Sunday, February 22, 2009

Jim Henson, Carol Burnett, and Teleprompting 101

Jim Henson died in May of 1990. A few months later Disney started putting together a tribute for him called The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson. My company ended up being the go-to teleprompter company for this shoot, which went on for a month or more. Although looking at the credits of the show on IMDB, it doesn’t appear that they used all the segments that they shot for the show.

They got Carol Burnett for the show. This was one of my first solo gigs. The shoot was in a hotel room at the Beverly Hilton or the Beverly Hills Hotel. It’s strange that they would use a hotel room for a shoot. Why not just rent a stage for an afternoon? I guess it’s cheaper, and maybe free if they give consideration to the hotel in question? I was told to dress up for the job, business casual. I get there and I’m almost the best dressed person in the room aside from the director.

Here's a ten minute clip from the show. The section with Carol Burnett starts just after the five minute mark:

Let me back up a minute and introduce you to the way I worked.

When I went out on any teleprompter job, I was always sent with the following equipment:

• Small computer that ran teleprompting software
• Mirror contraption that was attached over the camera’s lens.
• A monitor that hung belong the lens.
• On metal plate that the camera would snap into
• Length of cable that ran between the monitor and my computer.

For every shoot I went on I’d find a place put my gear, always out of the way. My only request was that I had to hear the talent. I could be down the block, in the next room, or the neighboring building, but if I couldn’t hear the talent speak and take my cues from their dialogue, I couldn’t do my job.

I would need power as well, to plug in all my gear. After I had a place to work, I'd boot up my computer. While that was heating up, I’d work with the assistant cameraperson to attach the plate to the camera and then the monitor and the mirror. It was a bit clunky and over sized, but it almost always worked out. The camera crew would sometimes roll their eyes when they saw the prompter coming, but for the most part there was never a problem.

The monitor hung below the camera lens. The face of the monitor would display the text that I would scroll for the talent. This text would appear in the mirror (1 way) that was affixed directly over the camera lens. So that when the talent was reading the text off the monitor (referred to as the prompter) they were also looking right into the lens. This gave the appearance of a seamless performance. Well, unless you knew they were reading a prompter--then you could see their eyes moving back and forth as they read.

There were variations of this setup, with the monitor to the side of the lens. If it was a live show on a stage, then there would be plates of glass on stands at an angle that the hosts could read from but were almost invisible to the audience. Another type of setup was used for live broadcasts such as the Emmys, Oscars, etc., where huge monitors were set out in the audience which all hosts and presenters read from.

They still do this, so I shouldn't write it like it's all in the past. If you watch the Oscar broadcast tonight, in wide shots from the back or the balcony of the Kodak Theater, look for one or two huge monitors in the audience. They're there, and they're what the presenters and hosts read from when they're not staring at the camera. They are usually cloaked in black, so that from the back and sides they appear as black holes.

So anyway, Carol Burnett. She was very nice and professional. She came in the room dressed and ready to go. Maybe a little make up was applied on the spot, or maybe she had already been made up. There was a dolly move, so the camera was up on the dolly which was on one length of curved track. Remember, we’re just in a hotel room.

Carol didn’t say hello to me as she did the rest of the crew. But I was situated just behind the dolly track, the only place for me in this cramped space, and so, when the dolly moved along the track, Carol was revealed to me and I to her, and she flashed me a few smiles. It was nice to get a little reaction, a little acknowledgement. After this, I always tried to have some interaction with the talent because I was one of the few crew members whose job directly affected their performance.

Here's what the prompter looks like to the talent:

As I was to learn, the talent always had a different reaction to the prompter. Sometimes it was a godsend if there was a lot of text for them to read. Sometimes they didn’t want to use or rely on the prompter. More often than not they understood it was just part of their job. When you have a big actor like Mel Gibson or Clint Eastwood read off a prompter, there is an understanding that they are helping out on something that is probably beneath them. The feeling is that they are doing a favor, they’ve been roped into something by their studio or publicist, they just want to get it over with, and so will read whatever you put in front of them as quickly and professionally as they can.

The Carol Burnett shoot went very quickly. She only had a couple minutes of text to read, and she also threw in some personal remembrances. Then it was a wrap. She stood, said thank you to all, including me, seemed very pleased to be involved with the project, and left.

Breaking down never took very long for me. I would get the monitor and all ancillary equipment off the camera first, so that they could wrap the camera and I could get the plate off the tripod. This time it went quickly and I was in and out of the hotel in under three hours.

No comments:

Post a Comment