Teachers Learn From The Pros – And Each Other – At The Foundation Faculty Seminar
Faculty members from across the country meet with television industry pros.
When James Martin applied to participate in the Television Academy Foundation’s annual Faculty Seminar, he expected that the experience would provide invaluable knowledge about the television industry, given that the seminar offers U.S. college and university instructors five days of up-close-and-personal views of television from an insider’s perspective.
But when he became one of the 25 instructors chosen – up from the customary 20 of years past – he had no idea he’d have an unscheduled bonus.
An assistant professor in the Department of Media Arts at the University of North Texas in Denton, Martin was with his colleagues on a tour of Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, conducted by production designer and former Academy chairman John Shaffner. On the sound stage for the Netflix comedy The Ranch, he watched as the set was being lit.
“We saw where the lights were hung, and where the cameras were, and got to talk to the people about what they did and what their approach to the show was,” he recalls. “I could have stayed there another four or five days.”
He did the next best thing. Seeing Martin’s enthusiasm, the show’s veteran cinematographer, Donald A. Morgan, said, “You’ve got to come back sometime later in the week.”
Says Martin, “I was asking so many questions, he figured it would be easier to show me!” And so indeed, Martin and two other teachers returned, to see the lighting plot, set-up and shooting.
Gaining an in-depth understanding of the various aspects of television is the goal of the Faculty Seminar, held every November primarily on the Academy’s campus in the NoHo Arts District of Los Angeles.
This year’s roster included panels on executive producing, directing, unstructured reality production, below-the-line jobs, network programming/scheduling, securing rights, industry resources, the Primetime Emmys and Foundation programs. There was also a conversation with ABC’s senior vice president of comedy Jamila Hunter, a re-creation of a production meeting and a mixer with industry professionals and Foundation program alumni.
Besides the Warner Bros. tour, excursions included a tour of Hollywood post-production facility Light Iron and a taping of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars at CBS Television City.
The program on the role of the executive producer drew a trio of panelists: PJ Haarsma, executive producer of Con Man, a comedy web series first seen on Vimeo and now on Comic-Con HQ; Marti Noxon, co-creator and former executive producer of Lifetime’s drama UnREAL, creator-executive producer of Bravo’s comedy-drama Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce and executive producer of the upcoming HBO drama Sharp Objects; and Michael Spiller, executive producer of the comedy The Mindy Project, now on Hulu after airing on Fox.
Moderating was Steve Gordon, an associate professor of Media Arts, Sciences and Studies at Ithaca College in New York and former executive vice president, Creative Affairs at Viacom Productions.
There’s no typical work week for these busy veterans: “Project management is what I do,” Haarsma said. Because Con Man was financed through a crowdfunding campaign, “We own the brand. My day may be looking at visual effects plates or looking at the latest comic books.”
Said Noxon, “A lot of what I do is just managing people’s feelings.” And delegating is key, a practice she learned from creator Joss Whedon while writing and producing Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “I learned to let writers write. Joss was confident enough to let other people be good. The worst enemy to being a good showrunner is ego. I’ve learned to let writers find their voices on the show.”
Spiller agreed that the best thing to do is “hiring the right people and getting out of the way. I try to foster a culture on set where everyone’s respected and the cast feels safe. Particularly in comedy, if the cast doesn’t feel safe, they’re not going to take a risk.” He also noted the numerous meetings he attends; those for prep work include concept, casting, location and tone meetings.
The producers launched their careers in various ways, but said Noxon, they’re all self-starters who didn’t give up. “If you really love it, no one can stop you. You do have to go through a weeding-out process of discouragement.” Those with perseverance will eventually cut through the clutter of potential projects with something compelling.
Panelists advised the teachers that students should take courses in film- and television-related subjects, but also other subjects, such as art history and psychology. Once out of school, try for a production assistant job that affords contact with writers. And write a spec script. When there’s finally an opportunity for a pitch meeting, bring along ideas for several seasons.
Social media is an important way to reach out to fans, but the producers usually don’t follow their suggestions – with some exceptions. “If there’s a trend, you might perhaps pay attention to that,” Spiller said. And, at one point, Noxon said, “We heard from everyone that Buffy had started being a drag, so we righted that.”
When it comes to ending their shows, Haarsma said Con Man will end when the title character, Wray, chooses the world he wants to permanently inhabit. The producers who deal with networks or platforms welcome the times when they are given an end date, to write a proper conclusion that will give closure to devoted fans.
“Television has real power,” Spiller said. “We can reach people and make their lives better. People come up to me and say, ‘Mindy has changed my life.’”
Immediately following the producers’ program, the panel on below-the-line positions offered a glimpse into jobs perhaps lesser known to students.
