowalk recalled applauding Davis at the first read-through of his script “because Viola really brought my words to life.”

Davis, who was the third participant in the Cannes Lions session, talked about the importance of authenticity in the way she handles the part. She said: “The role called for a messy, mysterious, sexy woman. I said ‘yes,’ then thought to myself, ‘I don’t look like that.’ But I had an ‘a-ha’ moment. So what if I didn’t fit the mould? I just dared to be a woman who fit those adjectives and in doing so was able to release my creativity. Typecasting is kryptonite to actors, so all I want to do is offer my interpretation of a real woman.”

Davis’s approach has helped make HTGAWM stand out. There was one particularly iconic scene in the fourth episode of season one where it was revealed that her character Annalise was wearing a wig and eyelash extensions.

Scandal is among the shows Pete Nowalk has worked on for ShondaLand
Scandal is among the shows Pete Nowalk has worked on for ShondaLand

By removing them on screen, Davis made a statement about how women are represented on TV. She said: “I’ve never seen a woman like me on TV. It’s important to bring that up. You have to give yourself permission to have a voice.”

Beers said this gradual revelation of the vulnerabilitiesand contradictions of character is one of the beauties of working in serialised TV: “You have time to roll a character out.”

To take advantage, however, you need to keep pushing at the uncomfortable boundaries of the character, added Davis. “For actors, TV’s trap is that you can create a personality, not a person. The pursuit of likeability can be dangerous because you end up looking for gimmicks. You need to keep characters complex.”

Nowalk said this is what he tries to do from a writing perspective, by making sure characters don’t always follow the expected path, because it is the contradictions that come closest to truth.

All three panellists were asked what they feared most. Davis admitted to being “terrified not to have the courage to be authentic,” while Nowalk said: “I’m always terrified by the next episode – right now, the debut episode of season two.”

As for Beers, it was “the fear that I will stop growing, that I will start repeating myself. You have to learn, listen and be curious if you want to keep growing.”

Right now, it seems the ShondaLand team is doing a good job of staying curious.

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The main event

ABC came out top in the US freshman drama stakes last year thanks to a single showrunner and some clever marketing. Channing Dungey, ABC Entertainment Group executive VP of drama development, explains how the network is ‘eventizing’ its schedule.

To have three shows on air on a major US broadcaster is rare. To have them all on simultaneously, filling primetime back to back on one night of the week, is unprecedented.

This was the accolade ABC handed showrunner Shonda Rhimes for its latest fall season, scheduling Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and freshman legal drama How To Get Away With Murder (HTGAWM) one after the other on Thursday nights at 20.00, 21.00 and 22.00 respectively.

Grey's Anatomy
Grey’s Anatomy

Grey’s, on its eleventh season, and Scandal, moving into its fourth, had already proven their credentials and so HTGAWM – starring Viola Davis as a maverick law professor who, together with her students, becomes embroiled in a murder plot – was a fairly solid bet. Creator Peter Nowalk was a Rhimes protégé who cut his teeth as a scribe on Grey’s and Scandal, but with ABC trailing in the network stakes it couldn’t count on pedigree alone.

“There’s no more exciting time than now to be in television, particularly in drama, because there are so many different places to explore that content,” says Channing Dungey, ABC Entertainment Group’s executive VP of drama development, movies and miniseries.

“The flip side, as a broadcaster, is it’s an incredibly challenging time. It used to be the case that all we had to do was look over our shoulder at basic cable, then premium cable. But now there’s everything else – Netflix, Hulu, Amazon – the whole nine yards.

“For us, as an ad-supported broadcast network, it is still so much about that linear same-day rating. So the question is always how do we get people in their seats, how do we get them watching, how do we make it feel like a priority?”

The solution was #TGIT – Thank God It’s Thursday – a scheduling strategy and marketing campaign based on the pioneering TGIF comedy block ABC introduced on Fridays in 1989, brought up to date with a Twitter hashtag.

Rhimes’ significant social media following and use of it to engage with her own fans, as well as active encouragement of the cast to do the same, was a significant part of the equation.

“Shonda Rhimes was one of the people who early on was very good about connecting with the fans, relating to them, and giving them the feeling that they were getting to peak behind the curtain,” Dungey says.

“We’ve done a lot of research, particularly into Millennials and the way they consume TV and watch content, and usually they’re working two or more screens at the same time. The idea of live-tweeting, which is something Shonda started doing with the Scandal cast and has now spun over to both Grey’s and HTGAWM, is that they will be tweeting at the same time that the show is airing. It makes the audience feel like they’re in dialogue with the cast.”

The success of what Rhimes had been doing with Twitter for Scandal was a contributing factor in ABC’s decision to contrive #TGIT. “As we were investigating what Scandal’s impact had been on the social media scene over the past couple of seasons, we had a real feeling we would be able to make this night feel like an event of television that couldn’t be missed,” Dungey says. “And we were right.”

