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Production Day 1 The Skeptologists.

by Ryan Johnson, Jan 13 2009

In carrying on with the description of the production of The Skeptologists pilot, I wanted to share some of my thoughts and experiences of the first day working with the cast and crew of The Skeptologists. In my previous blog, I discussed the meeting of the cast and some of the preparation for the pilot production.

I’ve talked a quite a bit about the cast, and of course they are all a part of this wonderful blog. A whole group of people that are not well represented here are the crew that made the production possible. I’ll skip myself and Brian for a bit, You know a bit about us.

April 2nd, 2007, The first day of production, or principal photography as it’s called in the movie biz, was purposely built as a light day. We had a large cast, most of whom had only moderate on-camera experience, a very adventurous shooting schedule, and a very small budget. I felt it was important to ease everyone into the production a bit. Although that’s sort of like saying we’re going to ease an elephant into a golf cart, it was going to be a big task, no matter what. And wow, that’s got to be the worst metaphor ever. Anyway, we started with an early 8am breakfast pre-production meeting. If I recall correctly the full cast and crew were there, save a few crew members like hair and makeup, etc.

Cast and Crew during Pre-Production meeting.

Cast and Crew during Pre-Production meeting.

The morning’s meeting consisted of distributing and going over the schedule for the next few days. We held our meeting at the breakfast area of the hotel. We assembled there because all of the meeting rooms were booked. So we made due — Something that one does often in this line of work.

Besides the schedule I went over some of the finer points of production and mentioned little tidbits that are often overlooked, like: When you are talking on camera, try not to talk over other cast members, and try to give a brief pause before answering someone, this will help the editors cut the dialogue cleaner and play toward the cameras so that your back is never to the audience. Sounds simple, but with everything else going on, those smaller details can easily get overlooked.

Everyone seemed very excited about the shoot, and were ready to go. My crew, has been through hundreds of these meetings, but they were patient as I talked ‘till I was hoarse.

Shawna, our coordinating producer worked closely with me to make sure that everything was arranged with the crew. There were so many little details from directions, phone numbers, and even batteries for the sound mixer, that are critically important. When you get a whole team to a location, the last thing you want to do is have everyone standing around waiting for a $5 box of Energizers.

L to R Dr. Kirsten "KiKi" Sanford and Producer Shawna Young

L to R Dr. Kirsten "KiKi" Sanford and Producer Shawna Young

Milena, who had done an amazing amount of prep work with me back in Santa Maria was doing a great job following up with everything on location. This was a bit new to her, but she did a great job, despite the overwhelming workload.

It’s sad but true, the cast gets all the careful quite and pleasant instruction and hand-holding and most crews are used to getting simple, direct and sometimes not-so-detailed instructions from the top. Even crew members that are hired on for just one project are expected to fall in line immediately. It’s just the way the industry works. I’ve never really liked that, so I really try and balance a bit more with my team, and it has always paid off.

Both long time shooters for me and good friends Jonathan Hall or Matt Fore were there to handle camera duties for the shoot. I have no problem asking them if they see an angle that they like more or asking for an opinion on how to get coverage on a shot. That’s what they are there for and although I have a vision in my minds eye, the ability to be flexible to get something even better may ultimately help the show. With a reality-based show like this, most aspects of the production are only summarily fleshed out.

We had a clear concept of how to shoot the project, and we knew what we needed to end up with, However the production of the pilot was truly a collaboration of all the individuals working on the show. Everything that appears on camera was essentially made up on the spot. Background information and some research was done in advance, of course, especially for the history of the Mt. Wilson 100” telescope, some of the ghost hunting tools that we used, etc. We weren’t flying blind, by any means, but the dialogue that one hears, and the discussions that followed the introduction of the topics were all very much real and candid discussions.

It’s harder to make TV that way. Many would hand out the script and then shoot it right off that page. Simple, efficient, effective, done. With a team like I had on the production side and a stellar cast like this, why make them say something that I want them to say, the reason we are doing this is to understand the way these guys think, understand how each person approaches a problems and how they work through these topics. That’s very interesting.

We headed over to Michael Shermer’s Skeptic Magazine headquarters. It was a nice location in a nice neighborhood, lots of trees and flowers around. The office was a converted house, which gave the place a real cozy and intellectual feel, of course the main room is now a library and it’s floor to ceiling with books. I think that Dr. Shermer has every book on skepticism, religion and science ever written in there. I think that I overheard him say that he’s read every one. We’ll have to ask him about that.

