Musicals aren’t exactly a sure thing in primetime — think “Cop Rock” and “Eli Stone” — so the creators of Fox’s “Glee” were treading on risky ground when they launched a musical dramedy series centered on a high-school glee club.
Weird scheduling added to the nail-biting. The show’s pilot preemed right after “American Idol” in May, but Fox waited nearly four months to air the first episode. Two weeks later, it committed to a full-season pickup, but after 13 episodes, the show went into a four-month hiatus, partly to accommodate the schedule of writer, producer and sometime director Ryan Murphy, who took time to helm the Julia Roberts starrer “Eat, Pray, Love.”
Then, in its first original episode in four months, airing again behind “American Idol,” “Glee” hit series highs on April 13 (5.6 rating/13 share in adults 18-49, and 13.66 million viewers overall) — a big 70% gain over its fall demo average.
Somebody was doing something right — including d.p. Christopher Baffa and choreographer Zach Woodlee, who have gradually honed their own dance of lighting and movement into a fine art.
Baffa was shooting another Murphy-produced show, FX’s “Nip/Tuck,” when Murphy brought up the concept of “Glee.” “We had a lot of discussion about what a modern musical is,” recalls the d.p., who had never shot one before and wasn’t sure how today’s auds would respond to the genre on TV. “I credit him with the courage to experiment.”
Says Woodlee, who is also a co-producer on “Glee”: “Dancing and performing on film can be dead in the water, or it can be great. The beauty of live performance is that you can see the work and how much energy it takes, but once you put light and camera on it, it can seem flat and dull. Our camera department has found a way to reinsert energy into it.”
Baffa and Woodlee seem to have mastered each other’s language. “Zach has learned a lot about what my team is doing,” says Baffa. “My conversations with him go like this: I say, ‘It’s really great.’ He’ll go, ‘But?’ I’ll say, ‘But we need to make it more photographable.’ Like if they’re occupying a 50-foot span, let’s condense it to 40 feet so it fits into the shot.'”
Adds Woodlee: “In my world, I work on a taped-out floor, and we use every bit of space we can, and then he’s like, ‘I love it, but if you can just move this around … .’ He knows what we can do to make it come to life on TV.”
Baffa shoots on 35mm film — with two cameras for the nonperformance scenes but as many as five for the big musical numbers. “We also bring in 30- or 50-foot cranes so we can get a camera anywhere in space and do amazing shots,” he adds.
“Glee’s” music includes showtunes and chart hits. The performers are shot lip-syncing, but Baffa dispels any notion of Milli Vanilli-like shenanigans. “They’re not miked, but it’s their own pre-recorded voices they’re singing along with,” he says. “We blare the playback pretty loud so they can hear and feel the impact and emotion of it. We do it primarily so they don’t have to worry about singing, although they usually are, so the breathing is realistic.”
During pre-production, Baffa watched films like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Gigi.” “I didn’t give them enough credit until I examined how they were shot,” he says. “They do a lot of uninterrupted takes, using dollies and cranes to move the camera around in one continuous masterful shot. Prior to ‘Glee,’ I would have considered that simplistic because it’s only three pieces of coverage, but it really shows off the skill of the performers.”
Bookings & Signings
Vfx supervisor Gregory Lemkin was booked on Fox pilot “Traffic Lights,” NBC pilot “Friends With Benefits” and a CBS pilot for soon-to-be-renamed “Reagan’s Law.”
Montana Artists bookings: producer David Witz as unit production manager on Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball”; 1st assistant a.d.’s Chip Signore on Jonah Loop’s “Fury” and David Sardi on Nima Nourizadeh’s “Project X”; stunt coordinator Charlie Croughwell on Mikael Hafstrom’s”The Rite”; d.p. Michael Trim on Showtime’s “Weeds”; and costume designers Kelli Jones on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” Christie Wittenborn on Ruben Fleischer’s “30 Minutes or Less” and Lorraine Carson on Lifetime’s “The List”; plus editor Michael Brown on HBO pilot “Luck.”
Montana signings: d.p. Eric Kress (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) and costume designer Roberta Haze (“Dirty Sexy Money”).