How To Get Away With Murder
How To Get Away With Murder

HTGAWM delivered ABC its greatest drama success story of the 2014 US fall season. Indeed, it helped the network win the primetime ratings battle against its rivals in the 18-49 demographic every Thursday night in November – the first time it’s achieved such a feat in the 23 years since Nielsen records began.

The debut episode on September 25 proved the biggest hit of the US freshman drama crop, with 14.3 million viewers and a 3.9 rating, adding a record six million viewers on DVR playback in the subsequent three days, lifting it to a 5.8 rating.

These numbers pushed ABC towards its best Thursday night in five years, and the first nine episodes that comprised the fall instalment concluded on November 20 with another winner – 9.8 million viewers and a 3.1 rating, a 0.2 lift on the prior episode.

Tweets regarding the three shows numbered 5.3 million during the fall – more than those relating to NBC, Fox and CBS programmes combined – Dungey claims.

“It’s amazing how people are invested in those programmes and want to watch them live because they want to discuss them with their friends and be part of the conversation,” Dungey says. “Shonda has a way of telling stories where she likes to ‘turn over cards’ really quickly and you don’t want to miss any of those cards being turned over.”

Such storytelling has clearly been a gift to ABC, and the Rhimes triumvirate provided the perfect vehicle for the network to try out a wider initiative designed to pull in viewers. “We came up with a little word we like to call ‘eventize,’” Dungey explains. “That’s our in-house coin for making our show feel like a priority, a destination, trying to encourage the audience to watch live and same day.”

#TGIF was all about ‘eventizing’ through branding and social media, but ABC employs a three-pronged approach to the idea.

“Eventizing with talent” is about finding a calibre of artist, writer or director who wouldn’t usually get involved in the broadcast space, Dungey says. For example, Viola Davis, whose movie credits include Traffic, Solaris and Doubt, would only agree to be part of HTGAWM if the season went on for no more than 15 episodes per year, rather than the 22 or more episodes a network would hope for from a successful title.

The series that will replace HTGAWM in March this year is American Crime, created by John Ridley, who penned 12 Years a Slave’s Oscar-winning screenplay. It’s his first work in television. An anthology “trial of the century show” in which one case unfolds over the course of one season, “it felt for him like he could take that concept and unspool it over a certain number of episodes.”

Ridley wrote and directed the pilot as well as three other episodes of ABC’s planned 11 instalments –and with such a hot name on board, it was possible to assemble a cast including Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton.

As well as increasingly employing the split-season model that has proven so successful in cable (ABC saved the last six episodes of HTGAWM for a January 29 return through to a two-hour finale on February 26), the network is doing shorter runs. It calls this “eventizing with concept.”

“What we’re doing here is sort of the same thing HBO has done with True Detective,” says Dungey, citing Nic Pizzolatto’s critically acclaimed eight-episode crime drama, the first season of which aired a year ago starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson and had some of Hollywood’s biggest names clambering for leads in the second.

Secrets and Lies
Secrets and Lies

ABC is billing Secrets & Lies, its other new crime drama debuting in March, as a single-season, 10-episode show, throughout the course of which the crime will be solved. “The idea is to market it in such a way that you can’t miss a single episode because you want to be there for the big reveal,” says the ABC exec.

It’s an adaptation of an Australian series of the same name that comprised only six instalments but was “a little short” for the US network’s purposes.

“The other thing that enabled us to do, again like what HBO did with True Detective, was to get a cast who would not normally sign on to an American broadcast show because they don’t want to be tied down to the long contracts we usually ask of actors,” says Dungey, returning to the idea of eventizing talent.

Ryan Phillippe (Crash, Flags of Our Fathers, Damages) signed on to play the lead male role – a man accused of a killing a boy – and Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear, Natural Born Killers, Kalifornia) joined as the detective. “She did sign a long contract, so if the show succeeds we’ll be able to have her return and investigate a new case over 10 episodes for a following season,” Dungey says of Lewis.

Are such series set to become a more regular feature of the ABC schedule moving forwards? “It’s challenging because we’re so used to being on a 22-episode cycle and it is much more common in cable to have a shorter-run, close-ended type of show. But in terms of trying to lure the appropriate calibre of talent, we feel we have to be competitive in that way and a lot of the actors and actresses you really want to help drive your content will only sign on for 10 or 13,” Dungey explains.

While it’s a welcome development that so much movie talent is now prepared to work in TV, she concedes that the newer, more buzz-worthy distribution outlets are often where they wish to be seen. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ll be going through casting or calling an agent about an actor and they say, ‘No, they’re Netflix only.’”

Dungey says ABC’s calling card is that it is prepared to do many more shows – but surely its biggest calling card right now is Shonda Rhimes, who is clearly able to turn the cards more effectively than anyone.

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