The goal for the afternoon was to conduct 1 on 1 interviews with each of the cast. We split them up three inside the office, and three outside in the backyard.

The space was a bit tight once we got all of our big, hot lights and two camera’s all setup in there, but the location worked great and once we got all of the little technical gremlins out of our way, we began shooting the testimonials and the production was underway in earnest.


L to R Ryan Johnson, Matt Fore and Jonathan Hall

L to R Ryan Johnson, Matt Fore and Jonathan Hall

I sat just to the side of the two cameras. One stayed on a really close shot, the other was a bit wider, this would allow us flexibility in the editing room. Everything was lit just right, including consideration for the background. I started the interviews and the rest of the cast took their turns getting makeup on.

I enjoy the interview process immensely. Truth be told I could interview each of our cast for a full day, they were all wonderfully expressive and interesting to listen to. More than once, I momentarily forgot my next question because I got so involved in their dialogue.

These 1 on 1 interviews accomplished several things. Firstly, they gave us the back-story of each Skeptologist, and why they consider themselves a skeptic. They talked about their influences, beliefs, and experiences. In addition I asked them about their qualifications. It was important to reinforce that we have a group of people well educated in their field (I can hear Steven Novella now “That’s an argument from authority”) Ahem, this is TV sir. The interviews also served to familiarize each cast member with me and my directing and interviewing style. We had to become fast friends if I was to get great performances out of them the next few days. Lastly it got them used to the production environment while they were able to talk about themselves and topics that they were well aware of.

We shot each interview for about 30-40 minutes, and it’s worth it to mention that in the latest version of the pilot, all of the interviews were cut. OUCH. Well, OK, I actually cut them, with great pain, but we did it for the good of the show. To fast-forward a bit; when we finished the first cut, it was over an hour, and it dragged a lot. We screened it at TAM6 and I was eager to hear the reactions, and the majority was positive of course, but the one common thread was that it took too long to get going, so out went tall of the interviews first, that helped the show.

brian Dunning and Steven Novella having a skeptical discussion no doubt.

brian Dunning and Steven Novella having a skeptical discussion no doubt.

We’ll work some type of direct interviews into the actual episodes, but for now, all that work will remain on a harddrive in the tape vault. …But that’s all for another blog.

After we worked through each cast member, we setup to get some B-roll footage for the intro. This was footage that would be used in the opening title sequence. The location was really pretty and lush, and kinda anti-tech so it was a bit challenging to find some camera angles that would work. Ultimately we set the a camera up on our boom arm and shot some high angle shots. A still photo taken during that setup is up there on the right hand corner of this website. It looks funny because half the cast is looking up at the video camera, and the other, down at the still photographer.

The resulting shot is now part of the intro as the cast is revealed through the lens of our microscope animation that was expertly done by Jeff Knapp.
After we completed the interviews and B-Roll we released the cast and the crew and I were left to “strike” or take down all of the equipment and prep it for the next day.

Phil Plait and Audio Engineer Arran Murphy

Phil Plait and Audio Engineer Arran Murphy

Even though the day was done, I had a long night in front of me discussing, checking and reviewing plans and ideas for the next days shoot: on top of Mt. Wilson.


Stay Tuned…

6 Responses to “Production Day 1 The Skeptologists.”

  1. BillDarryl says:

    That library in the final shot… I feel like I’ve seen it somewhere before….

    Hmmmm… so familiar… where could it have been?

    It’ll come to me, I’m sure.

  2. “A still photo taken during that setup is up there on the right hand corner of this website. It looks funny because half the cast is looking up at the video camera, and the other, down at the still photographer.”

    Interesting to hear the background of this photo. My take on it was that it looked like, “We’ve interrupted the important thing we’re looking at to pose authoritatively for this photo.” It looks dynamic. Like something’s going on that I’d like to know about.

  3. Mike B says:

    I love reading this take on the Skeptologists.

  4. Max says:

    Are the crew skeptical people? Did they keep their beliefs to themselves?

  5. ejdalise says:

    ” . . . having a skeptical discussion no doubt.”

    . . . I did not think you could have a skeptical discussion with no doubt.

    Anyway, speaking as a guy with a regular job . . . man, that looks like fun. Ah, but I’d probably have to get a pendulum.

  6. marko says:

    Your harddrive in the tape vault: we wantz!

    Seriously, what could the harm be in uploading the interviews? Pleasepleaseplease?