Participating were James Pearse Connelly, production designer for NBC’s The Voice; Josh Earl, A.C.E., picture editor for Discovery’s Deadliest Catch; Jeff Greenberg, CSA, casting director for ABC’s Modern Family and Lindsey Pepper, a Foley sound artist. Moderating was Hayma “Screech” Washington, who just a few days later would be elected the Television Academy’s first African-American chairman and CEO.
All the panelists’ jobs are crucial to storytelling in one way or another; Earl is among the many Deadliest Catch editors who help shape 37,000 hours of footage into an 18-episode season. “You’re finding the story, keeping it pretty real,” Earl explained. “Often, the story’s not figured out till the editing bay.”
The show’s most dramatic story was also its saddest. In January 2010, Captain Phil Harris suffered a stroke while working aboard his crab-fishing vessel. “The only thing we’re doing is crafting what happened,” Earl said. “If you see it, it happened. We had to walk that line. You’re talking about a life. His family was going to see this.”
The family would not let the cameraman into the hospital room at first, but Harris insisted. “He wrote, ‘There has to be an ending to this story,’” Earl recounted. The ending came the following month, when Harris died of a pulmonary embolism.
Connelly also helps tell the stories of his reality-show cast – in this case, competitors in a high-stakes vocal contest. “I was hired to create a brand, a world for the artists to journey through,” he said. That world includes hallways, with a caged-in feeling, and doorways. With versions of The Voice seen around the world, “China and other countries have reached out to me to ask, ‘How do you do it?’” he noted. “It’s not just a singing competition.”
Greenberg likened his job to putting puzzle pieces together. For Modern Family, Sofia Vergara was the only one considered for her role of Gloria, but Greenberg saw 212 women and 232 men for the roles that ultimately went to Julie Bowen (Claire) and Ty Burrell (Phil). “We didn’t cast them till two days before shooting the pilot,” he said.
For the show’s gay couple, Greenberg cast Eric Stonestreet, who is straight, to play Cam opposite Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who is gay, as Mitchell. “I go for the best actor for the part,” he said. “I don’t care about their sexuality. I care about their acting.” When it comes to ethnicity, “Diversity is a mandate. We get slapped on the wrist by the network if even one episode does not have diversity.”
Pepper, a former Foundation intern, has perhaps the least recognized job of the four. As a Foley artist, she uses all sorts of items to create sound effects added during post-production.
“With all the advancements in technology, the job is still the same as it’s always been,” she said. “You can’t re-create a Western with a computer. It has to sound raw, authentic.” For period pieces, her job sometimes requires finding objects that are no longer in use, such as metal typewriters.
And while technology has its place in casting – some producers prefer to see filmed auditions – Greenberg insists on having someone from the writers’ room present. “We have the nuances. They’ve been in there; they know what’s been added. [Otherwise,] someone might say, ‘I wish the actor had been more vulnerable,’ and I’d say, ‘I wish you’d been in the room to give that note.’”
Whatever the job, panelists advised being pleasant; no one wants to hire someone hard to get along with. Communicate clearly with those you work with, and not only by text or email; pick up a phone or stop by for an in-person chat. And if you have a pitch meeting for a reality show, include a “proof of concept” demonstration to show that the idea is entertaining.
The pitching process found its way into one of instructor Martin’s assignments just a few days after he returned home from the seminar; he changed what he’d had in mind from finishing a short-format script to packaging and pitching a short-format show.
He also enjoyed interacting with colleagues, an experience other instructors also noted. “The diversity of the faculty was impressive,” said Mary Cardaras, chair of the Department of Communication at Cal State University – East Bay in Hayward, California and a longtime broadcast journalist and author.
“Some were scholars, some practitioners, some from the documentary world. We were a cohesive class. We’re going to keep in touch, and we already have a Facebook page.”
The seasoned pro still learned a lot from the seminar pros. “I really enjoyed the scheduling panel,” she said. “I didn’t expect to connect with it, but I found it really fascinating.” In other panels, “The women had the most interesting perspectives – they brought a fresh perspective.”
One lesson Cardaras will bring to her students: “The factor of perseverance. If you want to get in, you’ll get in.”
For Sanjukta Ghosh, professor of Media Studies in the Department of Communication at Castleton University in Castleton, Vermont, the women’s viewpoints – and their candor – were also highlights. “”It started with a bang with the very first session, with Jamila Hunter,” she enthused. “I learned so much. She talked about her personal story, and how sitcoms are produced, and about nurturing talent.”
She enjoyed the site visits – “I didn’t realize Dancing with the Stars was taped with a Steadicam. I do want my students to be aware of cameras” – learned much from her fellow instructors and is already using the scripts provided in the Academy’s take-home materials.
“The Seminar was one of the best experiences of my academic life,” Ghosh said. “I’m still basking in all the knowledge.”